Vancouver Island is the gateway to the West Coast of Canada. With isolated beaches, awe-inspiring old-growth forests, stunning wildlife, and great adventures to be had, weekend getaways to Vancouver Island are perfect for any occasion. Access to the island from Vancouver is simple with BC Ferries or regional airlines, though as visitors get looped into island life, they may not want the weekend to end.
The Weekend Escape: Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands
Victoria may be the capital of British Columbia, but for tourists, it serves as BC’s most cherished and charming throwback city. No longer a small town, Victoria is the relaxed, island version of Vancouver with great dining, a lively nightlife scene, beautiful parks, quaint city neighbourhoods, excellent seaside walking trails, and unique attractions.
A weekend in Victoria is enough time to hit the Royal British Columbia Museum, enjoy an afternoon kayaking the Inner Harbour, and explore the historic Johnson and Fort Streets downtown. Find the best high tea in Victoria by staying at The Fairmont Empress or sleep a stone’s throw from Beacon Hill Park at the heritage-steeped James Bay Inn Hotel.
An hour drive from Victoria, Sooke offers what Victoria doesn’t: open ocean, small village vibes, and historic accommodation to fully unplug and forget the rest of the world. Whale watching, geocaching, fishing, zip-lining, and kayaking are all on offer out in Sooke — or just relax and watch the bald eagles glide by. The Sooke Potholes, a popular local swimming spot is a must do in the summer, and the Juan de Fuca’s China Beach is a favourite all year round (though bundle up in the winter — those winds are no joke!).
The Sooke Harbour House has been the location for many romantic getaways and provides every opportunity for visitors to enjoy the region’s natural beauty. This historic resort retains an old-world charm with modern luxury in one of the island’s most phenomenal oceanfront locations.
Tofino and Ucluelet
Ask any Vancouver Islander where to experience the true West Coast and they will say Tofino. Open ocean and miles of sand make Tofino and its southern sister village Ucluelet an absolute paradise for surfers and off the beaten path beach lovers. Access to this remote edge of the island is via Highway 4, approximately two hours from Parksville. The drive alone is worth the trip, winding through old growth forest Cathedral Grove and past beautiful Sprout Lake.
Tofino is the more developed of the two small towns with great options for accommodation and several formal attractions. The Pacific Sands Resort and the Wickaninnish Inn are top picks for this area with beach-front locations and storm watching potential at any time of year.
In Ucluelet, the options are more limited, though no less excellent and with a smaller price tag. The Black Rock Oceanfront Resort is a top pick with a craggy cliff-top location, jacuzzi soaker tubs, an on-site spa, and an outdoor pool for summer fun.
Protection Island is a haunt few British Columbians even know about. A 15-minute water taxi ride from Nanaimo, this tiny island can be walked in an hour and is a mix of full-time residents and holiday homes. There are no cars on Protection, so locals putter around in golf carts, making the pace of life that much slower.
Protection Island is an off-the-grid type of place, with no amenities, save for the Dingy Dock Pub, a floating restaurant serving cold beer and excellent burgers for almost 30 years.
Most folks visiting Protection Island will stay in downtown Nanaimo and simply visit the island during the day via the water taxi. Accommodation in Nanaimo is aplenty, though The Painted Turtle is a great budget option while right downtown The Coast Bastion Hotel will serve the higher range visitor. Both hotels are easy walks to the Protection Island water taxi.
Galiano Island embodies the West Coast the way it is meant to be. With lush old growth rainforests, winding roads, grazing deer, and scenic trails, Galiano is like a step back in time. And that’s before looking outward at the incredible ocean views with passing pods of whales, curious seals and sea lions, and soaring bald eagles following the currents.
Enjoying Galiano means hitting the trails, like the moderate hike up to Mount Galiano’s viewpoint or navigating the Bodega Ridge Trail at the north end of the island. Bellhouse Park and Bluffs Park offer great picnic locations, while the seaside walk around Montague Harbour Provincial Park is an easy stroll.
The isolated, and often empty, beaches are all over the island, and there is no better way to discover them than word of mouth and exploring. Morning Beach and Montague Harbour are great places to start, and with a boat, there are many places to pull in at Dionisio Marine Park. All of this just a 45-minute BC Ferry ride away from Vancouver.
The Galiano Oceanfront Inn is centrally located in Sturdies Bay, offering ocean views, beach access, and an excellent spa.
Parksville and Qualicum Beach
Beaches are the staple of a proper summer getaway and BC has them in spades. Qualicum and Parksville themselves draw thousands of people every summer, locals and visitors alike. Long stretches of sheltered sand make these two tourist hubs some of the best family vacations spots in British Columbia. This area known as Oceanside, just an hour north of Nanaimo, has its own microclimate due to the protection afforded by the local mountain range, making these towns and their waters some of the warmest in the province.
For food lovers, explore the Qualicum Cheeseworks, a working farm that produces some of the best, and most fragrant, cheese in BC. Families love this attraction, as seeing animals on a working farm and then tasting the fruits of the labour is a great way to spend an afternoon!
Accommodation is aplenty in the Oceanside area from family-friendly hotels to exclusive oceanfront resorts. The Beach Club Resort is just off the Parksville Beach Boardwalk while the Ocean Sands Resort is located just south of Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park.
Alert Bay and Sointula
Few folks make it further north than Oceanside, but if adventure is in the cards, then the tiny village of Alert Bay should be the destination. With a population of 600, Alert Bay is a fishing village proud of its First Nations identity and history, as displayed by the fabulous totem poles scattered all over town. The U’Mista Cultural Centre is an excellent place to experience local First Nations culture and view beautiful art. The carver’s studio is open regularly where visitors can watch masters create their latest pieces.
Sointula, located on Malcolm Island, was once a social commune, created in 1901 by a group of Finnish immigrants looking for peace and quiet. They couldn’t have found a calmer place to be, as Sointula receives even fewer visitors that Alert Bay, despite hosting a plethora of excellent hiking trails and beautiful serenity.
While most of the island is centred around enjoying the ocean, Mount Washington is all about the slopes. Located in the centre of the island, there are 50 ski runs, a tubing area, cross-country skiing trails and snowshoeing opportunities abound.
Significantly less expensive than its mainland ski resort counterparts, Mount Washington is an excellent option for winter fun with much less stress. In the summer, the mountain is open for hiking and mountain biking, all complete with lovely mountain views.
There is accommodation offered at the mountain, but for more range check out the nearby towns of Courtenay and Comox. The Old House Village and The Kingfisher Oceanside Resort are great options to recover after your long day on the mountain regardless of the season.