Vancouver Island located in the northeastern Pacific Ocean is the largest island off the west coast of North America, it is 450 km long and up to about 90 km wide. I had a lot of fun exploring this beautiful island and was so impressed by the breathtaking beauty, amazing fauna and flora and awesome things to do on Vancouver island.
A part of the Canadian province of British Columbia Vancouver island is known for spectacular natural beauty, a thriving art community, wild beaches, beautiful forest and a rich diversity in marine life. No matter what your interest, there are tons of things to do on Vancouver Island. Give yourself at least a week to explore this special place. With mountains, glaciers, beautiful old growth forests and surrounded by a spectacular coastline the island is home to incredible hiking trails. The popular West Coast trail, a tough one week backpacking trail along the coast is the most famous. The wildlife on the island is unreal and while hiking you can see bears, whales, orcas, otters, seals and more amazing animals. Whale watching is one of the most popular things to do from Vancouver Island, go out on a boat trip to see dolphins, humpback whales and orcas. Located on the southern tip of Vancouver island, Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia is filled with art, culture and fantastic gardens. This small, beautiful city is a very popular tourist destination to visit the gardens, seafront parks, museums, classic eateries, and craft brewers. Vancouver Island also offers some awesome ocean activities like kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, surfing and scuba diving.
Getting to Vancouver Island
The most common way to get from Vancouver to Vancouver Island is by making use of BC Ferries. Regular buses service the ferry terminals on both sides or you can board the car ferry with your vehicle. Ferries depart on a regular basis from Tsawwassen (near Vancouver) to Swartz Bay (Near Victoria) Ferry Schedule, from Tsawwassen to Duke Point (near Nanaimo) and from Horseshoe Bay (near Vancouver) to Departure Bay (in Nanaimo). The ferry trip to Tsawwassen is nice, it takes about 1h30min, food and coffee is available on the ferry, if the weather is good it is nice on the deck, you sail close to the islands with good views, you can even see whales with some luck!
Get to Vancouver Island by Seaplane
A super exciting quick way to get to Vancouver island is by transfer with a small seaplane, this scenic flight takes only 35 minutes. – Coal Harbour in Vancouver (Canada Place) to Victoria.
Transport on Vancouver Island
You can get around Vancouver Island by bus, but the easiest way is to rent a car. We like to use Rentalcars Connect, this site compares all the main rental agencies giving you the best deal online. It is easy to rent a car in Vancouver and just go to Vancouver Island with the vehicle on the ferry. It is also possible to book your rental for collection in Vancouver Island.
The bus service is easy to use, but limited to get around the island. To get from the Swartz Bay ferry to Victoria take the line 72 bus, every 15 minutes. The bus takes about 50 minutes and costs $2 CAD to get to the city.
Towns to Visit on Vancouver Island
Victoria is the capital of the province of British Columbia, near the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It is a beautiful city with tons to do. I discuss things to do in Victoria, it is a great base to explore the island from
Tofino, was a small logging and fishing village with a population under 2000 today it is a center for ecotourism and popular activities include whale watching, surfing, and camping. The best beaches on the island is at Tofino.
Nanaimo is the central hub city of Vancouver Islandand has the second biggest harbour. Nanaimo, has a nice old quarter, good restaurants, beautiful hiking trails, good scuba diving and other outdoor activities.
Ucluelet is a small, coastal fishing village with plenty of outdoor activities in the south west of Vancouver Island not far from Tofino. l Ucluelet has a very interesting seasonal Aquarium. It is a popular spot for activities such as mountain biking, surfing, and fishing. Guided kayaking tours from here are very popular. Hiking in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the Wild Pacific Trail is accessed from Ucluelet.
Port Renfrew is a small village located on the rugged coastline of the west coast of Vancouver Island, located about a 2-hour drive west of Victoria. Port Renfrew is well known because two popular multi day hiking trails, the West Coast trail and Juan de Fuca marine trail start close to one another outside the town.
Telegraph Cove is a charming seaside village surrounded by a pristine environment and attracts many tourists for whale watching, fishing, kayaking and camping. Telegraph Cove is the gateway to the Broughton Archipelago, British Columbia’s largest marine park.
Campbell River located on the east coast of central Vancouver Island is a great natural destination and the place to go if you want to see salmon, bears or whales with tours going to see these animals. Known as the Salmon Capital of the World due to the steelhead runs on the Quinsam and Campbell Rivers and year-round salmon fishing in Discovery Passage. Campbell River is the gateway to Strathcona Park and the Discovery Islands.
