If you’ve just read my epic Vancouver to Whistler road trip itinerary post and landed here to plan your own unforgettable BC road trip, then you’ve come to the right place to carry on from that leg and find out more about the most awesome things to do on Vancouver Island — especially if you’re travelling with kids and grandparents like we were.
If you haven’t, then you should definitely watch our vacay vlog before reading on; it’s the highlight reel of our road trip that took us to Whistler, Vancouver, Victoria, Tofino and Nanaimo — and several fun places in between — and comes with a stern warning: you WILL want to book flights immediately.
BC road trip guide
Calling all mega Type As!
At the end of my Vancouver to Whistler itinerary post, I shared a very detailed breakdown of our entire British Columbia road trip; if you missed it, here it is. It includes everything from landing at YVR to a nearly hour-by-hour playbook that took us to Vancouver, Whistler and then down to several spots across Vancouver Island that I’ll cover in detail below. Feel free to download it and do what you like with it.
Things to do on Vancouver Island
Let’s just dive right in because I know you’re here to get a list of things to do on Vancouver Island! And, oh, what a list it is. We spent eight days touring around Vancouver Island and probably risked my parents’ aging health jam-packing it so full of food and fun — and still felt like we couldn’t do everything we wanted.
You may look at our Vancouver Island itinerary and suggestions here and think, “Whoa, Nelly! We will give ourselves angina.” And it’s true; we moved at a serious pace that may not feel like a vacation to you. So pick and choose the things that call to you and create your own amazing road trip in one of Canada’s most beautiful areas.
In this post, I’ll be spotlighting:
How to get to Vancouver Island (and head back to the mainland)
Things to do in Victoria (plus Victoria accommodations and restaurants in Victoria)
What’s worth doing en route from Victoria to Tofino
Things to do in Tofino (plus Tofino accommodations and restaurants in Tofino)
What’s worth doing en route from Tofino to Nanaimo
Things to do in Nanaimo (plus Nanaimo accommodations and restaurants in Nanaimo)
Things to do on Vancouver Island: How to get to Vancouver Island
First thing’s first — we’ve gotta get you from mainland British Columbia to the island and there are only three ways: boat, fly or swim. You probably want to avoid the third option, and if you need a vehicle to move around Vancouver Island once you’re there and you’ve picked up your rental in, say, Vancouver, getting there by air is no bueno.
So that leaves us with what is also the least expensive way to efficiently get yourself to Vancouver Island — the ferry.
BC Ferries has several routes between the mainland and the island, and pre-COVID you didn’t really need to book ahead. You could often just show up, drive into the queue and make the outgoing ferry (or the one immediately after it, at worst). But everything has changed and it’s now very highly recommended to reserve your vehicle and group’s tickets well in advance.
On some routes, you can book as far as six months out but, in our experience, three months was plenty of time. And you can use your phone at the ticket booth, so there’s no need to print your tickets. You can change your ferry times if something happens and you need to come or go earlier or later, but note that there is a change fee and you’ll also be charged if BC Ferries has increased their fees since you reserved your tickets. (Ask me how I know…)
BUT…the most important thing to know about taking the ferry to or from Vancouver Island is this: you MUST arrive and check in at the ticket booth 30 to 60 minutes before your ferry’s departure time. No exceptions. If you’re early, and there’s room on the earlier ferry, though, they will gladly let you on. Just don’t be late!
Things to do on Vancouver Island: Victoria
Ah, Victoria — how I fell in love with you. From one of the most killer sunsets I’ve ever witnessed to the awesome foodie scene, British Columbia’s capital was more than I even hoped it would be.
Where to stay in Victoria
The heart of Victoria is such a walkable zone that you won’t be doing yourself any favours trying to book a hotel that’s inexpensive simply because it’s not in a great spot. Despite its capital city status, it’s not like Toronto or Manhattan where you can just hop on a subway to get to the action.
So unless you want to drive into the core every day of your visit and pay for parking all day, save yourself the time and trouble and get yourself a room at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel & Suites Victoria. It’s mere steps from the jewel in Victoria’s crown — the harbour — and the perfect hub for sightseeing, shopping, dining and exploring.
We loved the set-up of the rooms that made the most of a small footprint, yet still allowed us to enjoy a king bed in one room and the ability to pop a kid into their own separate space. I will forever give up space around a bed in favour of sleeping in a king with my taller-than-average husband!
