Vancouver Island, British Columbia is a place of wild, natural beauty, rich history, colourful art and culture, and remarkable communities. Every year, this incredible Island on the West Coast of Canada hosts millions of visitors, all vying to explore and experience everything Vancouver Island has to offer. And it’s no wonder why so many people come here! You can find incredible European inspired cities, seaside communities, pastoral agricultural land, ancient forests, world-class dining, vineyards, soaring glaciers, and more surrounded by endless, glittering ocean views. In fact, Vancouver Island is so large and there is so much to see and do, most guests leave with so much still on their to-do list! If you want to avoid post-holiday regrets, we’ve got the list for you – the top ten things that you can’t miss on Vancouver Island, from Islanders! No matter what your plan is on Vancouver Island, make sure to check the incredible EMR vacation properties all over the Island!
Go Whale Watching!
Without a doubt, this experience takes the top spot in our list for its sheer west coast-ness and being a once-in-a-lifetime adventure! All across Vancouver Island you can find incredible whale watching tours that will take you out onto the open ocean in spots where you’re sure to find marine life! If you’re looking for the very best spot for whale watching, Telegraph Cove, on the northeast of the Island is world-renowned for eco tourism where you can see everything from grizzly bears to wild orca pods! No matter where you launch from, if you time your tour perfectly, you’re sure to see sea lions sunning themselves on the rocky outcrops just off shore, pods of orcas, humpback and grey whales as well as sea otters, seals and marine birds!
Visit Tofino & Ucluelet
This is a must for all you surfers out there! Tucked away on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in the Clayoquot Sound you’ll find the little towns of Tofino and Ucluelet. This area is known as the gateway to the Broken Group Islands and has long been known as a surfers paradise that offers breathtaking windswept beaches and challenging year-round surfing at Long Beach and Cox Bay. Even if you’re not looking to catch some waves, Tofino and Ucluelet offer so much for visitors to see and do! Beachcomb for treasures that wash up from across the Pacific, dine at one of the many amazing restaurants in the area, visit the local distillery or brewery, go kayaking in the bay, check out the art galleries or treat yourself to a day at the nearby resort spa – you’ll never be bored at these little resort towns!
There are few outdoor activities that are more quintessentially West Coast than kayaking. No matter who you talk to on Vancouver Island, you’ll find that most people love to kayak. With beautiful ocean beaches, lakes, and rivers all over the Island and an enormous amount of marine life to see and shoreline to explore, it’s no wonder that kayaking is so popular! Whether you’re familiar with the activity or you’re just starting out, you can find kayaking tours anywhere you go on Vancouver Island that will make sure you have the skills to have fun and be safe!
Take a Hike
The hiking on Vancouver Island is spectacular because of the astonishingly beautiful natural beauty of the Island and the intricacy of the trail system that covers every part of it. No matter where you go on Vancouver Island and no matter what kind of hike you’re looking for, whether it’s a good climb to a summit, a casual stroll through the forest, or a brisk seaside walk, you’ll find it nearby. If you’re looking for truly remarkable hiking trails, here are our top trails to experience on Vancouver Island:
- The West Coast Trail in the Pacific Rim National Park: a rugged and challenging 75 kilometre, multi-day backpacking trail for experienced hikers looking for a unique, story-making experience through old growth forests and along deserted beaches on a wild Pacific trail.
- Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park: this series of easy trails and boardwalks take you through an ancient forest where you can see 800 year old Douglas fir trees towering over you and experience how West Coast forests would have looked like to early explorers. Plus, it’s just a short drive away for anyone staying at an EMR property in Qualicum or Parksville or in Nanaimo!
- Elk Falls Provincial Park Suspension Bridge: with an intricate and well-maintained system of boardwalks, trails and a spectacular suspension bridge, Elk Falls is perfect for anyone staying in the Comox Valley and looking for few waterfalls and a peaceful walk through the forest.
Go Downtown Victoria
As the capital city of BC, Victoria is an important Canadian city and known for its breathtaking beauty and European charm. Victoria might be a small city but don’t let the size fool you – when you stay Downtown Victoria you’ll be a walk away from incredible heritage sites, amazing shopping and dining and lively nightlife! One of the best sightseeing areas in Victoria is right in the Inner Harbour where you’ll find seaplanes to Vancouver, the Royal BC Museum, Parliament Buildings and the Fairmont Empress Hotel where you can enjoy traditional British high tea!
