Victoria, British Columbia, and Vancouver Island are included in the road excursion. Gulf Islands

A wonderland of azure bays, rippling lakes, old-growth forests and lofty mountain peaks, Vancouver Island lies just off the coast of mainland British Columbia, but in many respects it feels like its own distinct province.

Although British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria, lies at its southeastern tip, most of Vancouver Island is virgin wilderness. At 12,079 square miles, it’s nearly six times larger than Canada‘s only island province, Prince Edward Island.

Yet, as immense as it is, you can get to know the top destinations on the more populous yet still ruggedly stunning southern third of the island in less than a week. The highlights include Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula, the far southwestern coastline out to Port Renfrew, and the Gulf Islands archipelago. And if you have a little extra time, you can tack on a side trip to idyllic and idiosyncratic Tofino, on the island’s wild west coast.

An adventure in this part of Canada appeals to recreation enthusiasts, foodies, artists and culture seekers. Hikers and beachcombers will discover endless opportunities to commune with nature and view dramatic wildlife, from formidable orcas (killer whales) to myriad migratory birds.

Tourists watch killer whales from an inflatable boat. JURGAR/GETTY IMAGES

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Victoria, along with even the island’s smaller towns, abounds with farm-to-table restaurants and third-wave cafes, along with laid-back yet sometimes quite prestigious art galleries and crafts boutiques.

Ferries ply the region’s spectacular Salish Sea, making it easy to travel by car from the mainland to Vancouver Island and then among the Gulf Islands, which lie just off of Vancouver Island’s southeastern coast. From Victoria, it’s a scenic 90-minute ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Port Angeles, Washington, making it easy to combine this adventure with an additional road trip around the Olympic Peninsula and San Juan Islands.

Planning advice

Ferry to Nanaimo approaching the Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. KARIN SLADE/GETTY IMAGES

Timing and border crossings

Although you can get around Victoria’s Inner Harbour and several of the towns in the area on foot, a car is needed to get around the more rural parts of the island. Factoring in the time you might spend in Vancouver if that’s your gateway city, give yourself at least eight days to experience this itinerary. That gives you enough time to spend two or three nights in Victoria, a night in Sooke or Port Renfrew, and three to five nights in the Gulf Islands.

Tack on two or three nights if you’re also going to Tofino. If you’re planning to ferry or drive into neighboring Washington, remember to travel with your passport and make sure that if you’re renting a car, the agency permits you to take it over the border (most British Columbia and Washington rental agencies do allow this).

Fees and reservations

Ferry fees, especially when traveling with a car, can add some expense to your trip. In high season, for example, it costs around 160 Canadian dollars (about $118) to take the ferry (including a standard-size vehicle, driver and passenger) to Salt Spring Island via Swartz Bay and then to continue on to Tsawwassen on the British Columbia mainland. If taking the Black Ball Ferry from Victoria to Port Angeles, plan to spend about CA$135 ($100).

Although ferry reservations aren’t required, they’re a good idea if you’re bringing a car, especially on weekends and during the busy mid-spring to mid-fall high season.

Best start and end points

Including time spent on the ferry, it’s only a few hours’ drive from Vancouver on the British Columbia mainland to get to Victoria. If renting a car, remember that you’ll need to return your vehicle in the same country that you picked it up, and that returning it at a different location within Canada can result in steep one-way fees.

This trip begins in Victoria; however, the region’s largest airport with the greatest number of direct flights is Vancouver International Airport (YVR), so it may make the most sense to start and end your travels there, and then catch a ferry from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, a short drive from Victoria.

Although there are fewer direct flights to Victoria International Airport (YYJ) than to Vancouver, it can still make sense to start and end your trip there, especially if you’re short on time or traveling only a portion of this itinerary.