The kids, on the other hand, loved the warm welcome cookies at the check-in desk. (There is literally a cookie drawer in the lobby!) It’s a very cute touch.
The hotel has no self-parking option — it’s valet parking and, somehow, only $27/night. Maybe Victoria doesn’t know how much other cities charge for valet or maybe it was just our hotel, either way — START THE CAR! (Er, park the car. But you know what I’m saying.)
Where to eat in Victoria
We had some stellar, memorable meals during our three nights in Victoria, proving that you can never judge a city’s foodie scene by its size.
- Fishhook — this was my number-one-had-to-eat-there choice before we even got on an airplane to head out west. Fishhook’s menu was way too intriguing to pass up and I was going to go by myself if no one wanted to join me! I mean, hello: Indian-French fusion focused on sustainable local seafood. My foodie loins were all tingly. And I am beyond pleased to report that it didn’t disappoint, even though I had conjured up some pretty big expectations. The pekoras, koftas and chowder were all flavour powerhouses and the Ginger’d Mint Gin-bu Panni cocktail (lime juice, ginger-mint syrup, Cowichan gin and soda) was so good I ordered a second
- Finn’s Harbour Front Restaurant — If you’re dining in Victoria and you don’t have fish or seafood, you haven’t actually eaten some of Victoria’s best offerings. I made it my mission to have local Dungeness crab while we were here and completed that mission at Finn’s. Everything we ate here was fresh and our server was outstanding
- Il Terrazzo Ristorante — Big B and I went here on our own for a little romantic tête-a-tête one night and, just WOW, the food was ah-mazing! This meal probably ranked in the top three of our entire BC road trip. Not only did we have exceptional service, but the space itself was super unique and every dish was noteworthy. It was perhaps too good, in fact, because as our dinner came to an end, I looked at Big B and sincerely asked him how embarrassing it would be if we called an UBER to get us back to the hotel, which was within very easy walking distance. THAT is how much I stuffed my face here!
- 10 Acres Commons — we loved this foodie concept, which takes farm-to-table to the next level because this small restaurant chain is actually owned and operated by the farm from which it gets much of what it serves. And what doesn’t come from the 10 Acres Farm is from other local producers whenever possible
- B.C. Legislative Dining Room — this is exactly what it sounds like: a restaurant in Victoria’s parliament buildings! It’s pretty neat having to go through security before dining, and that’s exactly what every guest needs to do before walking down a couple of long hallways and even moving into a different building before eventually reaching the dining room. It feels very “behind the scenes” and it’s popular enough that if you don’t have a reservation, you can probably forget about eating here. This is, by far, the most cost-effective dining we experienced pretty much anywhere in BC but especially in Victoria. The dining room itself is library-quiet and rich in historical photos and furniture, with an often-rotating menu
- Bard and Banker and Frankie’s Modern Diner — I’m adding these two restaurants not because the food was amazing at either, but because of the atmosphere at each. Proper foodies, I beg of you: do not go to these establishments and expect to be wowed. Everyone else: you’ll probably walk away satisfied. But it’s worth heading to the Bard and Banker for drinks to take in the scale of what was once the Bank of British Columbia, which opened here in 1885, and remained a bank under different banners until 1988. You’ll feel transported to a proper British public house and the cocktails and beer selection are great. My parents took the kids to Frankie’s Modern Diner the night Big B and I ate at Il Terazzo, and they said it was a fun vibe and perfect for a casual dinner with kids.
