10 things to do on Vancouver Island

Insider’s tips on what to see and do on Vancouver Island

10 things to do on Vancouver Island

things to do on vancouver island
Photos: Eric Fletcher

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. Here are 10 things to do on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.

1BC Ferries an awesome trip

Clockwise from top left: BC Ferry with Cascade Range’s Mount Baker in the background, tail of a whale from the MV Northern Explorer in the Inland Passage, loaded and about to leave Prince Rupert for Port Hardy on BC Ferries MV Northern Explorer, views from the decks on BC Ferries Inland Passage route. Photo: Eric Fletcher.

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.

2Capital Victoria

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. 

3Blooming good times: 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.

4Pacific Marine Circle Route drive

Clockwise from top right: Kelp on the beach along a breakwater path below Beacon Hill Park, sea anemones and starfish waiting for the next tide to fill their pool, standing at the base of an old growth tree is sobering: they are gigantic. Photos: Eric Fletcher.

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.

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.

On the west coast, Port Renfrew gives access to wild ocean views and salmon fishing in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

Go there to visit an Ent. Tolkein 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.

5Delectable Food ’n Wine tours

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. 

6Wickaninnish Inn Insider

From winter storm-watching through to tranquil strolls along sweeps of sandy beaches, of all the things to do on Vancouver Island, staying at “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. And if you have an oceanside massage, the soothing sound of waves will transport you to another level of (perhaps semi-) consciousness.

7Tofino’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 GardensThe sculpture park is fun (who doesn’t want to dance with a red fox?); the vegetable gardens inspiring; the people are cool. Go.

8Carr Trip: Alert Bay and First Nations exploration

Clockwise from top left: Bald eagles at Alert Bay, explore Alert Bay by foot to see totem poles carved by generations of Kwakwaka’wakw people, the trail to San Josef Bay is an easy walk through dense west coast rainforest, rugged rock formations at San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Park. Photos: Eric Fletcher.

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 colonialization, West Coast peoples were forbidden to hold potlatches. Happily, in these increasingly tolerant days, potlatches are returning as powerful celebrations.

9Cape Scott beach rambles and 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.

10Telegraph 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.

Discover Canada

For more things to do on Vancouver Island and other experiences in British Columbia, here are some ideas you’re sure to love.

Swimming with salmon in British Columbia
20 Amazing things to do in British Columbia
Hidden Secrets of Vancouver Island
Vancouver Festivals
11 places to visit in Vancouver for free

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