* Prices may differ from that shown
I spent about a week on Vancouver Island back in 2002 during a trip to British Columbia and Washington State. I travelled alone which was an interesting experience. I am glad I did it but in honesty I would have preferred company. Vancouver Island is a beautiful place, with a long and rugged coastline, a plenthora of marine and other wildlife, topped of with a backdrop of the rocky mountains on the mainland in the distance. Heaven to the eyes.
Facts about Vancouver Island
Vancouver Island is situated off the West Coast of Canada and at 32,134 square kilometres it is the largest North American island in the Pacific. It is part of the province of British Columbia and has a total population of approximately 600,000. Its largest City, Victoria (population 300,000) is situated on the Southern most tip of the island and is the Capital City of British Columbia.
The island has been inhabited by humans for some eight thousand years. Captain James Cook landed at Nootka Sound of the Island's western shore on March 31, 1778 and claimed it for the British Isles. Hence the City of Victoria was founded by the Hudson's Bay Company on March 14, 1843, as a trading post.
The population of the island exploded in the 1850's with the gold rush when Victoria became a major shipping port.
Finally on July 21, 1871, British Columbia became the sixth province of the Dominion of Canada and Victoria was proclaimed the Capital City.
Getting There and Away
Flights to Vancouver from London will set you back about £500-700 depending on the season. From Vancouver you will need to catch a bus out of the City to the main ferry terminal and then a ferry across the strait. Most routes will then take you directly to Victoria from there and the whole trip comes as a package. The trip takes around half a day and isn't too expensive if you travel as a foot passenger. There are hourly sailings in summer months between 7:00 am - 10:00 pm and in the winter there are sailing on all of the odd hours between 7:00 am - 9:00. It is also possible to take a car over to the Island but obviously this is going to be more expensive.
You can also fly to Victoria International airport from Vancouver if you are really short of time and have lots of money!
The transport network on the Island isn't going to win any prizes and it can be hard to get around. Hitchhiking and car sharing are popular options as buses are infrequent and don't even go to many of the popular/more obscure destinations. There is also a rail service along the lower Eastern shores of the island, but again this is not much use to tourists.
Victoria is a lovely colonial City, with a huge harbour which stands out as it's most prominent feature. All you usual amenities can be found here: bars, restaurants (I'd recommend seafood), supermarkets, shops, banks, cinema's, theatres, museums etc.
The Inner Harbour Walkway is worth doing to check out all of the boats and to soak up the atmosphere. If you are lucky you might spot herons, seals, mink, otters and sea lions along the way.
The Royal British Columbia Museum is also worth a visit. The museum contains information about the habitat and history of the island and the wildlife that can be found there. It is an informative and enjoyable way to spend half a day.
Whale Watching Trips are also a must for a visit to Victoria. Trips run from the harbour in season and are weather dependent. I took a two hour trip and was lucky enough to see porpoises and minky whales. However I missed out on seeing the Orcas (killer whales) which are often spotted in huge pods along this coats. This still saddens me to this day but there is never any guarentee that you can find the whales....
From Victoria there are many potential day-trips to be taken advantage of. For example to the coast, to waterfalls, walking trips etc. You can almost guarantee that wherever you stay they will offer a selection of tours out of the city.
Tofino and the Pacific Rim National Park.
Tofino is a small relaxed community and the main reason to visit is for the variety of whale-watching and scenic or fishing boat trips.
Each spring an estimated 19,000 Gray Whales make the 16,000km round-trip journey between the Mexican Baja Peninsula and their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas. Their migratory journey takes them along the West Coast of Vancouver Island travelling close to the shoreline, providing excellent viewing opportunities from the rocky headlands.
The whales are the main reason for a trip to Tofino, but the wide, sandy, deserted beach and the park itself are also stunning. Natural hot tubs are also a main attraction in this area. The springs are entirely natural, containing a mixture of salt and fresh water up to 43 degree C (110F) hot which cascades through the lower pools which, at higher tides.
Tofinos itself is a small town where you can find all your basic amenities. Visit the Whale Centre Museum or go Storm-watching in the rough winter weather if you are daring. A festival is also held each year in early May to celebrate the arrival of shorebirds. Walking along the pacific rim trails and cliff paths is an absolute must. Long Beach runs to the side of Tofino and is also spectacular.
