What I loved about Vancouver Island was that it was totally different to the Canada I expected. I didn't know British Columbia was quite so geographically blessed. I knew about the soaring snowy mountains in the Canadian Rockies, but I didn't expect ski resorts in the middle of an island, let alone lush, ancient rainforests, all right beside the Pacific Ocean in Western Canada!
The variety of habitats has created a spectacular outdoor landscape with amazing wildlife spotting opportunities, whilst the charming towns and communities dotted around the island are great bases to explore from. Your adventure begins as soon as you board the ferry....
Vancouver to Vancouver Island
This has to be one of the most scenic ferry crossings in the world. You cruise through the Straits of Georgia, passing untamed, uninhabited islands and rocky coves with the chance of spotting marine wildlife, including whales, sea lions and dolphins.
There are a few different ports to choose from; the South Vancouver (Tsawwassen) to Victoria (Swartz Bay) route is the most impressive, as you travel through the archipelagos and narrow channels. The other crossing goes between North Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay) and Naniamo, and for both practical reasons and a change of scenery, it makes sense to embark on a different route each way.
Depending on your port, its about 1.5 to 2 hours. And with no bridge connecting the mainland and the island, vehicle access is by ferry only. In this itinerary, I’ve opted for the outward journey to Vancouver Island departing from Horseshoe Bay and arriving in the port of Nanaimo.
After you arrive in Nainamo, drive straight to the rural and rustic town of Coombs for lunch, about 30 minutes away. This small community is home to The Old Country Market; a collection of boutiques, restaurants and the incredibly quirky ‘Goats on the Roof’ (yes, there really are goats grazing on a living roof made of grass).
The grocery store there stocks an assortment of world foods and gifts along with an outdoor fruit and vegetable market. On the same site, there is also a coffee stand, ice cream bar, and the beautiful Trattoria restaurant that serves the best, most authentic Italian food in Canada (in my opinion!).
From Coombs, it’s about 2.5 hours on to Tofino, where I would recommend a two-night stay. This tiny village at the end of the road on the edge of the Esowista Peninsula is world-famous for its easy-going, outdoorsy vibes and wild and rugged coastal scenery. Here you can surf, stroll along the beaches and storm-watch, to hiking, kayaking and wildlife watching. There’s also a vibrant arts scene along with a strong history and heritage surrounding First Nations culture.
Just before you arrive in Tofino town, stop off at Chesterman Beach. It’s a beautiful 2.7km long stretch of sand and is a great place to walk with something to see in every direction; crashing waves, stormy skies and surfers on one side, and architectural beautiful homes lining the shore.
We walked all the way round to the North End, home to the Wickaninnish Inn, a forested lodge set on this windswept waterfront. We stopped for tea and scones in the Driftwood Café, and while it’s a little expensive, the incredible views and luxurious lounge make it very much worth it.
As you walk around, you may even feel like you’re in a scene of Twilight, and you’d be right! Filming for several scenes of the New Moon movie were shot inside Pacific Rim National Park, including at Long Beach.
Spend the rest of the afternoon wondering around the local boutiques and galleries, or try some local cuisine. Two places I would definitely return to include:
- Big Daddy’s Fish Fry – picnic table, outdoor seating set-up cooking up some of the best fried fish platters around, including halibut, cod, salmon and prawns in tempura batter.
- Tuff Beans – a cosy coffee shop and local hangout in downtown Tofino serving hearty wraps, soups and sandwiches. I’m not a coffee drinker, but word of mouth is the coffee is awesome too.
Whale Watching Tour
We went on a whale watching tour with ‘The Whale Centre’ venturing out in a Boston Whaler vessel into the Clayoquot Sound, off the coast of Tofino. Howie, our captain was extremely knowledgeable and did a fantastic job at helping us find the whales as well as identify every other animal and bird we saw! We saw sea lions, otters and several grey whales – it was such a special experience seeing these animals in the wild!
I would love to have visited Hot Springs Cove, where you can soak in the natural geothermal hot springs in Maquinna Provincial Park. I also heard the calm, protected inlets you cruise near on the boat ride there is great for spotting bears as they forage along the beach shore.
Just behind the beach, is an enchanting rainforest. The trail has two routes, and although they are short (about 1km each way) there is so much beauty packed into a small space. The boardwalk itself is rickety and charming, and the ancient forest that surrounds it is lush, full of giant cedar trees and hanging mosses.
