How to Make the Most of Your Trip to Vancouver Island

Travelers will find a bounty of trails, beaches, wildlife, and surreal camping spots just a short ferry ride from buzzing Vancouver. Our local insider Matt knows how to explore British Columbia’s laid back, supernatural playground.

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Photo © iStock/Anakin Fox

A trip to British Columbia wouldn’t be complete without visiting Victoria (the provincial capital) and Vancouver Island. Often overlooked because of limited public transport, intrepid adventurers will be rewarded with views of unspoiled scenery, chats with quirky locals, and maybe even a rendezvous with a wild bear.

Highlights of Victoria

Known as the “Garden City”, Victoria is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest region of North America. The best way to explore the quaint CBD and leafy suburbs is by bicycle, stopping at historic landmarks like the Fairmont Empress Hotel (try their high tea), Parliament Buildings and famous Canadian artist/writer Emily Carr House.

You can get up close and personal with wild seals that frequent the docks of Oak Bay Marina, an easy pedal from the city via historic neighborhoods, then stop for a rest and a wander at Beacon Hill Park on your way back.

Garden lovers can’t leave without visiting Butchart Gardens, the Island’s most visited attraction, which is just a short drive from the city.

Butchart Gardens, Victoria. Photo credit: iStock

Camping on Vancouver Island

The Island has a wide range of camping and hiking options, ranging from simple drive-in style overnight campgrounds with facilities to multi-day hikes. Depending on your experience, what gear you have, and time of year, you’ll be able to find an option suitable for you.

Beginner campers will love the tidal beaches, day hikes, and wild river swimming options in Parksville, on the east coast near Nanaimo. Provincial campgrounds need to be reserved ahead to guarantee a site.

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Mountain Biking and Hiking Trails

Mountain biking trails are literally everywhere, just grab a trail map from a local parks office or bike shop to find the best trail for your level of experience.

The famous West Coast Trail will captivate hardcore hikers and campers. Open from May–September, it takes 5-7 days and passes through rugged, wild terrain including raging rivers, serene lakes, ancient rainforests and deserted, mystical beaches littered with driftwood.

Preparation for the Wilderness

Camping in British Columbia is fantastic; it can also be dangerous for the ill prepared. Make sure to consult with local outfitters and Park Rangers regarding safety in regards to weather, wildlife and having the right gear – also remember to leave no trace, bringing out what you take in and respect the natural habitat.

Sunrise from Mount Washington, Vancouver Island. Photo credit: iStock

Why You've Got to Visit Tofino

If laid back artsy vibes, ancient rainforests, surfing, and one of Canada’s top restaurants sounds like your kind of thing, then head to Tofino, on the wild west coast of the Island.

Take your pick between camping, motels, and luxury lodges. You’ll be able to immerse yourself in Island culture in this gorgeous little town on the tip of a peninsula marking the entrance to Clayoquot Sound, which teems with marine life like gray whales and unbelievably cute sea otters. 

If the conditions are right, hire a surfboard and a thick wetsuit to catch a wave or two on Long Beach – Canada’s most famous surf spot.

After a hard day exploring the sea and forest, pop into a tavern for a yarn with local fishermen who’ll be sure to keep the conversation interesting for a pint or two of craft ale. Make sure to reserve a table at Wolf in the Fog, which serves up delicious, locally sourced, rustic plates – with sea views.

Any trip to the Island, whether a few days or a few weeks, will leave you wanting more. Each season brings different landscapes, wildlife and local produce. Visit once, and I guarantee you’ll be back.

The surf is always up in Tofino. Photo credit: iStock

Exploring Smaller Islands by Ferry

Consider exploring smaller islands accessed by the BC Ferries network between the Island and the mainland. Salt Spring Island and Bowen Island are popular choices with a range of accommodation and activities like foraging, hiking, whale watching, fishing, and visiting sustainable farms.

Pull up a window seat or space on the top deck if the sun is out and keep a keen eye for pods of orca whales as they are often seen in the area.

Getting There

It’s not often that transport can be the star of the journey – getting to “the Island” as BC locals affectionately call it – is definitely part of the fun!

Ferry: BC Ferries run multiple daily services from Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen, both accessible by bus from downtown Vancouver to Horseshoe Bay and Nanaimo on the Island. Hiring a car in Vancouver and driving over would be the best option so you have transport covered to get around.

Seaplane: My personal favorite – catching a seaplane from downtown Vancouver to Nanaimo or Victoria, you’ll soar past Lion’s Gate Bridge taking in spectacular views of the city and mountains. Whales are even easier to spot from above! Check the Harbor Air website for schedules and fares.

Want to know more about Canada? Check out our podcast. We discuss when a traveler becomes a snack; the perils of wilderness adventure, a culinary tour of the provinces for foodies, and we speak to World Nomads photography scholarship mentor Richard I'Anson.

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