Vancouver Island, BC: what to do and what to know before you go

If you're planning a trip to Canada's Vancouver Island, BC, find out what you should know before you visit - including tips for getting around, what you can expect from the weather and what to do when you get there.

By Kieran Meeke

Published 16 May 2024

Now part of the province of British Columbia, Vancouver Island lies in the Pacific and has one of the mildest climates in Canada.

Victoria, the capital, is connected by ferry and flights across the Strait of Georgia to the city of Vancouver on the mainland, and Victoria’s Inner Harbour is a port of call for cruise ships and a centre for whale watching and ecotourism.

It is also home to Harbour Air, the largest all-seaplane company in the world, which runs flights to Vancouver and Seattle among many other destinations. Besides tourism, the island’s economy depends on hi-tech industries, logging and fishing.

BC Ferries operates vehicle and passenger between the island and the mainland, including Seattle and other places in the US state of Washington.

The most popular route is between Vancouver and Victoria, which takes about 90 minutes.

The ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy is a 15-hour cruise through the Inner Passage. It offers a good chance to see whales, as well as the coastline. Prince Rupert can be reached by road in a drive through some of Canada’s most dramatic scenery.

Vancouver Island has one major north-south highway and a wide network of other roads. There is a good public bus service around the island and Greater Victoria is one of the few cities in North America to have double-decker buses.

Vancouver Island is known for its mild weather, and in fact it enjoys the warmest weather in Canada thanks to its maritime climate and the mountains protecting it from the worst of the weather.

It can get wet though, particularly from September to March, so always pack suitable rain gear, especially if you plan to explore the lush forests the island is so famous for.

Summer temperatures range between 20 to 33C, while spring and autumn temperatures can drop to around 15C. The weather can get colder and drier the further north you go, with winter temperatures in he north reaching -11C.

Did you know?

Victoria, the capital of Vancouver Island, is the only city in Canada to have recorded winters without dropping below freezing.

Dolphin and whale watching is very popular in the area, and one of the key activities drawing tourists to the area.

A number of local tour operators take boats out to see the marine and bird life of the waters around Vancouver Island. You might spot Pacific grey, minke and humpback whales but almost certainly orcas.

These ‘killer whales’ are found in pods of up to 100. The season runs from April to October but the smaller transient orcas can also be seen during winter.

Keep an eye out for Bald eagles catching fish; Victoria has the world’s second-largest population of these birds of prey after Alaska.

If you want to know why people rave about Vancouver Island’s beauty, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is a good place to start.

Running along the western shore, and encompassing coast with a 50-mile rainforest hiking trail behind it, 100 islets and the best beach in Canada, there is something for everyone. The West Coast Trail is worth the visit alone, passing waterfalls and ancient trees, with views of cliff and sea.

Paddle a kayak around the calm waters of the Broken Group islands in Barkley Sound, camping in the forest on the larger ones.

The other side of the Broken Group islands from Pacific Rim NP, the Wild Pacific Trail takes its name from the view of the Pacific waves, rather than its difficulty.

There are a series of walks, some very short but scenic and longer ones that take you through old growth rainforest. Must-do: Take in the view from the “Painter Perches”, five tree-house viewing decks on the Artists Loop.

Often called the Salmon Capital of the World, Campbell River and its town are popular with anglers but also offer a chance to swim with the fishes.

Every autumn, millions of salmon return to their freshwater spawning grounds along this coast.

From early July to mid October you can don a wetsuit and fins, grab a snorkel and swim with thousands of them in the crystal-clear waters of the Campbell.

Must-do: See if you can identify all five species of Pacific salmon: Coho, Sockeye, Chum, Chinook and Pink.

Campbell River is the gateway for the Strathcona Provincial Park, popular with climbers, hikers, swimmers, anglers, canoeists and kayakers, and for cross-country and downhill skiing in winter.

Its 7,200-feet-high Elkhorn Mountain is the second-highest peak on Vancouver Island.

The King’s Peak trail rewards hikers with dramatic views of Iceberg Lake and Elkhorn Mountain and makes a great two-day camping trip.

With a population of around 5,000, Duncan is known as ”The City of Totems” for the 80 First Nations carvings around town.

A downtown walking trail passes 40 of them and a free map tells the story of their significance to the native people. It is at the heart of the Cowichan Valley, noted for its organic farmers and vineyards.

The valley’s cool Mediterranean-style climate also attracts many retirees.

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the 1.7-mile Chesterman Beach has helped the nearby town of Tofino win the title of Best Surf Town in North America.

Snow-capped mountains make a scenic backdrop for surfers of all abilities tackling the Pacific waves. For those not wanting to take to the waves themselves the mountain backdrop makes for some gorgeous photo opportunities.

Must-do: Visit the Carving Shed at the Wickaninnish Inn to watch the wood carvers at work.

The busy ferry town of Nanaimo is known as 'Hub, Tub, and Pub City' because of its central position on the island, its bathtub racing (an annual harbour race for modified bathtubs) and the number of pubs. The town also gives its name to a popular Canadian dessert, made with layers of crumbs, custard and chocolate. Must-do: Try the Nanaimo bar, of course.

The ten-day Jazz International Festival in Victoria brings in artists and spectators from all over Canada and beyond.

Headliners in recent years have included Maceo Parker, Angelique Kidjo, Pink Martini and Alexis Baro.

Venues every June/July include various concert halls and theatres, plus a stage at Centennial Square.

The Victoria Jazz Society also organises the Blues Bash over the weekend of Labour Day (first Monday of September) at Victoria's Inner Harbour.

All the usual celebrations of Scottish culture are found in the Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival every May, from pipes and drums to Highland dancers and caber tossers.

A Tilted Kilt Pub Crawl, Tartan Parade and the Clan Torchlight Ceremony are more local spins on the fun.

A small event held over a week in July, that’s worth the trip to Bamfield for the scenery alone.

As implied by its title, Music by the Sea is held with a view of the Pacific and features both classical and contemporary chamber and jazz music.

Ninety teams, some from the USA, race across the Inner Harbour in a colourful display over three days in mid-August, during the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival.

The event also includes live music and a paper lantern display in aid the BC Cancer Foundation.

The Victoria Symphony playing on a floating stage in the Inner Harbour is a centrepiece of the Symphony of the Summer, previously called the Symphony Splash, one of the largest symphonic events in North America.

This free event every August ends with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with bells, live cannon and fireworks.

Cowichan’s wines, ciders and local farm produce are highlighted every September at the Cowichan Wine & Culinary Festival. Local restaurants and cafes produce special menus and a dozen wineries also take part.

Experience Canada for yourself with one of our escorted or independent tours, or try a self-drive independent tour of Vancouver Island

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