Vancouver Island vacations

Mainlanders affectionately refer to Vancouver Island as “the island”. But – in a typical case of Canadian understatement – “the island” is in fact over 30,000km˛ of mountains, port cities, centuries-old rainforest and First Nation history. It’s so big, in fact, that the Canada-US border has to dip 100km south to accommodate its rear end.
With its dense forests, winding roads, hard-to-crack coastline and limited public transport, you could spend weeks exploring Vancouver Island and still barely get to know it.
Many of the best things to see on Vancouver Island are word-of-mouth beaches and near-spiritual stands of giant red cedars known only to First Nation communities and tour guides in the know. Your best bet, then, is to jump on an organised vacation to Vancouver Island that delivers you right to the very best bits – drives, guided hikes and ferry voyages included.
Many Vancouver Island vacations come as part of a two-week Western Canada adventure that goes on to explore the great bear forests of Northern British Columbia and the scenery-laden Canadian Rockies. Wildlife watching trips, on the other hand, spend around five days seeking out their animal of choice – perhaps whales along the Inside Passage or orcas in bays that get you kayaking well off the edge of the tourist map.

Top 5 things to do on Vancouver Island

1. Watch orcas in Victoria

The Georgia Strait orcas are perfectly adapted to the crinkle-cut coastline around Victoria. You might see a pod herding migrating salmon into a bay or a lone mother teaching her baby how to hunt through play. A responsible vacation specialist will match you up with a crew that abides by BC’s strict whale watching guidelines, letting you watch the orcas do their thing without ever crowding them.

2. Hike the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

The rocky coastline of this Reserve is where deep forest abruptly ends in ocean-struck cliffs and beaches. Its famously challenging West Coast Trail follows Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation trading paths that were also used by rescuers heading for shipwrecks on what was once known as ‘the Graveyard of the Pacific’. Your guide can point you towards easier trails, too. Follow single-file rainforest boardwalks to sand-stocked coves or wiggle into a clifftop hide that’s poised for bald eagle and whale watching.

3. Hug some trees at Cathedral Grove

You can walk among giants in Cathedral Grove near Port Hardy. It’s one of the last remnants of first-growth forest that hasn’t been razed by logging or forest fires. The biggest Douglas firs are 800 years old, nine metres across, and taller than a 25-storey tower block. Cloud-scraping western red cedars have been vital for indigenous Kwakwaka’wakw communities for thousands of years, who call them the ‘Life Givers’. You might spot missing patches of bark that are still stripped out for dugout canoes and basket weaving.

4. Sail the Inside Passage

The Inside Passage is a waterway between the islands and jagged coastline of the west coast of the USA and Canada. Historically, it’s where ships have sailed to escape the wild whims of the Pacific Ocean. Don’t worry, though – there are still plenty of wild things to see from the ferry deck, including grey and humpback whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, orcas and bald eagles.

5. Beach hop in Tofino

Tofino is Mecca for cold water surfers. The simple swells of Chesterman Beach show beginners the ropes, while the pancake-flat sands of Long Beach see saltier surfers piling out of VW campervans. Many vacations to Vancouver Island include an optional boat trip in the surrounding Clayoquot Sound, where black bears dig for clams along human-free beaches.

Our top Canada Vacation

Orca family kayaking tour, Vancouver Island

Orca family kayaking tour, Vancouver Island

The perfect family adventure in a wilderness paradise

From CA $1995 4 days ex flights
Small group travel:
2023: 15 Jul, 21 Jul, 2 Aug, 8 Aug
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Canada or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Vancouver Island practicalities

How to get there

Vancouver International is the nearest airport to Vancouver Island. It’s a handy excuse to spend a few days mooching around the microbreweries of cobbled Gastown and Stanley Park. If you’re on a small group tour, this is probably where you’ll meet before setting out on the 90-minute ferry ride to Victoria on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. It’s not exactly the worst ferry crossing in the world, easing past the isolated communities of the Gulf Islands and through waters that double as migratory routes for orcas and whales.

When to go to Vancouver Island

Staying on Vancouver Island in winter is like being on a ship sailing a particularly stormy sea, so most trips travel from May to September. Whale watching vacations are the exception, starting in spring to catch the beginning of the whale migration. It’s worth keeping in mind that Canadians nickname BC’s west coast the ‘wet coast’. Henderson Lake on Vancouver Island is the rainiest place in North America, while Tofino gets a shower 200 days out of 365. Just don’t overthink it, remember that rainforest canopies make great umbrellas, and pack a light raincoat. After all, the wet weather is what make the forests grow (and grow).

Getting around

Vancouver Island hasn’t really got the hang of public transport. The distances are so vast and most towns so remote that islanders and mainland visitors rely on their cars. So if you want the freedom to explore away from bus stops, you need to sign up to a small group tour or tailor made trip that sorts your transfers for you. Go on a sailing or kayaking vacation to Vancouver Island, meanwhile, and you’ll barely need to step a foot on land. Some trips use a handsome wooden schooner to shuttle you from shore to shore via whale-rich spots like Blackfish Sound.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Michal Klajban]  [Top box – Orca: Ruth Hartnup] [Cathedral Grove – tree hugger: Fyre Mael] [Best time to go: Corey Tran]