Vancouver Island East & West, British Columbia
The readers of Conde Nast Travel Magazine have named Vancouver Island the “Best North American Island” for the past seven consecutive years. With a readership of 2 million per issue, the magazine is considered an opinion leader in the travel industry. Readers of Travel + Leisure Magazine have named Vancouver Island “The Best Island in the Continental US and Canada” three times, in 2001, 2002 and in 2005.
Why all these accolades for this island along BC’s West Coast? Maybe it is the spectacular scenery; old-growth rainforests full of moss-covered trees, pristine beaches that go on for miles, rugged rock-strewn coastlines, sparkling rivers teeming with fish, lakes and caves and gently rolling countryside sprinkled with farms and vineyards, snow covered mountains and wildflower meadows bursting with color. There are awe-inspiring vistas almost everywhere you look on the Island.
Maybe it is the endless opportunities for recreational activities: kayaking, boating, diving, horseback riding, whale and bear watching adventures, golf at any number of world class courses, cycling or mountainbiking, windsurfing on the West Coast and salmon fishing on the East Coast. Maybe it is the array of gardens, the historic museums, the many examples of the culture of the First Nations, and the wonderful creations of fine artists and crafters.
Or maybe it is the friendly and knowledgeable people who call this place home, who enjoy its natural beauty year round, and consider themselves lucky to live in this piece of paradise. Thanks to the warming currents of the Pacific Ocean and the protection of the coastal mountain range, Vancouver Island has the most moderate climate in Canada, so you can visit here any time of year for a wonderful, multi-faceted vacation experience.
The North Island is the largest area of this 32,261 square km. (19,356 miles) island, and the least populated. The region extends from Sayward northward to the very top of the Island, and includes the northern ferry terminal at Port Hardy. The Browning Wall is located on the North Island and is considered one of the best dive sites in BC and one of the top ten in the world. Brooks Peninsula and Cape Scott Provincial Park are premier wilderness areas for exploration by hardy souls. The North Island is also home to several caves: guides are recommended if you want to explore. Wildlife abounds here. Robson Bight Ecological Reserve near Telegraph Cove is the place to go for orca watching. Black Bear and Grizzly Bear tours are widely available. Watch for Roosevelt Elk in the Sayward area.
North Central Island
The North Central Island region stretches from the Comox Valley west to the Pacific Ocean and north to include Campbell River and the Discovery Islands, which include Quadra Island. Quadra Island, just a 10-minute ferry ride from Campbell River, has a rich history in mining and logging industrial centre in the late nineteenth century. There are several sites on the island that reflect its past history, such as the 1894 Heriot Bay Inn. An outstanding collection of Quadra’s First Nations heritage can be found at the Kwagiulth Museum and Cultural Centre. There are many art studios on the Island as well as kayaking, diving and fishing. For a leasurely walk check out the trail and beaches at Rebecca Spit Provincial Park.
Campbell River is a major centre for both salt and freshwater sport fishing and has long been known as The Salmon Capital of the World. BC’s oldest fishing club, the Tyee Club, was formed here in 1924. Stroll along the Discovery Pier, Canada’s first saltwater fishing pier. The town’s population is just over 31,000 and there are extensive facilities and a rich cultural scene. Logging and mining are still active in the area, and the town is a hub for outdoors and wilderness activities of all kinds. The region’s rivers offer both white-water and less intense rafting opportunities. Several wrecks in the area provide a variety of diving opportunities. Visit the home of renowned sport fisher and nature conservationist Roderick Haig-Brown or the new Maritime Heritage Centre, a designated heritage site, featuring the BCP45, a seiner that once adorned the Canadian five-dollar bill.
The Comox Valley is one of Vancouver Island’s main agricultural areas, but is also home to the towns of Comox, Cumberland and Courtenay, the urban centre of the Valley. With its population of almost 23,000, Courtenay is one of Canada’s fastest growing urban communities. Both the Puntledge and Courtenay rivers run through the town before creating a rich tidal estuary, one of the most important wintering grounds for the Trumpeter Swan. The Courtenay and District Museum and Paleontology Centre is located in Canada’s largest freespan log building and houses the 80-million year old fossil of a elasmosaur.
