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Great Canadian Road Trips: Vancouver and Vancouver Island

Canada’s west coast is what road trips are made for.

Sandwiched between the Rockies in the east and the Pacific to the west, British Colombia is nature on a grand scale, a veritable wonderland of beauty. Think swathes of untamed forest, towering, snow-kissed peaks and an endless coastline of sandy beaches and rugged, surf-beaten rocks. Throw in the rich indigenous culture, chilled out locals and endless opportunities for all out adventure, all easily discoverable on quiet, picturesque roads and you’ve got the road trip of a lifetime!

As well as spectacular, BC is also huge, so you’ll need a good while to explore it more fully. Driving north from Vancouver along the Sunshine Coast as high as you can go then crossing to Vancouver Island to head south to Victoria before crossing back to Vancouver is the perfect 2-3 week itinerary, and one that I recently embarked on…

The Sunshine Coast

This road trip actually begins with a ferry, departing from the most picturesque ferry port you could imagine. We’d driven around Vancouver and through it’s northern suburbs to reach Horseshoe Bay where, sat in a queue of cars we pondered how utterly different to Dover this was. Bright blue sky, snow capped mountains, emerald ever-green trees backed a peaceful bay, the ferry waiting to load and take us off to the aptly named, on this morning at least, Sunshine Coast. Pushing off from shore we cruised tranquilly around wooded, rocky islands, passing the small boats of people living their best life out on the water on such a glorious day, ever watched over by mountains.

At Langsdale, we drove off the ferry with a feeling of elation. The open road was before us in one of the world’s most beautiful countries, and it was called the Sunshine Coast Highway; what glorious adventures must surely await us? We got stuck in almost straight away, turning off the highway to the little town of Gibson’s Harbour. We popped in and out of cute little boutique stores, and found our way to the harbour where we stopped at Smoke on the Water for an early lunch of amazing pulled pork and fries. After a stroll along the waterfront to the busy indoor market, our final stop was to have a nose at Tapworks Brewing Company, to get some local craft beer to take away and enjoy when the day’s driving was done.

Back on the road we cruised lazily but with purpose – we had another ferry to catch! It would be more than easy to stretch out your time on this first part of the Sunshine Coast Highway; there are plenty of pleasant little towns to explore, as well as provincial parks to hike, lakes and beaches, farm shops and all out wilderness. For us, the drive continued, the road winding gently through towering trees, occasionally kissing the coast for a tempting glimpse at the calm waters of the Strait of Georgia. We followed it until it and the land ran out; we’d arrived at Earl’s Cove, the next ferry terminal. Here we waited, enjoying the peacefulness of the surrounding forest, strolling down to the water’s edge for a peek at the journey to come. Other than a toilet block and a small cafe that happened to be closed, the ferry port didn’t have much going on, but this just added to the gloriousness of the spot, the feeling of wilderness and exploration.

Once again the ferry wound through evergreen islands, the downward trajectory of a spring afternoon sun giving the whole scene a hazy, dream-like quality. I stood at the front of the boat, hoping for a fearless whale to swim by and say hello. Landing at Saltery Bay, we drove the final 30 minutes to Powell River, our stop for several days. Once home to the world’s largest pulp and paper mill, the town today is quaint yet cultural, with plenty of galleries, boutique shops, a microbrewery and Canada’s longest running movie theatre, built in 1913.  

We were here to stay with family, their house high on a hill, looking down over the strait, the mountains of Vancouver Island waiting for us on the other side of the water.

An easily explorable town, a visit to the historic Townsite to peruse the lovely array of boutique shops, and an hour or two in the taproom of award-winning Townsite Brewery were musts. We also made a trip up to Lund, the very end of the highway. From here there is a single provincial road that takes you to the point where the mainland gives way to islands, waterways and unadulterated wilderness. It’s also the gateway, by water, to the bleakly but poetically named Desolation Sound, and it’s eponymous Provincial Park. Although the day was overcast, we strolled happily around the harbour gazing out over the water, admiring a colourful Tla’amin Nation welcome pole. watching golden eagles soaring and lots of hummingbirds swooping back and forth between feeders.