Unfortunately I did not get to explore further North of the Island than Tofino due to a lack of time.
Wildlife and whale watching, fishing, diving, snorkelling, golf, boat trips, hiking, rock climbing, surfing, sailing, canoeing, bird-watching, horse riding, camping, swimming and almost any other outdoor activity. Don't go to Vancouver Island unless you plan to spend a significant amount of time outside, there isn't much else to do outside of Victoria. So get active!
Being a city Victoria contains every type of accommodation you could possibly need, from hostels to 5 star hotels. On the rest of the island you may be quite limited as many of the communities are small and sparse. Camping is very popular everywhere and if you are there in the Summer I would recommend this but only at proper camp sites as there are bears!
Costs in Canada are about the same as the UK, maybe a little cheaper for things like take-out food. Daily expense will of course depend on what you want to do and where you want to stay. On a budget backpacking holiday like mine, I estimate that I got by on about $30 a day.
The best time of the year to visit is between May-September. Victoria has the mildest climate in Canada, due to westerly winds blowing off the Pacific Ocean. The pacific maintains a year-round, constant 10°C (50°F) temperature and so is warmer than the land in winter and cooler in summer. Victoria also has the lowest rainfall and the most sunshine recorded of any West Coast region.
Flora and Fauna
The scenery is rugged, cliffs and coastline with a rugged mountainous backdrop of the Rockies back on the main land. The island is covered with forests of pine trees and wild flowers in abundance. It is a stunning and beautiful place to relax for a few days and take it all in.
Bears are prevalent on the island and if you camp you must be particularly wary of them. Don't leave litter or food out in the open and if you do see them stay away from them, they are amazing yes, but also dangerous and faster than you think.
Whales migrate along the western edge of the island during the Summer months, you are likely to see other marine life such as dolphins, porpoises and seals year round, as well as a large number of birds.
I have given Vancouver Island four stars. It is a great place, but I am afraid I have been lucky enough to see better and more beautiful places in my time. Still it is a lovely place and if you fancy a few days of peace and tranquillity, out in the open and away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Vancouver then this is your place!
Vancouver Island is an island off the coast of Vancouver, on the south west coast of British Columbia, Canada. It is a large island home to the capital of British Columbia, Victoria, as well as some 750,000 inhabitants. At roughly 280 miles long, and 60 miles wide, it is a manageable size for a driving holiday. We spent 6 days beetling around in our RV, seeing what the island had to offer, which was sadly not enough (the time, not the island!).
------------When to go----------
Vancouver Island has a very mild and temperate climate. Average temperatures generally stay above zero throughout the year, and can reach mid 20s in summer.
The high season for Vancouver Island is July and August, although there is a skiing season as well. We travelled in May and it was very quiet. The weather quite mild, although damp.
---------How to get around the island---------------
We drove, which is obviously the most flexible way to travel. We had rented an RV ("recreational vehicle", also known as a motorhome.)
There is some public transport available, depending upon the time of year. There is a coach service to most towns of interest up the east coast running several times a day in summer, and a limited service to the west coast. There is also a train running up the east coast running once or twice a day.
However, if you want to get out to any of the provincial parks, then you'll need your own transportation. There are at least 5 car rental places on the island, although again you may find it cheaper to rent in Vancouver.
When driving, about the only hazard to be aware of is the massive logging trucks that come hurtling towards you. They can be very intimidating, particularly when you're driving a monster truck yourself. The main roads are in fact wide enough for these trucks to pass each other with room to spare, but it takes awhile before that knowledge overtakes the instinct to hit the brakes every time you see one! You do need to be careful if you venture out onto logging tracks, where there isn't room to pass and you may find yourself in some difficulties.
Accommodation options ranges from camping in a tent with no facilities other than composting toilets, up to 5 star hotels. In between are more comfortable camping grounds, hostels, B&Bs, cottages and cabins. You can get hostel dorm beds for CAD20 (£9), and hotel rooms from £20 upwards.
Camping is very cheap - we never spent more than CAD25/£11 per night, and sometimes it was as cheap asCAD9/ £4. Tents are cheaper again. Camping ranges from bare basics in provincial parks, to 5 star RV "resorts" which have jacuzzis, saunas, games rooms and the like. These resorts are more expensive, around CAD35/£15. Canadians like to camp in style!
