A Road Tripper’s Guide to Vancouver Island, British Columbia

Summer at the Butchart Gardens, Credit Tourism Victoria

by Isabel Icarus Brown

Located across the Inside Passage from the Canadian mainland, Vancouver Island is a diverse and scenic 285-mile-long Northwest Coast gem. A rich and storied history, stately architecture, First Nations culture, old-growth forests and charming towns help make it what it is: a fascinating mix of culture and wilderness.

Parliament Buildings in Victoria BC. Credit Destination BC – Tanya Goehring


Though it may be only the start of your adventure, your first stop will be Victoria if you are arriving via the Victoria Clipper from Seattle, the Coho Ferry from Port Angeles, or the B.C. Ferry from greater Vancouver. 

Victoria is a bustling city, featuring a rich and vibrant culture that is never more apparent than when stepping off the ferry at the Inner Harbour. As you enter, you’ll encounter authentic European-style architecture that has stood the test of time. Of particular note are the neo-Baroque-Renaissance-revival-style Parliament Building and the elegant chateau-style Fairmont Empress Hotel, two notable historic structures that frame the Inner Harbour. Of course, Victoria has also evolved with the times and nothing shows off the modernity of current architectural styles quite like the Royal B.C. Museum, which you’ll see standing in proud contrast right alongside the historic architecture of much of the rest of the Inner Harbour.

One of the first things you may want to do if you are interested in a deep dive into Victoria’s history is to take a walking tour. This will guide you not only through its history, but also its vibrant food scene, recreational hubs, architecture and much more. 

Exploring Victoria’s neighborhoods, like Fisherman’s Wharf , Oak Bay and James Bay is a fun way to experience the nuances of this cosmopolitan city. Be sure to explore Beacon Hill Park between downtown and the Strait of Juan de Fuca shoreline.

To have an authentic Victoria experience, you can partake in classic British traditions like Afternoon Tea at any of several venues (tip: Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress is an iconic Victoria experience) or taking a hop-on-hop-off city tour on one of Victoria’s own double-decker buses.

Chinese New Year Dragon Dance, Credit Brandon McGeachie

Victoria is home to one of the oldest Chinatowns on the West Coast. You can really get to know the district by going on one of its walking tours, which allows you to get a guided and informed experience, learning the history of this distinct and lively district.

To go even deeper into the local history you can travel to the Royal B.C. Museum, which boasts a variety of exhibitions. These are a showcase of thousands of years of natural history from the B.C. coast and Vancouver Island itself. The Museum has numerous traveling exhibitions as well, which vary throughout the year. You can also delve into Indigenous history with world-class collections presenting details and history about the First Nations peoples of Western Canada.

Just outside the city, the Butchart Gardens are another great place to go, especially for a nature lover. These gardens are some of the largest and most varied in the country, and hold almost a thousand varieties of plants from around the world, spread over 55 acres of land. All of this is easily accessible through gorgeous walkways that let you immerse yourself in the beauty of nature and the art of gardening in one of its most advanced forms. 

Travelling northwest from Victoria you’ll want to go through Sooke and Port Renfrew, two outdoor adventure hubs. One such destination in Sooke is the Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, where you can hike through rocky terrain and over rushing water, framed by the evergreen forests all around—perfect for a day hike or a scenic picnic in the wilderness. You can also visit the more-than-a-century-old 17 Mile Pub, take a fishing trip or go ziplining while you’re in town. Meanwhile, in Port Renfrew, you can travel to the Avatar Grove, filled with massive old-growth trees, preserved in all of their natural glory.

Family visiting Nymph Falls, Credit Comox Valley – Jordan Dyck

Central Vancouver Island

Leaving behind the city of Victoria, the next stop for the food or culture-lover is Cowichan Valley, which follows the island’s east coast from Cowichan Bay to Nanaimo. As an agricultural region, this valley is a major source of ingredients produced on the island, including wine, and Cowichan Bay is a town perfect for sampling island fare. The valley is also a great spot for outdoor activities like hiking as well as countless watersports, fishing sites and camping opportunities galore along the coastal areas. To learn more about natural history, you can’t go wrong with the Hand of Man Museum in Maple Bay, dedicated to natural history and anthropology. This museum has many artifacts displaying the cultures and creatures that have lived on Vancouver Island for millennia, from the prehistoric to the modern age. 

At the north end of Cowichan Valley, you’ll find Nanaimo, the island’s second largest city and a coastal hub where you can jump into all kinds of activities. You can go island hopping, take a whale-watching tour guided by marine-life experts or you can go on the “Nanaimo Bar Trail” to experience all the variations of this iconic Canadian dessert.

