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Summer Travel in Canada: Vancouver Island

B.C.’s Restart Plan is forecasting a return to domestic tourism on July 1, 2021 at the earliest. The current trajectory is promising for that date. I encourage you to reach out to the communities you plan to visit to ensure that they are indeed welcoming tourists again. As Canada’s borders remain closed to international tourists, I’m sure all of the businesses that cater to tourists would be infinitely grateful to have you spend your money (and points) with them, once the time is right.

As a resident, I am certainly biased, but Vancouver Island is an absolutely fantastic place to visit.

There are endless opportunities for self-propelled wilderness activities, interactions with nature, adventure sports, and kicking up your feet for some luxurious rest and relaxation. It is such a unique Canadian destination, and I love to share my enthusiasm for this place with others.

Amy documented her family’s trip to British Columbia last summer, which offers some great ideas to help you plan your trip (especially as a family) and in-depth reviews to her experiences.

In this post, I want to give a brief overview of my favourite parts of Vancouver Island. I’ve only lived here for a year, but I’ve spent a significant amount of time exploring the island over the years and I hope you will, too.

I acknowledge that any of the places in this article are worthy of their own post. Rather than being an in-depth guide to each destination, I hope to give you a sense of what the different areas of Vancouver Island have to offer so that you can begin to draft your “choose your own adventure” book. 

If you’re planning a trip and would like some more detailed information, please feel free to get in touch with me in the comments below, on the Prince of Travel Elites Facebook group, on the Patreon group, or by email: tj@princeoftravel.com.

Getting Here

Part of the fun of coming to Vancouver Island is deciding on how to get here. 

If you plan on flying from other parts of Canada, Air Canada and WestJet fly to Victoria, Nanaimo, and Comox. While most of the flights route through hubs in Vancouver or Calgary, there are also some direct flights from Toronto, Edmonton, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Montreal, and Ottawa.

You’ll be treated to beautiful views of the Gulf Islands and the Salish Sea on your approach, so I’d recommend booking a window seat.

Another flight option to consider would be flying on a Harbour Air seaplane from downtown Vancouver to your destination on Vancouver Island. I have yet to fly this way, but I’d love to do it at some point in the near future.

I certainly enjoy watching seaplanes take off and land on the water, and I imagine that it would be a unique experience. An added bonus is that you depart and land in the downtown harbour areas, which saves you the trip to/from the airport.

Finally, BC Ferries operates ferries between Vancouver and Vancouver Island. Depending on your itinerary, you can take the ferry to Nanaimo (Duke Point or Departure Bay) or Victoria (Swartz Bay).

Personally, if the weather is nice, I love sitting out on the upper decks and soaking in all of the natural beauty. The captain usually announces if there are pods of orcas or other marine creatures swimming by, which is certainly memorable.

If this is your first time visiting British Columbia, I’d recommend flying into Vancouver to spend some time there before taking the ferry over to either of the ports. Then, on your way back, depart from one of the airports on the island to get back home.

Victoria

British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria, is situated near the southern tip of Vancouver Island. With a population of around 85,000 people (and around 367,000 in the Greater Victoria Area), it’s a small city when compared to other capitals around Canada. 

The downtown area is nestled around Victoria’s Inner Harbour. The provincial legislature building and the iconic Fairmont Empress Hotel stand as major landmarks in the downtown promenade. 

As a smaller city, the downtown core is a very walkable area. There are a number of lovely British pubs and many restaurants to satisfy your cravings. If you enjoy seafood, you’ve most definitely come to the right place.

Freshly shucked Fanny Bay and Sunseeker oysters

Whenever I visit Victoria, I’ll make sure to spend some time at Fisherman’s Wharf before grabbing a cappuccino and walking along the coast at James Bay. On a clear day, there are wonderful views of our friendly neighbours to the south and the Olympic Mountains. Pack a picnic and stop on one of the beaches in the area for a nice relaxing afternoon.