- Courtyard Cafe — in the Hotel Grand Pacific, you’ll find a wonderful little cafe with a patio. It’s not far from the parliament buildings so if you find yourself on a tour waiting list and have some time to kill, this is a great place to do it. They had really nice fruit smoothies that the kids enjoyed and my mocha was excellent
We also had several bakeries, diners and restaurants on our short list that we simply didn’t make it to in the end. So while I can’t personally recommend them, I did spend a lot of time making the short list based on others’ reviews, so you might as well benefit from it, too:
- Dutch Bakery & Diner
- Bear & Joey
- Floyd’s Diner
- The Courtney Room
- Blue Fox Cafe
- Jam Cafe
Things to do in Victoria
- The Fairmont Empress hotel — it was every bit as glorious as I expected, and should you choose to do nothing here but wander through the gardens and go inside to marvel at the soaring ceilings and find the exquisite shops (especially the tea shop), DO IT. I know staying at The Empress is at the top of many bucket lists, but I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to stay at the Empress to play at the Empress! (Though if it fits into your budget, go for it just for the bragging rights)
- High Tea — if there’s a more iconic high tea in Canada, I don’t know where it is. People come from all over the world to experience high tea at The Empress and I’m here to tell you that we were so excited for this that we reserved our date and time before we even had a hotel booked. Miss Q and I have done high tea before but this was a first for my parents, hubs and The K Man. I also let the kids try caffeinated tea for the first time (The K Man was a BIG fan!), but that paled in comparison to the ornate trays that filled our little round table for six. If your kids who are older than 12 aren’t big eaters or simply like the sound of the kids’ menu better, ask nicely and you’ll likely be allowed to have them order the kid version — which will also save you several bucks. Everything (and I mean everything) that came to the table was impeccable; it was lovely sharing our different teas among one another. And although it’s definitely a prim experience, it’s equal parts fun and casual, too. We’re not the quietest bunch and we didn’t feel like we were hushing ourselves at all as we jubilantly gobbled up every morsel
- Willow Stream Spa — we wanted to do something with just the girls in Victoria and a three-generation spa afternoon fit the bill nicely. Miss Q wanted her first proper manicure and my mom and I opted to take in some water therapies before enjoying eucalyptus body scrubs. This was a super-welcome break from being go go go every day of our BC road trip adventure. I will point out, however, that it is a big, big splurge to visit the Willow Stream Spa, so if you do it, make sure you set aside several hours to spend as much time as possible in the regular pool, hot tub and mineral pool (all indoors) before and after your treatment(s). We are now several months post-trip and Miss Q still talks about how wonderful it was to have the paraffin wax on her hands and how cool it is that you get to take your nail polish home after your mani — definitely big treats for anyone, even if you’re not just an 11 year old getting having a fabulous brush with luxury. Our scrubs were magical, marking the first time I’ve ever had a massage as part of a scrub! The massage portion was so swoon-worthy that it even converted my mom who has previously only had one massage in her life, hated it and swore off all massages
- Victoria Harbour Ferry and Victoria Harbour — you know when you get to a new city and doing a hop-on/hop-off bus tour is a great way to get to know it and orient yourself a little? Well, in Victoria, you want to do it by boat — especially since this ferry tour acts like a water taxi as well! You can get out when you arrive at Fisherman’s Wharf, walk around and check out all the cool houseboats and then flag any of the other ferries that dock there to take you back to the main harbour. From here, you can walk to a number of attractions (The Empress, the Emily Carr statue, the BC Parliament grounds — that include its Legislative Assembly Fountain, the Knowledge Totem, a statue of Queen Victoria, the Victoria Cenotaph and the Sir James Douglas Monument — the Victoria Centennial Fountain, the Royal BC Museum, and more)
- Chinatown — Victoria is home to North American’s first-ever Chinatown, which also houses…
- Fan Tan Alley — the world’s narrowest street. It’s as much kitsch as you can imagine and it’s an amazing must-visit
- South Island SUP — for me, it’s all about being on the water in Victoria and sharing my love affair with standup paddleboarding with my family (including introducing it to my mom) was so much fun thanks to a private lesson. South Island SUP brought everything we needed except our swimsuits and towels, toured us around Thetis Lake and gave everyone lots of pointers along the way. Had the wind co-operated during our time in Victoria, I would have gone SUPing out in the ocean — what a rush that would be!
- Downtown Victoria — shopping, shopping, eating and more shopping! With a section of Government Street that’s pedestrian only, and a compact footprint, Victoria’s core is exceptionally walkable. Be sure to work time into your itinerary to simply wander. My kids loved the Olde Tyme Candy Shop, while I went nuts for all the linen garments at Glam & Fame. Look for Market Square near Chinatown for vintage heaven and many other shopping spots in between
Things to do between Victoria and Tofino
The four-hour(ish) journey between Victoria and Tofino is a stunner to be sure, and a road tripper’s dream with its winding roads that pass alongside lakes and rivers in some spots and mountainscapes in others. But a multigenerational trip means you need frequent breaks for toilets, snacks, stretches and to just get the hell away from each other for a few minutes.
Breaking up the trip is therefore essential for everyone’s physical and mental health!
