Vancouver Island, located off of Canada’s Pacific Coast and situated north of Seattle, is known for its mild climate, outdoor lifestyle, breathtaking scenery, and thriving arts communities. On Vancouver Island’s southern tip lies Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. With its boat-lined Inner Harbour, neo-baroque Parliament Buildings, grand Fairmont Empress Hotel and English-style gardens, this city is popular with both tourists and homebuyers. With abundant parkland, Vancouver Island is a popular destination for hiking, biking, and camping. The island’s rugged west coast is also well-known for outdoor activities such as surfing and kayaking.
Central Vancouver Island
Stretching along the sheltered east coast of Vancouver Island, the Central Island offers visitors glorious parks, sandy beaches, warm ocean temperatures, tranquil lakes, exceptional golf courses, and fabulous fresh and salt water fishing.
Central Island features Vancouver Island’s second largest city, Nanaimo. A fun-filled and energetic city, Nanaimo is known for its commercial success and lovely harbour. The word “Nanaimo” is derived from the Coast Salish word “Sney-Ny-Mous” which means “meeting place.” Famous for its varied landscapes and more than 24 outdoor parks, Nanaimo boasts one of the most beautiful waterfronts in Canada.
Nanaimo is also the mid-island transportation hub to and from the British Columbia mainland. BC Ferries has daily sailings from Departure Bay to Horseshoe Bay (West Vancouver on the Mainland) and Duke Point to Tsawwassen on the lower British Columbia mainland. This makes Nanaimo easy to travel to, and a great central location to set up base for tours of Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands.
The new Island Highway (Highway 19) hugs the coast from Nanaimo up to Fanny Bay, the northernmost point of Central Island. It’s always a visual treat to look across the Strait of Georgia at landmarks on the mainland and enjoy the miles of scenic, sandy beaches.
North of Nanaimo and just off Highway 19 is the protected harbour of Nanoose Bay. The local marinas, one as large as 400 berths, are a destination for visitors throughout the Pacific Northwest and around the world. The Nanoose Bay area is a vacationer’s paradise, offering a wealth of activities including sailing, windsurfing, fishing, tennis, diving, hiking, canoeing, and much more.
Exiting off Highway 19 onto the Oceanside Route Highway 19A takes you through seaside communities with homegrown hospitality and an abundance of activities and accommodation to choose from. Parksville marks the beginning of Oceanside country with the focus on the outstanding waterfront. When the tide is low, vast stretches of sand beckon to sandcastle builders and beachcombers. As the tide comes in, the water is warmed by the hot sand and is perfect for swimming. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, just south of Parksville, features a fine 2 km sandy beach, wooded stands with great nature trails and birdwatching opportunities. Arts and crafts in the Parksville area are world-renowned and feature a diverse selection of paintings, pottery, and jewelry. Feel free to relax in the sun, play in the water, stroll along the shoreline and play a round of golf. Parksville has something to please everyone.
From Parksville you can head west along Highways 4 and 4A through the pastoral Coombs area toward Port Alberni (Pacific Rim). Coombs old-fashioned country stores are scattered around Coombs Emporium and Frontier Town. The small stores sell crafts, knickknacks and many antiques. Don’t miss the grass-covered roof of the old market that is home to several grazing goats!
Island hoppers can also enjoy Gabriola Island, accessed from Nanaimo by BC Ferries. The island is partly residential but also holds large expanses of forest with abundant wildlife. Long stretches of unspoiled coastline can be explored.
Nanaimo & area communities to explore
- Gabriola Island
- Nanoose Bay
- Qualicum Beach
Traveling to different island climates and natural settings of Vancouver Island is one of the pleasures for visitors to the Central Island region. Shop, eat and sleep in style while exploring a historic harbour city of Victoria. Dine at Canada’s only floating pub and restaurant on Protection Island. Hurtle down forested mountain bike trails. Canoe across placid blue lakes. Smile at the delightful sight of goats on the grass-covered roof of a country market in Coombs.
Nanaimo, the Island’s second largest city, has evolved into a lively urban centre with its smartly restored downtown and walkable harbor front.
Many visitors arrive in Nanaimo via its ferry terminals, floatplane services, cruise ship terminal and revitalized airport. Great hiking and cycling trails, kayaking and boating opportunities, ziplines and even a bungy jump zone are within walking distance of downtown. Explore the Old City Quarter before catching a passenger ferry to Protection Island for a pint at Canada’s only floating pub and restaurant. While you wait for your meal, the kids can even fish through the floor of the restaurant.
Outdoor pursuits are available wherever you’re based on the island. Milner Gardens and Woodland is one of Vancouver Island’s favorite public gardens. Scuba divers can explore artificial reefs in Nanaimo’s harbour. Meet locals and their canine companions on beachside promenades. Golfers can roam between 19 courses in the region while their non-golfing partners opt for whatever pleases them: shopping, culinary tours, birdwatching and kid-friendly outings to wildlife and barnyard petting zoos.
Southern Vancouver Island
The South Island includes the pastoral Saanich peninsula and a rugged southwest coastline framed by postcard views of the Juan de Fuca Strait and the towering peaks of Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. With so many must-see attractions, it’s tempting to settle into comfortable lodgings in the city of Victoria (British Columbia’s capital, “the City of Gardens”) and explore this end of the Island at leisure by car or on foot.
Steeped in rich history, the city of Victoria combines old-world charm with new-world experiences. Picturesque 19th century heritage buildings house galleries, boutique shops, cocktail lounges and brewpubs. The year-round events calendar is marked by diverse festivals and a pulsating live-music scene. Victoria has an extraordinary assortment of cuisine, ranging from elegant fine dining to casual bistros, waterfront pubs and gourmet food trucks. Local chefs capitalize on an abundance of Island meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. And drink menus invariably include outstanding locally made wines, ciders, beers and spirits. Pick up the Craft Beer Map from a Visitor Centre to plot a tour of the city’s many taphouses and regional breweries.
From international destinations such as the national historic site of Butchart Gardens to hidden gems like Canada’s oldest Chinatown, your days in the region can be as busy or relaxed as you want. Marvel at the Royal British Columbia Museum’s natural history, First Nations and pioneer exhibits. Shop downtown or visit seaside neighborhoods like Oak Bay and Estevan Village to experience a British High Street experience with a modern twist of style and culinary expertise.
Many visitors unpack at once to wander the city at their own leisure. Other visitors balance the urban pleasures with daytrip excursions. Head north into Saanich for a roadtrip tour of farms and wineries, stopping for a waterside lunch in Brentwood Bay, a visit to one of Canada’s most beloved public gardens or a tour of Sidney’s many book stores and unique boutiques.
The South Island invites spontaneity and unplanned agendas. Although it’s the most populous area on Vancouver Island, it’s still quiet enough to attract residents who treasure peace, serenity and all kinds of holistic opportunities to stay fit and healthy. There are also numerous parks, easy-access beaches, recreation facilities, yoga studios and two of Canada’s best family hiking and biking routes, the Galloping Goose and Lochside trails, available for visitors to enjoy.