We stuck to the provincial parks whilst on the island - some of these use an honesty system where you put your money in a box and a sticker on your windscreen. Others have manned booths. The parks are very, very good - each site has ample space, which is necessary given the size of the RVs using them, with their own fireplace and picnic table, usually made from the beautiful red cedar. The sites are always flat and gravelled. Firewood is easily purchased either on the side of the road, at petrol stations or the parks themselves.
The facilities in the parks range from composting toilets with no showers in the smaller parks, to fully equipped amenity blocks at the more popular ones.
If you're even cheaper than us, it is possible in many areas to simply pull up on the side of the road and camp for free. Obviously there are no facilities, so you have to be self sufficient with water and sanitary facilities (which virtually all RVs are).
The towns that interest the tourists are mainly in the coastal areas. Up the east coast the classic tourist trail includes Victoria, Nanaimo, Campbell River, Port McNeill, and Port Hardy. On the west coast Tofino and Ucluelet cannot be missed. Inland you find stunning mountains, tranquil lakes, and thousands of acres of forest.
Driving anywhere takes longer than you expect. It's a mountainous island and the roads are bendy and steep in many sections, particularly inland. The views are usually quite spectacular outside the towns - snow-capped mountains, streams and rivers feeding into fir lined lakes, and, of course, forest as far as the eye can see. Much of the island outside the provincial and national parks is subject to logging and you see the signs everywhere. The island is so beautiful it can be a real shock when you come around a bend to see the scarred remains of a hillside recently logged. It always looks so desolate and saddening, even though the logging industry there is very responsible, and manages the forest well, replanting as they go and the old growth forest is protected.
I don't want to give the impression that logging is all you see - it's not. The vast majority of the country side is entirely unscarred by logging, which is why it's such a shock when you see it. It's interesting to see how well they balance logging with environmental tourism - the two major sources of income for the island which are usually rather incompatible.
Our route took us from the Comox ferry on the central eastern coast up to Buttle Lake in Strathcona Provincial Park, across to Tofino on the west coast, to Ladysmith, in to Lake Cowichan and then across to Salt Spring Island. We are landscape travellers rather than tourist attraction travellers, and the island has a lot to offer if you're happy to just drink in the views. There is not so much of the regular tourist attraction fare - we didn't go to a single museum or attraction in our trip, as there was nothing in the guidebooks that caught our fancy. We spent our time in the national and provincial parks, rather than in the towns, which didn't really do much for us.
There aren't all that many roads on the island, so any itinerary is going to involve lots of backtracking. In one way this is a shame, because you cover less distance than you could with a circular itinerary. However, if you have two drivers, it gives you the opportunity to swap regularly, so that you take turns at being a passenger with the liberty to gaze out the window for each leg of the journey. As it's quite spectacular scenery, it's nice to know you're not going to miss anything by having to concentrate on the road.
Our first proper stop was Buttle Lake, a long narrow lake running through Strathcona Provincial Park, in the north central region. Hiking, fishing and boating abound. We camped on the shores of the lake and experimented (rather unsuccessfully) with our inflatable kayak.
*Pacific Rim National Park*
The next day saw us driving across the island to the Pacific Rim National Park. We stayed at Green Point on Long Beach, where we camped on a cliff above the beach. Without a doubt, this was our favourite place on the island. The white beach stretches for miles in both directions, and you can scramble up onto the rocks on the point. As with all the waterways around the island, the beach was littered with drift wood - mostly logs lost during the logging operations. I have a real thing for driftwood and I loved the contrast of the smooth white wood against the darkness of the rocks. The rock pools were teeming with life - starfish, anemones, crabs, fish and all sorts of plants. We spent a relaxing afternoon watching wildlife from the rocks - a few hundred yards off the beach was a rocky outcrop onto which sea lions were piled up in their dozens. Further out were a pod of whales feeding, and bald eagles cruised the skies. In fact, a bald eagle was nesting just a hundred yards from our campsite.
