Vancouver Island, off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia, is a wild and unruly beast in winter. Still, it may possibly be the best time to visit the surfing, skiing, and beach paradise of Canada’s western island.
An hourish-long flight from Vancouver International Airport or a roughly 3-hour ferry ride from Seattle, Washington, (the Seattle to Victoria Clipper ferry ride connects the United States with Vancouver Island), traveling to Vancouver Island is convenient and quick. However, most tourists tend to converge on this island during the summer months.
In the winter, you won’t have to battle the summer crowds, which can swell the population of towns like Tofino from 2,000 to nearly 20,000. Though famous for its surfing, Tofino is also home to one of the most unique adventures on Vancouver Island -- storm watching.
But beyond storm watching, Vancouver Island also offers other unique adventures for a long winter getaway. From hiking in the lush Pacific Northwest, cave exploring, hitting the ski slopes, and learning to surf (yes, even in winter), Vancouver Island comes alive under the slate gray skies of winter.
Nestled along Canada’s West Coast, the Vancouver Island region offers up islands along pristine coastlines where the fierce Pacific Ocean shapes the scenery and softens the climate. As a hosted guest of Visit British Columbia, I explored some of the underrated experiences the summer tourists miss out on when they head home for winter.
Here are 5 of the best things to do on Vancouver Island during winter.
1. Snow Fun At Mount Washington Alpine Resort
If you’re a ski enthusiast, a snowshoe fan, or just a lover of legendary scenery, Mount Washington Alpine Resort has it all. Located high above the Vancouver Island city of Courtenay and just a 40-minute drive from Comox Valley International Airport, this mountain offers some serious skiing options.
Because it averages 38 feet of snow per season, the ski resort has more than 1,700 acres of snowy skiable terrain, 81 runs, five lifts, and four Magic Carpet Lifts.
Check out the Mount Washington Alpine Resort’s family-oriented alpine village with ski-in, ski-out accommodation and its Nordic Centre, which offers equipment rentals and lessons. The resort also boasts of 16 miles of snowshoeing trails, if skiing isn’t your jam.
Once you’ve built up an appetite and hearty thirst, pop into Ted’s Bar and Grill at Mount Washington for craft beer on tap, cocktails, casual pub fare, and Coast-inspired dishes. Although the restaurant is family-friendly, only those 19 years and older are allowed in after 10 p.m. -- so no screaming rugrats!
Pro Tip: You can score some pretty chill deals if you visit Mount Washington during the week. Their Winter Getaway Packages give you the opportunity to beat the crowds and save some money if you visit mid-week. All Winter Getaway Packages are located at Bear and Deer Lodges, Mount Washington’s ski-in, ski-out accommodation.
2. Relax And Recharge At Kingfisher Oceanside Resort And Spa
If soaking in therapeutic hot waters and wandering through the twinkling lights display are more your speed, The Kingfisher Oceanside Resort and Spa in Courtenay is an indulgent way to spend the winter.
In addition to breathtaking ocean and mountain views, The Kingfisher’s luxury Pacific Mist Spa is not to be missed. The spa therapies use local ingredients from the sea, and the Pacific Mist Hydropath (PDF) is a one-of-a-kind “underground journey” of hot soaks and saunas.
In this unique experience, you’ll go through eight stations, including a mineral massage pool, a waterfall massage station, a swiss shower, and a steam cave, to name a few. The Hydropath experience lasts about an hour, and both men and women will keep their swimsuits on.
The Pacific Mist Spa Hydropath is not recommended for guests with mobility issues as you must be able to navigate stairs and lower into and out of bathtubs.
Continue your renewal and relaxation with yoga by the sea at the Starfish Studio, indulge in contemporary British Columbia West Coast cuisine at the Ocean7 Restaurant, and sip on craft cocktails while nibbling on casual plates at AQUA Bistro and Wine Bar.
Pro Tip: The Kingfisher also offers Day Spa and Dine Midweek Escape Packages, so you aren’t required to book a room at the resort if you’re staying somewhere else. If you do choose to stay at the resort, consider the Ocean Courtyard rooms in Kingfisher’s West Coast Craftsman building. The new rooms have spectacular views of the resort’s new magical Serenity Gardens Holiday Lights Display and the ocean.