Victoria is a lovely city year-round, but I love to visit during the spring and summer when its flora are in full display. You can find many of them in the city’s various parks and in people’s gardens, but the 55-acre Butchart Gardens is probably your best bet for a one-stop shop. 

As with many other places on Vancouver Island, there are heaps of opportunities to go on a boat for a whale watching or a sunset cruise from Victoria. Every time I’ve gone out, I always come back feeling inspired to go back out again.

Hearing orcas and whales spouting and seeing them prepare for dives is magical, and I think a trip to Vancouver Island wouldn’t be done right without a trip out on the ocean.

Victoria is also home to the only Marriott properties on Vancouver Island: the Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour, the Delta Ocean Pointe Resort, the Four Points by Sheraton Victoria Gateway, and the Westin Bear Mountain Golf Resort & Spa.

I’ve stayed at the Marriott, Delta, and Four Points. My preference is to stay at the Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour, as although the rooms are fairly dated, I’ve found the treatment for Platinum Elites to be more consistent, the location to be better for exploring the city on foot, and the breakfast to be consistently solid.

Our readers have also let us know that the hotel plans to renovate their rooms soon, which should make this the leading choice of Marriott hotel for any visit to Victoria.

I’d love to stay at the Fairmont Empress one day, as it’s such an iconic property right on the Inner Harbour. If a British-style afternoon tea is your thing, be sure to check out the one offered at the hotel (you don’t need to be a guest to join in). 

Check out some further information and get inspired on the Tourism Victoria website.

Gulf Islands

The Gulf Islands are a series of around 200 smaller islands off the coast of Vancouver Island. They are diverse, unique, and home to some very interesting people. They are split into the Northern Gulf Islands (including the Discovery Islands) and the Southern Gulf Islands.

Many of the islands are accessed by taking smaller ferries from ports across Vancouver Island. Some islands, such as Saltspring Island or Hornby Island, receive a fair amount of visitors over the summer months, while others, such as Lasqueti Island, take the term “off-grid living” to a whole new level.

Cable ferry pulling away from Denman Island

Many of these islands have vibrant markets with locally grown produce and locally crafted goods. Some Islanders will head over on a weekend day trip to the nearest Gulf Island to peruse the markets and chat with locals. I’d recommend renting a scooter, loading up with some goods, and heading for a nice picnic at a spot recommended by one of the vendors. 

Perhaps you will take advantage of your complimentary sports-equipment handling with your Aeroplan Elite Status and bring your bike to do some cycle touring around the Gulf Islands. Why not start your day with a delicious warm beverage at your oceanfront accommodation before casually biking across the island for a wine tasting at lunch, followed by another ride and wood-fired pizza on the beach to wrap up the day. 

One of my favourite parts of visiting the Gulf Islands is interacting with the locals who live there. There’s a very interesting mix of counter-culture enthusiasts, academics, introverts, and people in search of a less conventional, self-sustaining lifestyle. It’s not unusual to strike up a conversation over coffee with a tie-dye-clad local, and it’s usually a fairly interesting one.

If you’ll be visiting the Gulf Islands, I’d recommend getting a BC Ferries Experience Card to soften the blow on your wallet. These can be purchased online, at all BC Ferries ticket booths, and over the phone. Plan out the amount you load so you’re not left with a card that is really hard to use if you don’t come to Vancouver Island very often.

Find out more about travel in the Gulf Islands here.

Central and North Vancouver Island

Aside from Victoria and the Gulf Islands, the east and north coasts of Vancouver Island cover a large area and offer something for everyone. From Duncan in the south to Port Hardy in the north, you’re certain to find whatever it is you’re looking to do at some point along the way.

Between Nanaimo and Campbell River, you can take Highway 19A (also known as the Old Island Highway) that sticks closer to the coast than the faster Inland Island Highway. When I’m not in a rush, my preference is to always take Highway 19A, as there are countless places to stop for a hike and quaint seaside towns to explore. It’s easy to feel relaxed as you wind along the highway, soaking in the views of the ocean and the forests that surround it.