*Tofino and Clayoquot Sound*
The following day we drove up to Tofino, which is at the northern tip of Long Beach. We had decided to do a wildlife boat tour of Clayoquot Sound, which is designated as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The rainforests there are apparently the rarest type of forest in the world . After some research we decided upon a zodiac tour offered by Remote Passages, whom I would thoroughly recommend, to be the subject of another review. We chose the Hot Spring Explorer tour. For CAD 110 (around £50) each (which included full length ocean suits, hats and gloves), this was a 7 hour tour which involved zooming around the sound in a zodiac with a very knowledgeable guide for a couple of hours. Zodiacs are very powerful rigid inflatable speedboats. The main aim of the game is to find wildlife, and the guides keep in radio contact with fishermen and other tour operators in the area to track down marine life. We saw sea otters (my favourite animal, and to see them in the wild was worth the money alone), loads of seals and sea lions, dolphins, bald eagles and various sea birds. Our guide did his best to find us bears and whales, but we had no luck in that department. After a couple of hours we headed off to Hot Springs Cove, a natural hot spring at the northern end of the sound. The cove is inaccessible other than by hiking through old growth rain forest for 20 minutes (although in order to protect the forest it is boardwalk all the way). I was a little disappointed by the springs. I am a bit of a spring veteran, and was spoilt as a child by Mataranka Hot Springs in the Northern Territory in Australia. These springs come up through the rocks and fall down a small cliff into a series of rock pools. The larger ocean waves crash in occasionally, and cool the water. I found the pools to be too sulphury for my liking, and having had bad experiences in the past with sulphur springs staining clothes, we gave soaking a miss. There were too many people in the pools for it to be really comfortable. I imagine in summer it must be far too touristy for my liking. But it was a pleasant enough place to have our sandwiches. On the zodiac ride home, which again lasted a couple of hours we managed to find a grey whale, so we ticked off everything on the list other than bears.
A word of warning about zodiacs - they are not for the faint hearted. They go very, very fast, and the waters in the area can be quite rough. You need to hang on tight, and if you're at all susceptible to seasickness you should take anti-seasickness medication first. It is a great way of seeing the area, because you can cover a lot of distance very quickly, and you're in the open air, so when the engines are cut you can get very close to the wildlife and you're virtually on their level. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I'm not a thrill seeker at all. In fact, I'm such a wimp had I known what was involved before paying I probably wouldn't have chosen to go, as I'm not good with high speeds and rough rides. However, I'm so glad we did it, as it was the highlight of our holiday. All the companies in the area offer closed boat rides as well - we saw one while we were out, and all in all I think the zodiacs are better. The covered boats can't go as fast and are less manoeuvrable, and as a result the ride is much, much rougher. The boat that was out at the same time as us had to go in early because everyone got seasick.
If you are a wildlife and open-air enthusiast, you could easily spend a couple of weeks in this beautiful part national park. Sadly, we only had a couple of days.
Our final major destination on the island was Lake Cowichan in Gordon Bay Provincial Park. Again, a beautiful lake with ample opportunities for fishing, hiking and boating. We spent another rather frustrating afternoon with our dodgy inflatable kayak, but managed to see a bald eagle fishing as well as lots of other bird life. Still no bears, unfortunately, which was disappointing. We spent a peaceful evening in the forest roasting marshmallows over our open fire.
Sadly we didn't have time to see as much as we would have liked. We missed Victoria, the capital, altogether. It's supposed to be a nice city, with plenty of Victorian architecture. Heralded as one of the last vestiges of British imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, we decided to give it a miss, as experiencing British culture was most definitely not the point of the holiday!
We also didn't make it to the north of the island, as time simply didn't permit. Again, it was not so much the towns in the north that attracted us, but the access to wilderness. In particular, I had heard about a tour company offering whale watching excursions on an old sailing boat - silent, instead of the constant whining of power boats! I imagine this would be a fabulous way of getting close to the abundant marine life, but sadly the company were still closed for the winter at the time.
The towns in the north are more secluded, and in particular offer more fishing, and more options to explore the First Nations culture (known to previous generations as "Indians").
The mountains apparently offer some great skiing - and according to the promotional material Mt Washington sometimes has the deepest snow in the world, or at least it did in 1995! Further north Mt Cain is a quieter resort run by a not for profit organisation.
The cost of living is cheaper than in the UK, so your pound goes a fair way.
One thing you have to watch in Canada - prices are always quoted exclusive of tax (called GST) which is 7%, plus there is an 8% tax on hotel room tax (this doesn't apply in campgrounds). So get used to some mental arithmetic, and think before you complain that you've been overcharged!