The best time to visit Vancouver Island

Hiking trail near Tofino, British Columbia. KYMBERLINE DOZOIS PHOTOGRAPHY/GETTY IMAGES

The most popular season for exploring this region is mid-May through mid-October. This is when you can count on the driest and sunniest weather. That said, Victoria and the Gulf Islands are in the Olympic rain shadow and thus generally receive less rain and cloud cover than much of the rest of western British Columbia.

So even if visiting in the heart of winter, it’s possible to experience at least some partly sunny days. As you might expect, hotel rates are considerably higher during the high season, and you’ll also experience more crowds at this time. Try to reserve hotel rooms well in advance during the busy period, and prepare for potentially long waits to board the ferry.

If visiting during the quieter months, from mid-autumn through mid-spring, you’ll have much more of the island and its scenic roads to yourself, and you’ll also potentially save quite a lot of money.

Furthermore, the dramatic squalls that often blow through the coastal Pacific Northwest from mid-November through March have created a highly popular phenomenon known as storm-watching, which typically entails some combination of braving the elements to walk on or near the beach (but safely away from the potentially dangerous surf) and then holing up afterward in a cozy room adorned with tall windows and maybe — hopefully — a gas fireplace, with a good book, a favorite companion and/or a bottle of wine.

Victoria, British Columbia

Seaplane taxis for takeoff in the Inner Harbour, Victoria, British Columbia. SILENTFOTO/GETTY IMAGES

From Port Angeles, it’s a 90-minute ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Victoria, the dignified and — by Canadian standards — balmy capital of British Columbia. With a population of about 92,000, it’s also the second-largest city (after Nanaimo, which is only slightly larger) on Vancouver Island, a huge (it’s nearly half as large as Ireland) but minimally developed tract of sculpted inlets, jagged mountain peaks and temperate rainforest.

As it approaches downtown’s compact skyline of midrise towers, the ferry chugs slowly through the sheltered, picturesque Inner Harbour, which is home to the constant hum of seaplanes, pleasure boats and water taxis.

From the terminal, you can walk to many of this leafy city’s top attractions, including the ornately neo-baroque provincial parliament buildings, the engaging Royal BC Museum and the Fairmont Empress hotel. Afternoon high tea in this venerable 1908 hotel is a treasured rite as well as a testament to Victoria’s traditional — some might say fusty —British reputation.

In reality, Victoria has become rapidly younger, more diverse and dynamic in recent years, and hip craft breweries, third-wave coffeehouses, trendy international bistros and sceney (but friendly) cocktail lounges now proliferate. Many of the best dining and drinking spots are set along downtown’s Fisgard Street, which forms the heart of the city’s historic Chinatown.

Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia. CONSTANTGARDENER/GETTY IMAGES

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It’s a short walk from the waterfront to the city’s most celebrated green space, Beacon Hill Park, with its pine-shaded trails that lead south to Spiral Beach and Finlayson Point — these are two fabulous spots for watching the sunset across the water, back toward Washington’s snowcapped Olympic Mountains. A favorite part of the park is Beacon Hill Children’s Farm, where you can see and sometimes pet pot-bellied pigs, miniature donkeys, goats and other cute critters. Try to time your visit to watch the ridiculously cute daily goat stampedes at around 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Leave the park by driving east along scenic Dallas Road and Beach Drive, following the curving shoreline and admiring genteel Oak Bay, and then take Highway 17 north to the cute port town of Sidney, which is home to the terrific Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea aquarium.

On the way to Sidney, set aside at least a couple of hours to detour a few miles west on Keating Cross Road to the renowned Butchart Gardens, a 55-acre former limestone quarry on Brentwood Bay that in 1921 was transformed into a series of carefully planned and curated gardens.

Where to stay

OAK BAY BEACH HOTEL/FACEBOOK

Enjoy views of the ferries, yachts and seaplanes that ply Victoria’s Inner Harbour from the balcony of your room at the fashionably sleek Inn at Laurel Point (rates start at CA$289 per night), with a Japanese garden, a pool and an excellent Pacific Rim-inspired restaurant, Aura.