See the Butchart Gardens
For over one hundred years, the Butchart Gardens have been delighting locals and visitors with beautiful blooms. With 900 different bedding plant varieties and and five distinct gardens: the Rose Garden, Mediterranean Garden, Italian Garden, Japanese Garden and Sunken Garden – each planted and arranged to reflect the ambience of the theme. In the spring and summer, you can spend a sunny day here slowly meandering through each one and (literally) stop and smell the roses then pop in for ice cream when you’re done! In the winter, the gardens are alight with fairy lights of all colours while Christmas music plays over the speakers and in the square, there is an old-fashioned outdoor ice rink for kids of all ages to enjoy!
Visit Goats on Roof in Coombs
While you’re staying in beautiful Qualicum Beach and Parksville pop over to the little quaint village of Coombs. In the summer, thousands of tourists descend on Coombs to walk through the Old Country Market and see the famous Goats on Roof. But there is so much more to Coombs than just the goats! In the little Old Country Market area you can find incredible fresh produce, local grocery items, beautiful handmade goods, a lovely Italian restaurant, books, clothing, pottery and more! When you’re ready to keep exploring Coombs, be sure to check out Butterfly World and head over to Hamilton Hobby Farm to meet some absolutely adorable animals!
Explore First Nations Culture
Vancouver Island is steeped in First Nations history as it is the ancestral home to the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwaka’wakw People who have lived and thrived here for thousands of years. All over the Island, you can visit culturally significant locations, see incredible carvings and learn more about the storied First Nations of Vancouver Island. Here are our top places to visit where you can learn more about the art and traditions of the First Nations on Vancouver Island.
- Duncan: In the heart of the Cowichan Valley located on the traditional lands of the Quw’utsun’ People, you’ll find the city of Duncan. With nearly fifty totems dotted all over the city the moniker The City of Totems is well deserved! Take a walking tour through the city centre and learn about the significance of each totem pole!
- Alert Bay: North of Campbell River, on the traditional lands of the ‘Namgis People, Alert Bay is home to some of the richest First Nations cultural sites and objects on the west coast. With treasures like the Big House, the world’s tallest totem pole and the U’mista Cultural Centre with its priceless masks and potlatch regalia that visitors can see up-close, there’s no better place to really experience the beauty and importance of First Nations culture on Vancouver Island.
- Royal BC Museum: Walk through Totem Hall, learn about the Nisga’a Treaty, explore the ceremonial Jonathan Hunt House, learn about archeological digs, discover the beauty of Haida argillite carving and in the Living Languages exhibit, hear the greeting of over 34 First Nations languages! Right next to the museum doors you can find Thunderbird Park, an outdoor exhibit of totem poles from all over BC and the striking Mungo Martin House. And don’t forget to visit Beacon Hill Park and see the second tallest, free-standing totem pole that has been carved out of a single cedar.
Enjoy Vancouver Island Beaches
From rocky shores to soft sandy beaches, Vancouver Island is home to hundreds of gorgeous beaches where you can surf, paddle, swim and picnic while enjoying the gorgeous view. Plus, because Vancouver Island has such a temperate climate, you can enjoy going to the beach year-round! Check out our picks for best beaches if you’re looking for something really special!
- Botanical Beach: way up on the northwest side of the Island right near Port Renfrew, is the beautiful Botanical Beach. With windswept trees, rocky outcrops that jut up from the water just offshore, endless tidepools and smooth sandstone formations, Botanical Beach is a magical place to visit.
- Qualicum Beach: Vancouver Islanders love visiting Qualicum Beach – with soft sandy shores, warm shallows and beautiful views of the Coast Mountains, this is one of the best summer beaches to enjoy!
- Long Beach: on the Clayoquot Sound near the little town of Tofino you’ll find the longest sand beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Beloved by locals, and known as one of the best places to surf on Vancouver Island, Long Beach is a must when you’re visiting!
Explore the Gulf Islands
Between Mainland BC and Vancouver Island there is a network of small islands in the Strait of Georgia (Salish Sea) known as the Gulf Islands. Each of these Islands has its own identity that is informed by its geography, location and size. While each Island is vastly different from the next, they are all beautiful and a uniquely west coast experience that you can have while staying on Vancouver Island. Whether you choose to go for a day-trip or want to book somewhere overnight during your stay, the Gulf Islands have so much for visitors to see and do! For more information about the Gulf Islands and our recommendations while you’re there, have a look at our Gulf Islands blog post!