From surfing and garden touring, whale-watching and wine tasting to outdoor adventuring and local eating, Vancouver Island has plenty to do indoors and out.
This Canadian island measures more than 285 miles long and 60 miles wide, so you’ll want to plot your adventures before setting off. From eating your way through British Columbia’s capital city of Victoria (at the island’s south end) to adventuring in the waters near Tofino (on the island’s west coast), here are our top picks for a Vancouver Island getaway.
Go Wine-Tasting (and Eat a Special Supper)
The Cowichan Valley, an hour’s drive north of Victoria, is a small but rapidly growing wine region, with more than a dozen low-key wineries. Start your touring and tasting at Averill Creek Vineyard, Zanatta Winery & Vinoteca, Unsworth Vineyards or Merridale Cider. The best place to eat nearby is hidden in the woods near Lake Cowichan, where passionate locavore and chef Brock Windsor runs the Stone Soup Inn, serving a creative five-course “chef’s choice” dinner three nights a week. Windsor, who honed his cooking chops at the island’s Sooke Harbour House, cures his own bacon, forages for herbs and mushrooms and sources nearly all his ingredients from within a few miles of his down-to-earth restaurant. While the menu changes with the seasons and available ingredients, some past dishes perfect for spring and summer included the oregano-braised smoked ham or the duck two ways with pickled cherry sauce, oyster mushrooms, crispy polenta, and baby carrots and peas.
Scope Out the Surf
On the island’s Pacific-facing west coast, it’s all about the surf, whether you want to swim, get out on a board or a boat, or simply watch the waves roll in. Head to Tofino for surfing lessons, kayak excursions and storm watching (particularly in winter). Whether you’re a serious hiker or an afternoon stroller, you can wander the rainforest trails of the Pacific Rim National Park. And when you’re ready for a rest, the area’s top lodging is the Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star Wickaninnish Inn Tofino, located oceanfront at Chesterman Beach, which offers a cozy retreat with huge windows to show off the picturesque location, tubs with views of the ocean and a fireplace in every room.
Harness Your Flower Power
Wander the 55 acres of flowering plants at Butchart Gardens, a National Historic Site just north of Victoria that draws nearly a million visitors every year. From mid-June through September, come in the evening when twinkling lights illuminate the garden paths. There’s an elaborate fireworks display, too, on Saturday nights in the summer (from June 29 to August 31).
Watch for Whales
The waters off Vancouver Island are the seasonal swimming grounds for several varieties of whales. Grey whales migrate along the west coast in the spring, while other species, including humpbacks and orcas, frolic around the island in summer and fall. Several whale-watch cruises depart from Victoria, where operators include Great Pacific Adventures and Prince of Whales. Tofino is the other major whale-watch center where the guides at The Whale Centre or Jamie’s Whaling Station & Adventure Centre can take you out to see these magnificent animals in their natural habitat.
Eat Locally (and Eat Well)
Victoria used to be known for afternoon tea and not much else, at least as far as its local food scene. No more. Chef-owned bistros featuring the region’s bounty are all around town. Our favorites? Uber-creative Ulla in Chinatown offers delectable dishes such as the halibut and spot prawn with quinoa, tomato, arugula and asparagus in a prawn bisque, while Francophile-friendly Brasserie L’Ecole’s menu changes nightly with selections ranging from duck breast and leg confit to a brasserie burger with Gruyère, bacon and arugula. Try the small plates (salt and pepper pork tenderloin bites or poutine, anyone?) and local sips at Vis-à-Vis Wine Bar in the Oak Bay neighborhood, where you can sample the 24 table wines and four sparklers the restaurant has on hand. And be sure to stop by Zambri’s, a buzzing trattoria serving contemporary Italian downtown with pizzas (such as the Alpina with goat cheese, pecorino and puréed greens), pasta (ditali with veal meatballs, peas and wine), meat dishes (try the balsamic-glazed roasted lamb shake with lentils and gnocchi) and much more.
Photos courtesy of Tourism Victoria, The Wickaninnish Inn and Adrian Dorst