Vancouver Island, British Columbia, floats off the western coast of mainland Canada. At almost 300 miles long and over 60 miles wide, Vancouver Island offers a wide variety of places to explore. It is an ideal destination for back-to-nature experiences and the opportunity to slow down and rejuvenate.
The experiences listed below are the best of what Vancouver Island has to offer. Vancouver Island is a nature lover’s paradise. Think of lush rainforests, sandy beaches, intriguing tide pools, soaring eagles, and breaching whales. Top that with the opportunity to actively engage with the natural world through hiking, ocean kayaking, and beach strolling. If this sounds appealing, Vancouver Island is the place for you! Of course, an entire vacation can be built around many of these Vancouver Island experiences.
Editor’s Note: Want to know more about getting to Vancouver Island? Read up on ferry routes and more in Alison’s piece on how to spend a perfect weekend on Vancouver Island.
1. Kayak With Orca Whales At Telegraph Cove
Telegraph Cove, one of the last boardwalk communities on Vancouver Island, is a stunning location to view pods of orca whales. You can easily take a boat tour to see the whales, but if getting close to nature is a passion then book a kayaking tour. Kayak through the waters of Johnstone Strait on single- or multiple-day organized tours. You’ll be sure to see the resident pods of orcas that return to these waters each summer.
2. Stroll Chesterman Beach In Tofino
Tofino is tucked away on the western shores of Vancouver Island. Rugged. Laid Back. Beautiful. Rustic. Life is simple and perfect in Tofino. Devour a taco from Tacofino and head to Chesterman Beach, known as Tofino’s favorite beach. Stroll, fly a kite, explore tide pools, try your hand at skimboarding, and definitely plan to watch the sunset from Chesterman Beach. Tofino is a surfing hotspot, so join the surfers or watch the thrilling action from the shore.
3. Hug A Tree (Or At Least Try To) At Cathedral Grove
Have you ever hugged a tree? Have you ever needed to hold hands with several people in order to make it around the circumference of a tree? Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park is an inspiring stop on Vancouver Island. The giant Douglas fir trees are some of the oldest in Canada. They soar to the sky having born witness to hundreds of years of life. Plan on spending about an hour at Cathedral Grove hiking along one of the boardwalks or dirt trails and marveling at this rare ecosystem.
Pro Tip: Stop at Cathedral Grove on the way to or from Tofino. Parking is limited. Going early is recommended.
4. Swim The Warm Salty Waters At Rathtrevor Beach In Parksville
Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park on Vancouver Island is not to be missed. When the tide recedes, there is an expansive beach to stroll and the shoreline is perfect for exploring. The sun heats up the exposed sand, and when the tide rolls in, the water is the perfect temperature for swimming. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park is a wonderful place to camp, hike trails through the old-growth forest, and watch for wildlife such as eagles, hawks, and otters. This is a very popular provincial park, so if you plan to camp, make sure to reserve your site well in advance.
5. Hike The West Coast Trail In Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
The West Coast Trail is one of Canada’s most iconic hikes and is not for the faint of heart. A demanding, 47-mile backcountry hike along Canada’s westernmost shore typically takes about seven days for the most experienced hiker. The trail winds along deserted beaches and through the forest. It includes 70 ladders, several cable cars, and many bridges. Besides the pure mental and physical challenges that accompany a hike such as this, the weather, which is often wet and cool, can add another layer of difficulty.
Curious about this Canadian hike through the wilderness? Read more here to determine if you are a good candidate for the West Coast Trail. If you are looking for an experience that will challenge you both physically and mentally -- and one that you will be talking about for years to come -- reserve your place to hike the West Coast Trail!
Pro Tip: If you would like a less extreme experience in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, there are two other ways it can be accessed and enjoy. Head to the access point at Long Beach near Tofino or visit the Broken Group Islands, part of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve that is an ideal and unspoiled destination for kayaking.