Part 2: Vancouver Island

A bright and sunny morning, we were back on the road, heading for Powell River’s ferry terminal. For the 1 hour 34 minute cruise straight across the Strait of Georgia we stood on deck watching the snowy peaks of Vancouver Island drawing ever closer.

When we originally planned this trip, we wanted to go all the way up to Port Hardy, about as far north as you can go on Vancouver Island, but given the amount of time we had and the other places we wanted to go, it didn’t work out. Instead we popped up as far as Campbell River, a small city strung along the seashore. It’s actually Canada’s salmon capital, which is a pretty big accolade, for anyone who is into fish. As not so into fish people we simply strolled the lovely waterfront ( and discovered the amazing Dockside Fish and Chips on the floating marina), sat on the balcony of our sea-facing motel room desperately hoping to spot whales and explored the local area.

The Campbell River Museum was a great way to while away an afternoon, with exhibitions on local history and a great collection on the First Nations who call the surrounding area home. We also took a trip out of town to Elk Falls Provincial Park, spending a morning mucking about on the well-maintained trails, sunning ourselves on rocks beside mini rapids of the most incredibly clear, blue water and loving the peace and tranquility. The falls themselves were pretty impressive, with a fun suspension bridge to cross to get an even better view.

Departing Campbell River, we cruised southwards, travelling back past the Comox ferry terminal where we had arrived a few days before. At Qualicum Beach we turned westwards, leaving the highway behind to cut across the island to reach our next stop, Tofino. The road passes placid lakes and unspoiled forest, cutting through Cathedral Grove, where we stopped to admire the dizzying heights of ancient Douglas Firs and Red Cedars that have stood here for 800 years. There’s nothing like a tree with a trunk that has a circumference of 9 metres to make you feel tiny. It was a pretty humbling place to walk around, gazing up at trees that have occupied their spot in the world for so long, and survived everything that us humans have thrown at them. Here’s hoping they survive hundreds of years more.

From Cathedral Grove, you keep driving until you hit the Pacific Ocean. At that point you join the Pacific Rim Highway, turning left to the village of Ucluelet, or right to Tofino. The highway cuts through part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, where thick, temperate forest surrounds you but for the occasional cheeky glimpse of the wild sandy beaches and the tempestuous ocean beyond.

Tofino itself is all about the good vibes and while in the past it was probably called ‘hippy’, now it’s just way cooler than that, with its farm to table eateries, trendy cafes and a fine array of places to stay. Oh and a brewery because… well, it’s BC.

The village spreads along the end of a small peninsula, with Clayoquot Sound on one side and the Pacific on the other. Our base for our time here was the Tofino Resort + Marina, which is perfectly located a few minutes’ walk from the village centre with its eateries and shops. The hotel’s marina is a playground for otters and seals, and beyond are the waters of the sound, speckled with islands packed with evergreen trees that are the eternal image of Vancouver Island.

On arrival we popped into Jamie’s Whaling Station to book ourselves on a bear safari, and made plans to walk the Wild Pacific Trail, which follows a glorious stretch of coastline close to Ucluelet.

The bear safari involved buzzing about Clayoquot Sound by small boat to access the true wilderness that Tofino is the gateway too. While we simply stumbled across a pod of orca mucking about in one of the many bays, finding a bear was a little harder. The local bears like to pop down to the rocky shores to snuffle out a snack whenever they get peckish, which is often. On the day we went looking for bears it was sunny but windy, and it seems the Tofino bears aren’t keen on a stiff breeze and preferred to stick to the shelter of the trees. Just as we were about to give up scanning the shoreline for a furry friend, our captain swung into a small, sheltered cove, and there it was. A black bear flipping stones looking for a bite to eat. We were able to get about 20 metres away from it, and spent a good 20 minutes watching it before it slunk off into the trees. Yeah, ok we did only see one, but in the end a bear is a bear, and it was an honour to see one having a snack.

