British Columbia’s Vancouver Island & The Gulf Islands

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Courtenay, Cumberland, Denman Island, Duncan, Nanaimo,
Port Alberni, Port Hardy, Roberts Creek, Tofino, Ucluelet

BY: Bob Kenyon & Tourism Vancouver Island

Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim
Image: Tourism BC

Canada’s Vancouver Island is a vacation unto itself! Where else can you explore mountains, swim in the ocean, watch whales and seals, explore kilometres of beaches, trek a temperate rain forest, camp by the ocean, kayak from island to island, view a fabulous botanical garden and have high-tea in a majestic hotel, over-looking a harbour.

Recently readers of Travel + Leisure magazine have named Vancouver Island “The Best Island in the Continental US and Canada,” in the magazine’s 10th annual World’s Best Awards readers’ survey.

Canada’s islands on the Pacific are a wonderful place to get away from it all. Tucked against the western mainland edge of British Columbia and separated by the narrow Strait of Juan de Fuca, from the north shore of the U.S. Washington State’s Olympic Peninsula and directly west of the mainland. Vancouver Island stretches approximately 500 km (300 miles) southeast to northwest, with the Provincial capital of Victoria at the southern tip. British Columbia’s Gulf Islands lie in the protected waters of Georgia Strait, between Vancouver Island and the mainland of BC.

The climate of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands is extremely variable and because it’s in the ocean…Always have rain gear handy. Summertime is reliably sunny, warm to hot and with frequent ocean breezes. Temperatures in summer go to average highs in the mid 20’s Celsius (70 to 80 Fahrenheit) but evenings can be cool. In winter, Vancouver Island is the most temperate of all British Columbia, with temperatures ranging just below 0 Celsius (32 Fahrenheit).

Chemainus Mural

Chemainus Mural
Image: Tourism BC

North of the Provincial capital Victoria, over the Malahat, terrain opens up to rolling hills scattered with wineries and dairy farms. Along the coast are secluded coves and marinas where one can charter a boat, or enjoy a fresh seafood dinner at a friendly marine pub. There are many scenic communities to visit including Duncan, the “City of Totems”, Chemainus where more than 30 painted murals decorate the walls around the town. For wreck divers, near Chemainus. a sunken Boeing 737 compliments of the hard work of the Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia.

The (ARSBC) creates and promotes artificial reefs for use by SCUBA divers and marine life. This non-profit, voluntarily operated society has sunk 7 decommissioned Canadian Navy ships and the one passenger airplane in the areas off the east coast of Vancouver Island, in the Georgia Strait, from:

  • As far north as Campbell River (The Columbia Destroyer Escort)
  • South to Victoria (The Mackenzie Destroyer Escort & The Motor Vessel G.B. Church)
  • On the mainland, north of Vancouver at Sechelt (The Chaudière Destroyer Escort).

Don’t forget the Gulf Islands – “Island-hopping” is a favorite pastime for an afternoon! The Southern Gulf Islands, an idyllic sprinkling of wild and rural, inhabited and uninhabited islands lie in British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia between the cities of Vancouver and Victoria. Blessed with a Mediterranean-style climate and a bucolic landscape of woodlands and meadows, coastal bluffs and white shell beaches, the archipelago is home to a wealth of wildlife, including deer, eagles, falcons, orcas, porpoises, sea otters, sea lions, seals, shorebirds and whales that thrive offshore.

A small population of organic farmers, artists, and retirees work hard to preserve the islands’ unique environment and way of life, despite their proximity to BC’s two largest cities.

The Gulf Islands National Park Reserve of Canada, established on May 9, 2003, protects 35 square kilometers (about 13.5 square miles) of land spread over 15 islands and approximately 60 islets and reefs south of Active Pass, as well as 26 square km (10 square miles) of adjacent waters. Parts of the park are only accessible to boaters, but park areas on Mayne, Saturna, and the Pender Islands can be a reached by car ferry and road. A seasonal foot ferry from Sidney BC takes visitors to the Sidney Spit section of the park.The park includes a Parks Canada Discovery Centre and offers endless opportunities for visitors to hike, kayak, camp and sail.

nanaimo scuba

Vancouver Island Scuba Diving

Nanaimo the “Harbour City”, (famous for its chocolate/coconut bars, of the same name), is the second largest city on the Island and a great home base for exploring the central Island. BC Ferries offer regular service between Horseshoe Bay, near the mainland city of Vancouver, to Nanaimo. The ferries also run between the main Vancouver terminal at Tsawwassen to the Schwartz Bay terminal, that serves Victoria.

Travelers wanting to go to the north part of the island, can travel up the mainland via the beautiful Sunshine Coast and use two ferries, to get to Powell River. From there take ferry over to Comox, on the island. Those not wishing to drive north, can take a ferry from Vancouver to Comox, via Powell River.

Port Alberni, Tofino and Ucluelet are all within a few hours travel from Nanaimo. West of Port Alberni be sure to stop at Cathedral Grove to walk through and see the most accessible giant Douglas-fir trees in British Columbia. Some are over 800 years old and tower into the sky!

Tofino Harbour

Tofino Harbour
Image: Tom Ryan/Tourism BC

The Tofino/Ucluelet area also has great assortment of annual events! The great gray whale migration is in full swing during March and April where more than 20,000 whales pass close by the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on their annual migration from Baja Mexico to Alaska. In March the area has their annual Whale Festival. Then in May, birders will want to take in the Tofino Shorebird Festival, when flocks of sandpipers, plovers, whimbrels and many other species, visit the area. Late July has Ukee Days, in Ucluelet, with logging competitions, boat building, salmon and oyster BBQ, music, food, etc.

Winter Surf Cox Bay

Going for a surf on Cox Bay
Image: Jeremy Koreski for Tourism Tofino

Most people equate surfing with Australia, California, Hawaii or other warm water destinations. Tofino is also well known for its surf! But if you’re planning to surf…you’ll need a wetsuit…The water is cold! Surfing, in the area, is a year-round activity, as the above image, was taken in winter. Winter is when they get the best surf, in the Tofino area.

The main campgrounds and most of the accommodations are very busy during peak season, so reservations are suggested. For those that like to camp on the beach, there is also a walk-in campground at Schooner Cove on Long Beach.

The hardiest and very experienced back packer may also want to plan a 5 to 7 day (75 km.) trek on the famous West Coast Trail, which was originally built as a rescue trail for shipwrecks, during the heavy winter storms. The trail is part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Overnight use permits, with quota limits, are required during the peak season (June 15- Sept. 15) and there is often a waiting time before you can get one. Permits are easier to get during the shoulder season (May 1-June 14 and September 16-30). You can also take a guided trek of the West Coast Trail.

Experienced sea kayak fans can also try their skills, on the open ocean and even camp overnight in the broken islands area the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.

Campbell River and the northern communities on Vancouver Island are also spectacular for outdoor adventure and wildlife viewing. The wealth of natural beauty in this region is phenomenal.

If you’re thinking of taking a Vancouver Island vacation, give yourself lots of time, because you’ll need it to take in the fabulous scenery and trekking.

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