The Butchart Gardens
Although Victoria lays claim to The Butchart Gardens, it’s really just beyond it sitting firmly in Brentwood Bay. If you’re heading on to Tofino, it’s an easy detour. If you’re going back to the mainland, though, make sure you add these spectacular gardens to your non-negotiable musts of things to do in Victoria.
The Butchart Gardens can get quite busy in peak periods, so get your tickets ahead of time and go bright and early to beat the crowds. We had a fab diner-style breakfast at Sassy’s Family Restaurant, which is five minutes from the gardens, to ensure we were there when the gates opened.
I have to be honest — we took the whole fam to The Butchart Gardens and I held my breath hoping my kids wouldn’t whine to leave after 15 minutes. To my absolute delight, they wanted to explore every inch of the place. They were enamoured with the different flowers and installations (especially the rose garden and Japanese Zen garden), and were only too happy to see what was around each new bend in the path.
Though you can spend the whole day here with your ticket, it’s unlikely to take you more than three hours to really cover. There are several areas with stairs, so keep that in mind if you’re with people who have mobility issues or strollers. That said, you can see plenty without doing any of the stairs. It’s definitely a masterpiece worthy of your time.
As you continue toward Tofino, you’ll drive through Malahat, Nanaimo and Coombs — with reasons to stop in each.
You could easily miss Malahat if you weren’t specifically looking for the Malahat Skywalk. But you do NOT want to miss this view and the experience that comes with it. After walking along an elevated platform above the coastal forest floor, you’ll find yourself looking up. Way up. The intriguing funnel-style tower has a ramp on the outer edge of its interior so gradual your legs won’t feel you walking all the way to the top. You’ll eventually find yourself 250 metres above the Salish Sea, with Mount Baker, the Finlayson Arm and the Saanich Peninsula in the distance.
There’s a mesh Adventure Net suspended in the middle of the tower if you dare, and then the most fun of all: the spiral slide that makes up the entire midsection of the tower. Sure, you can walk back down the ramp, but why would you? Best of all, you can race back up and head down the slide as many times as you like. It’s fun for thrill-seekers while being safe enough for kids.
Nanaimo: Cathedral Grove
I’m going to come back to Nanaimo later on as its own section for those journeying back to Vancouver via the Nanaimo ferry, but it deserves a spot here since it’s also en route from Victoria to Tofino and Cathedral Grove marks the ideal spot to get out and stretch your legs.
Located in MacMillan Provincial Park, it’s free to access the Grove and you will — literally — drive right through it and with all those tall trees flanking the highway, you’ll be hard-pressed to miss it. We simply parked along the side of the road and walked in, taking in some of Canada’s oldest-growth forest. Some of the majestic Douglas Firs here are as much as 800 years old and its humbling to walk among them.
Coombs: Goats on the Roof
I remember when I started to plan this trip and posted a query in one of my travel groups on Facebook. It was all “gimme your must-haves for a trip to Vancouver Island” and Goats on the Roof (a.k.a. Old Country Market) by and large had the most mentions.
Yes, before you wonder any more, there are actual goats…on the roof. We counted three during our visit, but there may have been more. The sloped roof is grass-topped and has little houses to give the goats privacy and protection from the elements. They looked awfully happy up there munching away. And once you get past the “holy crap, there really are goats — on the roof!” moment, you’ll find a treasure trove of goodies waiting for you inside the market.
We stocked up on snacks for the rest of our drive to Tofino and also had some beautiful sandwiches made at the deli counter. If you love cured salmon, you’re in for a treat here with a veritable trough full of the stuff in different flavours. I tried and loved them all.
While you’re there, grab an ice cream from Billy Gruff Creamery just across from the market — OMG, so good. Totally worth having dessert before my lunch!
Things to do on Vancouver Island: Tofino
You finally made it! (Even with that nasty Kennedy Hill construction delay you likely encountered, am I right?!). Welcome to this oceanside paradise. The mere five days we had here wasn’t nearly enough but we packed in as much as we could and I’m so excited to help you plan your own visit to Tofino.
Where to stay in Tofino
Be prepared to bust the lodging budget in Tofino. It’s just a very, very expensive place to stay — especially for a family or group of six people. You also need to plan very far ahead (no, a year ahead of time is not too far ahead in Tofino). We love hotels so that was the first thing we considered but there are actually very few options that would allow us to get two rooms with king beds and pullouts for the kids, so we ultimately landed on a vacation home called the Tofino Forest House.