Things to do in Victoria
For the capital of the Canadian Province British Columbia Victoria is a small city, it is however packed with things to do for culture vultures, foodies and is a great base for exploring the amazing outdoors around the island from. Go on a City Tour
Victoria has several interesting districts to visit such as the Victoria Public Market, Chinatown, Old Town and the Inner Harbour.
The beautiful Butchart gardens were constructed by Jennie Butchart in 1904. This popular site in Victoria, is visited by more than a million visitors each year and is a designated National Historic Site. The large park covers 22 ha (55 acres) with its spectacular flower-lined paths containing more than 900 plant varieties. The gardens include the amazing sunken garden, the Italian garden, the rose garden, the dahlia garden, the concrete lawn walk and the Japanese garden. You can visit any time of the year, come and see the colors of flowers in bloom in spring, the entertainment and fireworks in summer, golden fall colors and the Christmas decorations in winter. 50 full time gardeners work to keep this place in shape. The gardens can easily keep you busy for about 4 hours. The Butchart Gardens are located about 25 km outside Victoria and can be visited with bus 75. The Gardens open daily at 8:45 or 9 a.m. and entrance fee is $33 CAD
To avoid the crowds in summer, visit the park before 10:30 a.m. or after 3:30 p.m.
The Victoria Public Market
Located in the historic Hudson building in downtown Victoria, this is the place to go for fresh produce featuring local meats and farm-fresh groceries, artisan products, fresh baked breads and other baked goods. A bustling gathering place for the Vancouver Island community with art, and entertainment all together under one roof! Awesome place to buy groceries, foodie souvenirs or grab lunch with amazing handmade products on offer.
Royal BC Museum
The Royal British Columbia Museum is an excellent museum of natural and human history found in 1886 and has three permanent galleries: Natural History, Becoming BC, and the First Peoples Gallery. The museum’s collections contain about 7 million objects, including natural history specimens, artifacts, and archival records. A fun and educational museum with excellent exhibitions including a world-class First Peoples Gallery, a cool wooly mammoth and a collection of works by Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr.
Victoria Inner Harbour
The Inner Harbour in Victoria’s is a fully functioning harbour that has turned into a very touristy neighborhood with a nice vibe. Markets, festivals and concerts are hosted at this beautiful spot in summer. You can take a water taxi here, go on a whale watching trip or board a cruise ship. It is nice to be close to the water and walk on the pedestrian streets close to the harbor filled with vendors and buskers looking at fishing boats and maybe even spot a whale in the open sea! There are plenty of cafes lining the streets, great for stopping for coffee. If you go on a boat or ferry tour, it is likely to start in the harbor.
The Inner Harbour also hosts some of Victoria’s most popular attractions and beautiful architecture, the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Parliament Buildings. The Empress Hotel (Fairmont) adjacent to the inner harbour and is a nice place to take photos from with beautiful gardens.
The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Art lovers, don’t miss the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria with seven galleries and hosting about 17,000 works of art. The gallery is filled with one of the largest Japanese art collections in Canada and a variety of modern international and Canadian works (including an Emily Carr collection). The gallery has a nice souvenir shop and is surrounded by an Asian garden.
The small Chinatown in Victoria, BC is the oldest in Canada and the second oldest in North America, after Chinatown in San Francisco. Victoria’s Chinatown was once a ghetto for newly arrived immigrants, mainly miners that arrived from California to the British Columbia area in 1858. Now it is a heritage area, with a vibrant commercial community and a popular area for tourists to visit. Some popular tourist attractions in Victoria Chinatown are the Gate of Harmonious Interest, the ornately decorated arch marking the entrance to Chinatown, the famously narrow Fan Tan Alley, the old Chinese School. Visit the tiny shops on Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, this street is only 90 centimetres wide at its narrowest point (35 inches)!
Explore Victoria’s Food and Drink Scene
Vancouver Island has a thriving culinary scene, blessed with rich oceans, fertile soil and a mild climate, all the ingredients for a fantastic ingredient driven food scene lives and grows in Victoria. Try their top quality wild salmon, locally made cheeses, fresh seafood, organic vegetables, and wines from the island’s local wineries. There is a massive variety of places to eat and drink around Victoria. You find everything from great breakfast spots, deli’s, plenty of bars to excellent fine dining spots.
Doing a lot of hiking around Vancouver island, I arrived in Victoria more than once with a massive appetite and discovered the super unhealthy Canadian favorite, poutine. Poutine is fries topped with melted cheese curds and gravy, there are several combinations, adding pulled pork is a delicious favorite. The portions are often huge. Many bars in Victoria serve poutine, I had delicious poutine out of a food truck!