Where to Stay in Tofino
We stayed along the Pacific Rim Highway, about 6km out of town, in an impressive, timber apartment nestled amongst the old-growth rainforest. We booked on AirBnb and wanted a place to ourselves, so we could cook, read and relax when we weren’t out exploring.
Just 40km from Tofino, at the other end of Pacific Rim National Park is Uculet; a small, sleepy and friendly village that made a lovely stop for a few hours, before a long day in the car.
Lighthouse Loop Walk
At the very end of the town (you’ll know as you reach a dead end), you can walk The Lighthouse Loop, a easy and peaceful stroll around the coast that takes you to Amphitrite Lighthouse and offers several different viewpoints across the dramatic Barkley Sound. It’s only a short stroll, and will take about 30 – 45 minutes.
In downtown Uculet, we sat on the dock of this working harbour and enjoyed the sunshine as we watched the fishing boats arrive, seaplanes take off and land and seals bobbing around in the water.
Just beside the dock is The Cedar House Gallery - even if you’re not overly into your art, this small gallery is worth popping into and displays some incredible indigenous art, including carvings, totems and silver work. And just another 150 meters or so, back from the dock is Zoe’s Bakery, baking delicious sweet and savoury snacks from brownies to pizza flatbreads.
Drive Uculet > Victoria
It’s 300km and about 4 hours of straight driving back to Victoria, so stopping for a break or two is welcomed. Cathedral Grove takes you on a short trail past giant, 800 year old fir trees, and Little Qualicum Falls is a short 3km trail to two waterfalls cascading down a rocky gorge.
Devote a day to wondering around one of the most British cities in North America; Victoria. Walking around the harbor path is a pretty place to stroll around on a sunny afternoon and when it’s beautifully lit at night.
We started out near the harbour airport, where you can watch the seaplanes take-off and land. The historic British Columbia Parliament Buildings and grand Empress Hotel are hard to miss, as are the popular street performers dotted around the waterfront.
We continued all the way around to Fisherman’s Wharf (which is about 2.5km so a 30 minute walk) where there are fresh seafood stalls (including delicious Mexican fish tacos), quirky houseboats to adore, and resident seals bobbing around in the harbor.
Beacon Hill Park
From Fisherman’s Wharf, follow the sea wall path around to the Pacific Ocean side, to Beacon Hill Park. To get the best view in the park, climb the short hill, where you can sit on one of the many benches that overlook the waterfront and Juan de Fuca Straight, with views that stretch as far as the Olympic Mountain range in Washington state, USA on a clear day. Beacon Hill Park is also home to the world’s tallest totem pole at over 38 meters high!
Where to Stay
We stayed in two lovely AirBnB apartments in central Downtown Victoria, in the Chinatown neighbourhood.
Places to Eat & Drink
- CANOE Brewpub is a busy, stylish bar that brews their own beer. They have a waterfront patio that is perfect for a drink on a summer’s evening.
- Greenleaf Vietnamese Bistro serves delicious, generous portions of classic Vietnamese cuisine food, for a very reasonable price. The Pho noodles bowls are especially good.
- Bean Around The World is a cosy, characterful coffee shop in Chinatown with a homely atmosphere. It’s a great place to grab breakfast, people watch or read a book.
I had always wanted to fly on a seaplane and was not disappointed. We went on the 35-minute extended panoramic sightseeing flight with Harbour Air that circled above Victoria’s rugged coastline. The flight provided incredible aerial views of the waterfront, the grand houses in Victoria’s suburbs and the impressive floral displays at Butchart Gardens. Whilst flying above the ocean, we also saw a small pod of orca whales. Take off and landing on water was also an experience in itself!
Whale Watching Tour in Victoria
If the weather is poor during your time in Tofino, and you can’t get out on a whale watching tour, Victoria is another destination to set off from. Eagle Wings Tours, based at Fisherman’s Wharf, provided an amazing, educational tour of the area, and we were incredibly lucky when we spotted the Southern Resident Orca pod made up of more than 80 animals – a truly humbling sight to see so many of these amazing creatures roaming in the wild.
Ferry Crossing: Victoria > Vancouver
After a morning of activities and exploring a few other spots in Victoria, take the ferry back to the mainland. From Victoria, the closest ferry port is the Swartz Bay terminal, a 30-minute drive from Victoria that arrives at the port of Tsawwassen in South Vancouver. If you’ve been unlucky and are yet to spot any wildlife, this is another chance to hopefully a glimpse of the most majestic marine animal, the whale.