Pro Tip: you can save on some of the fees usually associated with booking a vacation home through a third party by reserving your nights with Stay Tofino. I found their communication and process leading up to our stay excellent, even if I was disappointed when we asked for more bed linens (to put Miss Q on the daybed in the living room) and I had to basically beg for them.
Not only did it put us all under one roof, it also gave us private parking, a hot tub, backyard, full kitchen and laundry facilities. At around $1,000 a night after taxes and fees (like cleaning), it was definitely the biggest splurge of our trip but having that “home base” was so nice and it was only marginally (a small margin, too) more than two hotel rooms. Plus, with the cost of restaurants in Tofino, buying groceries and having one or two meals a day in the Forest House probably saved us more than the extra we spent to stay there instead of a hotel.
The only downside is that it wasn’t within safe walking distance of downtown Tofino because it’s tucked away just beyond the highway that leads into the core. That said, it put us closer to Cox Bay and Long Beach so the trade-off was fine with us and there was never an issue finding parking spots anywhere except at Long Beach’s Incinerator Rock parking lot.
This is also a good time to mention Tofino’s free summer shuttle, which we definitely could have used as an alternative to driving. (Incidentally, click here to find everything you need to know about Tofino parking, charging stations and even borrowing beach wheelchairs.)
Where to eat in Tofino
When we weren’t eating in our vacation home, we were taking in the variety of great food trucks and restaurants in Tofino. These recommendations are not in any order — merely where they showed up in my photos!
- Tofitian Cafe — looking for an oat milk latte or gluten-free plant-based breakfast? This is your jam. My kids weren’t fans because nothing was sugar-y, but it was right up my alley! Despite not having the best service, we went back a second time for the mochas and to buy hats (their logo-patched hats are sick) and still encountered a fairly unwelcoming vibe. So, yeah, go for the goodies but don’t expect a cheerful experience
- Rhino Coffee House — I can’t remember which of my Instagram followers DM’d me about getting doughnuts from Rhino’s but whomever you are: thank you! They were my second-favouite doughnuts ever (with first place going to Fox & Oak‘s that we bought at 1914 Coffee Company in Squamish, which I mentioned in my Vancouver to Whistler road trip post), so that means I’m a plane-ride away from my top two doughnut makers…
- Big Daddy’s Fish Fry — this place is hoppin’! If you’re lucky enough to see an empty table on the tiny patio, be sure you ask the man behind the counter if it’s OK to grab it. We sort of helped ourselves and he mocked us a touch. The food is made to order in a very small kitchen, so it takes a while but it comes out piping hot and it was all excellent. The Bannock-like bread that comes with the chowder is unbelievable!
- Wolf in the Fog — I had this top-rated Tofino restaurant on my short list and just couldn’t get a reservation, so I was stoked to learn they keep a few tables open each night for walk-ins. None of the food or prices appealed to my parents or kids, so they made pizza at the Tofino Forest House while Big B and I got gussied up and tried our luck with a walk-in seating. SCORE! We got the last table on the Wolf in the Fog’s lovely second-floor patio and had the best night. From the phenomenal server to the bangin’ cocktails to a fall-off-the-bone rib that made my husband’s large hand look tiny beside it, we stuffed ourselves full of incredible food and memories
- Tacofino — Tofino is home to the OG Tacofino food truck, and the husband-and-wife owners work here each day. The summer month lineups are long (expect to stand in line for an hour to order), and the hours are in flux based on what time the owners decide to close and/or how much food is left, but I’m glad we did the full Tacofino experience. The fish tacos were a standout amidst everything we ordered and the chocolate-banana shakes are reportedly excellent according to my father and son. Would I have braved another hour in line to get a repeat meal, though? Nope
- The Surf Club at Long Beach Lodge Resort — holy cow, the food was so good here! We stayed to eat at The Surf Club because we didn’t want to change out of our wetsuits from our morning surf lesson (more to come on that below) and change back into them to spend the afternoon boogie boarding and that decision, based purely on convenience, was such a good one. Although the menu is limited, everything is awesome; we know, because we pretty much ordered one of everything! Plus you can eat in wetsuits, so…
- Wildside Grill — these guys were super accommodating. We wanted to have lunch there but arrived early while it was technically still breakfast service, and yet they told us to go ahead and order whatever we wanted. Considering most of the restaurant pricing in Tofino is inflated, everything here was quite reasonable and the portions were really good. The pulled pork poutine was *chef’s kiss* and the gumbo was absolutely perfect full of balanced flavours and lots of stuff in it, too
- Shed — named so because, from what I could tell, the place is built into what may have once been an actual shed on a corner in downtown Tofino. With its bustling patio and lineups every day (sometimes around that corner), bring along your patience. We went only for drinks one afternoon, so I can’t comment on the food, but my cocktail was so fan-flippin-fantastic that I quickly ordered a second
- Chocolate Tofino — gorgeous ice cream, lovely chocolates…what more can I say than this is a must to round out your Tofino experience?