Comox has been home to the Canadian Forces Base and an Air Force Museum. Canada’s precision flying team the Snowbirds train here in the spring. Another well-known attraction in the area is the historic Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park, where each August, the Filberg Festival features the best of BC artists, crafters and performers.
The village of Cumberland was a bustling coal mining town from 1888 until 1966, with one of the largest populations of Japanese and Chinese north of San Francisco. You can learn much about the history of the town at the Cumberland Museum. These days tourism plays an increasingly important role in the economic welfare of the village. The area is also known as a hub for mountainbiking.
To the west of the Comox Valley the mountains that run from north to south rise to the Comox Glacier, Forbidden Plateau and Mount Washington, the Island’s ski resort and a summer destination, too. Strathcona Provincial Park, the oldest park in BC and the largest on the Island is where you will find Della Falls, the highest waterfall in Canada, with an overall drop of 440 meters. It is well hidden in the southern region of the park, so one needs to be an adventurous hiker to reach it!
One of the most popular destinations on the Island is the west coast region around Pacific Rim National Park and British Columbia’s first UNESCO Biosphere Reserve Clayoquot Sound. Pacific Rim National Park is divided into three regions: the Long Beach Unit, with the communities of Tofino and Ucluelet; the Broken Group Islands, a paddler’s paradise of more than 100 rocky islands; and the famous West Coast Trail, a 75 kilometre coastal trail between Bamfield and Port Renfrew, originally constructed as a lifesaving trail for shipwrecked mariners.
The quaint village of Tofino is at the entrance to Clayoquot Sound and at the northern edge of Pacific Rim National Park. Its stunning natural scenery, with sandy beaches and one of the last remaining old growth temperate rainforests in the world, make it a centre for all kinds of outdoor activities including kayaking, surfing, and beachcombing. Nature lovers have many opportunities for whale, bird and bear watching, as well as a trip to Hot Springs Cove and hiking the many forest trails or along the ocean at Long Beach. The area is the home to the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations peoples and many artists and galleries. At the southern end of Long Beach, Ucluelet offers many of the same outdoor adventures. Boat tours can take you to the Broken Group Islands in Barclay Sound and a chance to see orcas, grey whales, sea lions, seals, propoises and even sharks. The area offers exceptional diving as well. Don’t miss the Wild Pacific Trail with outstanding views of the open Pacific Ocean. On the south side of Barkley Sound, at the village of Bamfield, is the trail head for the West Coast Trail.
The largest centre in the Pacific Rim region is the town of Port Alberni, located at the head of Vancouver Island’s longest inlet, Alberni Inlet. The area boasts some of the best saltwater and freshwater fishing anywhere with all five species of Pacific salmon found in the waters nearby. Port Alberni is still an active forestry town and also features the McLean Mill National Historic Site, Canada’s only working steam-operated sawmill. At the historic railway station in Port Alberni, you can catch the 1929 logging steam train to take you out to the mill site.
The Central Island region is a very popular resort area. Also called Oceanside, this region’s range of outdoor activities is limited only by time and imagination. Parksville is said to have one of the finest climates in Canada and is a popular family vacation destination. More than seven kilometres of sandy beaches encourage all kinds of water activities. You will also find extensive tidal sand flats for exploring. The Parksville Community Centre is the location of many major events such as the Brant Wildlife Festival and Canadian Open Sand Sculpting Competition. In 2005 Parksville was a winner of the coveted Five Blooms Award in the National Communities in Bloom competition. Both Parksville and Qualicum Beach offer the avid golfer several world-class courses to chose from. Qualicum Beach Village welcomes the visitor to its unique shops and restaurants and is known for its old-style architecture and beautiful English Gardens. Don’t miss a visit to the lovely Milner Gardens and Woodland, with its restored 1929 manor, magnificent garden and old-growth forest. Within thirty minutes of the town you will also discover six provincial parks. And for something completely different, spend some time exploring the Vancouver Island Paleontology Museum, where the star attraction is a 70,000-year-old walrus named Rosie.
