Vancouver Island attactions can be captivating to visitors. Sample Vancouver Island’s food and wine, beach-comb awesome sandy beaches, watch wild ocean storms from a cosy cabin or walk in the footsteps of one of Canada’s most renowned artists. There are so many things to do in Vancouver Island in British Columbia, you could spend weeks exploring this incredible island.
For those who love islands, water and nature, visiting Vancouver Island is possibly even one of the best things to do in British Columbia.
- 1 Vancouver Island
- 1.1 How to get to Vancouver Island
- 1.2 Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo ferry
- 1.3 Bella Coola to Port Hardy ferry
- 1.4 Prince Rupert to Port Hardy ferry
- 1.5 11 Things to do on Vancouver Island
- 1.5.1 1- Explore Victoria’s English heritage
- 1.5.2 2- Take a walk in Beacon Hill Park
- 1.5.3 3- Explore Hatley Castle in Royal Roads University
- 1.5.4 4- Visit The Butchart Gardens
- 1.5.5 5- Pacific Marine Circle Route drive
- 1.5.6 6- Sample Vancouver Island’s food and wine
- 1.5.7 7- Stay in a Vancouver Island Resort
- 1.5.8 8- Discover Tofino’s Wild Side
- 1.5.9 9- Explore Alert Bay and First Nations culture
- 1.5.10 10- Experience Vancouver Island camping
- 1.5.11 11- Telegraph Cove kayak and hike
How to get to Vancouver Island
To get from the mainland to Vancouver Island, most people take a BC Ferry from Tsawwassen-Swartz Bay in Vancouver to Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city.
It’s a spectacular trip not only for the mountains and ocean scenery, but because you may spy bald eagles, orca (killer whales), seals and other marine fauna.
The segment of waterway passing through Active Pass is unforgettable, whether it’s foggy or sunny outside. Dress warmly in a windbreaker so you can stand on the deck and plug your ears when the foghorn sounds!
The crossing from British Columbia’s mainland to Vancouver Island is spectacular. Hop on one of BC Ferries comfortable ships for a scenic ocean crossing.
There are three ferries to choose from. From Vancouver, you can either take the Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay (near Victoria) or the Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo ferry.
If you’re doing a longer cross-BC road trip, arrive in Port Hardy on the north tip of Vancouver Island from northern BC’s Prince Rupert or from Bella Coola on the central coast.
Whichever you select, you’ll pass through the sparkling waters of the Strait of Georgia (via the Tsawwassen or Horseshoe Bay ferries) or navigate the Inland Passage (via the northern route).
Ensure you have your camera, binoculars and yes, a windbreaker and sunhat to keep sometimes chilly ocean breezes – or our famous mists and drizzle – at bay.
Always scan the horizon for Bald Eagles, Osprey (fish hawks), Orcas (“killer whales”), Humpback whales and harbour seals.
Pedestrians, cyclists, as well as vehicular traffic are welcome on board. But if you don’t have a car ferry bookings are easy by bus.
Besides the BC Ferry, there are three other ferries that are rather lesser-known but fun to take.
Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo ferry
One leaves from Horseshoe Bay (North Vancouver) destination Nanaimo, a city on the island’s east coast.
Just south of Nanaimo find Yellow Point Lodge which has cabins nestled into the surrounding arbutus woods, plus accommodation in the lodge.
However, those who are adventurous will choose to rent a rustic ocean-side cabin.
They’re the oldest accommodations onsite, built right on the beach prior to the original 1939 lodge.
We stayed here in the early 1980s and we return whenever possible. Literally, it sounds as if the next wave might pull you into the ocean.
Yellow Point’s 30ha property sprawls along a glorious segment of wild coast we love to explore on foot, bike, or from the ocean with sea kayaks.
There’s a saltwater pool, tennis courts, hiking trails, and the lodge offers home-style meals where guests share tables, so you’ll mix and mingle with everyone.
Bella Coola to Port Hardy ferry
Check on a BC map to find the route from Vancouver to Bella Coola, via the Fraser Canyon then west from Williams Lake through the Chilcoten, a dry ranching area.
In Tweesmuir South Provincial Park, you’ll take a (renowned) precipitous road wending its way down to Bella Coola.
This must surely be one of the most thrilling roads ever to descend (check your brakes –seriously). From there, catch the ferry to Port Hardy.