Farther north, in the Comox Valley, you can find an ancient set of cave systems called the Horne Lake Caves, where you can go spelunking with specialist guides for an unforgettable experience into the very bones of the Earth. You may also want to go hiking into the region’s numerous nature parks and community forests, or make your way up Mount Washington to check out the island’s ski resort. There is also the city of Cumberland, often called the “Mountain Biking Capital of Canada,” featuring the iconic Mount Washington Bike Park and Cumberland Trails along with hiking opportunities in places like the Nymph Falls and Seal Bay Nature Parks.

If you’re at all interested in fishing, make your way north to Campbell River, often called the “Salmon Capital of the World.” Sportfishing is available all year round, with professional guides ready to help you through your choice of salt or freshwater fishing experiences. Traveling north from there, Telegraph Cove is your next stop for coastal journeys, with activities such as the Tide Rip Grizzly Tours or At the Water’s Edge Adventures ready to help you experience the wonders of nature.

Dinner at the Wolf in the Fog restaurant in Tofino, Credit Destination Vancouver – Jordan Dyck

Pacific Rim 

North of Nanaimo, you can take a side trip onto Highway 4 and head west to the island’s wild West Coast and the coastal towns of Ucluelet and Tofino. Check out the First Nations-owned guided canoeing companies and take one of their guided tours. You’ll also want to get a chance to go hiking in the region, particularly the Pacific Rim National Park on your own or with First Nations guides to show you the way. 

Are you a budding or experienced surfer? This region is a surfing hub with surf shops, outfitters and guides to get you riding the legendary surf on this wild stretch of coastline.

After traveling through the Pacific Rim Trails from Ucluelet to Tofino, check out the varied and unique food and drink that Tofino has to offer, including wonderful places like the Wolf in the Fog for locally sourced fish along with craft cocktails; or SoBo for a unique, artisanal and vegetarian-friendly restaurant. 

Two young museum attendees examine First Nations art, Credit Tourism Vancouver Island-Jordan Dyck – Umista Cultural Centre

North Vancouver Island

As you make your way up to the northernmost part of Vancouver Island, you’ll find the wonders of nature surrounding you, and many of the tourist destinations around this area make excellent use of this. 

First, though, if you have interest in culture and history you will absolutely want to hop on a ferry from Port McNeil to Alert Bay, a town full of First Nations culture and history, with a legacy stretching back hundreds of years. You can learn about local Indigenous culture at the U’mista Cultural Center, which features repatriated Native art and artifacts that once again belong to their rightful owners. There’s also the Culture Shock Interactive Art Gallery, where you can partake in and get to know the details of Native weaving, storytelling and cooking styles. In addition, this town is home to the world’s largest Totem Pole, which stands at 173-feet-tall.

Port McNeill is one of several major hubs for coastal wilderness adventures, especially for those with a marine inclination. There, you’ll find whale-watching tours, fishing charters and kayaking companies. 

After Port McNeil, the highway continues north to Port Hardy, the island’s northernmost city. In addition to more opportunities for whale-watching, fishing, and kayaking, this Port is also home to many opportunities to journey into the diverse and ancient natural landscapes that form much of northern Vancouver Island. There are many guided wildlife and coastal tours available at Port Hardy, including at least one where you can take a guided day trip to the island’s wild and remote northwest coast.   

Emily Carr,  Canadian Icon:

One of the finest painters in Canadian history, Emily Carr, was born and spent much of her life living in British Columbia and, in particular, Vancouver Island. The primary focus of Carr’s work involved depicting the Indigenous populations of Canada from within, rather than from without, which was quite rare for the time. She did so because of the respect and care she felt towards the Indigenous people of her home region, who she lived with and visited for long periods. By the end of her life she had become one of the country’s most renowned painters, and she was posthumously granted the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts medal in 1978. Most of her work is archived in the British Columbia Museum of Arts, continuing her legacy through the modern day. Look for the Emily Carr statue in Victoria on the corner of Government and Belleville Streets. You can also tour the Emily Carr family home on Government Street.

Motor Travel:

If you plan to explore Vancouver Island beyond Victoria in your own vehicle, take the Black Ball Ferry from Port Angeles or one of the B.C. Ferries, the only options for transporting your vehicle. Highway 1 (the Trans-Canada Highway) runs from Victoria to Nanaimo. After Nanaimo, it becomes Highway 19 (the main highway) and 19A (the spur road that hugs the coast). Both go to towns and attractions worth visiting, so you may find yourself weaving between the two as you make your way north. 


When You Go

These excellent resources will help you plan your travels to Vancouver Island.