The Comox Valley, home to yours truly, is a great year-round spot for outdoor enthusiasts. During my job interview, they said that it’s one of the few places in the world where you can ski, golf, and sea kayak on the same day, and this is indeed true.

Mountain bikers flock to the trails in the village of Cumberland for some world class trails and great community vibes. You can ride your bike through the village to the trails in a matter of minutes.

Mount Washington and Strathcona Provincial Park are a short drive from Courtenay and Comox. This area is home to year-round outdoor activities: skiing/snowboarding, cross country skiing, and snowshoeing in the winter, and some incredible day- and multi-day backpacking trips in the summer.

Be sure to check out the seals at the Comox Harbour, go for a sunrise stroll at Point Holmes, and spend an afternoon at Kye Bay or the Goose Spit on a hot summer day.

There are a number of great restaurants and breweries in the towns, too. You won’t want to miss out on Nikkei Ramen-Ya, Gladstone Brewing, Land and Sea Brewing, or Sushi Kobo. 

Sunset over the Goose Spit in Comox

Campbell River is the gateway to the Discovery Islands and another access point to Strathcona Provincial Park. There is a long oceanfront walkway where you’ll often spot locals enjoying a beach fire, walking their dogs, or watching the sunrise. 

It’s not unusual to witness orca pods passing by that are visible from the shoreline. Again, I can’t stress how incredible it is to learn about and witness the marine life in this area. There are a number of whale watching boats and fishing charters that leave from the Campbell River harbour, too. 

A popular spot for a day-hike is Elk Falls, which is just outside of Campbell River. There’s a high suspension bridge to get your stomach feeling queasy, but it’s otherwise a very nice, brief hike.

Heading north from Campbell River, the communities are smaller and spread farther apart. If you like to get to places that are out of the way, the northern part of Vancouver Island is just for you.

Port Hardy is the largest of the communities in this region and it serves as a launching point for adventures in Cape Scott Provincial Park, the North Coast Trail, and ferry expeditions through the Inside Passage and the Discovery Coast. Again, the opportunities for adventure here are endless.

I spent some time in this area over the 2020–2021 holidays and I was gobsmacked by the rugged wilderness we experienced. It reminded me a lot of the west coast of Vancouver Island, albeit without the crowds. 

After spending a couple of hours on gnarly logging roads, we hiked into San Josef Bay. The road to get there is pretty rugged, so be sure to have a sturdy rental vehicle to avoid being stranded. 

It’s difficult to put into words how beautiful it is up there. We were surrounded by numerous shades of green in the coastal rainforest, pristine beaches, and waves crashing against the shore. 

San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Park

This is also the launching point for the North Coast Trail, which is the popular West Coast Trail’s lesser-known cousin. The very challenging 60km trail, which isn’t recommended for inexperienced hikers, is complete with cable-car crossings, steep ladders, and lots of mud. I’m preparing to hike this in the near future, and I’d love to hear from anyone who has done it.

Find out more about the north island here and about the eastern coast of Vancouver Island here

West Coast/Left Coast/Wet Coast/Best Coast

Last, but certainly not least, is the west coast of Vancouver Island, which also has many nicknames. When many people think of visiting Vancouver Island, they usually think about visiting Tofino and its environs.

When my wife Ashley and I describe our favourite places on Vancouver Island, we spend the most time talking about the west coast and use a variety of adjectives to describe it: majestic, magical, mysterious, rugged, inspirational, and painfully beautiful.

I have been fortunate to spend a lot of time in this area over my lifespan. During university, I spent two summers working on the west coast, and they were easily two of the most memorable summers of my life. Now that we live only three hours away, we spend a considerable amount of time (and money) visiting our favourite places and discovering new ones.

There are so many places that make this area special.

The drive along Highway 4 from Parksville brings you through Cathedral Grove (with a number of gigantic cedar trees) to Port Alberni (a rough-around-the-edges town that has many hidden gems) and along a stretch of highway that might make you queasy. You’ll be passed by impatient locals racing to get home while the tourists take their time to soak in the scenery and navigate the hilly, windy road.

