The best way to explore Vancouver Island is by taking a road trip. You can spend a couple weeks exploring the whole island or plan your trip following one of four main road trip routes on Vancouver Island. Those routes include Victoria to Ucluelet and Tofino, Nanaimo to Campbell River, then a continuation on to Port Hardy. Or you can drive the Pacific Marine Circle route which is a route around the bottom portion of Vancouver Island. The Pacific Marine Circle route takes you from Victoria to Sooke, to Port Renfrew, Lake Cowichan, to Duncan then back to Victoria. Or you can reverse direction and drive the loop counter clockwise as well.
For reference in this post my ultimate Vancouver Island road trip was to drive the Pacific Marine Circle route clockwise. However once I got to Duncan I headed north to finish my trip in Nanaimo. This is also a great option instead of ending back in Victoria as you can grab a ferry, seaplane, or flight from Nanaimo back to the city of Vancouver as well.
Driving the Pacific Marine Circle Route on Vancouver Island
The Pacific Marine Circle Route is a 289km (179mile) drive around southern Vancouver Island. The complete road trip takes about 4.5 hours to drive without making any stops. The drive is fairly easy but is a bit winding at times and changes in elevation. However there is so much to see, explore, eat and enjoy that it is a good idea to split up your adventure into a multi day road trip.
Day One of your Vancouver Island Road Trip
Vancouver Island is the ultimate Canadian destination for a road trip. Your visit begins with either a stunning ferry ride from Vancouver or the United States, a seaplane flight or short flight from the city of Vancouver. For the purpose of this guide we are starting the itinerary in Victoria. Once you arrive either arrange to get your rental car or if you drove onto the ferry get your road trip started as soon as you reach the island at Swartz Bay.
Victoria is the capital city of British Columbia and the biggest city on Vancouver Island. Home to roughly 100,000 people (and 400,000 in the Greater Victoria area) you should definitely give yourself a couple days to explore this majestic and historic city.
Explore the Butchart Gardens
On your way to the city from the ferry terminal your first stop should be at the gorgeous Butchart Gardens. Dating back over 100 years these expansive gardens cover over 5 hectares of land that was once a limestone quarry. Explore the sunken garden, Japanese Gardens, Rose Gardens, ride the carousel, and grab gelato in the Italian gardens or lunch and afternoon tea.
You should give yourself at least two hours to explore the Butchart Gardens. The gardens are open year round and prices start at $38.00 per adult.
Near the gardens you can also visit the Victoria Butterfly Garden and one of the top recommended vineyards, Church and State Wines – Victoria.
Where to Stay in Victoria, British Columbia
While staying in Victoria for three nights I stayed at the Strathcona Hotel located on Douglas street. This hotel is just one block from the Fairmont Empress Hotel, two blocks from the waterfront and about six blocks from Chinatown. The Strathcona Hotel in Victoria has newly renovated rooms, great restaurants and bars on site and is centrally located in the city with everything easily walkable nearby.
Dinner at the Sticky Wicket
After a day of travel and getting to Vancouver Island head to your hotel to check in. If you chose to stay at the Strathcona Hotel or not I still recommend you check out their main restaurant the Sticky Wicket. A classic pub with a good drinks menu including local craft beer and typical pub foods. It is a great place to go for a quick bite before turning in for the night to rest up for the rest of your road trip.
Day 2 in Victoria, Rise and Grind
Start your morning at the Rise and Grind 1294 Cafe and Eatery serving up fresh brewed coffee and the most delicious breakfast sandwiches. This funky cafe has something on the menu for everyone. You can dine in or grab your breakfast to go. I definitely recommend getting the Originator breakfast sandwich. Bacon, egg, cheddar, sriracha mayo, green onion on a fresh baked brioche bun. Yum.
Start the Day with a Grey Line Sightseeing Victoria Tour
One of the best ways to get to know a new city is by taking a city tour. Preferably a double decker hop on hop off tour as they give you a great lay of the land and show you all of the highlights of a destination in just 90minutes. City tours are a great way to get a feel for a place, see which places and things interest you and then you can go back again after the tour to explore them more in depth.
Grey Line Sightseeing Victoria departs from in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel at 721 Government Street daily, every hour on the half hour from 9:30am to 5:30pm. The tour operates from March to the end of December each year. Tickets start at $55.00 per adult and are good for 24hours so you can use the bus as a means of transportation as well.