There are several sections of the Wild Pacific Trail and to be honest I’ve no idea which bit or bits we actually did. There was a lighthouse, a lot of rugged, rocky outcrops that the waves hit dramatically, and whales flopping about out to sea, all of which was flipping spectacular! The whole area is popular for storm watching in the winter; the horizon becomes heavy with  black clouds and the wind picks up (poor bears!) causing the ocean to rage and huge waves to crash spectacularly against the land. As we stood and watched it wasn’t hard to imagine the majestic power of the Pacific riled up by a storm, when it already seemed pretty angry on this calm, sunny day.

We followed the coastline around rocky ridges and sandy bays, and passed through dense rainforest, before returning to Ucluelet to hunt for well-earned snacks, which we found at the delightful Ukee Dogs Taqueria.

Heading back to Tofino, we stopped at Long Beach for a stroll on the sand. The surf immediately gave it away as a great surfing spot even though there weren’t many people out catching waves in the late afternoon. Instead we had to watch golden eagles soaring above us and, at one point, landing close-by, and getting quickly miffed by the wind-borne sand that was swirling about. On our final evening in Tofino, we heard about Tonquin Beach being a great spot for sunset, and headed there on foot just in time to catch it. Trails through old-growth forest took us to this tiny cove where we just caught the finally reds and oranges of the setting sun. As soon as dusk fell, we remembered that we were in a country where there are bears, and hot-footed it through the darkening trees to get back into town in a slightly unnecessary panic, unlike the hardened locals, who sat on the beach smoking weed (legal here) as the stars began to appear in the sky.

There’s only one way in and out of Tofino, so we had to drive all the way back the way we had come from Vancouver Island’s main highway to get to our next destination, Victoria. Just before we hit the east coast where we would then turn southwards, we stopped at the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre. Here there are 60 non-releasable native creatures, some of thousands and thousands that have been rescued, including bears and lots of different birds. It was a heart-warming break to the journey, and a reminder of the fragility of nature here, even in a place where so much land remains wilderness. 

We joined the Trans-Canada Highway to travel south, driving on the road’s final section to its western terminus at Victoria. Behind us, this single highway stretches 7,821 kilometres across the whole of Canada, from St John’s Newfoundland in the east. But that’s an adventure for another time. 
Except for a quick stop for Nanaimo bars in Nanaimo, we pushed on for Victoria. It was a sunny early evening as we arrived at our hotel, so we checked in and made the short walk into town. Victoria is one of those cities that doesn’t feel like a city, with an easy-going charm and a quaint aesthetic that makes you feel right at home. We found ourselves at the inner harbour, with the impressive structure of the Fairmont Empress Hotel on one side, the majestic, domed Parliament buildings on the other, and the 1960s edifice of the Royal British Columbia Museum straight ahead. We followed the calm waters of the harbour along Wharf Street, passing the Old Customs House and found our way to the atmospheric Chinatown – Victoria’s is Canada’s oldest – and passed through the spectacular Gate of Harmonious Interest, now a historic monument. Of course we ended up at another brewery, this one an easy staggering distance back to our hotel room. Phillips Brewing had a lively, quirky tap room with a wide range of beers, as well as sodas that were also made in house. 

Victoria has plenty to do, so we dived right in. The Royal BC Museum is packed full of British Columbia’s natural and human history, with three main exhibitions – Natural History, Becoming BC and First Peoples. The room that housed a towering collection of totem poles particularly sticks in my mind. From the museum we wandered outside to Thunderbird Park, which housed more of the museum’s totem pole collection – outside in the sunlight their colours and imagery were extra striking, and in what seemed to be a much more fitting place for them, out in nature at one with the elements. Walking on we stumbled into Beacon Hill Park where, as if the day had a theme, we found ourselves standing at the foot of one of the world’s tallest totem poles, which towers to 37 metres. For me, this trip was certainly a journey of discovery in terms of learning about the First Nations; coming from the country that initially repressed and destroyed their land, populations and heritage it was a big kick in the teeth. On travelling through New Zealand I felt that, compared to other countries, the Kiwis were making a huge effort to embrace and respect the culture of the indiginous Maoris, and I felt that the same had and was happening here and it’s refreshing to see. This is the opinion of a possibly naive outsider who isn’t clued up on much of the politics around this issue, and I hope that I am at least right about a more positive relationship between First Nations populations and other Canadians.

