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14 best things to do in Vancouver Island

14 best things to do in Vancouver Island

14 best things to do in Vancouver Island

For the first 17 years of its colonial history, it was an independent entity, and an element of this apartness still resounds in its community-focused towns where islanders are more likely to greet you with a conversation than a nod. A million metaphoric miles from the slick skyscrapers of nearby Vancouver, this is a place to lower your stress levels, commune with nature and get back to the land with home-brewed beverages, Indigenous legends and superb biking and hiking trails.

The island was also a top pick for Best in Travel 2022. With these incredible experiences, it’s easy to see why,

Go mountain biking in Cumberland

A once industrious coal-mining settlement, Cumberland was in danger of becoming a ghost town in the 1960s when the mines closed, and its population almost evaporated. Reclassifying itself as a village, it was rejuvenated in the early 21st century by a group of entrepreneurial mountain bikers.

Male mountain biker  a steep single track mountain bike trail
Cumberland’s “Off Broadway” is a steep single track mountain bike trail reserved for advanced bikers © All Canada Photos/Alamy Stock Photo

Under the umbrella of a registered non-profit organization, they created a network of 170 trails in an adjacent community forest. Cumberland’s once downbeat main street of mining-era buildings has sprouted a cool array of independent shops and restaurants to support the influx of two-wheeled tourists. Procure bike rentals and trail information from Dodge City Cycles.

Take afternoon tea in Victoria

While provincial capital Victoria supports a trendy consortium of craft-brewers, wine sommeliers and third-wave coffee baristas, it also harbors a religious devotion to afternoon tea, a custom bequeathed by caffeine-fuelled British colonists. The tradition prevails in an array of refined tearooms where dainty cakes mounted on three-tier silver trays are washed down with orange pekoe sipped from delicate china cups.

The high temple of afternoon tea is the Fairmont Empress Hotel, where the “full spread” (finger sandwiches, homemade pastries, and fresh scones) is served in an elegant lobby-lounge to a tinkling piano accompaniment.

Discover the Malahat Skywalk

an elevated, wooden walkway rising through a forest, with a spiral slide.
The Malahat Skywalk is one of the island’s newest attractions © Mr.Nikon/Shutterstock

Vancouver Island’s newest and most novel attraction is a multi-tiered spiral tower with a lofty lookout and – we kid you not – a giant trampoline on top. Located 30km (18.6 miles) northwest of Victoria by road it offers 360-degree views over forest, sea, islands, and the glaciated hump of Mount Baker in the US.

A 600m (1969ft) elevated walkway leads through a rust-hued arbutus forest to the 32m-high (105ft) tower which is rendered entirely in wood and was made in collaboration with the Malahat Nation. The icing on the cake? There’s a winding slide that gets you back to the bottom in 15 seconds. A special shuttle links the Skywalk with Victoria, Wednesday to Sunday.

Cycle the ʔapsčiik t̓ašii

Earmarked to be fully operational by 2022, this newly built cycling path stretches for 25km (15.5 miles) along the Pacific coast linking the two diminutive surfing towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. Its name (pronounced: ups-cheek ta-shee) means “going in the right direction on the trail” in the local Indigenous language. The unchallenging paved path cuts through the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve granting easy access to trailheads, waterfront accommodations and a sweep of broad beaches ideal for surfing, cycling, and watching the latest storm roll in. Bikes, including robust beach-worthy models with no gears, can be rented from Tofino Bike Co, near the trail’s northern terminus.

Surf in Tofino

Aerial shot of Cox Bay
Cox Bay is the scene of many surf competitions ©Russ Heinl/Shutterstock

Canada’s surfing capital meets the tempestuous waves of the Pacific Ocean with a jagged spectrum of stormy beaches. There are sheltered Mackenzie Beach (good for beginners); two-pronged Chesterman Beach, separated by a wave-breaking sandbar and islet; legendary Cox Bay, host of numerous surfing competitions; and the expansive sands of 16km (10-mile) Long Beach which lies within Pacific Rim National Park.

Despite its all-pervading surf culture, tiny Tofino (population 2000-ish) retains a rugged, elemental feel thanks to its isolated location on Vancouver Island’s west coast surrounded by temperate rainforest. If you’re hitting the waves, bring (or rent) a wetsuit. The water’s cold – even in summer.

Ski Mount Washington

In BC, all winter roads lead to Whistler, one of the largest and most comprehensive ski resorts in the world. But savvy islanders, wary of slow-moving lift lines and bulging apres-ski bars, often prefer to stick to the cheaper, less crowded runs of Mt Washington near Courtenay.

Inhabiting the mountain’s southwestern slopes adjacent to the craggy wilderness of Strathcona Provincial Park, Mt Washington is Vancouver Island’s only major ski area coupling 500 vertical meters (1640ft) of downhill action with an attractive Nordic park that makes use of the extensive summer trail system on the so-called Forbidden Plateau. Though less than one-third the size of Whistler, the resort logs a higher snowfall (up to 10m/33ft in a season) and significantly lower prices.

Hike the North Coast trail  

couple in yellow rain jackets walking in the rain forest with huge Douglas trees
Whether it’s a short hike or a multi-day trek, Vancouver Island isn’t short of possibilities © Shutterstock / fokke baarssen

Conceived as a muddier, swampier alternative to the island’s perennially popular West Coast Trail, this five- to eight-day wilderness extravaganza tracks the extreme north coast for 58km (36ft) between Shushartie Bay and Cape Scott. Along its course it dips into sandy coves, empty beaches and thick, wind-contorted rainforest following a rough, unkempt path that utilizes boardwalks and cable cars to cross creeks and rivers.