Abigail’s Hotel (rates start at CA$429 per night) is a luxurious old-world Tudor Revival inn built in the 1930s. It stands out for its attentive service and gourmet breakfasts, and it’s close to both Beacon Hill Park and historic downtown.

A scenic 10-minute drive east of the Inner Harbour via famously beautiful Dallas Road, the Oak Bay Beach Hotel (rates start at CA$277 per night) features gorgeously appointed, contemporary rooms as well as three curvaceous heated mineral pools overlooking the sea and San Juan Island in the distance. This boutique resort’s Boathouse Spa offers a full slate of ultrarelaxing massage services and body treatments, and since 1954, the Snug Pub has been a beloved spot for waterfront cocktails and casual dining.

With a full-service spa and a superb location steps from Glass Beach and the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea aquarium, the contemporary Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa (rates start at CA$249 per night) is just a short drive from the ferries to the Gulf Islands.

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Sooke and Port Renfrew, British Columbia

Sooke, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. EDB3_16/GETTY IMAGES

For a splendid drive along Vancouver Island’s verdant and unhurried southern coast, make the two-hour trek to Port Renfrew, which lies literally at the end of the road.

From Victoria, take gently rolling and lushly forested Highway 14 — stopping in Sooke, with its farm-to-table restaurants and posh country inns — and continue as the road hugs the pristine shoreline.

Magnificent vistas of Washington’s Olympic Mountains await, and you’ll discover several beautiful parks and beaches along the route, including French Beach, Jordan River Regional Park (where you might stop inside the quirky Cold Shoulder Cafe for an Earl Grey latte or a bowl of chanterelle mushroom soup), and Sombrio Beach. At the end of Highway 14, you’ll finally come to tiny Port Renfrew, a hub of First Nations culture that lies where the San Juan and Gordon rivers empty into the sea.

Wonderful spots for a stroll include the tide pools and dramatic rock formations of Botanical Beach Provincial Park and Avatar Grove, with its hulking, gnarled old-growth cedars.

You can return to Victoria the way you came, or you can make a half-hour-longer scenic loop through dense evergreen forests to Lake Cowichan and then along the west side of Saanich Inlet.

Where to stay

One of the most acclaimed country inns in British Columbia, the Sooke Harbour House (rates start at CA$429 per night) closed in 2020 in order to undergo a major renovation. As of this writing, the 28-room inn was planning to reopen sometime in early 2024, and the vaunted locavore-minded restaurant — which has drawn foodies since it opened in the late 1970s — will be helmed by celebrated chef Melissa Craig.

A stunning contemporary compound of log-style bungalows perched over the sea or overlooking fragrant gardens, Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages (rates start at CA$249 per night) sits amid the ancient forests lining Port San Juan Inlet. Rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows, and many have private decks, fireplaces and hot tubs.

More affordable lodgings are found in the nearby motel-style West Coast Trail Lodge (rates start at CA$139 per night), which is owned and operated by the same team. It’s just a short walk from either property to the delightful Renfrew Pub, a casual eatery with elevated Canadian fare and expansive water views.

The Gulf Islands, British Columbia

Ganges, Salt Spring Island, Vancouver Island. WIRESTOCK/GETTY IMAGES

From Swartz Bay, just a 30-minute drive north of Sidney, you can catch frequent ferries to explore the easygoing and incredibly picturesque southern Gulf Islands, which are geologically part of the same archipelago as the San Juan Islands, just across the maritime border with the United States.

Like the San Juans, these emerald isles are sparsely populated and minimally developed, making them ideal for a peaceful getaway amid breathtaking natural scenery. Biking, hiking, fishing and kayaking are prime activities in these parts.

All of the islands covered in this itinerary are served by BC Ferries, but keep in mind that ferry schedules can change often, so always confirm online when boats are running and to where.

