Whether you are planning a trip exclusively to Vancouver Island or visiting as part of your trip to Vancouver; the capital city of British Columbia, plus the untamed Pacific coast that boasts of littoral rainforests and the wild beaches of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve will nourish the wanderer’s soul within you.
Day 1: Victoria
Commonly called the “City of gardens”, charming, relaxed Victoria occupies the southern tip of Vancouver Island and you can get there easily by taking a scenic ferry ride from Vancouver or a short flight. It is a terrific walking and cycling city and offers a unique blend of old world charm and new world experiences.
Victoria is built around a scenic and busy working port full of fishing boats, floatplanes and ferries known as the Inner Harbour. One of the most beautiful harbours in the world, Inner Harbour comes alive during the summer months with festivals, shows and music. Your day could easily be spent here watching all the happenings from the boardwalk around the inlet or aboard one of the cute Victoria Harbour Ferries where you can admire the views from the water. Some of the sites you will see include the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel and the magnificent BC Parliament Buildings. The ferries operate tours that travel around the harbor with a number of stops, including the one at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Once you get off the ferry, wander through the colorfully painted floating homes, the funky little shops, marine adventure stores and the fish markets. From the pier see if you can spot any seals or other marine life!
Steamship Terminal Building
Leaving Fisherman’s Wharf by foot, enjoy a nice leisurely walk back to the city along the harbour walkway. Along the way, you will pass an impressive Beaux Arts building which is a testament of the importance of the Inner Harbour as the gateway to the city and western Canada. Originally built in 1924, it was designed by Victoria’s famous architect, Francis Rattenbury, who also designed the Parliament Buildings across the street. Today it is home to a restaurant and on the second floor the Robert Bateman Centre. Inside you will find a gallery and shop featuring the legendary wildlife painter’s sketches and sculptures which offer a refreshing and inspiring view of our natural and man-made heritage.
Fairmont Empress Hotel
Continue walking past the magnificent turrets, domes and stained glass of the Parliament Buildings and the buskers and souvenir stalls along the water. On your left you will see the imposing Fairmont Empress Hotel at the end of the harbor. This grand old dame of Victorian architecture, with its lovely rose gardens and elegant public rooms, is a must-visit.
Optional: Truly, there is nothing more iconic in Victoria than to have tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel with a pot of Empress Blend tea and a tiered tray of little sandwiches and tiny baked goods. Be sure to reserve your spot well ahead of time, especially during the busy summer months.
Tip: Miniature World, tucked away inside the Empress Hotel is a must-see gem. Dozens of immaculately maintained displays and diorama scenes representing historical times and fictional worlds with lots of push-button action, trundling trains and a miniature movie theater screen you can see yourself on!
Lunch: Red Fish Blue Fish located on the waterfront boardwalk at the base of Broughton St, serves fresh, finger-licking sustainable seafood from a freight container, take-out shack.
Royal BC Museum
To the right of the Empress hotel you will see the sprawling Royal BC Museum, one of Canada’s greatest cultural treasures. Inside the museum, and you will discover an ever-changing array of shows and special exhibits including a popular IMAX theatre. The permanent collections, too, are well worth a visit, especially the First Peoples Gallery, an absorbing and thought-provoking showplace of First Nations art and culture. The museum’s highlight though is probably the walk-through colonial street with its vibrant Chinatown and detailed storefronts. This is truly an impressive museum experience, and you should allow yourself a couple hours to enjoy it.
Tip: Outside the museum is the retro-looking Carillon Tower, where 62 bells musically announce each hour, and the Thunderbird Park where at the Mungo Martin carving shed you can see First Nations carvers working on a myriad of projects.
- Before dinner, explore the city’s pretty, historic downtown on foot. Begin by wandering up Government Street, home to the city’s biggest collection of souvenir shops.
- Stop to sample handmade chocolate at Victoria’s own Roger’s Chocolates or the perfect cup of tea at Murchie’s Tea & Coffee.
- Once you reach Johnson Street, turn left into what’s known as “Lo-Jo”, a district of exclusive fashion and funky little boutiques and restaurants clustered around Market Square.
- Cross over the Johnson Street Bridge into the community of West Victoria. Take the seaside path along the Inner Harbour, and continue until you reach what looks like a big, shambling old house but is actually Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub.
Dinner: Spinnaker’s is Canada’s oldest brewpub and defines the art of combining regional cuisine, using 100% local product with hand-crafted beers like the Northwest Ale and Hoptoria. Another unique aspect is the on premise malt vinegar brewery. The rich, creamy seafood chowder is among the best on the coast.
After dinner if you feel like having a drink and enjoying the summer night, then head back downtown to Victoria’s small but mighty cocktail scene. Veneto Tapa Lounge, Little Jumbo, and Clive’s Classic Lounge in the Chateau Victoria shake up a good cocktail.