Prince Rupert to Port Hardy ferry
Prince Rupert is a deep-water port, and British Columbia’s northern gateway: you can take the train from Jasper (in Alberta) to Prince Rupert, which follows alongside the mighty Skeena River.
Once in Prince Rupert, visit the North Pacific Cannery, a Parks Canada National Historic Site where First Nations, Asian and other workers used to can salmon.
Then hop on the ferry to Port Hardy.
11 Things to do on Vancouver Island
1- Explore Victoria’s English heritage
They say that Victoria is “More English than England”. I’d love to know what you think.
West Coast culture thrives in Victoria, with sailboats docked in the inner harbour creating a seafaring rhythm as their masts and sails rock to gentle swells.
The grande dame of Victoria harbour is the “castle on the harbour,” the former Canadian Pacific Railway Hotel (now the Fairmont Empress), where High Tea is de rigeur.
From here, strolling the harbour is lovely. Learn about West Coast First Nations by visiting the Royal BC Museum and visit the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (where you can check out Emily Carr and other artists).
Sample craft beers at Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub and Guesthouses and why stop there? Beer quaffers will want to check out this town’s pub and brewery scene.
Explore the cobblestone streets, visit the shops, breathe deeply of the salty air. Parks abound and don’t miss Beacon Hill Park for lovely beach and breakwater strolls.
2- Take a walk in Beacon Hill Park
The capital city is hardly “off the beaten track” in of itself, but we love certain aspects of it which are local hangouts. Our favourite is Beacon Hill Park.
My husband’s father recalled as a boy seeing Emily Carr painting there, accompanied by Woo her pet monkey, tucked into a perambulator beside her. Incidentally, her family home, Emily Carr House, is nearby and worth visiting.
Beacon Hill boasts many lovely walking trails, a child-friendly petting farm (Beacon Hill Children’s Farm), and gorgeous seascape views.
Take a picnic, descend sturdy stairs to the beaches, sit on immense driftwood logs, skip pebbles into the ocean… and breathe deeply of the salty air.
3- Explore Hatley Castle in Royal Roads University
We love gardening and if you do, go to Royal Roads and wander its 15km of trails.
I’d be surprised if you find many tourists: we visited frequently with my husbands’ parents and we were often alone.
While there visit Hatley Castle where there are lovely Japanese, Italian and Rose gardens – staff gardeners will be delighted to share tips and techniques on gardening, as well as talk about heritage plants you’ll discover here.
4- Visit The Butchart Gardens
I simply cannot imagine anyone interested in transformation and gardens not wanting to visit Butchart Gardens.
More than 100 years ago, Jennie Butchart dreamt of creating a magical garden out of an abandoned quarry.
Her success is the stuff of legends, where her namesake has grown to become one of BC’s top tourist attractions.
These days, come for the blossoms, special events such as fireworks – and I bet you’ll be wowed.
5- Pacific Marine Circle Route drive
The Pacific Marine Circle Route is a 290km circuit that offers amazing views of interior mountains and forests, combined with gorgeous ocean views.
Although it can be done in a day, take your time to do the coast-to-coast drive from Victoria to Sooke, Port Renfrew, Lake Cowichan, Duncan, and South Cowichan back to the capital in three or four days. It’s worth it and one of my favourite Vancouver Island things to do.
Wildlife watchers through to beachcombers (and who doesn’t love that?) will want to stroll East Sooke Regional Park’s craggy coastline where rocky shorelines and stunted trees throng ocean coves and tidal pools.
Look for marine creatures such as sea anemones and brilliant purple or orange starfish.
Cowichan Lake introduces you to the largest on-island lake as well as the forestry roads.
Tip: Tree-planting is a famous, favourite “underground culture” job for youths not only from Canada but around the world. It’s backbreaking, insect-biting work that’s so challenging it creates a subculture of camaraderie for young people who “wear this job” as a badge of honour.
Go there to visit an Ent. Tolkien would surely agree with me that the world’s tallest Sitka Spruce must be one of his wise old beings. This tree is known as the Carmanah Giant (95m). Its forest home represents 2% of BC’s old-growth forest.
For more things to do in British Columbia see:
6- Sample Vancouver Island’s food and wine
Vancouver Island delivers cideries, breweries, farm gate sales and “u-pick farms” where you can pick fruit and vegetables.