Things to do in Tofino
Looking for things to do in Tofino? BUCKLE UP. Tofino is an outdoorsy paradise and that’s probably why you’re planning to go. But don’t forget to spend some time just strolling around the cute downtown area, which is essentially a small strip at the bitter end of the Pacific Rim Highway.
There’s a great playground here for younger kids, ice cream pit stops, pedal and e-bike rental options, galleries, a waterfront dock where you can find float plane tours and water taxis to Meares Island, plus a number of shops (my favourite was SALT and I bought my beloved Tofino Towel robe here) and most of Tofino’s restaurants. We kept just about the whole first day of our trip free to wander around (and get groceries at the local Co-Op, which seemed like the cheapest grocery store…even if it ended up being quite barren due to our peak season timing).
Before I dive into all the fun things to do in Tofino, it’s important to mention wetsuits. You need them if you plan to be in the water for more than two or three minutes. Even in the hottest months, the ocean remains very, very cold and you will legit risk hypothermia without a wetsuit. There are surf shops in downtown Tofino where you can rent wetsuits by the hour or day for every member of the family if you aren’t doing lessons that include your rental. This is no joke. Seriously.
Things to do in Tofino:
- Learn to surf in Cox Bay — Tofino is, after all, the surfing capital of Canada! We did a private surf lesson with the kids at Long Beach Lodge Resort, which gets much more cost-effective the more people you have in your group since it’s $199 for the first person and only $89 for each additional surfer. That price includes your very own instructor for about 2.5 hours and a full day of rentals (wetsuit, surf board and boogie board), so you can keep practising long after your lesson concludes. Our instructor taught us about the Bay’s riptides before we even stepped foot in the water, and we had plenty of opportunities for safety reminders during our time with her. None of us had surfed before so it was absolutely hilarious and the only one of the four of us to actually get two feet up on the board the entire day was Miss Q. But we all had an absolute blast nonetheless! We stayed onsite for lunch and switched from surf boards to boogie boards for the afternoon; the waves just never stop at Cox Bay but they aren’t so huge that super-beginners like us were intimidated
- Visit Long Beach — I had Incinerator Rock on our must-see list, and when we were driving to Long Beach, we noticed a sign on the Pacific Rim Highway that had a parking lot specifically for Incinerator Rock, so we pulled in. It’s one of five Long Beach parking lots (because Long Beach is, you know, long) and it’s both small AND busy, and that meant we sat in limbo waiting for a spot to open up. Parking is expensive because you’re now actually in Pacific Rim National Park and your ticket includes your park permit as well, so keep that in mind and plan to spend a few hours here to make it worth the price of admission. My kids weren’t impressed by Incinerator Rock, but there’s another massive black “rock” (which seemed volcanic to me) right on the beach that they found much more interesting. Walking on Long Beach is a dream, because the sand is flat and hard; there are no sinking feet here and you could even wear shoes on it if you really wanted to. Long Beach is 16 kilometres long so you could easily spend an entire day just walking the coastline if you so desired. You can even rent beach-friendly cruiser bikes and ride right on the beach!
