If you could shape a piece of clay into your ideal destination, it might look a lot like Vancouver Island: sandy beaches that feel subtropical; valleys where flowers bloom and spring seems eternal; widely acclaimed artists, musicians and festivals that could fill weeks with mind-expanding experiences; and farm-fresh produce, artisan cheeses, local wines and handcrafted spirits in overwhelming abundance.
It’s no wonder this chunk of rock and rainforest, five times the size of Prince Edward Island, engenders such a proud sense of place among its inhabitants.
Today, with a population of roughly 800,000, Vancouver Island is well-serviced by regional airports in Comox and Nanaimo, as well as the Victoria International Airport. Highway 19 cuts up the east coast of the island from tip to tail for 500 kilometres, making for a road trip that could be tackled in a day by ambitious drivers, but is much better savoured in a multi-day journey. Alternatively, three hours is all you’ll need to drive the serpentine and scenic Highway 4 as it traverses mountainous country from pastoral Parksville to trendy Tofino, a little pocket of civilization perched on the Pacific Ocean.
No matter which route you choose, the island has plenty to offer, whether you’re looking to sample local flavours, to embark on an outdoor adventure or to soak up some culture. Use this mini guide to can’t-miss highlights to plan your Vancouver Island getaway north of Victoria.
For the Foodie
If you like your food foraged, wild and fresh, Vancouver Island’s got it, with more than 40 wineries, unique dining experiences, and boutique farms and shops selling organic blueberries, fresh oysters, local greens and pretty much everything you need to fill a picnic basket.
Hands-On at the farm Explore the Cowichan Valley’s soaring credentials as a gourmand’s Eden with a visit to Deerholme Farm. There, chef Bill Jones—who has sharpened his knives in many Michelin three-star kitchens—hosts special culinary events emphasizing French country cooking, as well as classes on wild-mushroom foraging, seafood preparation and more.
Tea house treasures This summer, always-innovating chef Kathy Jerritt of Tria Fine Catering and Gourmet Eats has taken over the Tea House on the seaside grounds of the gorgeous Filberg Park gardens in Comox, where she is serving up goodies like crepes with Tanadice Farms bacon and Natural Pastures cheese, among other locally sourced ingredients.
Island brews The Comox Valley’s microbrew scene is also worth checking out. Cumberland Brewing Co. has mild IPAs and extra-special bitters that pair beautifully with the house-made Riders Pizza. And Gladstone Brewing Co., housed in an old car dealership in downtown Courtenay, features a no-frills Bavarian tavern with long wooden tables where you can rub elbows with locals over one of four house-made brews (the Belgian Single is a local favourite).
Dining fresh Tofino’s evocatively named Wolf In The Fog is a restaurant that takes its fish, forage and feast motto seriously. Chef Nicholas Nutting’s menu is inspired by the fecund West Coast environment, whether it’s fresh-caught albacore tuna and salmon, or seaweed and locally grown winter greens.
Wine excursion Chase and Warren Estate Winery puts a novel twist on wine tasting. It offers guests the chance to board a steam train at the Port Alberni Harbour Station, then settle in for a 25-minute chug out to the winery, which is set on a farm in the Alberni Valley (a summertime hot spot). You can sample Musque d’Orval, a dry and fruity wine fermented from locally grown grapes, among other varietals produced and bottled on-site.
For the Active Traveller
From a mountainous interior to the northeastern coastal wilderness of Robson Bight and the SoCal-esque surf scene of Long Beach, Vancouver Island offers a dizzying backdrop for a variety of outdoor and active pursuits.
Afternoon diversion Pack a pail and hit the trail for Lake Helen Mackenzie near Mount Washington to reap a late-summer harvest of wild blueberries and huckleberries. Or simply enjoy the easy, 6.5-km circuit hike through Paradise Meadows with swim stops at Helen Mackenzie and Battleship lakes.
Mountain-bike musts If you’re a mountain-biking enthusiast, make sure to sign up for a guided tour with Island Mountain Rides down Thirsty Beaver, a hand-built masterpiece that descends from the Beaufort Range toward the village of Cumberland (think cedar bridges, cool forest and technical twists and turns). Or try Jughead, a classic cross-country thriller that swoops from the power line at the top of the Hammerfest Trail network near Englishman River Falls Provincial Park. Buffed by local trail builders, it has a dreamy flow that appeals to all levels of riders. Finally, Maple Syrup is the Cowichan Valley’s signature trail, making the most out of Maple Mountain’s rocky topography, with sweeping views of Salt Spring Island and the Strait of Georgia.
Kayaking paradise There are great sea-kayaking spots all over the island, but Kyuquot Sound, on the northwestern tip, is extra special. Reachable after a five-hour drive from the Comox Valley to Fair Harbour, where you then must catch a 40-minute water taxi, Kyuquot requires some extra effort to get to, but you’ll be rewarded by sheltered, island-studded paddling in seas rich with otters, sea lions, humpback whales, kelp forests and myriad other natural wonders. (Book a guided kayaking tour through West Coast Expeditions.
Outdoor trifecta Surf, camp and beachcomb at magical Sombrio Beach. Hippie families once fashioned makeshift homes on this little slice of island paradise, with its crashing surf and mossy, old-growth forest. Today, Sombrio is part of Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, which runs from Port Renfrew to Jordan River on the southwest side of the island and is linked to China Beach and Botanical Beach via the beautiful (but demanding) Juan de Fuca Marine Trail.
For the Culturally Curious
Whether it’s art and music you’re after, or a journey into Vancouver Island’s rich history, there are plenty of fascinating cultural experiences to enjoy here.
Paddle through time In Clayoquot Sound, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, climb into a traditional First Nations cedar dugout canoe and dip a paddle into the water with a Nuu-chah-nulth guide as you learn about indigenous history and culture, from fish harvesting techniques to the practice of stripping cedar bark from trees to make rope, clothing and other products.
History preserved Tucked between rainforest and ocean, Telegraph Cove (40 minutes southeast of Port McNeill and across from Hanson Island) dates back to the early 1900s and feels like a living museum. With its boardwalk and historic buildings, once home to a lumber mill and salmon saltery, the town hearkens back to the frontier days of the island’s remote coastal communities. Today, at Telegraph Cove Resort, you can stay in seaside cabins and homes, restored from the early days of the community, and stride along boardwalks that echo with the footsteps of fishermen and loggers past.
Aboriginal art You can explore the island’s revered aboriginal art in a variety of inspiring spots. Roy Henry Vickers’ Eagle Aerie Gallery in Tofino showcases Vickers’ world-renowned prints, paintings and carvings. On the other side of the island, in Courtenay, the I-Hos Gallery displays works by local artists like multi-media innovator Andy Everson, whose contemporary sensibilties come alive in his stylized Lego characters. In Fort Rupert, on the northeast coast of the island, you can visit master carver Calvin Hunt at his studio and learn about the traditional Kwakwaka’wakw inspiration that lands his masks and totem poles in private and public collections worldwide.
Music and more Music-lovers should be sure to check who is playing at Cumberland’s historic Waverley Hotel. Local musician and promoter Vig Schulman has brought countless nationally and internationally renowned groups to the hotel’s stage. He’s also the driving force behind the village’s Atmosphere Gathering (Aug. 14 to 16), an alcohol-free electronic- and DJ-heavy festival that mixes elements like dance and yoga with music in a family-friendly outdoor venue.
Secrets of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve from Bram Dams
To mark Canada's 150th anniversary, Parks Canada is offering free admission to all national parks, making it easier than ever to explore the country’s vast wilderness. Here, Bram Dams, interpreter at Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, shares his love for Canada's national parks.