Day 2 in Victoria
Today will require some form of transportation to get around to the following suggested sites. If the weather is good a bicycle would be the best option but you can also drive, take public transportation or the hop on hop off bus to some of the spots (check stop locations).
Sights to visit:
Next to taking tea at the Empress, exploring the Burtchart Gardens is considered one of the most iconic of Victoria’s experiences. The estate boasts 22 hectares (55 acres) of gardens and has been named a National Historic Site of Canada with stunning floral blooms, vibrant colours, trickling streams and fountains. There are five unique gardens you can visit, the Japanese Garden, the Italian Garden, the Rose Garden, the Bog Garden and the Sunken Garden. The site also includes a restaurant and gift shop, and features fireworks on summer nights and lighted displays on winter ones. For this reason you may wish to save the gardens for the end of the day depending on when your visiting. (see the map at the end of this section)
This elegant turreted mansion is one of Canada’s finest stately home attractions illuminating the life of Scottish coal baron, Robert Dunsuir. Lined with sumptuous wood paneling and stained-glass windows, the rooms of this 1898 castle are bursting with period antiques. Climb the tower’s 87 steps to be rewarded with distant views of the Olympic Mountains.
On the trail of Emily Carr:
Pay homage to one of Canada’s greatest artists, the painter and writer Emily Carr who was born here in 1871. On one side of the park, you can visit her family home, Carr House, and take a tour with one of the passionate caretakers of her remarkable legacy. On the other side of the park, you can find numerous pieces of her works at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
Tip: Be sure to stop at the corner of Government and Belleville streets, here you will find a bronze statue titled “little old woman on the edge of nowhere” with her beloved dog Willie and pet monkey, Woo.
Take the seaside route, which is easy to follow by foot, by bike, or by car. Take Dallas Road, and Beach Drive explore coastline of Victoria, all the way upto University of Victoria.
Dallas Road & Beacon Hill Park:
Turn into Dallas Road, every local’s favorite place to take a walk and enjoy some fresh air. Turn off at Beacon Hill Park and cut across this 80-hectare beautifully manicured garden filled with trees and flowers, sports pitches, a children’s petting zoo, band shell, horse-drawn carriages, and a 130-ft totem pole. If you’re lucky, you may even see a roving peacock.
Oak Bay Village & Marina:
Heading back toward the city, turn off toward the quaint village outpost of Oak Bay Village. Spend some time exploring the high-end boutiques, art galleries, bakeries and cafes along Oak Bay Road, then venture down to the shore with its miles of beaches and the Oak Bay Beach Hotel. Have a seat at a table on a cozy patio, for a pint and bite of lunch with a beautiful ocean view.
Lunch: Kate’s cafe, at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, is outfitted with many touchstones of the past. Enjoy delicious goodies like house-made soups, fresh sandwiches, and an assortment of sweet and savoury baked goods which all can be enjoyed with you favorite glass of wine or perfectly prepared latte.
Next to taking tea at the Empress, exploring the Burtchart Gardens is considered one of the most iconic of Victoria’s experiences. The estate boasts 22 hectares (55 acres) of gardens and has been named a National Historic Site of Canada with stunning floral blooms, vibrant colours, trickling streams and fountains. There are five unique gardens you can visit, the Japanese Garden, the Italian Garden, the Rose Garden, the Bog Garden and the Sunken Garden. The site also includes a restaurant and gift shop, and features fireworks on summer nights and lighted displays on winter ones. For this reason you may wish to save the gardens for the end of the day depending on when your visiting. If you want to do Butchart Gardens with lesser crowds, visit the gardens as first part of the day.
Dinner: Steamship Grill in the historic Steamship Terminal Building is the perfect option if you’re looking for a fun, not terribly expensive place to dine, with a cheerful vibe and an unbeatable setting. Try the crispy, beer-battered halibut burger and a glass of Vancouver Island Viogner on tap as you watch the sun set on the harbor below. It’s a perfect end to a busy day of sightseeing.
Day 3: Victoria to Nanaimo
Get an early start today to make the trip from Victoria to Nanaimo. If you have a car, the drive will take about 2 hours along the Trans-Canada Hwy. A couple great places to make stops along the way are:
Cowichan Bay: A lovely place located in one of the sunniest valleys and famous for its fantastic fresh water fishing.
Whale Watching Tour from Cowichan Bay.
Chemainus: Literally a work of art with over 40 professionally painted outdoor murals around the town displaying the communities pride and history.