There are farmers’ markets, docks at which to purchase fresh seafood, wineries and restaurants.
If it sounds like a delicious trip, you’re right. Last summer, my husband Eric and I had a fabulous seafood luncheon in the garden of Fish Tales Cafe in Qualicum Beach.
Like us, you can discover these places on your own or go on an organised foodie tour.
7- Stay in a Vancouver Island Resort
From winter storm-watching through to tranquil strolls along sweeps of sandy beaches, of all the things to do on Vancouver Island, staying at a luxury Vancouver Island resort, such as “The Wick” is a sheer indulgence.
An extraordinary West Coast cedar architectural design allows diners to feel as if they’re eating on top of the ocean.
If you have an oceanside massage, the soothing sound of waves will transport you to another level of (perhaps semi-) consciousness.
8- Discover Tofino’s Wild Side
I’d wager “everyone” loves a seaside port where colourful boats ply ocean waters, with a picturesque village packed with B&Bs and cafes.
Tofino delivers all of this and more. From surfing to whale watching, kayaking to hiking, exploring First Nations culture to wandering on secluded beaches, this village has loads of charm.
We love the little café, whimsical art forms and ecolodge at Tofino Botanical Gardens.
The sculpture park is fun (who doesn’t want to dance with a red fox?); the vegetable gardens inspiring; the people are cool.
9- Explore Alert Bay and First Nations culture
Port McNeil is a fishing village on the northeast side of northern Vancouver Island.
A walk-on ferry takes you to Alert Bay, a First Nations community which Emily Carr knew well. Today we can see totem poles similar to those she painted.
It’s intriguing to put ourselves back in time, to try to see what Carr would have experienced here. Author Laurie Carter’s book, Emily Carr’s BC: Vancouver Island, helps us do just this.
Carter told me, “She first briefly visited Alert Bay in 1907 on her Alaska Cruise with her sister Alice.
This was the trip where she came up with her mission to capture First Nations culture. She specifically returned in the summers of 1908 and 1909 before going to France to study in 1910-11.
As soon as she got back, summer of 1912, she went north again. This was the first Skeena and Haida Gwaii trip, but she spent considerable time in Alert Bay on the way. Same again in 1928.”
When visiting Alert Bay, we particularly love the boardwalk stroll through Alert Bay Ecological Park, which courses through a wetland. Look aloft on top of the trees and perhaps you’ll spy Bald Eagles peering down – human watching…
Visit the ’Namgis peoples U’mista Cultural Centre and view these First Nations potlatch collection.
The Potlatch is the traditional ceremonial gift-giving feast where First Nations gathered to celebrate their culture, swap stories and eat.
After colonisation, West Coast peoples were forbidden to hold potlatches. Happily, in these increasingly tolerant days, potlatches are returning as powerful celebrations.
10- Experience Vancouver Island camping
A few summers ago, our family gathered at Cape Scott Provincial Park (563 km north of Victoria on the island’s remote north-west tip) for a day of hiking on some of the most glorious stretches of beach we’ve ever seen.
Because it was autumn and mid-week, we were practically alone.
Talk about heaven: our godchildren, nephews and nieces frolicked in the ocean waves and naturally, we adults joined in.
The West Coast’s rugged rock formations here resemble flower pots with their own mini-forest “topknots” of miniature trees, shrubs and mosses.
In other words, the grandeur of ocean views is well-matched by intriguing elemental sculptures. Come here to hike for a day, or else backpack your tent and other gear for a longer visit.
It’s only one of the amazing places to visit on Vancouver Island for a camping trip.
11- Telegraph Cove kayak and hike
South of Port McNeil, Telegraph Cove is a tiny seaside community with 20 permanent residents but where holidaymakers arrive, the population swells to thousands through the height of summer.
Go for kayaking in the Johnstone Strait and Broughton Archipelago: a guide is best because rip tides are truly challenging here.
Consider a whale-watching tour where you might see Minke, Orca or Humpback whales.
The Blinkhorn Trail is a picturesque hike through forested trails to a lighthouse.
You clamber over tree roots and cross whimsical (but stable) bridges and steps to the ocean.
As you hike, watch for segments of the original telegraph wire which gave the cove its name, back in 1912.
So what are you waiting for? Explore Vancouver Island and discover its roots, its quirks and its welcoming residents.