Vancouver Island’s stunning scenery includes lush old-growth forests, snowcapped mountains, rolling agricultural land, rocky headlands, ocean vistas, curving beaches, and snug harbors. Charming communities, quirky towns, and colorful fishing villages dot the scenic island on Canada’s western coast. Here are a few quaint Vancouver Island towns to include on your island itinerary.
Enjoy sea air, smalltown charm, and public art in Sidney. The seaside resort town is located at the northern end of the Saanich Peninsula minutes from the Victoria International Airport and from the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal.
Sidney’s pretty, walkable downtown is both relaxed and vibrant. You’ll find sculptures, murals, and statues as you stroll through town. Use this self-guided tour map to explore Sidney’s art and historical artifacts. Of particular note is the collection of artwork at the Seaside Sculpture Walk where views of Mount Baker and the Salish Sea provide a stunning backdrop.
Boutique shops offer goods by local artisans and products imported from around the world. Sidney, known as “Booktown,” has a great selection of new and used books in six unique bookstores located within close proximity to each other downtown. Restaurants and cafés feature local seafood, produce, wines, and craft beer. The award-winning aquarium, the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, is located on the waterfront. Enjoy beautiful ocean views while strolling along the flat barrier-free Waterfront Walkway.
Pro Tip: Stop at the fish market on the downtown pier to see what the local catch of the day is. The Sidney Pier Bistro, a restaurant on the pier, has great views across the Georgia Strait. Takeout is available if you wish to eat at one of the benches or picnic tables along the Waterfront Walkway.
Enjoy beachfront ambiance and stunning views as you take a relaxing stroll along the shore or dine at a waterfront restaurant at Brentwood Bay, located on the Saanich Inlet. The calm, protected waters are popular with kayakers. Rent a kayak, canoe, or stand-up paddleboat at the marina or opt for a tour with a guide. Enjoy the natural scenery while looking for wildlife. Bald eagles, osprey, seals, otters, and sea lions are common.
A few Brentwood Bay area attractions outside of the main village area are worthy of mention. The world-famous Butchart Gardens is known for its dazzling floral displays. Thousands of butterflies fly through the lush gardens at Victoria Butterfly Gardens. The tasting room at Church & State Wines offers samples of the wines from both its Brentwood Bay and Okanagan Valley vineyards.
A ferry runs from Brentwood Bay to Mill Bay on the other side of Saanich Inlet. The 25-minute scenic ride provides an alternative to driving back through the city of Victoria if you wish to continue on to the quaint towns in the Cowichan Valley.
Pro Tip: The scenery is lovely at any time, but sunsets over the bay are particularly spectacular.
Cowichan Bay Village
The relaxed fishing village atmosphere of Cowichan Bay Village seems worlds away from the city although it is only an hour north of Victoria or an hour south from Nanaimo. It is a place to slow down, breathe in the sea air, and enjoy the scenery.
Colorful float homes built on pilings jut into the water. Many started as boathouses in the early 1900s, evolved into summer cottages, and later became full-time residences. Mountains form the backdrop as you look out over the water from the shore, a kayak rental, or a whale-watching tour boat.
The handful of shops in the tiny village, which is essentially one street along the water, delight browsers. The community-based Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre museum, located on a pier, is worth visiting. Its displays tell the history of fishing and shipbuilding in the area.
Pro Tip: Linger over food at one of the cafés or eateries. Fresh seafood figures prominently on menus, but options also exist for the non-fish eater. I think you’ll be happy with whatever eatery you choose. Before visiting the village, people in Victoria told me I’d love the place and recommended their favorite places to eat. Everyone had a different favorite.
Duncan, situated in the heart of the Cowichan Valley, is actually a city, but its downtown retains the feel of a small town. Historic buildings dating to the early 1900s house an eclectic mix of unique shops offering a variety of products, including works from many local artisans. There are also many restaurants and cafés. That would be reason enough to wander through the town, but the major draw is the city’s collection of totem poles. Duncan is known as the “City of Totems.”