In such a remote and unsullied region, the wildlife is legion and inclement weather is practically guaranteed, so pack accordingly. There are several strategically placed backcountry campsites en route and a boat shuttle to ferry hikers to the trail’s off-the-road-grid starting point.

Admire Indigenous culture in Alert Bay

Ancestral home to the Namgis First Nation, tiny Cormorant Island and its affiliated village, Alert Bay, is one of the best places in BC to absorb Indigenous culture. The island is awash with totem poles, including the world’s tallest, a 173m (568ft) carving depicting whales, wolves and two-headed serpents held up by taut cables. There is also a clan house, an original Namgis burial ground and the peerless U’mista Cultural Centre.

This unique facility, whose design was inspired by a wooden longhouse, eloquently displays a vast array of repatriated Kwakwaka’wakw artifacts confiscated when potlatch ceremonies were prohibited in Canada between 1884 and 1951. The center, which has been slowly negotiating the return of pieces from museums around the world, is adorned with a growing collection of masks, carvings, totems, stories and historical anecdotes.

Hit the Nanaimo bar trail

Named after the island’s so-called “Harbour City,” the Nanaimo bar is one of Canada’s most iconic food products. Comprising a three-layered slab of wafer topped with cream and icing, it combines coconut, vanilla custard, and chocolate in a rich explosion of densely packed calories.

Nanaimo Bars
Nanaimo Bars are a sugary, chocolately delight © LauriPatterson/Getty Images

Despite its relatively recent invention, the Nanaimo bar’s history is foggy. There are at least 100 different recipes while its exact origins are hotly debated – indeed, some heretics claim the bar isn’t from Nanaimo at all. To strengthen its credentials, the city has come up with a 39-stop Nanaimo bar trail allowing sugar-lovers to surf a raft of local restaurants and cafes and enjoy the confection in a myriad of weird manifestations from deep-fried to liquified in a cocktail. 

Set sail from Port Hardy

Port Hardy is a small Alaskan look-alike town on Vancouver Island’s northeast shore and a primary embarkation point for car ferries navigating the narrow channels of the Inside Passage on BC’s fjord-indented west coast. Book a cabin for overnight excursions (winter) or day trips (summer) and wave goodbye to civilization until you reach the isolated fishing settlement of Prince Rupert just shy of the BC-Alaska border. Sailing on comfortable, medium-sized ferries equipped with good eating facilities and adorned with striking First Nations motifs, passengers get the same scenery as the big cruise ships, but at a significantly more economical price.  

Cross the Kinsol Trestle

a wooden railroad bridge in Vancouver Island, BC Canada.
Kinsol Trestle wooden railroad bridge can be walked or cycled by itself of part of a larger trail ©rgbspace/Getty Images

This magnificent wooden trestle built in 1914 once carried a railroad across a deep ravine cut by the Koksilah River. After falling into disrepair when the line ceased operation in 1979, it was rescued by a vociferous community fundraising campaign that helped renovate and reopen the trestle to foot and two-wheeled travelers in 2011. Today it’s part of the long-distance Trans-Canada trail, Vancouver Island trail and Cowichan Valley trail, although it can just as easily be incorporated in a short half-hour stroll from a car park one kilometre from the Trestle’s southern end. Interpretive boards along the route explain the structure’s engineering background and railway history.

View wildlife from Telegraph Cove

A former telegraph station and fishing village that was turned into a picturesque boardwalk community in the 1970s, Telegraph Cove’s small ensemble of brightly painted wooden buildings perches on stilts around a sheltered marina.

Cute clapboard houses aside, the village is famed island-wide for its whale-watching and grizzly bear viewing. Humpback and orca whales can be seen breaching on seasonal boat trips or more athletic guided sea-kayaking excursions. The grizzlies, which are not resident on Vancouver Island, are visible (if you’re lucky) on a brief boat trip to Knight Inlet on the mainland.

Sip cider in the Cowichan Valley

mist in front of rolling hills with a farm house in the foreground
Cowichan Valley is home to vineyards, tea plantations and some great cider © JoeRos/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Cowichan Valley is Vancouver Island’s gourmet garden where rolling hills and a balmy semi-Mediterranean climate has encouraged a blossoming of vineyards, tea plantations and an enthusiastic farm-to-table ethos. One of the region’s most all-encompassing micro-businesses is Merridale, a craft cider-maker in the farming community of Cobble Hill whose rustic-chic cidery is speckled with gnarled apple trees and gabled barn buildings. It hosts a tasting bar dispatching multi-sample flights of the fruity booze.

Beyond cider, Merridale also has a micro-distillery producing gin and vodka, a patio bistro serving crusty apple pie, and posh yurts offering visitors the opportunity to glamp overnight in the adjacent orchard.

Browse Sidney’s bookstores

Designated Canada’s only “booktown” in 1996, the small seaside community of Sidney, 6km (3.7 miles) south of the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, has an abundance of bookstores (five) for a town of its size (11,500). The literary quintet sits on or around the main drag of Beacon Avenue and ranges from the Dickensian Haunted Books to the cavernous Tanner’s Books. Once you’ve purchased your heavy tome, the town has an equally impressive range of cafes where you can devour it with a steaming cappuccino.    

This article was first published on September 30, 2021 and updated on December 26, 2021

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