The west coast of the island is situated in a coastal rainforest with ancient cedar trees and unique flora and fauna. It’s not unusual to spot a black bear combing the shoreline for some snacks at sunrise or to see a sea otter or other marine creature swimming around the harbours snacking. 

Seals relaxing on the dock in the Ucluelet Harbour

The sandy beaches in and around the Pacific Rim National Park are home to Canada’s most vibrant surfing scene. There are strong hints of the laid-back “West Coast vibe” that is common in surf towns in California in the context of a unique Canadian location. 

The Broken Group Islands are an incredible spot to do some sea kayaking or camping. This pristine part of the national park is less frequented than the main area but is equally as beautiful. 

Looking out onto the Broken Group Islands from the Wild Pacific Trail

Tofino and Ucluelet are the two main towns in the area. While Tofino has long been the main destination, in recent years, Ucluelet has become just as busy.

Tofino is situated in Clayoquat Sound, a pristine land and marine area. Despite the hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, locals work tirelessly to preserve the area, and you’ll notice many initiatives to keep it this way.

Tofino’s proximity to sandy beaches and the ocean makes it a hub for surfing, whale and wildlife watching, sea kayaking, epic sunsets, ocean fishing, and a perfect place to come to just relax. It doesn’t get much better than watching the sunset on the beach and listening to the waves roll in. 

Depending on your budget, there is a range of accommodation available in and around Tofino. In the summer months, expect to book early and to pay more than you would during the less sunny, wetter months. There are some incredible places (think, hot tub on your private balcony overlooking the forest and the beach) that are worth the splurge, especially if you’ve come from far away.

Ucluelet is a short drive to the beaches of the Pacific Rim National Park. It is a sleepy fishing town that sits on an inlet on one side and along the rugged coast on the other. There are a growing number of tour operators based out of the town, so you can enjoy a number of land and water based activities here, too.

The Wild Pacific Trail, a trail that carves through the rainforest along the coast, is a must-do in Ucluelet. In the winter, you can watch storm surges crash against the black shore (bring your rain jacket), and in the summer, it’s a great trail to follow to soak in some of the area’s most beautiful landscapes. The sunset views from the lighthouse loop are spectacular, too.

There is now a multi-use trail that connects Tofino and Ucluelet. It spans 42km and runs through the Pacific Rim National Park. Bring or rent a bike for an active holiday through some of Canada’s most beautiful wilderness. 

If you do plan on surfing, I’d recommend chatting with some of the friendly locals at the surf shops (my favourite is Relic Surf Shop in Ucluelet). They offer rentals and lessons, and since all of the beaches have different rip tides and hazards, I’d highly recommend paying for them. You’ll also need to rent a wetsuit, as the ocean is very chilly year-round.

I spent a summer working for the Pacific Rim National Park, so I had the pleasure of exploring it fairly thoroughly. While every beach and every trail is worth a visit, my favourites include: Half Moon Bay, surfing at Florencia Bay, walking the entirety of Wickaninnish Beach, winter storm waves and summer low-tide tidal pools at South Beach, and the Rainforest Loop trails. 

If we’re not staying on a friend’s couch, we usually stay at the Black Rock Resort in Ucluelet. There are spectacular views onto Big Beach, well-appointed rooms with rain showers, soaker tubs, and fireplaces, and in great proximity to both the town and wilderness. You can have a beach fire on nearby Big Beach, but just be sure to follow the town’s guidelines (and don’t leave any garbage behind).

Start your search for further information on the Pacific Rim here.

Conclusion

As the summer quickly approaches and as provinces begin to welcome domestic tourists, I would argue that Vancouver Island should be somewhere near the top of your places to visit. If you’ve been here before, come and enjoy your favourite spots. If you’re new to the area, come and be amazed with all of its treasures.

