There is more to Vancouver Island than you may have realised. In all likelihood, a LOT more. Not many people know that this island off British Columbia is the size of Scotland. With its vast size comes hugely varied landscapes, and the island could almost be a microcosm of Canada itself.
Visit on holiday to Canada and you’ll find stunning, sandy beaches and ancient rainforests with towering cedars. A mountain range runs the length of the island from north to south, home to Canada’s largest all-natural ski fields. You’ll find fertile wine growing regions here as well as glaciers and waterfalls. There really is a little bit of everything Canadian here.
And the best part? Vancouver Island is pristine. The region is sparsely populated and much of it is protected. That means the wildlife watching opportunities here are second to none. It is one of the best and most reliable places to get out and see black bears and whales in their natural environment.
If you’re planning a holiday to Canada’s West Coast, make a little time in your itinerary for Vancouver Island and you won’t be disappointed. Read on to find out the best places to visit on the island.
This surf town on the island’s West Coast is a real little gem. The small and friendly town is packed with independent arts shops, cafes and restaurants – there really is no other word to describe it than “cool”. Surfing is a favourite past-time, but if you don’t surf yourself you’ll have just as much fun combing the beaches and watching the waves.
This is one of the best locations to join a bear-watching tour. Head out in a comfortable covered boat or a zippy zodiac to view coastal black bears foraging for crabs and shellfish along the shorelines. You’ll be amazed how close you can get to the bears, so it’s perfect for avid photographers.
Tofino also makes the perfect base for visiting the Pacific Rim National Park and Hot Springs Cove – more on those later!
Victoria is Vancouver Island’s largest city and is also the capital of British Columbia. There is plenty of historic architecture to explore around the parliament buildings, Bastion Square, Fort Street and the old Custom’s House. Culture vultures will be in their element.
Head to Fisherman’s Wharf for an unbeatably colourful lunch among the brightly painted floating houses. There are a handful of delicious food stalls here selling the likes of seafood chowder and fish tacos. You can even buy small fish to feed the bold harbour seals which approach the wharf.
Victoria is also a fantastic base from which to join a whale watching tour. Here you can explore the Strait of Juan de Fuca and have an excellent chance of seeing the resident orca pod which lives here all year round. You can also spot magnificent humpbacks on their migration over the summer. Whale sightings are so likely that companies offer a return trip for free if you’re unlucky enough not to spot one.
3. Hot Springs Cove
Even just getting to this magical-sounding place is an adventure. It’s a 90-minute boat ride up the pristine coast or a 20-minute seaplane flight from Tofino. Once you get to this stunningly remote spot, walk for half an hour along a scenic boardwalk trail through the old-growth forest until you reach the hot pools. There are seven natural geothermal hot pools to choose from, including a waterfall! Just don your swimwear, sit back and indulge. It’s the perfect guided tour for nature and outdoor lovers.
4. Pacific Rim National Park
The wild west coast of Vancouver Island is home to one of our favourite national parks. The long sand beaches here are characterised by bleached cedar driftwood, startling blowholes and dramatic waves. The beaches are equally bleak and beautiful, windswept and full of life, depending on the mood of the ocean. Long Beach, Schooner Cove and Wickaninnish Bay are the ones to look out for.
Explore the meandering coast and islands by kayak for a unique view of the stunning scenery. Hiking through the ancient rainforest is another favourite activity as there are plenty of well-marked trails. There’s no atmosphere quite like it thanks to the ethereal, trailing moss which blankets the cedar trees.
5. Comox Valley
This beautiful valley and its surrounding area is a glorious location for wildlife watching and outdoor activities. The Mount Washington Alpine Resort is famous for its huge snowfalls, making it a favourite place to ski and snowboard in winter. In the summer, a trip to Strathcona Provincial Park is a must. You can see Golden Hinde, the tallest peak on Vancouver Island, and Della Falls, the highest waterfall in Canada. It’s also in the top 10 highest waterfalls in the world!
The Comox Glacier is one of hundreds of glaciers on Vancouver Island but it is the most visible and therefore one of the best and easiest ones to visit. In the centre of the Comox Valley, the town of Courtenay is home to galleries, theatres, studios and gardens. It’s also a stop off on the Great Canadian Fossil Trail thanks to its significant fossil deposits.
A little further afield on the coast, Nootka Sound is one of the few places where divers can see the elusive six-gill shark. The shark had a high-profile appearance recently on BBC’s Blue Planet II, while Nootka Sound may ring bells for fans of Tom Hardy’s BBC show, Taboo!
6. Gulf Islands
There are more than 200 islands which make up the Gulf Islands, sprinkled across the Strait of Georgia between Vancouver Island and the mainland. The largest ones are served by BC ferries, which means getting there is like a scenic mini cruise.
The islands offer stunning views, coastal activities and seafood, and each has its own culture and vibe. Salt Spring Island is the most populous of all the islands (population: 10,500) and is famous for its vibrant weekend markets. Galiano Island offers an easy hike up Mount Galiano where walkers are rewarded with views of the San Juan Islands and even the Olympic mountain range in Washington state.
7. Chemainus – Cowichan Valley
This town is truly unique and well-worth dropping by for lunch to admire the artwork. In a bid to bring tourists to the town following its ailing labour industry, locals put Chemainus on the map thanks to a series of stunning murals. All through the town you can follow a trail of hand-painted and culturally-rich murals painted on the town’s buildings.
The colourful paintings depict snapshots into the lifestyle of those living in the region, working on the Trans Canada Railroad and the town’s First Nations heritage. The pictures you take will speak volumes.
8. Port McNeill
This town on the northeastern side of Vancouver Island sits in a section of the Great Bear Rainforest. It is surrounded by ancient, temperate rainforest that brims with life. The nearby mountains provide a stunning backdrop and Port McNeill is also the gateway to the pristine Broughton Archipelago.
It’s a must-visit for lovers of wildlife and the outdoors. The active hub provides everything from kayaking and hiking to bear watching and bird watching. Interested in scuba diving? Caving? Fishing? You can find it all and more here.
9. Little Huson Cave Regional Park
Following a well-marked forest trail, look out for incredible limestone formations, natural rock arches and platforms. Listen out for the sound of rushing water echoing through caves as you explore the Nimpkish Valley.
This stunning area is filled with turquoise pools, rock bridges and blue rivers. Explorers can venture inside the caves, but they are impressive even when viewed from above ground!
10. Campbell River
This idyllic location halfway up Vancouver Island’s east coast is set beautifully between Strathcona Provincial Park to the west and the Discovery Islands to the east. It is dubbed the “Salmon Capital of the World”. As you can imagine, this region boasts prime salmon fishing spots for keen anglers. Not only is the location tranquil and beautiful, but anglers here can catch all five species of Pacific salmon, from King to Sockeye.
With the salmon run also come the wildlife. It’s a fabulous place for whale watching in the summer and spotting bears fishing for salmon in the fall, with plenty of eagles around to pick over the scraps.