A good strategy is to spend a couple of nights on the largest and most populous of the group, Salt Spring Island, and then set aside another day or two to visit up to three more islands set along the main ferry route between Swartz Bay and the mainland town of Tsawwassen: Pender, Mayne and Galiano.

Salt Spring Island

It’s an easy 35-minute ferry ride from Swartz Bay to Fulford Harbour, on the south side of Salt Spring Island. The largest of the Gulf Islands, Salt Spring has about 11,600 year-round residents, including a sizable number of artists, makers and other creative spirits. The lively harborside village of Ganges anchors this hilly, agrarian island and contains a wealth of galleries, recreation outfitters, cafes and shops.

For a lovely view of the harbor, grab a seat on the waterfront deck at Moby’s Pub, which serves up tasty burgers and local beer. Scenic roads lace the island and access the coastal trails of Ruckle Provincial Park, an excellent place for viewing whales and sea lions in Captain Passage, and Mount Maxwell Provincial Park, where you can drive a gravel road or hike well-maintained trails to 1,175-foot-high Baynes Peak for panoramic island vistas.

Pender Island

The other stops you’ll encounter if you choose the multi-island ferry route from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen each have their own distinct personalities.

Easygoing Pender Island (technically North Pender and South Pender islands, which are separated by a short bridge) draws visitors for hikes through the Roesland and Beaumont sections of Gulf Islands National Park Preserve — the 1.6-mile climb to Mount Norman is especially popular.

Reward yourself after a day of outdoor adventures by visiting the sun-filled, contemporary tasting room at Sea Star Vineyard and Winery or sampling the delicious sips at Twin Island Cider.

Mayne Island

With around 1,300 residents, compact Mayne Island is known for the stunning flower beds and carefully tended specimen trees and shrubs at Japanese Memorial Gardens.

On the island’s northern tip, spend some time strolling around the 45-foot-tall Active Pass Lighthouse — the tree-shaded grounds overlooking the pass between Mayne and Galiano islands are a memorable spot for a picnic.

Galiano Island

About 17 miles long, narrow and undulating Galiano Island is a top draw among fans of wildlife viewing — you can spy everything from bald eagles and cormorants to seals and orca whales from the shores of this serene isle that abounds with hiking preserves and quiet pebbly beaches.

Bellhouse Provincial Park and Montague Harbour Marine Provincial Park are among the best places to take in the splendid natural scenery. The island also boasts a top-notch golf course, and you’ll find a handful of endearing shops and eateries within walking distance of the ferry terminal at Sturdies Bay.

Where to stay

Offering country-chic sophistication and a peaceful setting amid 22 acres of gardens and woodlands on the edge of Salt Spring Island’s main village, the Relais & Chateaux-branded Hastings House Country House Hotel (rates start at CA$525 per night) offers the ultimate Gulf Islands splurge. The 18 bungalows and suites come with sumptuous touches like fresh floral bouquets, fireplaces and full gourmet breakfasts. Facials and massages in the warmly appointed Wellspring Spa incorporate local herbs, and the outstanding restaurant serves seafood, lamb and produce sourced locally.

Set on the quiet north end of Salt Spring Island, the intimate and romantic Quarrystone House B&B (rates start at CA$290 per night) has four spacious, light-filled rooms with Jacuzzi tubs, fireplaces, and patios or decks with sweeping westerly panoramas across the water. The three-course breakfasts feature house-made jams and local cheeses, eggs and meats.

On South Pender Island, consider overnighting at Poets Cove Resort & Spa (rates start at CA$220 per night), a wood-frame Arts and Crafts-style property nestled beneath a pine-dotted hillside overlooking Bedwell Harbour Marina. With a mix of villas, cottages and conventional hotel rooms, Poets Cove is known for its relaxing spa, complete with a eucalyptus steam cave and hot tub. There are three restaurants, too.

