Travel to British Columbia’s capital city and beyond to experience all sorts of outdoor wonders.
By Carol Ann Quibell
An adventure awaits you across the water on southern Vancouver Island, a year-round destination for those seeking a mild, temperate climate; majestic views; and unparalleled beauty.
The island rests on the same latitude as upper Washington state and is reachable by ferry from Port Angeles, Washington, among other locations, plus several spots on the Canadian mainland. Our journey began aboard a ferry at Vancouver’s Tsawwassen (sometimes pronounced Ta-WAH-sen) terminal on the southwest coast of the British Columbia mainland.
The largest city on Vancouver Island is Victoria, British Columbia’s beautiful capital. The inviting pulse of the city can be felt the moment you arrive, and the excitement increases as you find yourself surrounded by the old English charm of The Fairmont Empress Hotel, the Parliament Buildings, preserved historic homes, inviting pubs, beautiful shops, and a vibrant Inner Harbour — all blended with modern influences.
The best advice is to settle in at a campground or resort before heading into the busy downtown area. With the bustle of double-decker buses, horse-drawn carriages, and fascinated pedestrians strolling the streets and walkways, this is not the place to drive a motorhome. Explore Victoria on foot or by bicycle, or let one of the eager pedicab drivers show you some of the highlights. They also can direct you to restaurants you might like.
Victoria is a bicyclist’s dream. The Seaside Touring Route is one reason why. It gives riders an immense appreciation for the Inner Harbour, Fisherman’s Wharf, Cordova Bay, Mount Douglas Park, and the neighborhoods of Oak Bay and Uplands. Follow the Galloping Goose Trail from downtown toward the BC Ferries terminal at Swartz Bay to see parks, farms, and communities along the way.
Tourism Victoria’s visitor information center in Victoria provides details about places to see outside of downtown as well, such as Craigdarroch Castle and many museums and art galleries. Visitors can sign up for an exciting whale-watching tour or get to know the local marine life by diving at Ogden Point Breakwater or Race Rocks marine ecological reserve.
Yes, bicycling is extremely popular in Victoria, but so is golf. The mild climate makes it available year-round on some of the most picturesque courses on the island.
After the hustle and bustle of Victoria, it is nice to relax and enjoy the scenery of the tree-lined Malahat Drive, part of B.C. Highway 1, which leads northwest toward more adventures. The spectacular views of the Saanich Peninsula (the finger of land stretching north from Victoria) and the Gulf Islands, seen from the viewpoints along the way, create some memorable photo opportunities. The fresh local produce found in the farmers markets, glass-blowing artisans, and the perfect greens on the golf courses along the way definitely will entice you off the highway. Many wineries are located in the Cowichan Valley, another area of natural beauty located midway between Victoria and Nanaimo. You can tour one or more of the farm wineries in this area and learn more about the growing of grapes and wine making before you reach the home of the murals, Chemainus.
Chemainus (sha-MAIN-us) is north of Victoria by way of the Trans-Canada Highway (designated as Highway 1); the drive takes about an hour and 20 minutes. Walking is the best way to see everything in the friendly seaside village. Get out of your vehicle and let the painted footsteps guide you on a journey through time as you tour the historical murals that cover many of the downtown buildings. Or, hop on a horse-drawn trolley or carriage and watch as the stories of the village’s history and heritage of forestry, fishing, and mining unfold in front of you.
Approximately a half-hour north of Chemainus is Nanaimo (nah-NYE-moh), a scenic harbor town with a continuous bustle of activity. A waterfront promenade overlooks the harbor, where commercial fishing boats, kayaks, canoes, and even float planes come and go regularly. Walk along the wooden docks and you will see the names of faraway home ports painted on the sides of visitors’ luxury yachts and sailboats. A little passenger ferry takes you across the harbor for a tasty meal of fresh seafood at the Dinghy Dock Pub and Floating Restaurant.
It’s all about the outdoors on Vancouver Island, and Nanaimo’s walking and cycling trails provide awe-inspiring views on well-marked paths. The many golf courses offer great conditions, and there’s one for every level of play. For the more adventuresome, bungee jumping 150 feet off of a trestle bridge with a rushing river below can be a lot of fun.
The famous Nanaimo Bar (a dessert treat) must be experienced while you are here. But don’t try just one! The “Nanaimo Bar Trail” starts at the Nanaimo Museum, where a map is available of area eateries that each proffer their version of the local favorite.
Water out in the bay beyond Nanaimo is popular with scuba divers. Three naval ships that were sunk in the local waters, plus other artificial sinks, provide international divers with an extraordinary opportunity at one of the best temperate-water dive destinations in the world.
Other things to try here include studying prehistoric rock carvings at Petroglyph Provincial Park, south of town, or kayaking over to historic Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park, minutes away from the waterfront promenade. Meet Nanaimo’s ghosts in some of the historic buildings in town, where strange and unexplainable things take place; or, try a cemetery tour and learn more about the pioneers who helped make Nanaimo what it is today — a vibrant, productive, interesting city.
If you choose to continue northward on Vancouver Island, visit the city of Campbell River, considered to be the salmon capital of the world, or Port Hardy, the gateway to Cape Scott Provincial Park. Before returning to the mainland, take the opportunity for an interesting side trip to Tofino (on the west coast of the island), with a stop along the way to see the old-growth forests at Cathedral Grove, located in MacMillan Provincial Park.
Giant Douglas firs, Canada’s treasures, still thrive today at Cathedral Grove, near Parksville (just north of Nanaimo). The sight of these towering, ancient, old-growth timbers will take your breath away as you meander along the trails. Spread your arms across one of the tree trunks and consider that its width has taken 800 years to develop.
Located in the region of Clayoquot Sound on the western side of Vancouver Island, Tofino is one of the most dramatic and unspoiled places on the isle. Approximately 8,000 easygoing residents live here, where fishing, hiking, camping, kayaking, and even bear-watching and bird-watching are all possible. The surfing is some of the best in North America, and the storm-watching and whale-watching are something never to be forgotten.
After leaving Vancouver Island and docking on the Canadian mainland at Horseshoe Bay, it would be a shame if you missed one of the top attractions in Vancouver: Capilano Suspension Bridge. Walking across the bridge swinging over the deep Capilano Canyon below will bring you into a lush west coast rainforest and to another popular attraction — the Treetop Adventure, with a bird’s-eye view of the 1,300-year-old Douglas firs.
Tourism Victoria Visitor Centre
Ferry Services Between British Columbia’s mainland and Vancouver Island:
(888) BCFERRY (888-223-3779)
Between Port Angeles, Washington, and Vancouver Island:
Black Ball Ferry Line – M.V. Coho
Victoria Terminal (250) 386-2202
Port Angeles Terminal (360) 457-4491
Between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver Island:
Passenger only (no vehicles)
Seattle (206) 448-5000
Victoria (250) 382-8100
British Columbia Provincial Parks
Not all provincial parks can accommodate larger RVs; be sure to check when making reservations.
Fort Victoria RV Park
Westbay Marine Village & RV Park
Malahat Mountain Meadows Resort
Oceanside RV Park
Chemainus Gardens Woodlands RV Resort
Chemainus River Campground
Country Maples RV Resort
Brannen Lake RV Park & Campsite
Living Forest Oceanside Campground & RV Park
Jinglepot RV Park & Campgrounds