High Tea in Victoria
Tea is a big deal in Victoria, both afternoon tea and high tea (no they are not the same). High tea you have at lunch, while afternoon tea is served between lunch and dinner, the dishes that go with each differ. Many places around town serve a proper high tea experience with fancy pastries and mini cakes, some spots are better for a casual afternoon tea. The Empress Hotel is a very popular place to get high tea, it is not cheap at over $50 CAD with a couple of pastries.
Go with a professional historian in Bentley on a city tour including the Butchart gardens and a British Style Grand City High Tea.
Go Craft Beer Tasting
Victoria was the first place to brew beer in Canada in 1858 and today the craft beer scene is huge. Victoria is home to some of the country’s best restaurants and breweries. There are some awesome options to go beer tasting; you can walk the Beer Mile visiting the pubs and breweries that surround the Upper Harbour, take the Pickle Pub Crawl on the water taxis run by Victoria Harbour Ferry or join a bicycle pub crawl with The Pedaler.
Accommodation in Victoria
Whale Watching from Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island offers some spectacular whale watching opportunities, in season there are so many humpback whales around some companies guarantee that you will see them, but what makes whale watching here special is that you have a good chance to see orcas (killer whales). Pacific grey whales and minke whales are other whale species sometimes seen on whale watching tours from here. California sea-lions, harbor seals, harbor porpoise, Dall’s porpoise, white sided dolphins and a variety of seabirds including bald eagles, Canada goose, cormorants, oystercatchers and kingfishers can be seen on trips.
Best Time for Whale Watching from Vancouver Island
Whales can be seen all year around from Vancouver Island, but the best time for whale watching around Vancouver Island is May to October. In season there are countless whale watching operators in the area.
Choosing a Whale Watching Operator
Typically, tours are 3 to 5 hours long, some operators offer a 95% chance or higher of spotting whales. There are different types and sizes of boats available for the tours, either a zodiac type (inflatable) open boat or covered boat, make sure what kind of boat you are booking for. The zodiac type is more exciting and gets closer to many animals, wheelchair users and pregnant women can not go on these boats. The covered vessels often are more comfortable, guests can shelter from the elements and are suitable for more people, some boats have washrooms on board and are wheelchair accessible. As far as I am aware no vessel is allowed to come closer than 200 yards to a whale irrespective of what type of boat it is. Try to arrive 30 minutes early and bring something warm to wear.
Well rated and reviewed whale watching trips from Victoria
Victoria offers excellent whale watching and good opportunities to see orcas, it is not the only place from where you can do whale watching on Vancouver island. Further north to Telegraph Cove, Campbell River and Port McNeill are very good places for seeing orcas and other wildlife. Since there are a lot less operators than around Victoria the whales do not have as many boats around them all day.
Tofino also offers whale watching, along with plenty of other wildlife. Tofino has a long whale watching season, from March to October. Orcas and humpback whales can be seen in Tofino, but Gray whales are the most common.
Come from Vancouver by seaplane, do a whale watching trip from Victoria and fly back. Enjoy a round flight trip over the Gulf Islands and the Pacific Northwest combined with seeing whales and orcas.
Hiking on Vancouver Island
Covered in mountains, glaciers, beautiful old growth forests and surrounded by hundreds of kilometers of coastline Vancouver island hosts spectacular hiking trails. Test yourself on some of the challenging multi day backpacking trails or explore some of the shorter day routes along beautiful indigenous forest and amazing beaches. See our review on the Best Hikes in Vancouver.
The West Coast Trail
The world renowned 75 km multi-day beach and forest hiking trail, the West Coast trail, on the coast of Vancouver Island takes a grueling week to complete. The trail stretches from the Gordon River trailhead, close to the town of Port Renfrew in the south, to Bamfield in the north. Large sections of the route are spent hiking on miles of white sandy beaches separated by dense indigenous forest. Plenty of wild animals can be seen while hiking the trail, otters, whales, dolphins, bears and deer are common. I was amazed when orcas came very close to the rocks while I was hiking. This is a backpacking and camping trail and you have to carry everything required for the route, food and gear. The trail is demanding when there is a lot of rain with slow progress over difficult terrain including pools of mud, ladders, bridges and cable cars. The West Coast trail is open from May 1st to September 30th. Book ahead since only 30 people are allowed to start hiking the trail each day.