- Go whale or bear watching — we liked both the tour options and prices with West Coast Aquatic Safaris, which uses boats that are very multigenerational-friendly thanks to the option of indoor, heated seats if you don’t want to (or can’t) stand outside on a moving boat. We already had whale-watching plans in Alaska immediately following our BC road trip, and when we learned that Vancouver Island has its own species of black bear, we opted for bear watching. It meant waking up before the crack of dawn to ensure we caught the first boat out when bears are most likely to be feasting on fish and crabs along the shoreline, and it was totally worth the extra caffeine. Not only did we enjoy a simply stunning boat ride out the serene Clayoquat Sound, but we saw much more than bears; there were also bald eagles and seal colonies. Plus a whole lot of bears, oh my! We saw smaller, younger bears, big, older bears and even a mama with her cub. It was incredible to watch them turn over huge boulders like they were mere pebbles to look for crabs and oysters, and when the mama bear caught a fish, we watched in delight as she took off into the forest and her wee little cub followed along behind her
- Cycle though a rainforest — the new ʔapsčiik t̓ašii trail (which lies in the ḥaḥuułi — the traditional territories and homelands of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and YuułuɁiłɁatḥ) that opened only a week or so before our arrival is a breathtaking way to get from Tofino to Ucluelet. The name ʔapsčiik t̓ašii means “Going the right direction on the path” and you’ll be able to travel more than 25 kilometres one-way (so far) on this multi-use trail. It runs alongside the Incinerator Rock parking lot for Long Beach, right into the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and you can even break away from the paved trail to check out the rainforest trail (best lock up your bikes first, though). You’d be hard-pressed do this path roundtrip in one day on foot, and we were still pretty tired after doing it from beginning to end and back again on e-Bikes (huge shoutout here to Tofino Electric Bikes who had a bike large enough for Big B and whose batteries lasted 95% of the day, which is particularly impressive since we had them on the highest output for most of the 50+ kilometres we rode). This is forest bathing with a rush! The path is perfectly windy as it meanders through tall trees and there are several bridges over which to cross as well, with plenty of room for those on foot or two wheels to pass in both directions. One word of caution: we did see many, many bear-sightings signs along the path — so many that we started to just ignore them, actually. So imagine our surprise when a large cub (maybe only two years old but still big enough that I wanted to get the heck out of Dodge!) crossed our path. Thankfully, a local cyclist for whom this is clearly this kind of encounter is de rigueur was only a few feet ahead of us and he knew not to panic, but to keep riding and yell loudly at the bear (he was shouting “HEY! Scoot! Yeah, you — get outta here!!!” until it disappeared into the forest). All that to say, have your wits about you just in case
Hot Springs Cove was high on my itinerary wish list but, sadly, was still closed due to C-19 when we visited. We didn’t make it to Chesterman Beach either, but it’s worth noting that it’s one of the only beaches in Tofino where parking is free and no park pass is required.
Things to do between Tofino and Nanaimo
The drive from Tofino to a ferry that’ll take you back to the mainland is several hours in the making, and with the unpredictable delay we knew we could face at the Kennedy Hill construction zone, we didn’t want to chance missing our ferry check-in window. Instead, we planned a night in Nanaimo, which also broke up what would have been a long travel day.
On the way to Nanaimo, you’ll pass through Parksville where we had big plans that relied on having good luck with the weather gods. Sadly, it was nothing but rain the entire day so our plan to send my parents and the kids to the Parksville Beach for the day (go Google the pictures…it looks so neat) went belly up. But since Big B and I had paid reservations at a spa resort, we spent the car ride to Parksville figuring out what the heck to do with four of the six of us.
It meant a bit of extra shuffling, but we found the Avalon Cinema — a movie theatre in the big mall in Nanaimo, not far from the Parksville border — and got tickets for everyone to see the new Top Gun movie and have lunch in the food court while Big B and I went to the Grotto Spa.
Tigh-Na-Mara Grotto Spa
As I’m sure has become abundantly clear, one of the nicest benefits of multigenerational travel is that you have built-in care for your kids if you want to do romantic couple-y things. And when I read about the Grotto Spa’s Treetop Tapas & Grill — where you dine in your bathrobe after enjoying the resort’s beautiful mineral pool — I took full advantage of the grandparent contingent.
The three-hour Dip & Dine experience gives you access to the mineral pool for an hour (it’s heaven) before you find yourself up in a small restaurant overlooking the resort’s lush foliage.
For $145 per person, you also get unlimited tapas served to you in a series of 17 individual plates — from savoury through sweet. Once you finish the chef’s presentation, you can re-order any of the dishes…as many as you like. If you can even fit more food into your belly!
Like any tasting menu, portions are small — but they sure add up! We only re-ordered two dishes before our bodies started to shut down.
The menu was beautiful and the plating even moreso. It’s impossible to pick a favourite dish because every plate was outstanding. It was by no means an inexpensive three hours but — wow — what a remarkable three hours it was.