Find the Perfect Souvenir
After your tour head to Government Street between Wharf and Fort Streets for some great shopping. Along this stretch of the street there are many souvenir shops including a shop called Northwest Origins. Some of the items they carry are typical souvenirs that you will find in all of the shops in the area. However they also carry some great original art pieces by local Indigenous Artists and other creations from BC First Nations.
Local artist Nuu-Chah-Nulth carver Art W. Charlie II even works in the store and is happy to speak with you about his artwork and others that they sell. Learn more about them HERE.
Enjoy Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel
Afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel is said to be one of the fanciest afternoon teas in all of Canada. If you plan on enjoying afternoon tea on your visit to Victoria be sure to reserve your seating far in advance. The Fairmont Empress Hotel has been serving it’s afternoon tea for over 114 years and although it is a bit pricey it is quite a nice experience and great way to spoil yourself like royalty.
Your tea begins with a choice of 12 teas to choose from including some that were the favourite of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Diana. If ordered then enjoy your glass of champagne while your tea steeps and you await the arrival of your delicious tower of treats. Do NOT eat lunch before heading to afternoon tea as it will provide you with more than enough to eat. You might even end up packing up some of it to save for later.
Starting at the bottom of the afternoon tea tower comes with Empress raisin scones baked fresh daily served with a clotted cream and strawberry-vanilla jam. Next in the middle we have the savoury items. Enjoy everything from cold smoked sockeye salmon on a blini with creme fraiche to a coronation chicken sandwich, a classic egg salad sandwich and more. Lastly we have the top level with delicious desserts and sweets. Enjoy an Empress honey and lavender shortbread, a strawberry rose macaron, a chocolate moelleux cup and even a cherry cheese tart.
Prices for Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel start at $89 per person.
Check out the Views from the Top of the Malahat Skywalk
After your afternoon tea you need a nice walk to digest your meal. Hop in the car for a quick 30min drive to the Malahat Skywalk. Opened in July 2021 the Malahat Skywalk is a 600m tree walk that leads you to a spiral tower standing 32m high overlooking the Saanich Inlet. Along the way and at the top of the tower you can learn about the area, flora, and fauna. There is also an adventure net for the daredevils to walk over with a 32m drop below or for the kid at heart you can ride in the large 20m spiral slide to the bottom.
Enjoy a leisurely stroll, take in the smell of the Arbutus trees, and enjoy the fresh air as you reconnect with nature.
Visit A Smaller Niagara Falls
If you are craving a bit more of nature on your way back to Victoria about 10minutes from the Malahat Skywalk stop to visit the Goldstream Provincial Park. At the park there are various trails to hike, a picnic area, 600+ year old trees, a river and a couple great waterfalls to see. Covering 477hectares you can spend a lot of time in this park.
If you want to do a quick hike I recommend taking the hike to their version of Niagara Falls. The hike is fairly flat with a few sections of rock scrambling up and down a ledge but is fairly easy. The falls themselves are narrow but stand 47.5m tall. The majestic falls are located in an area that makes it seems like you’ve suddenly stepped into a jungle. Be sure to take lots of photos of this gorgeous waterfall but be careful and don’t get too close.
Dine in the Cook Street Village
One of the neighbourhoods that you pass through on your Grey Line Sightseeing Tour of Victoria is the Cook Street Village. Here you will find many local neighbourhood restaurants, cafes and shops. There are several options for places to eat but one I recommend is the Pizzeria Prima Strada. Their wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas are delicious and they make their own gelato as well.
Day 3 in Victoria with the Whales
The Salish Sea is a body of water from the Pacific Ocean that is found between Vancouver Island, mainland British Columbia and the state of Washington in the US. The sea is home to many fish including the Pacific salmon. Many marine mammals also live here including otters, stellar sea lions, and humpback whales in the summer season that come up from warmer waters to eat. One of the most popular residents of the Salish Sea however is the Orca, Killer Whale. There are resident Orcas that eat fish and are in decline and transient Orcas that are mammal eaters and are gradually increasing in population.
There are so many whales in the Salish Sea at anytime that whale watching tours in the area have a 95% success rate. If by some rare chance that you don’t find any whales on your tour most operators also offer free tours until you finally see whales.
