Vancouver Island road trip: Victoria, British Columbia, and the Gulf Islands

Vancouver Island, located just off the coast of mainland British Columbia, is a wonderland of natural beauty. With azure bays, rippling lakes, old-growth forests, and lofty mountain peaks, this island feels like its own distinct province. While the capital city of British Columbia, Victoria, is located on the southeastern tip of the island, the majority of Vancouver Island remains untouched wilderness. Spanning over 12,000 square miles, it is nearly six times larger than Prince Edward Island, Canada’s only island province. Despite its immense size, the top destinations on the more populous southern third of the island can be explored in less than a week. These highlights include Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula, the southwestern coastline leading to Port Renfrew, and the Gulf Islands archipelago. For those with extra time, a side trip to the idyllic and idiosyncratic Tofino on the island’s west coast is highly recommended.

Vancouver Island offers a wide range of activities that appeal to recreation enthusiasts, foodies, artists, and culture seekers. Hikers and beachcombers will find endless opportunities to connect with nature and witness dramatic wildlife, such as orcas and migratory birds. The island is also home to numerous farm-to-table restaurants, third-wave cafes, art galleries, and crafts boutiques. The region’s spectacular Salish Sea can be explored by ferry, making it easy to travel by car from the mainland to Vancouver Island and among the Gulf Islands. The ferry ride from Victoria to Port Angeles, Washington takes approximately 90 minutes, allowing for the combination of this adventure with a road trip around the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands.

When planning a visit to Vancouver Island, it is important to consider timing and border crossings. While it is possible to explore Victoria and its surrounding towns on foot, a car is necessary to access the more rural areas of the island. It is recommended to allocate at least eight days for this itinerary, taking into account the time spent in Vancouver if it is the gateway city. This timeframe allows for two or three nights in Victoria, one night in either Sooke or Port Renfrew, and three to five nights in the Gulf Islands. If adding a trip to Tofino, an additional two or three nights are recommended. Travelers should also ensure they have the necessary documents, such as a passport, if planning to ferry or drive into neighboring Washington.

Fees and reservations for ferries can add to the overall trip expenses. It is advisable to make ferry reservations, especially when bringing a car, particularly during weekends and the high season from mid-spring to mid-fall. The cost of ferry fees varies, with prices ranging from approximately $100 to $118, depending on the route and season. It is worth noting that one-way fees may apply when returning a rental car at a different location within Canada.

The best start and end points for this trip depend on flight availability and preferences. While Victoria International Airport (YYJ) is the region’s largest airport, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) offers more direct flights. Starting and ending the trip in Vancouver may be more convenient, with a short drive to Tsawwassen to catch a ferry to Swartz Bay, located near Victoria. However, if time is limited or only a portion of the itinerary will be explored, starting and ending in Victoria may be more practical.

The most popular season for visiting Vancouver Island is from mid-May to mid-October, when the weather is typically dry and sunny. Victoria and the Gulf Islands are situated in the Olympic rain shadow, receiving less rain and cloud cover compared to other parts of western British Columbia. Even during the winter months, it is possible to experience partly sunny days. However, hotel rates are higher during the high season, and crowds are more prevalent. It is advisable to book hotel rooms well in advance during this period and expect potential delays when boarding the ferry. Visiting during the quieter months from mid-autumn to mid-spring offers a more secluded experience and potential cost savings. Additionally, storm-watching is a popular activity during this time, allowing visitors to witness dramatic squalls and enjoy cozy accommodations with breathtaking views.

The journey begins in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. A 90-minute ferry ride from Port Angeles, Washington, takes travelers across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to this dignified city. With a population of approximately 92,000, Victoria is the second-largest city on Vancouver Island and offers a mix of traditional and contemporary attractions. The Inner Harbour, with its neo-baroque provincial parliament buildings, the Royal BC Museum, and the historic Fairmont Empress hotel, is easily accessible from the ferry terminal. Victoria has undergone significant changes in recent years, becoming younger, more diverse, and dynamic. Craft breweries, third-wave coffeehouses, international bistros, and trendy cocktail lounges have emerged, adding to the city’s vibrancy. Fisgard Street in downtown Victoria is home to many of the best dining and drinking spots, including its historic Chinatown.

Beacon Hill Park, located a short walk from the waterfront, is the city’s most celebrated green space. Its pine-shaded trails lead to Spiral Beach and Finlayson Point, offering fantastic sunset views of Washington’s snowcapped Olympic Mountains. Within the park, Beacon Hill Children’s Farm is a favorite attraction, allowing visitors to see and interact with adorable animals like pot-bellied pigs, miniature donkeys, and goats. Daily goat stampedes at 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. are a must-see event.

Driving east along scenic Dallas Road and Beach Drive, travelers can admire the charming Oak Bay before reaching the port town of Sidney. A detour to the renowned Butchart Gardens, a 55-acre horticultural masterpiece, is highly recommended. Sidney is also home to the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea, an excellent aquarium showcasing the region’s marine life.

Vancouver Island offers a wealth of natural wonders, cultural experiences, and culinary delights. Whether exploring the rugged coastline, immersing oneself in the vibrant city of Victoria, or venturing to the idyllic Tofino, this destination promises an unforgettable adventure.

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