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 with a windbreaker so you can stand on the deck and plug your ears when the foghorn sounds! Here’s my bucket list of hidden secrets of Vancouver Island.
On the water
Besides the BC Ferry there are three other ferries that are rather lesser known but fun to take.
Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo
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 ferry to Port Hardy
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
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.
From Port Hardy, two lesser-known destinations keep calling me to return.
Cape Scott Provincial Park
Want a walk on the wild side, along stunning beaches? Head to this windswept park where solitude and scenery embrace you.
A 64 km drive northwest of Port Hardy, Cape Scott Provincial Park is a landscape of seemingly endless sandy beaches, rock-strewn shorelines with tidal pools, and rainforest. Here too find the challenging 48km circuit Cape Scott Trail.
Port McNeil and Alert Bay
Port McNeil is a small fishing village on the northeast coast, overlooking Queen Charlotte Strait. From here take another short ferry ride to Alert Bay.
Alert Bay on Cormorant Island is a First Nations community where you’ll follow in the footsteps of one of Canada’s iconic painters, Emily Carr.
Then walk the boardwalk trails of the Ecological Park where you can often spot bald eagles perching atop cedar and fir trees, gazing down at you.
The five-hour drive to Victoria from Port McNeil along the Malahat Highway affords breathtaking views of the coastal mountains, Saanich Peninsula and Gulf Islands. What to do in Victoria?
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.
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.
Katharine Fletcher is a Quebec-based freelance writer and author who travels to British Columbia often to visit family.
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