Vancouver Island, a huge (12,410 sq mi/32,140 sq km) island off the southwest coast of British Columbia, 40 mi/65 km west of the city of Vancouver, is said to be the top island destination in North America. Simply stated, it's beautiful. Home to the provincial capital, Victoria, the island is a mix of urban delights and wilderness adventures, as well as a year-round favorite for golfers, surfers and anglers (steelhead in the cold weather, several varieties of salmon April-October, trout all summer and bass in June). Almost any stream or lake has possibilities.
When you're ready, take Highway 1 North along the coast. On your way up Malahat Summit, drop into The Aerie, an award-winning resort renowned for its gourmet fare. Next you'll reach Duncan, where you can visit the British Columbia Forest Museum, a park dedicated to the understanding of forestry, from the earliest Native American practices to present-day logging. Known locally as the City of Totems, Duncan has 60 totem poles and the world's largest hockey stick (300 ft/100 m long). The Cowichan Native Village there offers arts-and-crafts shops and demonstrations, as well as dancing and theater. During the summer, they have midday salmon barbecues and an open carving shed, where you can carve your own totem pole. Just north of Duncan, Highway 18 runs to the west: Consider a detour in that direction to see Cowichan Lake.
Back on Highway 1, stop in Chemainus to view the 30 large murals depicting the history of the Chemainus Valley. Try to make time to take in a performance at the Chemainus Theatre. Farther north, before you arrive in the town of Nanaimo, you'll reach Wildplay at the Bungy Zone—an adventure park offering zipline tours and bungee jumping from a specially built bridge. Even if you don't take the plunge yourself, it's fun to watch the jumpers dive headfirst toward the water.
Pick up Highway 19 in Nanaimo and continue northwest. Nanoose Bay, 12 mi/20 km beyond Nanaimo, is a torpedo test range where Canadian warships often anchor. Parksville offers fishing and the beaches at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, where sand dollars abound and the campsites are among the nicest in the province.
The central section of the drive passes by Qualicum Beach (fishing and swimming) and Courtenay (boating, fishing and a museum). If you're a fishing enthusiast, you should definitely stop at Campbell River. You can throw your line either from the many charter-fishing boats or from the city's fishing pier. Nicknamed the "Salmon Fishing Capital of the World," it's the only place where catching a 30-pound salmon might earn you membership into the prestigious Tyee Club of British Columbia. (Members have included Bing Crosby and John Wayne.) From Campbell River, Quadra Island is just a short ferry ride away. Search for petroglyphs along the shoreline and see the Native American heritage displays at Kwakiutl Museum. Campbell River is the home base of the Aurora Explorer, a 12-passenger packet freighter that navigates the coastal inlets to remote communities and logging camps. It's quintessential British Columbia and yet one of the most offbeat cruises around. Nearby is Gold River and the gateway to exploring other coastal communities aboard the workboat MV Uchuck III. This boat operates year-round; we recommend reservations in the summer for both daylong and overnight trips. http://www.mvuchuck.com.
Take Highway 20 out of Campbell River and head inland to Strathcona Provincial Park, home of the Forbidden Plateau alpine meadows and Della Falls—the highest cascades in Canada. Then return to the coast, where the rest of the trip will take you through Comox (golf), Sayward (a logging town), Telegraph Cove (a 1930s heritage community on stilts), Port McNeill and finally Port Hardy. On the northwest tip of the island is Cape Scott Provincial Park. It's a remote, rocky and wild coastal park with stunning beaches. Be aware that the weather is often rough and the trails can be extremely muddy—this is not a park for the dainty traveler or faint-of-heart hiker.
Summer whale-watching trips leave from Tofino, Sayward, Port McNeill and Alert Bay to an area the World Wildlife Fund regards as one of the top 10 whale-watching spots in the world. Another boat excursion is the 15-hour ferry ride from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert (on the mainland) up the Inside Passage (May-October): It's a spectacular trip and has a fairly reasonable price (reservations recommended). You can make connections there with the Alaska State Ferry System to go farther up the Inside Passage.
Traveling across the island to its west coast, you'll drive through MacMillan Provincial Park, where 600-year-old Douglas firs rise from the forest floor to form a high ceiling in Cathedral Grove. The rather industrial town of Port Alberni is next. Located at the head of Vancouver Island's longest inlet, the landscape rivals the fjords of Norway with 4,265-ft/1,300-m wooded peaks and dozens of streams running down mountains. This is home to the Lady Rose, a passenger and cargo ship that serves the communities of Barkley Sound. Day trips aboard the ship are a treat and are reasonably priced.
Bordering the Pacific Ocean is the world-renowned Pacific Rim National Park, which is broken into three segments along the west coast: the West Coast Trail, the Broken Group Islands and the magnificent, rugged Long Beach—miles/kilometers of windswept golden sands and fascinating tide pools. Sea lions, surfers and whales add to the scenery. Serious hikers may want to try the 46-mi/74-km West Coast Trail between Bamfield and Port Renfrew: It's considered one of the most grueling and beautiful treks in North America. Only a limited number of hiking spots are available each year—reservations are essential. The Wild Pacific Trail is a much easier excursion located just outside the park's perimeters. The trail starts near Ucluelet and is suitable for all ages. The park also incorporates the Broken Group Islands, known for their scuba diving, gentle kayaking waters, whale-watching and fishing. Several miles/kilometers past the park's northern boundary is Tofino, a charming coastal community that draws more than a million visitors annually for its quaint beauty, luxurious hotels, funky restaurants and abundant outdoor recreation, including Canada's best surfing.
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