Things to do on Vancouver Island: Nanaimo
There isn’t a lot of hype about Nanaimo and finding a great list of things to do certainly wasn’t as plentiful as researching the other stops we made on Vancouver Island, but as a way to get close to a ferry dock leading you back to Vancouver, it turned out to be a great stop.
Where to stay in Nanaimo
Since our Nanaimo visit was centred around the ferry’s proximity, we decided to stay as close to the terminal as possible and found ourselves in a couple of rooms at The Buccaneer Inn. This is a motel, but one that’s so well-cared for that it’s at the top of TripAdvisor’s reviews for lodging in Nanaimo.
We found the owners extremely helpful right from the time of booking, not only providing excellent suggestions about the best rooms for our multigenerational situation but also (1) giving us important intel about booking ferry reservations months in advance and (2) getting in touch about a month before our arrival to ensure we had reservations and wouldn’t be stuck without a ferry ride.
That said, it is still a motel, so go in with the right expectations. You’re not going to have the most plush robes or the mattress and bedding of your dreams here, but you’ll be a three-minute drive from the ferry terminal and have free parking.
Where to eat in Nanaimo
When in Nanaimo, you’ve gotta try a Nanaimo bar! They’re one of my least-favourite sweet treats, but I tried a peanut butter one from Red’s Bakery and I have to admit, it was pretty tasty and has to be one of the best Nanaimo bars in Nanaimo! This is a When In Rome moment; don’t miss it.
The Nanaimo Bar Trail
But, since we were still coming down from our multi-course extravaganza at The Grotto Spa and the kids had gorged themselves on mall food and popcorn, no one was hungry enough to do the The Nanaimo Bar Trail downtown sampler walking tour that I spent a considerable amount of time planning for our itinerary. So, please…benefit from this since we couldn’t. This will allow you to park downtown and walk in a loop to try a variety of Nanaimo bar-inspired goodies:
- Pirate Chips — deep-fried Nanaimo Bar (Unit 1-75 Front St., open 4-9pm*)
- Waterfront Confections — Nanaimo Bar gelato (Unit 6-90 Front St., open 11am-9pm)
- Noodlebox Nanaimo — Nanaimo Bar spring roll (Port Place, Unit 107-648 Terminal Ave., open 11am-8pm)
- Red’s Bakery — Nanaimo Bar cheesecake…they were all out when we stopped in, sadly (101 Commercial St., open 7pm-4am)
- Modern Cafe — Nanaimo Bar Martini (221 Commercial Dr., open 9am-9:30pm)
* Be sure to check hours before visiting.
Who would have guessed that our favourite breakfast/brunch during our entire BC road trip would be in Nanaimo? But it was. Gabriel’s Cafe was so, so, so, soooo freaking delish! The coffee was awesome, the servers were a delight, the freshly squeezed OJ was a treat and the food — OMG, the food. It was a brilliant balance between hearty, traditional home-cooked dishes that made our not-so-adventurous eaters in the group happy alongside interesting farm-to-table twists on breakfast staples that made my foodie heart so happy.
I ordered the When Pigs Fly dish (pulled pork and a fried egg in between two coconut milk pancakes with bourbon maple syrup and spicy sour cream) and wish I could duplicate this brunch magic at home. I’m salivating writing this as I remember how good it was. So good, in fact, that I dove right in without even taking a photo and gobbled it all up before I even came up for air and realized I’d missed the photo opp!
Things to do in Nanaimo
Other than just walking along the sidewalks and taking in the sheer number of boats everywhere, we didn’t spend much time in Nanaimo so the only real recommendations I have for things to do in Nanaimo is exploring Cathedral Grove (scroll way back up to the Victoria-to-Tofino section for more info) and catching a flick at the Avalon Cinema, located in the Woodgrove Centre shopping mall. Feel free to add more ideas in the comments!
That’s it, that’s all, folks. I’ll have a complementary packing post for your own BC road trip and Alaskan adventures coming soon. And remember: you can find my entire British Columbia road trip itinerary (including all of the things to do on Vancouver Island detailed above) in spreadsheet format here.
Coming soon, my careful packing list for your own epic BC road trip and the essentials for an Alaskan cruise adventure. Stay tuned!
DISCLAIMER: Some of the attractions were provided or discounted. Let me assure you, though: we spent five digits of our own money on this epic vacation! As always, opinions and recommendations are entirely my own.