There are several whale watching tours that depart Victoria and Eagle Wing Tours is who I decided to adventure with. Their tour boat is a catamaran which offers a smoother ride then one hauled boats. Onboard there was plenty of room to sit inside or out, there were two ship bathrooms available and four knowledgeable guides onboard as well as the captain.
Every tour is different, and you never know what you might find. However seeing orcas or any kind of whale in the wild is the most magical experience and should not be missed.
Grab Lunch at Fisherman’s Wharf
The Eagle Wing Whale Watching Tours in Victoria, BC depart daily from the Fisherman’s Wharf area. Fisherman’s Wharf is home to docks for pleasure crafts, 33 floating residences (houseboats) with one being B&B that you can rent, and there are also several shops and floating restaurants.
Since you are in Fisherman’s Wharf you might as well go for some fish and chips for lunch and the top spot to visit is Barb’s Fish and Chips. Fish options include Cod, Halibut and Wild Sockeye Salmon. The fish is cooked fresh and served hot and is the perfect meal after a few hours on the ocean.
Take a Ride on the Victoria Harbour Ferry
After your whale watching tour and lunch jump onboard the Victoria Harbour Ferry. The ferry offers tours of the Victoria harbour area and also acts as a taxi service taking you to 12+ various point along the Victoria waterfront. Use the Victoria Harbour Ferry taxi to take you from Fisherman’s wharf to the Empress Hotel, Chinatown, West Bay, and even to the seaplane terminal.
A fun tour to do with friends is their Pickle Pub Crawl. The ferries take you to 4 different waterfront pubs around the harbour. The tour includes a drink and appetizer at each stop.
Stroll Through Chinatown
Victoria’s Chinatown is the oldest Chinatown in all of Canada. Now declared a National Historic Site it is a great area to explore in the city. Take a photo by the Gate of Harmonious Interest, stroll down Fan Tan Alley said to be the narrowest street in Canada, do a little shopping, learn some history and enjoy some delicious food.
Grab some BBQ Pork, Dim Sum or noodles at traditional restaurants. Or check out some of the hip new restaurants popping up in the area like Dumpling Drop. Dumpling Drop has a small modest menu but its food is so delicious. Try their pork belly, or vegan dumplings with a cucumber salad on the side and mango sticky rice. Wash it all down with a delicious house made Thai Iced Tea.
Day 4 Driving from Victoria to Port Renfrew
Today is time to get out on the road and properly start your Vancouver Island road trip. This is when you depart Victoria and begin driving along the winding coastline of the Pacific Marine Coastal Route. Before you depart make sure your car is filled up with gas are there aren’t a lot of places to fuel up along the way. Before you leave Victoria stock up on snacks, food, drinks and whatever else might be needed for your accommodation in Port Renfrew. It is important to know that between Victoria and Port Renfrew there isn’t a lot of cell phone service either. You might want to turn roaming off as well as sometimes your phone might jump onto US cell phone towers while driving along this part of the island.
Before you drive from Victoria to Port Renfrew download your google maps to your phone so it works when offline. Also plot what beaches, scenic spots and other places that you might want to visit in advance. That way you won’t miss a thing but can also plan your drive so you make it to your accommodation in time. If you drive directly from Victoria to Port Renfrew it takes two hours. However with some great beaches and hikes to explore along the way you could really take five or more hours to drive and explore.
Places to Stop Between Victoria and Port Renfrew
About 40mins outside of Victoria one of the first small towns you will come to is the town of Sooke. Depending on what time you left the city this is a great place to stop for lunch. One recommendation is the Sooke Brewing Company where you can grab a flight and enjoy a tasty lunch from the food truck out back. (Always have a designated driver or grab drinks to go for after your done driving for the day.)
A unique area to visit in Sooke is the Sooke Potholes Provincial Park. Along the Sooke River there are unique rock formations formed by the last ice age that locals love to swim in in the summer months. The provincial park and nearby regional park also have a lot of great trails to hike, many view points along the river and great spots to go fishing.
About a 20 minute drive from Sooke is Shirley’s Delicious. A popular spot to stop at along the Pacific Marine Circle Route. Shirley’s is ranked 13 out of 100 on Yelp’s top list of restaurants and eateries in Canada. Stop in for brunch, lunch, or cafe items and delicious baked goods. Check opening dates and times before you go.