Totem poles are monuments carved in wood by First Nations of the Pacific Northwest to commemorate ancestry, histories, people, or events. The more than 40 totem poles located in Duncan are part of an ongoing project begun in 1985 to attract visitors. It has developed into one of the world’s largest outdoor collections of publicly displayed totem poles. Signs beside the poles tell the pole’s story from the carver’s perspective.
The greatest concentration of totem poles in Duncan is in its downtown area. You can see the historic buildings, browse in shops, and stop for refreshments as you tour the totems. Use this map to guide you or follow the yellow footsteps on the sidewalks.
Chemainus is a pretty artisan village nestled on Vancouver Island’s east shore. Chemainus is known for its many murals. What started as five murals in 1982 to bring tourists to town after the sawmill, the town’s major employer, shut down has grown to over 50 murals today. The giant murals depict the history and culture of the community.
Pick up a brochure at the Visitor Center, use the map on the Chemainus Festival of Murals Society website, follow the yellow footprints on the sidewalks, or simply wander through town. The murals are easy to spot and in close proximity to each other. You’ll also see several sculptures.
It is not just the murals and the sculptures that make this an artisan community. Shops, boutiques, and galleries contain art and handmade local goods. Award-winning eateries offer a range of food. Carvings in parks pay homage to the heritage of the community.
Waterwheel Park, with an outdoor stage, playground, and picnic areas, is located in the center of town. To the north of it lies Old Town Chemainus, where you’ll find Victorian-era homes and, of course, more murals.
The core of Chemainus is compact and easily walked with places to stop and rest. The relaxed vibe invites you to linger and take your time. The mural walking tour is wheelchair friendly. Many stores not directly at ground level have ramps and switchbacks.
Pro Tip: Look for the secret garden located behind Hansel & Gretel’s Candy on Willow Street. You’ll find a delightful courtyard with gardens, topiary plants, and a spot to buy ice cream or frozen yogurt.
Surrounded by natural beauty, Ladysmith sits on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island in the heart of the Cowichan Valley. A genuine small-town atmosphere greets you. Original historic buildings house unique shops, eateries, and pubs. Many of the well-preserved Edwardian buildings were transported to the town from Nanaimo at the beginning of the 20th century. Follow the Heritage Walk Route along award-winning First Avenue.
Soak in the peaceful atmosphere and watch the boats at the Ladysmith marina. View sea life through a portal in the floor at the Sea Life Centre. At the Maritime Museum, located in a blue boat shed on the dock, see shipwright tools and displays of local maritime history.
Ucluelet is a laid-back fishing village situated along a sheltered inlet on the edge of the Wild Pacific Ocean. It is a place of spectacular rugged beauty close to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the Wild Pacific Trail. The village is centered around its marina.
Although Ucluelet is smaller and quieter than nearby Tofino, you’ll still find cute shops selling local arts, handcrafted wares, and gift items. Enjoy the tastes of Ucluelet at independent tea and coffee shops, restaurants, delis, and bakeries. See the diversity of local marine life at the Ucluelet Collect & Release Aquarium. All display specimens are gathered in local waters. The Ucluelet Government Dock and adjoining seawall offer good viewing of sea lions, seals, and eagles.
The natural beauty around the town of Tofino, located on Vancouver Island’s western coast just north of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, makes it a popular destination. Visitors come to fish, swim, surf, hike in the rainforest, kayak, whale watch, storm watch, or just enjoy the spectacular scenery. The village core is a cute and charming place with a relaxed seaside resort vibe.
See the artistic nature of the community on display throughout the town in shops, galleries, restaurants, and coffee shops. Shops carry unique coastal goods made by local and regional artists. Restaurants serve locally sourced food.
Situated at the heart of the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Region, this quaint pedestrian/bike-friendly village is surrounded by a rich natural landscape of old growth rainforest, long sandy beaches, and rocky shores.
Vancouver Island has earned its reputation as an all-season, must-see destination in Canada: