When we were trying to figure out where to go on Vancouver Island, we read dozens of websites and travel blogs with suggestions. This 280-mile-long island has so many interesting-sounding places that it can be hard to narrow them down.
In case it helps you plan your own visit, here are the places we liked best:
Located on the southeastern tip of Vancouver island, Victoria is the island’s largest city (population 92,000) and the capital of British Columbia. Its modern incarnation began in the mid-1800s as a port and trading post of the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Victoria today is a walkable, multicultural place with a youthful vibe (lots of university students), good restaurants, some pretty buildings, and beautiful seaside walking trails. Except for the high cost of housing and the shortage of doctors, it seems like a very livable city, though it felt less quaint and picturesque than we’d expected. As in many places, avoid the downtown tourist district when cruise ships are in town.
If you have even the tiniest appreciation for flowers, these gardens a half-hour’s drive or bus ride north of Victoria are a must-see stop.
As you drive north on Highway 1 out of Greater Victoria, the road rises at Malahat to reveal beautiful views of the Saanich Inlet. You can enjoy the expansive scenery from pull-offs on the highway or from the Malahat Skywalk, a circular observation tower set high on a hillside over the water. Or you can splurge on a room at the Moon Water Lodge and enjoy the same view from your jacuzzi tub.
This little town on the eastern side of Vancouver Island, an hour’s drive from Victoria, is a good place for a mid-day or overnight stop. Duncan’s claim to fame is the collection of 44 totem poles the town has commissioned from local First Nations artists for the past 35 years. The poles are scattered around the downtown area, and it’s easy to take your own walking tour to see them.
Signs describe the animals and humans depicted in the totem poles, the stories behind the figures, and information about the artists. It’s a pleasant way to get an education about an important British Columbia art form, while strolling among interesting little restaurants and shops. Nearby, Duncan’s old train station holds a small but surprisingly well presented museum about local history and cultures.
Parksville and Qualicum Beach
These neighboring towns about one-third of the way up the eastern side of Vancouver Island are summer beach destinations, with some of the warmest water on the island. Parksville is the busier of the two. Each July and August, it hosts a sand sculpture competition that draws artists from around the world.
The shallow water around Parksville turns its beaches into wide tidal flats at low tide. Better swimming beaches, in our opinion, can be found up the road in Qualicum Beach. We loved our beachfront hotel, the Casa Grande Inn, where every room has a view of the Georgia Strait and its islands, and where you can leave the hotel in your bathing suit, cross the street, and be in the water in seconds. The compact little town of Qualicum Beach, up the hill from the shore, has some cute restaurants and shops. While in the area, we took a wonderful sunset whale-watching trip with Ocean Ecoventures in nearby French Creek.
MacMillan Provincial Park
Most of Vancouver Island’s population is clustered in the southeastern part of the island. The terrain gets more rugged and sparsely populated the farther north and west you go. Only a few roads run the width of the island; one of them, Highway 4, starts in Qualicum Beach. On its way west, it passes through a rare stretch of towering old-growth Douglas firs and Western red cedars known as Cathedral Grove. The land was donated to the government by the MacMillan logging company in the 1940s for the sake of public relations. This beautiful, mossy forest with interpretive trails is easy to access from both sides of the highway and is well worth a stop.
Ucluelet and Tofino
Highway 4 ends on the western side of Vancouver Island in a wide peninsula with a little town at each end: Tofino and Ucluelet. Between them is a wide beach whose crashing Pacific Ocean waves are a magnet for surfers. Both towns are worth a visit.
Tofino, the more famous of the two, has a pretty setting on a bay dotted with tree-covered islands. The town is geared toward tourists, with lots of inns, restaurants, shops, and art galleries. (Don’t miss the gallery of First Nations painter and print maker Roy Henry Vickers.) We took a terrific mid-day boat trip with Adventure Tofino Wildlife Tours, where we saw black bears, seals, and bald eagles on the nearby islands.
Ucluelet, where we based at the Pacific Rim Motel, is cheaper and less touristy than Tofino but has plenty of character and things to do. It’s also close to some beautiful walks on the Wild Pacific Trail (especially the lighthouse loop and the ancient cedars and artist loop trails). Don’t miss the rugged coastal scenery at sunset.
Museum at Campbell River
The last sizable town as you head north, Campbell River on the eastern side of the island, has a historical and cultural museum that blew us away! The simply named Museum at Campbell River tells the stories of many different peoples and occupations that have been important in the area and is especially strong on local First Nations culture. All with a quality of displays that rivals museums in Washington, D.C. It was so unexpected to us and so well done.
Campbell River is also the jumping-off point for day trips by Homalco Wildlife and Cultural Tours, a company owned and operated by the Homalco First Nation on its traditional territory. We heard good things about the tours and dearly wanted to take one, but they were all booked up while we were on Vancouver Island.
Just outside Campbell River, on Highway 28, Elk Falls Provincial Park has hiking trails along the river and a suspension bridge over a canyon with pounding waterfalls.
Strathcona Park Lodge
The gorgeous mountain and lake scenery of interior Vancouver Island is on full display at this lodge and outdoor education center on Highway 28, the most northerly of the cross-island roads. This is a get-away-from-it-all retreat. There’s no TV or cell phone service and only very spotty wifi, so you have to focus on the beauty all around you. There are hiking trails, ropes courses, kayaks and canoes for rent, a little swimming beach, and a dining hall that serves three quite decent meals per day. You can be active all day long at the lodge, or you can loll on your deck and read a book in the sun while you soak in the scenery. On clear nights, the stars put on a wonderful show.