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Vancouver Island: Explore the Natural Wonders of the Pacific Rim

Must-See Locations: From Victoria to Tofino

Mystic beach with waves coming in.
Mystic beach.

For the past two years, readers of Conde Nast Traveler magazine have selected Vancouver Island as the “Best Island, North America.” Proving that familiarity breeds indifference, if not contempt, it is only in my fifties that I have come to appreciate fully why my Vancouver Island generates rave reviews and repeat visits from travelers around the world.

Growing up in one of its isolated coastal fishing village, wilderness, mercurial weather, and wildlife encounters on land and sea were part of life for me, not vacation concepts. Later, returning with my family to settle in the province’s neatly manicured capital city, Victoria, after 20 adult years roaming the world, I continued to equate holiday plans with more distant horizons. That is, until I explored the Pacific Rim on Vancouver Island’s west coast and Telegraph Cove on its northeastern shore.

Vancouver Island house in the middle of a lake on a small green island.
A small green island with a house next to the main green island.

Vancouver Island is the same size as Costa Rica but with one-fifth the population (750,000), mostly clustered in Victoria and a few east-coast communities facing the British Columbia mainland. Although serviced by well-signed roads and highways, airports, and ferry routes from top to tail, the vast majority of the island remains ripe for undisturbed exploration. Each of its four distinct seasons generates its own visitor attractions in what is clearly a year-round destination.

Go west to the “Graveyard of the Pacific”: How about a storm-watching vacation on the Pacific Ocean coast, predictably dramatic any time between November and March? For the past seven years, winter vacationers from around the world have flocked to the picturesque fishing villages of Ucluelet (pop. 1,750) and Tofino (pop. 1,170) and to world-class resorts like Wickaninnish Inn. Formerly focused on forestry and commercial fishing, these once remote communities now act as bookends to Pacific Rim National Park, a dramatic 30-mile swath of fine sand beaches, chiseled rock outcroppings, and wind-sculpted trees that punctuate the entire shoreline.

Canada's wild West Coast during a storm.
Canada's wild West Coast in winter.
Credit Mark Hobson/Wickaninnish Inn

Looking west, the next stop is Japan from whence come spectacular and relentless wave formations in the winter months. While most of the year Pacific Rim visitors would wish for fine weather, dedicated storm watchers are seen along the cliff’s top nature trails and beaches checking the skies for brooding black clouds, hoping to feel some of the hurricane force winds that have earned these waters the name, “Graveyard of the Pacific.”

The journey to the west coast begins in the center of the island at Port Alberni, offering matchless views as you meander west through temperate rainforests and snow-capped mountains on the Pacific Rim Highway. From the junction, where the coast highway splits, it is five miles to Ucluelet and 22 miles to Tofino, both well serviced to suit a variety of travel tastes and budgets.

Tofino is an ecotourism area of rocky shore on Vancouver Island.
Tofino today thrives on ecotourism.

Head north for a whale of a tale (or tail): Vancouver-Island girl though I am, I had never driven more than half its length until October 2003, when I clocked almost six hours up the east coast from Victoria before turning onto an unpaved logging road that brings 10,000 visitors a year into Telegraph Cove.

Perched on the edge of a marine corridor, often called the ocean’s Serengheti Plains because of both the numbers and diversity of marine life, the village itself is a living history lesson in miniature. Occupying a perfectly circular bay with only the smallest of openings into the straits beyond, this antique sawmilling village, originally settled in the 1920s and 30s, has been expertly restored to reflect the style of rural life up to the 1950s — including no phones or TV.

From the mill owner’s mansion high on a rocky outlook and the bachelor lumbermen’s bunkhouse to the World War II Air Force mess hall and the colorful self-catering homes, there are plenty of accommodations arrangements. Buildings are linked together around the edge of the cove by an invitingly strollable yellow cedar boardwalk, dotted with sawmill and logging artefacts and an occasional black furry visitor. This is, after all, the wilderness.

Though the historical intensity of the village was a delightful bonus, my primary purpose in visiting Telegraph Cove was to spend five days exploring dozens of protected islets and inlets in search of marine mammals and bird life. Being there in the wildlife high season of September virtually guarantees leisurely observations — not glimpses — of humpback and minke whales, striking black and white killer whale family pods, and Steller’s sea lions, as well as hundreds of Pacific white-sided dolphins and Dall’s porpoises, which commonly serve as playful boat escorts. Those are just the most visible highlights in a day of wilderness immersion.

Marine Life and Whale Watching Tours

Killer whales (actually world's largest dolphins) with finns sticking up from the ocean at sunrise.
Killer whales are actually the world's largest dolphins.
Credit: Stubbs Island Whale Watching

With full-day excursions aboard either of two vessels, Stubbs Island Whale Watching delivers unique wildlife experiences in spades. Aboard the modern aluminum Lukwa with its spacious lounge areas, picture windows, and easily accessible deck areas, comfort is assured, even on a rough day in the wilderness. But it is the lovingly restored Gikumi that is the historic treasure of company owners and long-time residents, Jim and Mary Borrowman. Built for the area’s shipping and lumber trade 50 years ago, the Gikumi, with its polished brass and gleaming paint and natural wood trim, is a perfect complement to a lingering stay in the village itself.

The sunset over Vancouver Island is spectacular as a man paddles a kayak.
A Vancouver Island sunset.

For More Information on Vancouver Island

Tourism Vancouver Island. The comprehensive travel website for all of Vancouver Island including Victoria and the Gulf Islands. Request free travel guides.

Telegraph Cove Information:

Telegraph Cove Resorts offers a variety of historic accommodations. It also runs a 120-space full-service campground secluded above the cove, 140 marina berths, a fine wharf-side restaurant and pub, and a traditional general store.

Pacific Rim Information:

Long Beach Maps offers a descriptive price guide to 75 wide-ranging accommodations along the Pacific Rim from Tofino to Ucluelet, information about Pacific Rim National Park, all transportation options servicing the region, active and educational tour operators, and, of course, maps for everything.

Alison Gardner, Senior Travel Editor of Transitions Abroad, is also publisher of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, a richly illustrated resource for senior travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide.See her bio for many more articles she has written for Transitions Abroad.

Related Topics
Senior Travel
Responsible Travel
Canada: Articles and Resources

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