Nanaimo is Vancouver Island’s second largest city — British Columbia’s third oldest — and is the major ferry terminal for travel to all parts north and west on the Island. Nanaimo’s port has every facility to serve the needs of both commercial and recreational boating traffic and is a bustling place. The city’s beautiful harbour features the four kilometer Harbourside Walkway with many interesting views and stopping points along the way. As a hub for wildlife cruises, kayaking trips, fishing charters or diving expeditions, Nanaimo offers something for everyone, even a nautical floating bar! On land the city has many parks and family friendly activities. Stroll the streets of the Old City Quarter with its specialty shops, coffee bars and an outdoor art gallery, and visit the Bastion, a fortified tower erected in 1853 and the oldest structure of its type in North America. The Nanaimo Art Gallery at Vancouver Island University and the waterfront Port Theatre are at the forefront of its rich cultural scene. And don’t leave without sampling Nanaimo’s famous specialty the Nanaimo Bar, a rich chocolate treat.
The second major agricultural area on Vancouver Island is comprised of the Cowichan and Chemainus valleys. The entire region from Ladysmith south to Malahat, and west to Port Renfrew and Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park on the Pacific, is called the Cowichan region, the “land warmed by the sun”. This region has the highest mean temperature in all of Canada and with more than 17,000 hectares of farmland is a major destination for culinary tourism and agritourism.
The town of Ladysmith, on a hillside overlooking Georgia Strait, is right on the 49th parellel. Harrowsmith Country Life Magazine named it one of the ten prettiest towns in Canada in 2000. Ladysmith has received a National Communities in Bloom Award and numerous awards for the revitalization of its historic downtown buildings and artifacts. Transfer Beach Park offers great family recreation opportunities and an outdoor amphitheatre, while the Black Nugget Museum has a great collection of antiques and regional memorabilia.
Chemainus is the “little town that did”, re-inventing itself from a forestry past to an internationally known tourism destination because of its more than 37 professional murals and sculptures, making it the world’s largest outdoor gallery. The art depicts the town’s history and you can take a self-guided walking tour, a horse-drawn carriage or a steam train to tour the display. You can also attend the latest production at the award-winning theatre, or visit a the many antique, gift, and artshops around town.
The hub of the Cowichan Valley is Duncan, the City of Totems. It boasts almost 80 totems around town as well as the acclaimed Quw’utsun’ Cultural and Conference Centre, the traditional home of the Coast Salish First Nation. Duncan attractions include the BC Forest Discovery Centre, the Vancouver Island Trout Hatchery which stocks about 150 lakes and streams around the islands, the nature sanctuary at Somenos Marsh, and the World’s largest hockey stick and puck at the Cowichan Community Centre. Just north of Duncan you can visit the Pacific Northwest Raptors Centre which is dedicated to the conservation of birds of prey and offers demonstrations and courses.
The southern end of the Cowichan region has several small communities and a definite rural flavour. Cobble Hill is at the centre of the Island’s wine region. With a growing number of award-winning wineries and a cidery, all offering tastings and sometimes onsite restaurants featuring local produce, the region has now been discovered by wine aficionados. The many farms in the area offer a wide range of products. Mill Bay is the main commercial centre and its location on the ocean offers wonderful views and a busy marina. The seaside village of Cowichan Bay is a unique village with many buildings perched on stilts over the water’s edge. The estuary of the Cowichan River, a designated heritage river well known for fly fishing, is a haven for bird watchers. Shawnigan Lake is still a resort area, although many people now make it their home year-round and enjoy watersports opportunities on the lake. Funky shops and world-class restaurants are added reasons to visit. You must go out to see the 1911 Kinsol Trestle, the largest wooden structure in the Commonwealth and the largest wooden trestle in North America.
The Trans Canada Trail runs west of Shawnigan Lake, and again north of the Kinsol Trestle and all the way to the town of Lake Cowichan. Located on Cowichan Lake, the second largest lake on the Island and another hot spot for watersports, the town is also the gateway to Nitinat Lake, a destination for windsurfers from around the world, and the spectacular old-growth forests of the famous Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, home to some of the world’s largest spruce trees. While in Lake Cowichan check out the wonderful Kaatza Station Museum, or hike the nearby Cowichan River Footpath.
BC Ferries has several routes to Vancouver Island and there are six airports from Victoria International to Port Hardy, so access to anywhere on the Island is easy. Bring your car, or rent one, because you’ll be doing lots of exploring. Ferries directly from the US take you to the Victoria area. Don’t miss this Island paradise!