The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail
The Juan de Fuca Marine Trail is a moderate to strenuous 49 km hike in the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park along the west coast of Vancouver Island. This awesome trail is a good alternative to hiking the West Coast trail, it starts close to the one end of the West Coast trail, stretching the opposite direction along the coast. It is cheaper, you can hike only sections of the trail if you are limited on time and no booking is necessary. We hiked the route in four days, which is the most common way to complete the entire trail. The hiking route follows the coastline from China Beach, close to the town Sooke in the south, to Botanical Beach located close to Port Renfrew in the north.
Day Hikes on Vancouver Island
There are several amazing day hikes along the coast, forests and around lakes of Vancouver island.
Day Hikes on the coast of Vancouver island
The Juan de Fuca trail can easily be accessed from several trail heads with ample parking, making it possible to do day hikes on the trail or camp for just one or two nights.
Hike from China Beach to Mystic Beach
China Beach and Mystic Beach are two beaches on the Juan de Fuca trail, you can park at the trailhead for China Beach and hike from here to Mystic Beach. China Beach is located approximately 75 km west of Victoria, along Highway 14, westbound from Sooke to Port Renfrew in the south of Vancouver island. It’s a very quiet, long stretch of fine sand, great for families and pets. It is a very nice trail, well laid out, and not very difficult, if you are of normal fitness level it should not be a problem. Between the two beaches you hike in the forest mostly. The hike is about 4km return. There are some fairly steep climbs and a long section of stairs near the end of the hike. Mystic beach is very lovely, with a tiny waterfall and a rope swing. The water is cold, but refreshing! Another option is to stop at the Mystic Beach trailhead and do about an hour hike through the forest to the beach.
Hiking The Big Tree Trail on Meares Island
The Big Tree Trail is located close to Tofino on Meares island, you can get there from Tofino by water taxi or by taking a guided kayaking trip. There are gigantic cedar trees here estimated to be between 1000 and 1500 years old! The entire island is Tribal park and is protected from logging by the first nations. Some trees are over a 1000 years old! The hike on the boardwalk under massive trees is only 3 km, but takes more than an hour and a half.
Day Hikes around lakes on Vancouver island
Thetis Lake Regional Park near Victoria contains several lakes and is very popular for hiking, swimming, fishing, kayaking and canoeing. There is a whole network of hiking trails running between the lakes in this beautiful and secluded forest. The trailhead to the upper and lower Thetis lake trail is about 11 km from downtown Victoria. The trail is 5.2 km (3.2 miles). For a longer hike follow the Calypso trail to Mill Hill Regional Park.
Day Hikes around mountains on Vancouver island
Mount Arrowsmith at 1816 m (5,961 ft) is the highest mountain south of Port Alberni on Vancouver Island. The Judges route is about 6 kilometers round trip and takes an average of about 5 hours up and down with an elevation gain of about 1000 meters. There are different ways to ascend this mountain with some steep sections. It is not a technical hike, but it takes some scrambling to reach the summit. In winter be prepared for snow and ice with proper gear.
Cycling on Vancouver Island
Vancouver island is well suited for all types of cycling with awesome parks, paths, and beautiful open roads; urban areas are equipped with cycling lanes, bike lock-up areas, and cycling routes for everyone from beginners to experienced cyclists.
The Galloping Goose
The Galloping Goose is a 31-mile (55 km) multipurpose trail used for walking, running, biking, and even inline skating and horseback riding that runs from Victoria to Sooke, going through several towns. The trail passes through various landscapes, forests, rivers, beaches, and lakes. It is an easy, flat, hard packed trail with some paved sections mostly close to Victoria. You can swim at the beautiful Sooke potholes. With plenty of BBs and campgrounds along the route the Galloping Goose trail is great for a 2 or 3 day cycling trip.
Seaside Touring Route
This leisurely and scenic cycling route in Victoria is suitable for all levels. The route is a 39-km loop, but you can cycle a shorter section, there are many places to park your bike and sight-see along the way or stop for coffee. Start your trip in James Bay, travel along the beautiful bays of Victoria’s Inner Harbour and surrounding area, go past picturesque fishing villages lining the trail. Connect with the Galloping Goose Trail to get back downtown.
Vancouver Island full day cycling tour – Ride a bike through Vancouver Island’s cycling paths and quiet country roads on a full-day bike tour from Vancouver that combines farm-fresh food, local wine, and active exploring.
Surfing on Vancouver Island
Canada is not really known for surfing, there are however some nice surf spots around Vancouver island. The water in British Columbia is cold, but not freezing hovering around 10C, so surfing in a suitable wetsuit you can stay in the water for two or three hours. The best time for surfing here is actually in winter when the bigger swells come in.
