Born from volcanic rock and full of beauty and natural splendor, British Columbia’s Vancouver Island offers magnificent rainforests, towering mountains, sparkling blue seas, remote beaches, and secluded bays.
The Pacific Rim on the island’s west coast delivers wild landscapes, old-growth forest, and long sandy beaches. Victoria, on the southernmost part of the island, presents a remarkable diversity of recreational opportunities. The Gulf Islands, along Vancouver Island’s east coast, feature one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems within a string of unique islands.
For those seeking a mix of outdoor adventure, world-class dining, city strolling, and some of the best views Mother Nature has to offer, these three stunning areas on the southern half of Vancouver Island make for a perfect trip.
For those who’ve been reluctant to visit the Pacific Northwest due to its notoriously drizzly weather, you will find decidedly sunnier skies and incredible views in Victoria, British Columbia’s capital since 1866. Victoria sits inside the Olympic Rain Shadow, which is created by the nearby Olympic Mountain range. The Olympic Rain Shadow is a “wall” that shields the area from rainfall. This means the city, as well as a portion of BC’s Gulf Islands, gets significantly less precipitation than Vancouver or Seattle.
Victoria’s picturesque Inner Harbour is the primary port-of-entry for seaplanes and high-speed ferries, and it is an ideal starting point for a tour of Vancouver Island. An eminently walkable city, Victoria is simple to navigate and best explored on foot. Check out Lower Johnson Street, or “LoJo,” to shop boutiques housed in stately Victorians. Fort Street, formerly an antiques shopping hub, now also features locally made clothing and collectibles. Don’t miss Victoria Public Market at the Hudson, which offers a collection of the area’s best artisan foods and goods under one roof.
If exploring nature is more your style, try hiking or biking along the 34-mile Galloping Goose Regional Trail. Or, visit the 200-acre Beacon Hill Park, which features woodsy walking trails that lead to the sea. The park also has a children’s petting farm with strutting peacocks and baby goats. And, of course, no trip to Victoria is complete without a stop at the Butchart Gardens, just a short drive from Victoria.
When hunger strikes, fuel up with a house-made gelato and fresh-baked goods at Fol Epi Organic Bakery, or have lunch at its sister restaurant, Agrius, featuring hearty sandwiches on the bakery’s amazing bread.
For a memorable dinner, try the Chef’s Pairing Menu of seasonally inspired dishes at Saveur or the speakeasy-style Little Jumbo, showcasing local foods and craft cocktails. The health-conscious can sample a vegetarian version of poutine at Rebar Modern Food or try delicious vegan nibbles at Nourish Kitchen & Café.
Destination: Tofino, Ucluelet, and Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
Next up, take a spectacular 4.5-hour scenic drive along the Trans-Canada Highway and Highway 4 from Victoria to the gorgeous villages of Tofino and Ucluelet (or “Ukee” to the locals) on the wild western coast of Vancouver Island.
Seaplanes to Tofino are available, but if you drive, you’ll encounter countless postcard-worthy beaches, as well as Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, a well-preserved, old-growth rainforest.
If you want to break up your drive to Tofino after the first 90-minute leg north on the Trans-Canada Highway, stay the night in the historic seaside town of Nanaimo or Parksville. Alternately, about 8 miles north of Parksville lies Qualicum Beach, where you can conjure your inner artist by staying in one of three Free Spirit Spheres — round custom-built treehouses that are suspended in a coastal rainforest environment.
As you travel west from Nanaimo on Highway 4 to Tofino and Ucluelet, allow for sightseeing time at the many parks, beaches, and hiking trails that dot the winding coast-to-coast route. Of particular note is Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park, a lush old-growth forest preserve with short, easily trod footpaths through impressive stands of 800-year-old giant Douglas fir trees and ancient Western red cedars.
Tofino and Ucluelet are both laid-back, pretty beach communities with distinct personalities. Tofino is the more upscale of the two and the epicenter for whale- or bear-watching tours in Clayoquot Sound. Other popular excursions include sea kayak and surfing tours and trips to Hot Springs Cove in Maquinna Marine Provincial Park (accessible only by boat).
While in Tofino, indulge at inventive restaurants, like SoBo and Wolf in the Fog, for locally foraged and fresh-caught fare. Or, stop into The Fish Store & Oyster Bar to sample shucked-to-order local oysters and other seafood delicacies.
Conversely, the rugged beauty of Ucluelet attracts more DIY outdoor adventurers and those in search of a less crowded, quieter respite. It’s at the doorstep of the wild playgrounds of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (the nation’s first designated national park) and the 5.6-mile Wild Pacific Trail.
Destination: Gulf Islands
Much like the American San Juans, BC’s Southern Gulf Islands on the eastern coastline are an adventure lover’s utopia. They can be accessed by private watercraft or kayak, as well as daily sailings of vehicle and passenger-only ferries from mainland ports at Vancouver, Nanaimo, Crofton, or Swartz Bay, the latter just 20 miles north of Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula. The stunning Gulf Islands National Park Reserve encompasses 15 islands along with 30-plus smaller islets and marine reefs. The reserve was established in 2003 to preserve one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems.
Island hoppers have a dizzying array of choices, from Gabriola Island, known as the “Isle of the Arts” for its many arts festivals and events, to the secluded Saturna Island that boasts 45 percent of the National Park Reserve. Galiano Island is a renowned hiking and kayaking paradise, Pender Islands have 37 beach accesses and 57 hiking trails, and there’s world-class kayaking and cycling on Mayne Island.
The largest and most frequently visited island is Salt Spring Island. This island is outfitted with three ferry terminals and is a perfect trifecta for those in search of arts and culture, outdoor recreation, and wellness retreats. Plus, there is a fantastic waterfront market on Saturdays, April through October.
If You Go
Getting to Victoria: There is frequent, daily service from Seattle to Victoria via a 45-minute seaplane flight with birds-eye views of the Olympic Peninsula or a three-hour, high-speed catamaran ride through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. From Vancouver, British Columbia, you can take a 95-minute seafaring cruise, a four-hour whale-watching excursion, or half-hour flight on a seaplane or helicopter.
Note: Seaplanes have strict weight limits (25 lbs.) for luggage. For the best of both experiences, take a seaplane over and a high-speed ferry back, when your suitcase is laden with souvenirs and duty-free shopping.