Beaches and Hikes Between Victoria and Port Renfrew
There are many beaches, waterfalls and great places to hike between Victoria and Port Renfrew. Some are easy to get to and others are a bit more difficult. The easiest beach to visit is French Beach, the beach is a 1 minute walk from the parking lot down a tiny hill. There you will find gorgeous views and the sounds of crashing waves rolling and tumbling stones on the shore.
About 7 minutes further up the road is Sandcut beach. To get to Sandcut Beach from the parking lot you have to hike for about 10 minutes mostly going down. Remember that when you have to go back. It is also a gorgeous beach but pretty similar to French Beach. There is a small waterfall if you walk about 450m to your left down the beach. Be mindful of tide times and the waterfall size varies depending on the recent weather.
A popular waterfall to visit is the Sombrio Beach Waterfall located in a small slot canyon. To visit it make sure you go and low tide and know that you will most likely get your feet wet and possibly muddy. To get to the waterfall it is about a 15minute walk from the trailhead to the beach then 15 or so more minutes heading east on the beach to a creek. You do have to climb over some rocks so it isn’t the easiest to get to. Follow the creek up until you reach the mossy green slot canyon and waterfall.
Other stops that are recommended are Mystic Beach which also has a waterfall, and China Beach. Once you reach Port Renfrew the Jaun de Fuca Provincial Park is a must see as well.
Where to Stay in Port Renfrew, British Columbia
One of the best places to stay in Port Renfrew is the Soule Creek Lodge. Located up on a hillside overlooking Port San Jaun this gorgeous property is the perfect place to disconnect and take in some natural beauty. At Soule Creek Lodge you can stay in a room at the main lodge, book the cabin or choose one of seven gorgeous yurts. To book a stay however there is a two night minimum. But it is literally the best place to relax for a couple days and it is also a good spot to be a base as you explore the surrounding beaches, hiking trails and waterfalls.
When staying at Soule Creek Lodge be sure to book your dinner reservation in advance. The food that they serve is incredible and shouldn’t be missed. Also make sure you enjoy the included breakfast which is also amazing. While at Soule Creek Lodge I enjoyed a four course dinner that included pan fried halibut with vegetables and the best cheesecake I’ve ever had. For breakfast we were served candied maple salmon eggs Benedict on Bannock and fresh fruits. Delicious!
Day 6 Driving from Port Renfrew to Nanaimo
As you leave Port Renfrew there are a few more hikes you might want to check out. Or you can explore them on your second day at the lodge. There is Avatar Grove home to large cedars and Douglas Fir trees and the gnarliest tree in Canada. You can hike Upper Avatar or Lower Avatar but either way you are definitely climbing hills and steps here. As of May 2022 Avatar Grove was listed as closed while undergoing improvements. But once you get there the trails are open and accessible. Use at your own risk and know that the road to get there is gravel and quite bumpy.
Nearby Avatar Grove there is the famous Big Lonely Doug. The second largest Douglas Fir tree in the world. Read a great story about Big Lonely Doug here. Lastly you can also stop along the side of the road to see the famous Fairy Lake Bonsai tree. Fairy Lake is a calm lake along the side of the road with an old log sticking up out of the water. On top of the end of the log somehow a tiny Douglas Fir tree is growing. It is quite a unique site to see.
Stop for Lunch in Duncan
On your way to Nanaimo a great place to stop for lunch is the small town of Duncan and if you are there on a Saturday you can check out their farmers market as well. Duncan currently has the most Totem Poles out of any other city in the world and they are great to explore and find as well. Even the McDonald’s has a Totem Pole. Follow the Totem Pole trail to learn all about them.
Located just outside of downtown Duncan is also another great vineyard to visit, Averill Creek Vineyard. Averill Creek Vineyard is open daily 11am-5pm. Walk-ins are welcome but for tours and more make a reservation in advance.
Fun fact: While in Duncan you can also stop by and visit the world’s largest hockey puck and hockey stick.
Explore the murals of Chemainus
Between Duncan and Nanaimo is the small town of Chemainus. Popular for having over 60 historical murals all around the town. The murals came about as a way to revitalize the town and bring more tourism to the area.