Surfing at Tofino
Tofino is a district on the west coast of Vancouver Island, with several surf beaches. This is the most popular area in Canada for surfing with waves to surf for all skill levels. Cox Bay and Longbeach are popular spots, while Chesterman beach is a good beginner spot where lessons take place. Tofino has a couple of surf shops and great surf culture, just go to one of the surf shops for lessons, they will provide you with gear and an instructor to teach you on the beach.
Go for surf lessons in Tofino.
4 Day Vancouver camping experience – go on an awesome itinerary exploring the island with these cool locals including camping, surf lessons and whale watching
Surfing at Sombrio Beach
Sombrio beach is located between Victoria and Port Renfrew on Highway 14 and is a nice surf spot in the south of Vancouver island. Situated on the Juan de Fuca trail Sombrio has a great campsite with a beautiful waterfall. The waves here are not as good as in Tofino, a bit more inconsistent, but if you go at the right time it works and it is an awesome place to spend a weekend. There is parking at the Sombrio beach trailhead about 45 minutes drive past the town Sooke.
Snorkeling on Vancouver Island
Not many people expect awesome snorkeling in Canada! From Vancouver island you can go snorkeling with schools of spawning salmon in season! Each fall millions of Salmon swim up the Campbell River on Vancouver Island to their freshwater spawning grounds returning to their place of birth, all different kinds of Salmon including Coho, Steelhead, Chum, Chinook and Pink salmon. Snorkel tours from the town of Campbell River on Central Vancouver island allow you to swim up the river with schools of salmon.
Snorkeling with playful seals from Nanaimo used to be a popular activity from Vancouver island. A recent new law in Canada however forbids anyone from swimming, disturbing or interacting with any marine mammal, so the popular activity of snorkeling with the seals from Nanaimo is no longer allowed.
Vancouver is probably the best spot for Scuba diving in Canada and one of the top cold water dive spots in the world, even being recognized for its amazing marine life by French ocean explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. The water around Vancouver island is cold between 5 and 10C, so diving here is done mostly in drysuits, but some divers wear thick 7mm wetsuits. Nanaimo offers both shore diving and boat charters. Some of the amazing animals you can see are bottlenose dolphins, killer whales, sea lions, seals, wolf eels, six gill sharks and dogfish.
Beaches to go to on Vancouver Island
Surrounded by 460km of coastline there are some nice beaches around Vancouver island, the water is cold, but good for a refreshing dip, there are some nice sandy and rocky beaches, good places to camp for a weekend and some beaches nice for water sports like surfing, bodyboarding, skimboarding and scuba diving. Some nice areas to go to the beach are Pacific Rim National Park, Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and there are some good beaches in Central Vancouver Island.
Beaches in Pacific Rim National Park
The Pacific Rim National Park is the best sandy beach location on Vancouver island and consists of three regions; Long Beach, the Broken Group Islands, and the West Coast Trail. The Long Beach unit is a 15.5 miles (25 km) strip of sand between Cox and Quisitas Points close to the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. The strip is divided into several beaches like Radar Beach, Long Beach, Combers Beach, and Wickaninnish Beach. Long Beach, the longest and best known is a 10 mile sandy beach close to Tofino popular for playing and walking on the beach and surfing. Chesterman beach and Cox Bay are two nice sandy beaches popular for surfing close to Tofino.
Beaches in the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park
The Juan de Fuca Provincial Park west of Victoria on Vancouver Island’s southern coast, has several nice and easily accessible, rugged beaches with well developed amenities. Mystic Beach and China Beach are sandy beaches, nice for a swim. Sombrio Beach is a beautiful stone beach popular for surfing in fall and winter with an awesome hidden slot waterfall. Great place for camping for the weekend.
Kayaking in the Broken Group Islands
The Broken Group Islands located in the Pacific Rim National Park is an archipelago of small rocky islands at the center of the Barkley Sound and they can only be reached by boat. The islands are usually visited from Ucluelet Inlet, a fishing harbor, where you can see whales, bears, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and numerous other seabird and mammal species. The best way to explore the Broken Group Islands is by kayak and guided tours are available. Explore the rugged beauty and untouched wilderness seeing this amazing wild life from your kayak.
Check out this 5 Day Guided Kayaking expedition of the Broken Group Islands.
Accommodation on Vancouver Island
This is well rated accommodation with many reviews (read some of them before booking) at different locations on Vancouver island.