Whether you’re looking to hike, paddle, cycle, run, swim, surf, wine, dine, explore, or simply relax, Vancouver Island has a lot to offer you. 

I’d love to hear some of your favourite spots on Vancouver Island or about any places that have captured your intrigue. Feel free to leave a comment below, on the Prince of Travel Elites Facebook group, or on the Prince of Travel Club Lounge on Discord.

 

 

13 Comments
  1. Jesse L

    Great overview of Van Island to provide a start to first time travellers! As a recent visitor to the island (<2 weeks), I'd point out that Cathedral Grove and top hikes at Pacific Rim National Park are closed due to covid. However, this may evolve as BC's reopening plan continues.

  2. CT

    Thanks, Tj for this article, very timely. We are from Ontario and plan to visit Banff for a few days before visiting our parents in Vancouver. We will then head to Whistler for one night stay and one day in Victoria. We hope the Mahalat Skywalk will be open by then. In Victoria, whale watching is a must for us.
    We’ve got a good deal at the Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour ( June price for the peak of the summer price).
    My wife and I, both had vaccinated second doses. While planning this trip we also follow closely the B.C. government re-opening timeline. So our itineraries can change at the last minute with plan B.
    I appreciate Amy and your articles very much, very timely and concise for us, Canadians.

  3. Minah King

    What is your moneymaking businessSir?
    We have not had time to get a mask free breath,a 2nd covid shot ,and here you are like a fairground shill ,
    rollup rollup come one come all!
    Flood Vancouver Island with tourists,who,may or may nor be vaccinated!
    Have the decorum to allow us a period of recovery before you make verbal drum rolls for your financial
    gain
    Yes businesses.( restaurants and take out) have suffered,as have we all.Give us a break for petes sake and stop your fairground tactics!
    Let us enjoy the early post pandemic relief this summer.

    1. T.J. YQQ

      Hi Minah! Thanks for your comment. I appreciate the concern for reopening to tourism.

      Step 3 in BC’s restart plan suggests Canada-wide recreational travel on July 1st at the earliest. The criteria are at least 70% of the 18+ population having received at least 1 dose, low case counts, and declining hospitalizations.

      BC is currently at over 75% of people aged 12 and older having received at least 1 dose, and the prospect is good for the other criteria. As I mentioned at the beginning of the article, people should check with the communities they plan to visit before they travel to make sure they are welcome.

  4. Alec

    Wow. Great info thanks TJ

  5. Chico

    Great review of a very special part of the world.

  6. Andrea

    interesting post, will be bookmarked as reference for our trip to the Vancouver Island this summer. Thanks !

    1. T.J. YQQ

      Feel free to get in touch if you have any further questions 🙂

      1. Brandi Dutton

        Nothing about Oceanside?

        1. T.J. YQQ

          Oceanside is a lovely part of the island for sure! Definitely worthy of a future post 🙂

          1. Natasha

            Thanks for the awesome article. May i ask, what points system do you use for travel rewards? I’d like to start doing that!

  7. Pascale

    Hi TJ,

    We’re heading to Vancouver island in 3 weeks. Would you have a few easy trails (we especially like loops) to recommend to two middle-aged couch potatoes? We’d also like to rent a bike in Victoria. We’re staying in Qualicum beach, Tofino and Victoria (Delta). Thanks!

    1. T.J. YQQ

      In Victoria, definitely check out the Ogden Point Breakwater in Victoria and look into Gowlland Tod Provincial Park or Goldstream Provincial Park.

      The Heritage Park in Qualicum Beach is worth a stroll, and in nearby Parksville, I can vouch for Rathtrevor Beach (I’m sure there are many more lovely places around there – just ask the locals).

      In Tofino/Ucluelet, I’d recommend the Rainforest Loops in the Pacific Rim National Park, a hike into Half Moon Bay / South Florencia Bay (lots of stairs), and the Wild Pacific Trail (Lighthouse Loop during sunset). You really can’t go wrong out there, though.

T.J. Dunn

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