On the low-key east side of the isle, Mayne Island Resort (rates start at CA$139 per night) has both posh contemporary villas and cottages and moderately priced standard rooms in the original 1912 main lodge building. The resort is home to the convivial Bennett Bay Bistro, a memorable spot to sup on local salmon, prawns and scallops.

On Galiano Island, you can watch ferries and pleasure boats come and go from an airy glass-walled room at the Galiano Oceanfront Inn and Spa (rates start at CA$234 per night) overlooking scenic Sturdies Bay. Madrona del Mar Spa offers an array of organic skincare treatments, and e-bike rentals are available if you’d like to give the car a rest.

Nanaimo and Tofino side trip

Surfers at Cox Bay, Tofino. STERLING LORENCE PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

If you’re up for seeing more of Vancouver Island, one option is to depart Salt Spring Island by ferry from the Vesuvius Bay terminal and then drive from Crofton to the laid-back coastal city of Nanaimo, which is home to a handful of notable attractions, including the engaging Nanaimo Museum, which touches on the region’s rich First Nations heritage and coal-mining heritage, and the bustling Harbourfront Walkway, a scenic pathway that fringes the city’s colorful waterfront and offers easy access to a number of nearby restaurants and shops.

Be sure to treat yourself to a Nanaimo bar, the local chocolate layered confection that’s adored throughout British Columbia. You can find these all over town, with Mon Petit Choux Bakery — near both the Nanaimo Museum and the Harbourfront Walkway — serving some of the best.

It’s a three-hour drive from Nanaimo, via highways 19 and 4, through prolific logging towns and across the Pacific Coast mountains to secluded Tofino, a nature lovers utopia that fringes Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and enjoys a magical, windswept setting where Clayoquot Sound meets the sea.

This is one of Canada’s most enchanting small towns, a wonderful place to embark on dramatic hikes through misty temperate rainforests and to set out on sea-kayaking, whale-watching and fishing tours.

Although inhabited by only around 2,500 residents, Tofino has a thriving art and culinary scene, including some of the province’s most acclaimed restaurants — Wolf in the Frog and Shelter are a couple of standouts.

Where to stay

MacMillan Provincial Park. TOURISM VANCOUVER ISLAND/FACEBOOK

Although it’s a 15-minute drive northwest of Nanaimo’s colorful harbor, the 62-room Inn on Long Lake (rates start at 239 Canadian dollars per night) enjoys a relaxing setting on a gorgeous lake with kayak and paddleboard rentals. Many of the spacious, modern rooms face the water.

If you’d prefer spending the night right in the heart of the city, the 15-story Coast Bastion Hotel (rates start at CA$215 per night) offers sweeping views of the neighboring Port of Nanaimo and the surrounding Salish Sea and mountains — try to book a room on a high floor for the best vistas. Amenities include a popular seasonally focused restaurant with harbor views and a well-equipped fitness center.

Part of the exclusive Relais & Chateaux association, the casually elegant Wickaninnish Inn (rates start at CA$620 per night) has one of the most alluring settings on the islands — during the winter months, the 75 cushy rooms are ideal for storm-watching, but it’s spectacular here year-round. The resort’s Pointe Restaurant serves artfully prepared fresh-caught seafood in an airy dining room with grand vistas of the sea. Treat yourself to some pampering in the full-service spa, and help yourself to the complimentary bike rentals.

A couple of miles south on a driftwood-strewn beach overlooking pristine Cox Bay, the Pacific Sands Beach Resort (rates start at CA$307 per night) features a mix of suites and beach houses with high ceilings, tall windows, gas fireplaces and top-of-the-line bedding and bath products. Soothe your soul in one of the beachfront wood-fired saunas, and savor delicious farm-to-table fare in the three restaurants.

Steps from downtown Tofino’s inviting shops and restaurants, the sleek and contemporary Duffin Cove Oceanfront Lodging (rates start at CA$299 per night) offers both two-person studios with waterfront balconies and roomier A-frame cabins with pitched roofs and fully outfitted condos.

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