Speaking of locals, we also ventured out onto the waters of the Salish Sea – close enough to the US to get ‘Welcome to the USA’ messages on our phones – to spot whales. We were lucky enough to have close encounters with resident orcas, who popped close to our boat to give us the eye and say hello. Our Prince of Whales (of course, how could I resist such a pun!) vessel also swung us by a rocky outcrop, complete with lighthouse, to see huge sea lions sunning themselves, and gorgeous fluffy sea otters bobbing about on the kelp forests that have flourished in the sheltered waters around the rocks.

After a hard day at sea, Italian food was desperately needed, and there was no better place to dine than Pagliacci’s. Having to queue for a table just made sitting down to eat even more enticing, and the pasta here did not disappoint – the full house, kitsch decor and live music made for a brilliant atmosphere – definitely one of the best meals of the trip.

Part 3: Vancouver

And then it was onto our last ferry, travelling from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen on the mainland. Having mainly experienced ferry journeys across the channel to France, our BC ferry experiences had been spectacular – the water was actually blue, the route winding between small, tree-crowned islands allows you to occasionally spy on people’s plush holiday homes, and there were tasty snack options onboard…what more could you ask for?

Back on the mainland we headed for the big city. Canada’s third largest metropolis, and regular in the top 10 of the world’s most livable cities, Vancouver sits in a spectacular panorama, backed by mountains and fringed by ocean. Our first stop was the airport to return our car before hopping on a train into the centre of the city. It was easy, and our Downtown hotel was then a quick walk from the station, tucked down a side road off the main drag of Granville Street. From here we could easily explore the city on foot, and spent a lot of time wandering the streets to see what we could find. It felt safe, comfortable and there was plenty to see. Our first discovery was the Gastown neighbourhood, which was the original settlement, before the city grew up around it. Today it is all boutique shops and trendy restaurants, but is an atmospheric place to stroll – the quirky steam clock is a famous image of the city. In the same area we stumble across the fabulous Marine Building, a confection of an Art Deco building that is worth a visit if you’re in the city. Also neighbouring Gastown is Vancouver’s Chinatown, one of North America’s largest. At one point, so many ethnic Chinese emigrated to the city that it picked up the nickname ‘Hongcouver’. Excited to try the food, we found our way over to W Pender Street and walked around the area, admiring the Millenium Gate and attempting to pick a restaurant from the many amazing looking ones that lined the streets. 

We spent a day in and around Stanley Park, hiring bikes to cycle around the sea wall, a nice easy 9 kilometre trail that encompasses the park. This route gives you views of the city, views of the mountains, a glimpse at the city’s beaches, and the Lions Gate Bridge which is a historic monument. You’ll also pass the parks collection of nine totem poles, which stand tall, representing some of the many First Nations that call BC home, at Brockton Point. Also located in Stanley Park is the Vancouver Aquarium. I often feel wary of aquariums, but after a bit of research found that most of the larger residents are rescued and rehabilitated, and only stay if they are not able to be re-released. So we spent a lovely few hours learning about the coastal habitats around the city and Vancouver Island, meeting Helen the rescued dolphin, sea lions and the most gorgeous collection of sea otters, all of whom were rescued as babies. Watching them swim and play was a highlight, you couldn’t help but feel their joy.

Close to our hotel, we found a water taxi that hopped across False Creek to Granville Island where there is an incredible food market, as well as a brewery (Granville Island Brewing) and lots of little shops and restaurants. It was the place we decided to save for our very last day of the trip, and it was a really delightful way to finish, sitting out in the sunshine, sampling all the delicious foods we could get our hands on, from pierogies to fresh fruit to pastries to sushi. The market perfectly reflected the welcoming international city that Vancouver is, and made saying goodbye extra hard, as there was so much more food to try.

But departing wasn’t all that difficult, because I know for sure that we’ll be back. On this trip we barely scratched the surface of all the wonders that BC has to offer, but even the experience of just this small part of the province, I’m already head over heels in love.

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