Vancouver Island (July 19-23, 2016)
20 March, 2017: Vancouver Island is an island west of mainland Vancouver that houses several cities, including Victoria––the capital of the province of British Columbia.
Introduction: There are two Vancouvers on the Pacific coast of Canada: the city of Vancouver on the mainland, and the island of Vancouver, which comprises several cities including Victoria, the provincial capital. Vancouver Island is a massive island with miles of beautiful, forested, and scenic countryside. It is best visited with the autonomy of a car (or other more ecofriendly means of autonomous transportation) rather than the shackles of public transportation. Our first stop was Goats on the Roof, a cluster of businesses –– a restaurant, a gift shop, a bakery, a toy store, a market, an ice cream shop –– all united by the uniquely simple but brilliant concept of having goats roam freely on a shared, grassy rooftop: an instant tourist trap.
Transportation: Goats on the Roof makes for an entertaining pit stop and is not too far from the city of Nanaimo (famous for the Nanaimo bar). Nanaimo is one of two main ferry stops linking Vancouver mainland to Vancouver Island, the second of which is Victoria. However, the ferry is not the only way to get to Vancouver Island; Victoria has a local airport, and public buses such as Greyhound also make the journey between the two areas. If you are on a budget, the bus is probably the cheapest way to visit Vancouver Island, although very limiting in terms of having select few stops, none of which are at forest parks or beaches. The ferry is relatively inexpensive if you are sans vehicle, but the closest car rental is a long, though feasible, trek from the seaport, on the Vancouver-island side (we chose the latter option); that’s something to think about –– whether to rent a car before getting on the ferry, or after arriving on Vancouver Island. It is not, however, something you’ll have to worry about if you fly into Victoria airport, as you can rent a car right at that airport.
Itinerary: Our goal on Vancouver Island was to get a mixture of history, immersion in nature, and beach lounging. We also wanted to break up our drive into 4-hour segments and take it all in slowly. You might choose differently and want to drive directly to the far west end of the island right after arriving in Nanaimo (or Victoria) via the 3-hour ferry; that’s very doable as well. In our case, our (overnight) stops were Nanaimo, Tofino, Chemanius, and Victoria. All of these stops were either on the east or west coast; no stopping mid-island, which is quite rocky and mostly uninhabited. Budget-wise, Tofino is the most expensive of all the island cities. A popular tourist attraction, I believe it has the most expensive real estate and hotels on the island. We actually stayed in Ucluelet, which is a 20- to 30-minute drive from Tofino, as we were minding our pocketbooks. Ucluelet is a cute, small town with its own beach access and therefore not a bad alternative to actually staying in Tofino. We had breakfast at a wonderful little café close to our hotel, called Barkley Café, that served good coffee and a great selection of breakfast sandwiches. I highly recommend it. The space inside is tiny, so have a Plan B if you want to sit; and there is usually a lineup for orders (a good sign!) so be patient.
Weather: Unfortunately, the weather was not on our side on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and our 24-hour visit to Tofino was marked by dreary grey weather and endless rain. Our visit to downtown Tofino therefore consisted of a chilly, 10-minute walk around what seemed like a very, very small seaside town, and an unanticipated evening in our hotel room in Ucluelet drinking hot chocolate and watching the Clinton-Trump presidential debate. The next day, we made it a point to go for a walk on Long Beach, rain or no rain, before leaving town and driving back to the east coast. Long Beach is a (quite obviously) long beach hugging the west coast of Vancouver Island, and supposedly one of the most beautiful beaches in North America. I particularly loved its clean, yellow sands, its sporadic pockets of driftwood, and its sparsity of visitors. Walking on and on, barefoot, in quiet contemplation, we quite felt like we owned the beach. And we did finally get a 1- to 2-hour respite from the rain at the end of our walk when the sun shone through hot, bright, and victorious. Overall, the weather on the west coast (Tofino, Ucluelet) was very rainy, however, the weather on the east coast (Nanaimo, Chemainus, Victoria) was consistently hot and sunny. Whether this was by chance or was customary, I do not know.
- Nanaimo was gorgeous –– all rolling green hills, scores of rabbits lounging about on almost every lawn, beautiful sunsets, and an active harbour packed with sailboats. The ubiquitous wild blackberry bushes of mainland Vancouver were also present in Nanaimo (and every other town we visited on Vancouver Island), presenting a delicious snack everywhere you went.
- Mid-island country was filled with towering old-growth forests and smooth roads bending around mountains and hills.
- Tofino I will leave to a “no comment.” Ucluelet was small-town cute; Long Beach was fantastic.
- Chemainus was a hidden gem surrounded by nature –– trees, creeks, bays –– just adorable.
- Victoria was the cat’s pajamas, combining small-town charm with historic, Victorian beauty, the liquid blue beauty of the harbour, beaches, and bays, a clean, quaint, and friendly downtown, hot, sunny weather, and wonderful views of snow-capped mountains crowning mainland Vancouver in the distance. It was our final stop on Vancouver Island, our longest (a worthwhile 3 days), and by far our favourite.