It is possible to get a refund of tax paid, but there are strict rules and lots of hoops to jump through. The following website has all the relevant info:
Credit cards are widely accepted - one thing to take note of is that when you use your credit card we found that you neither sign nor use a pin number. This must be a boon for pickpockets as they can use your credit card so long as you don't report it stolen. So keep an eye on your plastic!
-----How to get there----------
Vancouver Island is very accessible.
There is an international airport at Victoria (the capital of British Columbia), although it is cheaper to fly to Vancouver. A quick look at opodo shows that return flights (Saturday to Saturday) in June next year are £700 per person with BA. Vancouver is about £50 cheaper. Air Transat is half that price.
There are very regular car ferries departing from the Horseshoe Bay and the Tsawwassen ferry terminals in Vancouver, and also from Powell River, north of Vancouver on the mainland coast.
There are also ferries from Washington State in the USA, as Seattle is more or less just as close to the island as Vancouver.
The ferry system appears very overwhelming when you are first confronted by it. There are many ferry routes in this part of the world - over 30, according to my very rough count. This is because there are actually hundreds of islands, and you can get to and from many of them by ferry. On the mainland there are also a couple gaps in the highway, where you have to catch the ferry.
However, whilst there are so many routes, all the Canadian ferries are owned and operated by a single company - BC Ferries. They have an incredibly comprehensive website at www.bcferries.com with schedules, fares, and terms and conditions. They also publish a very small and manageable pamphlet, fitting all the schedules in quite nicely. This booklet is available everywhere in BC - at tourist information outlets, hotels, car rental offices and on the ferries themselves.
The cost of using the ferries varies according to time of year, day of week, type of vehicle, route and number of people. There is a charge per vehicle, and a charge per person. Weekdays are cheaper than weekends, and off season is cheaper than peak season. Larger vehicles (like our monster RV - see the pickie) cost more than regular cars. Fares are all one-way only.
So, for example, a weekend fare in peak season for a car with 2 people from Vancouver to Victoria would cost CAD 53.25 (approx £23). Kids under 5 go free, and kids between 5 and 11 are half price.
In addition to the one way fares, there are some promotional packs (which it has to be said, they do not promote very heavily!) which can save you money. For example, we bought a Circlepac ticket, which allowed us to do a circular route up the mainland from Vancouver, across to the island and back from a different port to Vancouver, which saved us money, and also time at the ferry stops. Our Circlepac fare (which allowed the two of us in an oversized vehicle to use 4 ferries) was around CAD 125, or £55.
Using the ferries is very simple - the terminals are all very well sign posted. You simply drive up, and in most cases pay (or show your ticket) at the booths at the entrance to the waiting area. You can pay by credit card (you don't need any pin numbers or even need to sign!) or cash and you're then directed to a queue. You can arrive at any time up until 5 minute before the ferry leaves, although with some popular routes at popular times you may find yourself waiting for the next ferry if you leave it this long. You then simply drive onto the boat.
The ferries vary from very basic open barge types, where you stay in your car, to full scale cruise liners which fit hundreds and hundreds of cars and lorries. In most you must leave your car. There is seating inside and out on the various decks, as well as restaurants, cafes, snack bars, and shops. Food is reasonably priced onboard, but is limited to burgers, chips etc. There were proper restaurants on some of the ferries, but we didn't eat at those.
You can, of course, also travel as a foot passenger.
I've dwelt on ferries at some length, because they really are an integral part of any travel to Vancouver Island, and are not nearly as scary as they first appear.
We absolutely adored the island and had a wonderful time. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the great outdoors, wildlife, open spaces and fresh air. Canadians are the friendliest people we've met so far in our travels, which is really saying something. The scenery is fantastic, and travelling doesn't cost the earth. All in all, this was one of the best holiday we've ever had!
-------Odds and ends--------
Length : 454 Km (282 miles)
Width : 100 Km (62 miles)
Area : 32,134 sq. Km (12,408 sq. miles)
Latitude: 49 degrees 57 min. 4 sec. N
Longitude: 125 degrees 16min. 10 sec. W
Population approx. 750,000
For more information:
Remote Passages' website is at http://www.remotepassages.com
Prepare yourself for the adventure of a lifetime. Destination: Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.