6. Explore The First Peoples Gallery At The Royal BC Museum
Victoria, British Columbia’s capital city, has a wide variety of interesting things to do. The Royal BC Museum houses permanent exhibitions of modern, natural, and First Nations history. Highlights of the First Peoples Gallery include Totem Hall, the gallery of Haida argillite carvings and artifacts such as masks, quillwork, and beadwork. This permanent exhibition, along with the Indigenous Audiovisual Collection, provides deep insight into the way of life of the original inhabitants of Vancouver Island.
Don’t miss the opportunity to see totem poles at Thunderbird Park and some of the oldest buildings still standing in British Columbia: Helmcken House and Saint Ann’s Schoolhouse.
7. Indulge In High Tea At The Empress Hotel
While in Victoria, having high tea at The Fairmont Empress Hotel is a one-of-a-kind experience. Canada is a constitutional monarchy, and Queen Elizabeth II is the official head of state. The royal ties are strong in Canada! Just entering the splendid, castle-like Fairmont Empress Hotel evokes a royal feeling.
Make a reservation for high tea and enjoy fresh scones, pastries, and choices of tea from around the world. It’s a little taste of Britain in Victoria, where serving high tea at the Empress Hotel has been a tradition for over 100 years.
8. Go Swimming In The Natural Potholes In Sooke
A refreshing dip in the Sooke River on a hot summer day is a delightful experience. Not far from Victoria, Sooke Potholes Regional Park has naturally formed rock pools and a swimming area that spans a length of three miles. Follow the trail along the river and stop to enjoy water cascading over the rocks and the aqua green water in the potholes. Take a dip. Sit on the rocks and enjoy the beautiful natural setting. Note that the rocks are slippery when wet, so watch your footing. After venturing to Sooke Potholes Regional Park, explore the town of Sooke for some delightful local food and beach walks.
9. Go Kiteboarding In Nitinat Lake
If you are an active kiteboarder or windsurfer, don’t let a trip to Nitinat Lake pass you by. The trip to get there is a tad hair-raising as it involves traversing gravel logging roads, but when you pop out at the end of the journey in the middle of a rainforest with a thermal wind blowing, you know you have hit paradise. This freshwater-saltwater exchange lake has a consistent thermal wind that blows from May to September. Bring all your food and necessities with you as there are few services. Check the weather before you go; when the rain settles in for a few days, it can become quite chilly.
This is a place where you have to rough it, but the upside is windy days and a simple existence, far from a hurried life.
10. Choose Your Seasonal Activity At Mt. Washington Alpine Resort
Mt. Washington Alpine Resort on Vancouver Island is a hot spot in the winter and an equally alluring destination in the summer months. Located in the Comox Valley Regional District, Mt. Washington is a popular destination for skiers and snowboarders with all levels of expertise.
In the summer, hop on the scenic chairlift ride to the summit and take in the sweeping vista over the mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
There are also summer activities for those visitors looking for an adrenaline rush! The Eagle’s Flight Zip Tour is guaranteed to give you a sense of flying and freedom. Mt. Washington on Vancouver Island also has hiking and mountain biking trails open in the summer. The resort offers year-round slopeside accommodations.
11. Enjoy The Flowers At Butchart Gardens
Butchart Gardens has been a favorite year-round destination on Vancouver Island for over 100 years. This National Historic site of Canada is a must-see destination on any trip to Vancouver Island. Built on an old limestone quarry, Butchart Gardens was the vision of Jennie Butchart, a prominent Victoria resident who came to the coast with her husband, a cement magnate, in the early 1900s. Her family still owns and runs the gardens today. Wander through Butchart Gardens enjoying the different floral hues and aromas and marvel at the various gardens including the spectacular Rose Garden, the Japanese and Italian Gardens, and the Sunken Garden.
Find the path to Todd Inlet, where, in the summer months, there are 45-minute boat tours of the waters around Butchart Gardens.
Seasonal events such as the Christmas lights and the 30-minute summer Saturday evening fireworks choreographed to music are crowd-pleasers. Arrive early, as these events draw large crowds.