If unwinding with whale watching, forest strolling, nordic spa steaming, and farm-to-table wining and dining sounds like a dream, Vancouver Island will be your cup of (fresh, organic, locally-grown) tea. Pack your hiking boots and head to Canada’s westernmost region to explore this Pacific Northwest island’s coastline and coastal temperate rainforests.
The easiest place to start a Vancouver Island adventure is in Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. This city on the southernmost point of the island is a quick 35-minute seaplane hop from Vancouver, the city. You won’t need those hiking boots yet—Victoria is best explored by bike. Join a bike tour with The Pedaler to learn about the history of Victoria and the Indigenous peoples who have long called this area home.
After cycling through Victoria’s eclectic neighborhoods, head to Canada’s oldest Chinatown for lunch or grab a beer by the water at Craft Victoria Harbour. Victoria has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Canada, so when you work up an appetite you’ll be spoiled for choice.
No trip to Victoria is complete without time spent on the water. Join Eagle Wing Tours for a boat tour of the Salish Sea. Bundle up—it gets windy—and keep your eyes peeled for orcas, humpback whales, seals, sea lions, and Pacific white-sided dolphins. You’re guaranteed to see at least some exotic wildlife and scanning the waves for marine mammals is half the fun.
To wind down, RITUAL Nordic Spa is just the ticket. This Scandinavian-style retreat offers a Finnish sauna house experience in downtown Victoria. Trade in your street clothes for an oversized hoodie-robe, then hit the circuit. Alternate between hot (sauna or steam room) and cold (plunge pool or Nordic bucket shower), then relax (indoor salt lounge or outdoor patio) and repeat.
For dinner, why not dine where you’ll sleep? The Inn at Laurel Point has cozy bedrooms and mouthwatering cuisine. Executive chef Ken Nakano is passionate about seasonal, local, and homegrown ingredients. At AURA, the inn’s waterfront restaurant, he serves up fresh salad greens with miso vinaigrette, homemade rolls with sake kasu butter, crispy pork belly, Parisienne gnocchi, miso-crusted halibut, and glazed beef cheek. After a few dessert selections from the restaurant’s pastry chef, you’ll be stuffed and happy your bed is nearby.
To drive from one end of Vancouver Island to the other would take about six hours. But you can easily spend a few days exploring just the south side of the island. Head to Malahat Skywalk, half an hour north of Victoria. Here you can walk up a spiral ramp for spectacular views—and bald eagles if you’re lucky—then zip down the spiral slide to the bottom. Take the scenic nature trail back to the cafe and reward yourself with a Nanaimo bar, a sweet treat named for a nearby city.
For another scenic hike, walk across one of the world’s tallest free-standing timber rail trestles. The Kinsol Trestle is an abandoned wooden Canadian National Railway trestle located along the Cowichan Valley Trail. It’s free and open to hikers and cyclists alike. Plan to stay about an hour so you can walk from the top of the trestle along a forest path to the river below.
Driving through the Cowichan Valley, you’ll discover endless foodie delights. Local proprietors are friendly—they are Canadian, after all—and are happy to share their passion for making fresh, local, and organic products.
Drop by Westholme Tea Company, Canada’s only commercial organic tea grower, to stock up on souvenir organic teas grown by Victor Vesely, and handcrafted ceramics made by his talented co-owner, Birgit Nellemann. Then have lunch among the apple trees at Merridale Cidery and Distillery, where you can enjoy a flight of ciders made from fruit grown right in Janet Docherty and Rick Pipe’s orchard.
Stay in the heart of Cowichan Bay by booking a ground-floor suite at Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay. Sit on your back patio watching playful sea lions and otters, then walk over to The Masthead Restaurant for an elegant dinner. Another great choice for dining is Unsworth Vineyard, where you can enjoy a selection of local foods and wines in a restored early 1900s farmhouse.
In the morning, rise with the sun and stroll through Cowichan Bay village. Warm and wholesome baked goods await. True Grain Organic Craft Bakery is worth a visit just for the smells, but you’ll also want to try a cinnamon raisin bun or cheddar twist. The primarily vegan bakery, run by Bruce and Leslie Stewart, links farmers to millers to bakers, producing organic products with locally sourced ingredients.
Walk next door to Leeward Coastal Cafe for a cup of fair trade coffee or a smoothie made with local Saskatoon berries. You may also want to order a hearty breakfast sandwich made by slow food enthusiast Chef Mara Jernigan, and a few of her ginger cookies for the road.
For a different view of the island, take the 25-minute ferry from Mill Bay. You’ll end up in Brentwood Bay where you can head straight to Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse for another flight of local ciders and an artisan lunch plate. Take time for a complimentary tour of the orchard, and you might be rewarded with a green tree frog sighting.
One last stop before you head back to the airport—Sidney by the sea. Hole up in this cozy seaside village at The Sidney Pier Hotel and Spa. From there, you can walk everywhere. Step out back to see seals playing in the Salish Sea. Or, head next door to taste the purple Empress 1908 Gin at Victoria Distillers which, fun fact, is owned by an Austin-based company.
An easy flight from Victoria and you’ll be back in Vancouver, which also warrants a few days to explore. If you have an early flight home to Texas, stay at the Fairmont Vancouver Airport. The bathtubs are glorious, the breakfast is delicious, and your airline check-in will be steps from the hotel lobby.
Cover Photo Heidi Gollub
Heidi Gollub enjoys working remotely and already misses the days when her kids could take virtual schooling on the road. An Austin local, she is always on the lookout for easy family getaways that require little-to-no prep work.