Known as the “Harbour City” due to its lovely, island-sheltered harbour right in the middle of the city, this urban oasis offers the best of both worlds with a wealth of recreation from hiking, kayaking, boating and world class snorkeling and scuba diving to great dining, shopping, museums and festivals. Here are a couple of suggested activities you can enjoy during your stay.
- Snorkel with Harbour seals: Take and unforgettable boat tour with one of the local companies to swim with the playful pups in their natural habitat.
- Catamaran cruise: Take in the sights, wildlife and action of the harbour on a relaxing cruise or for a wild ride aboard a hovercraft.
- Culinary Tour: Sink your teeth into some local delicacies (like the nanaimo bar) on a specialty culinary tour of food, craft beer and estate wineries.
- Island Hopping: Enjoy a short ferry ride to Newcastle, Protection and Gabriola Islands and experience unique culture, arts and dining.
- Artisan Trail: Cedar Yellow Point Artisan Trail is a self-drive route taking you to visit farms, fields and artists crafting one of a kind creations.
- Old City Quarter: Stroll the brightly painted heritage streets of Bastion and Fitzwilliam uphill from the waterfront and discover unique, one of a kind shops, galleries and eateries.
Day 4: Nanaimo to Tofino
Back on the road again today making your last stop in Tofino. This drive will take approximately 3 hours but it’s best to give yourself the whole day to take in some of the glorious sights along the way. If you don’t have a car, you can get to Tofino by Tofino Bus.
Little Qualicum Falls: This provincial park is a favorite amongst locals and tourists and a perfect spot to get out and stretch your legs and go for a refreshing swim in the impressive cascading waterfalls.
Cathedral Grove: A national treasure located in MacMillan National Park where you will have the rare opportunity to stand next to some of the tallest Douglas fir trees on earth and explore the lush, ancient forest that is part of a rare ecosystem.
Port Alberni: If you like historic railways and if you are visiting on weekends of summer, then take the 35-minute one way trip through some of the most picturesque meadows and forests in the Alberni Valley on the Alberni Pacific Railway. The entire activity which includes a visit to the Mclean Mill Historic Park takes ~ 4 hours(to and fro trip). Have Lunch here.
Another 1 hour 30 minutes on the road, will get you to Ucluelet and the Kwisitis Visitor Centre of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve located near the village of Ucluelet.
You can access Long Beach, and Broken Group Islands of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve from here. Take a boat tour on Lady Rose Marine to Broken Group Islands or spend a laze afternoon at Long Beach, a 12 km white sand beach that is popular amongst surfers who brave the chilly ocean waters for the breaking waves. Surf schools nearby offer lessons if you want to give it a try. Explore the temperate rainforests or delve into a different world where First Nations and the rain forests take center stage at Kwisitis Visitor Centre. If you want a taste of the famed Wild Pacific Trail, hike the Lighthouse Loop that offers dramatic views of Barkley Sound and the Amphitrite Lighthouse.
Ucluelet provides a range of accommodations and almost all adventure activities you want to enjoy at Tofino, can be enjoyed here, with lesser crowds.
If your planned destination for the night is Tofino, another 30 minutes will get you to your final destination, a the small timber and fishing village located at the end of the Pacific Rim Highway.
Day 5 – Tofino
Tofino is the jewel of Canada’s West coast and now a popular spot for visitors wishing to take in the beauty and adventure of Clayoquot Sound, the most rare kind of rainforest in the world, covering less than 0.2% of the Earth’s land surface. UNESCO designated Clayoquot Sound a Biosphere Reserve because of the area’s commitment to conservation, sustainable development, and support for research, education, and training. Asides from its natural beauty, Tofino also offers a superb local food scene, exciting physical adventures and a rich community heritage. If you are visiting in summer, you can use the free shuttle to get around.
Today, You can spend the day exploring Pacific Rim National Park Reserve or do other activities offered here. Few suggestions:
Schooner cove trail: Part of an easy hiking trail with a boardwalk taking you around the lush coastal rainforest ending at a secluded beach. If you continue to walk along the beach you can explore the rocks for sea life like starfish, mussels, crabs and other creatures.
Bear watching: Black bears are abundant to the west coast of Vancouver and they like to make their presence known when the tides are low. These tours book up so make sure to make reservations in advance.
Hot Springs Cove: A 45 min boat ride or short seaplane away will take you to probably the most spectacular natural hot tub you’ve ever seen with views looking out at the Pacific Ocean while you relax and melt your worries away.
Kayaking: If you are an outdoor enthusiast, Clayoquot Sound and Barkley Sound are epic locations to enjoy half or full day trips where you can fully surround yourself with the serenity and power of nature.
Return: If you are planning to return to Vancouver, you can either fly from Tofino, or take ferry from Nanaimo. If you are going back to Victoria, the drive is ~ 4 and a half hours.
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