3. Explore The Underworld At Horne Lake Provincial Park And Caves
Climbing up a waterfall in an underground cavern is an extreme and heart-pounding experience. At Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, the underground world comes alive in the numerous caves located inside the park.
Vancouver Island is home to more than 1,000 caves, and Horne Lake Provincial Park was created in 1971 at the request of public caving groups on Vancouver Island. They were concerned about unregulated damage to the caves and their fragile crystal formations and ecosystems.
If you plan to go spelunking, be aware that you’ll have to be mobile and in relatively good shape, though the park can be enjoyed above ground as well. For those that prefer to stay top-side, the park is home to the Cave and Karst Education Centre that features geology information, a small museum and fossil display, and the Cave Theatre, where visitors can “travel” underground without actually going underground. It’s also a great park for hiking and biking.
Though the park has two small caves visitors can explore on their own, a guided tour of one of the larger caves offers more safety and opportunity to learn about geology and history.
Pro Tip: Cave tours were on hold during 2020 due to coronavirus but are expected to resume in 2021. Reservations can be made online 4 hours before the tours, and gift cards for group or private tours are also available.
4. Go Storm Watching In Tofino
Miles out west into the Pacific Ocean, a distant storm was brewing, heading toward the Long Beach Lodge Resort in Tofino, Vancouver Island. Storms born in the chaos of the vast waters between Japan and Tofino barrel unobstructed toward the coastal surfing mecca of Tofino on Vancouver Island’s rugged and wild West Coast. The storms grow in power and ferocity, with swells topping 20 feet or more as spouts of seawater launch high into the air as they batter the coastal walls.
Inside the cozy Great Room of the Long Beach Lodge Resort, visitors gather around mugs of hot chocolate or warming cocktails to watch this brutal and breathtaking performance of storms. Storm watching is a “thing” in Tofino, and in the wintertime, hundreds of tourists make their way to Tofino to witness the mighty fury of the ocean storms.
You can enjoy this unique activity of storm-watching yourself at numerous places on the island, including the original storm-watching hot spot Wickaninnish Inn, which is credited for starting the idea of storm watching as tourism.
For those who want to feel the kiss of sea spray in a more wild environment, the deck of the Kwisitis Visitor Centre, within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, is also a favorite spot for locals to see spectacular storms if they don’t mind getting a little wet.
Pro Tip: Always obey the warning signs on the beach, especially during storm season. Don’t stand on the tidal rocks during storms because the tide can rush in fast, and rogue waves can sweep you out to sea. The water can also send 30-foot cedar logs thrashing to the shore in violent waves, so always make sure you are a safe distance away from the shoreline.
5. Learn To Surf
Who says surfing is just for the summer? In Tofino, arguably British Columbia’s surfing capital, surfing is done year-round, thanks to dry suits and the balmy Pacific winds. Long Beach Lodge is home to the Surf Club Adventure Centre, which offers lessons and rental services steps from Cox Bay, one of the best surf beaches in Canada.
The Surf Club instructors can lead both private and group lessons for surfing or paddleboarding, and when you are done with your hang-10 adventure, take advantage of the club’s extra-large hot tub and sauna.
If you’re trying surfing for the first time, you should know that it can be a serious full-body workout. While you don’t have to be an expert swimmer, you should have some swimming ability. Your instructor will start the lesson on land, where you’ll practice hopping up on the board in the classic surf position, but don’t worry if you don’t catch a wave your first time. Surfing is considered one of the hardest activities to learn, but it sure is fun to try.
No trip to Tofino is complete without having dinner at the famous Wolf In The Fog restaurant. Named Air Canada’s enRoute’s Best New Restaurant in Canada 2014, Wolf in the Fog has a rotating seasonal menu that features seafood and wild greens and mushrooms foraged from forests shores around Tofino. The Cedar Sour cocktail is to die for and is made with cedar infused rye, thyme, lemon, egg white -- the locals swear by this drink.