Dine on a Floating Restaurant
If you make it to Nanaimo in time for dinner head to the Dinghy Dock floating pub. Located on Protection Island, you can catch a ferry from the Nanaimo waterfront at the corner of Front Street and Promenade Drive. Have cash on hand for your ticket $12 round trip for adults, $6 for kids and $1 for dogs. The ferry departs Nanaimo to the Dinghy Dock Pub 10 minutes past every hour. While at the pub enjoy great food, live music, local craft beer and more.
Check into your Nanaimo Hotel
One of the best places to stay in Nanaimo is the eco-friendly Coast Bastion Hotel, centrally located a block from the waterfront. Nearby you will also find Commercial street full of cafes, the museum, shops and art galleries. Also the Old City Quarter is a seven minute walk away for another great place for shops and food. The harbour side rooms have gorgeous views of the Nanaimo waterfront and the hotel restaurant Minnoz has the most delicious Nanaimo Bar Cheesecake.
Day 7 Explore Nanaimo
My number one reason to visit Nanaimo was to eat a Nanaimo bar in Nanaimo. Trust me it is not hard to find Nanaimo bars in Nanaimo. They love Nanaimo bars so much that there is even a Nanaimo Bar trail. Grab a map and see how many delicious Nanaimo bars you can sample or go a bit off script and try other Nanaimo bar type things. There are Nanaimo bar cheesecakes, macarons, gelato, cocktails, deep fried Nanaimo bars and more.
There is of course so much more to Nanaimo than just eat Nanaimo bars however. Nanaimo is also a great place to go whale watching from. While there I even saw a rare sighting of Orcas swimming in the Nanaimo harbour. Check out Vancouver Island Whale Watch for great whale watching tours to see Orcas, Humpbacks, Seals and more. Nanaimo like most of Vancouver Island has great nature surrounding it as well, there any many hikes to take and waterfalls to be seen. A popular hike is the trail to Ammonite falls.
If you are up for more boat rides be sure to take the short ferry ride to Saysutshun Island. A gorgeous island in the Nanaimo harbour where you can hike, camp, see oyster eating blonde raccoons, and learn about the areas Indigenous history.
To learn more about what to see, do and eat in Nanaimo stayed tuned for my guide to Nanaimo coming soon.
image credit Destination Canada / Brian Caissie
Where Else to Visit on Vancouver Island
After spending a couple days exploring Nanaimo you can take a ferry, seaplane or flight back to Vancouver. Or you can extend your Vancouver Island road trip and explore even further. Nanaimo is a great jumping off point for taking a road trip around the rest of Vancouver Island.
Other great destinations on Vancouver Island include Uclet, Tofino and Port Hardy. I just haven’t made it there yet myself. Known for their stunning beauty, mountains, whales, food and more. If you have suggestions for visiting these areas leave them in the comments below.
What is the Best Car for a Vancouver Island Road Trip?
Rental cars are hard to come by in summer 2022 but if you have the option when booking a car for a road trip around Vancouver Island then look for an SUV or all terrain vehicle. The majority of driving on Vancouver Island is on paved roads however there are times when you might want to go a bit off road or you might have to deal with gravel roads, logging roads and hills. For my trip around the Pacific Marine Circle Route I drove a 2022 Mazda CX-30. This SUV was one of the nicest cars that I have driven. It was a smooth ride, had SiriusXM Radio, an internal GPS system, sunroof, and even the steering wheel was comfortable.
Vancouver Island also has a fair amount of EV Chargers so it’s even better if you can find an electric vehicle for your road trip. You can help save the earth a little as you explore Vancouver Island.
Are there Bears on Vancouver Island?
Yes, there are many bears on Vancouver Island (7,000ish). Every local I asked however told me that I should not be worried about bears. I wondered if I should take bear spray with me while hiking solo on Vancouver Island but was told that that wouldn’t be necessary. Especially since a bear has to get pretty close before bear spray is even effective.
I trusted the locals and hiked solo on Vancouver Island and thankfully had no direct bear encounters. I did however see one while driving on the side of the road outside of Victoria. There was also a bear near a rivers edge as I drove over a small bridge in the Port Renfrew area. Bears are definitely around and active in the spring, summer and falls months on Vancouver Island. Take the right precautions and you should be fine.
Here is some great information on how to be Bear Aware.
Note: Always check opening times and days for anywhere you are planning on going and make reservations in advance when possible.
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