Originally published September 1, 2016 | Updated June 29, 2018

Ahh…summer. Our cherished season is here, which means three great things: brilliant blue skies, relaxing walks on the beach and long days soaking in the sun. Feeling a little pressure to make every second count? Not a bad time to hop on the Victoria Clipper V for a fun water trip to Victoria, BC! In a little less than three hours, you’ll dock at the Clipper terminal in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Twenty minutes later, you’ll be off the boat, through customs and strolling around downtown Victoria. While we’d highly recommend first-time visitors explore Victoria’s walkable downtown core, sometimes a summer road trip is beckoning!

First, wheels. A 20-minute walk from the Victoria Clipper terminal lands you at Budget downtown (they even pick up from the Victoria Clipper terminal). Dial in the GPS, crank the tunes and use our guide to five scenic drives on Vancouver Island to create your own personal trip through the island’s beautiful Pacific Northwest wonders.

Nanaimo to Oceanside

Kick off your shoes and stroll along sandy shores at Qualicum Beach. Photo: SouthLakesSnapper
Kick off your shoes and stroll along sandy shores at Qualicum Beach. Photo: SouthLakesSnapper

Boasting an average of 2,050 hours of sunshine a year, Vancouver Island’s central-east coast (affectionately known as Oceanside by locals), is arguably one of the best beach areas around. Encompassing Parksville’s Qualicum Beach, Nanoose Bay, Coombs and other surrounding vacation destinations, everything from pristine beaches (more than 12 miles!), to cascading waterfalls and adorable boutiques is at your fingertips.

(Inside tip: Be sure to stop by the Old Country Market to catch sight of their famous rooftop-dwelling goats). Have a soft spot for friends of the feathered kind? Be sure to stop by the Qualicum National Wildlife Area, one of the most important migratory bird habitats in Canada.

How to get there:

 

Motor north along Highway 19 on the 30-minute drive to Oceanside from Nanaimo. You’ll pass by breathtaking vistas of wave-crested shorelines, coastal mountains and lush, temperate forests filled with trees reaching for the sky.

Estimated Drive Time: 30 minutes

Nanaimo to Tofino

You'll know you're near the end of your journey when you spot the stormy seas of Tofino. Photo: Scott Meis
You’ll know you’re near the end of your journey when you spot the stormy seas of Tofino. Photo: Scott Meis

Often referred to as “BC’s unofficial surf capital,” Tofino’s wild coast offers no shortage of mystical and misty beaches. The journey to this amazing region is simply awe-inspiring. Drive along the winding Pacific Rim Highway from Nanaimo to Tofino to experience the beauty and the diversity of Vancouver Island.

For some waterfall action, stop at Little Qualicum Falls, just 44 minutes out of Nanaimo (Inside tip: wander along the loop trail for vistas of both the lower and upper waterfalls). An additional five-minute drive brings you to MacMillan Provincial Park’s Cathedral Grove. Gain a new appreciation for nature as you stroll beneath massive trees, some which are 800 years old and tower 250 feet high.

Little Qualicum Falls runs over with summer thaw. Photo: GoToVan
Little Qualicum Falls runs over with summer thaw. Photo: GoToVan

Break for a snack in Port Alberni, swinging by one of the city’s hidden gems – the Hole in the Wall – a unique water feature left in an old reservoir wall. As you continue on, keep an eye out for Wally’s Creek, taking a dip in the small pools that line the rushing aquamarine waters. Bonus points for bringing a padlock along to leave a lasting reminder of your devotion to someone special on the island’s love lock fence.

How to get there:

 

Head out on Highway 19 until you cross paths with the Pacific Rim Highway (Highway 4), which leads direct to Tofino.

Estimated Drive Time:  2 hours, 54 minutes

Around Sayward and Port McNeill

A road trip around Vancouver Island isn't complete until you've visited its ancient rainforests. Photo: Island Conservation
A road trip around Vancouver Island isn’t complete until you’ve visited its ancient rainforests. Photo: Island Conservation

Explore the road less traveled heading north toward the scenic towns of Sayward and Port McNeill.  A tranquil seaside town, Sayward offers no shortage of ways to commune with nature. Wander along the pathway curving by the Salmon River Estuary catching sight of black-tailed deer, Roosevelt elk, waterfowl as well as shorebirds in this bird-watchers paradise. If time allows, detour to Lower Tsitika River Provincial Park, home of the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, a sanctuary for orca whales.

Halfway on your journey to Port McNeill you can seek out shade at Little Huson Park. Crawl through underground limestone passageways by the lake to discover awe-inspiring rock formations. Next, cruise to nearby Nimpkish Lake Provincial Park hiking through coastal western hemlock forests or enjoying world-class windsurfing on the lake. Toward Port McNeill, you’ll find Telegraph Cove and Alert Bay, prime spots for a little R&R.

How to get there:

 

Drive north along Highway 19 from Campbell River to discover the craggy beauty along the Johnstone Strait, a 110 km channel that runs between Vancouver Island and the mainland.

Estimated Drive Time:  4 hours, 11 minutes

Pacific Marine Circle Route

Take time for a stop along the serene waters of Lake Cowichan. Photo: Dale Simonson
Take time for a stop along the serene waters of Lake Cowichan. Photo: Dale Simonson

Only have a day to explore Vancouver Island? The scenic Pacific Marine Circle Route should top your list. Travel along the southwestern side of Vancouver Island for the best waterfront views. Stop and stretch your legs at Whiffen Spit outside of Sooke. Stroll along the breakwater and soak in breathtaking views of the calm, protected Sooke Basin on one side and the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the opposite side.

Continue on Highway 14 (Inside tip: Keep an eye out for the historic, 105-year-old Sheringham Point Lighthouse, one of the island’s secret spots) to rugged Port Renfrew. Pay a visit to Botanical Beach to peer into tide pools teeming with marine life or try surfing at popular Sombrio Beach (if you want to spend a night under the stars, there are two designated camping grounds along the shore). Don’t miss nearby Avatar Grove, a spectacular stand of old-growth giant red cedars housing “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree” – a twisted Western red cedar.

From there, travel the scenic back roads of Cowichan Valley (Inside tip: if you have time to spare, duck into one of the region’s phenomenal wineries, such as Venturi-Schulze) before connecting with the Malahat Highway (Hwy 1) to Mill Bay. Soak in jaw-dropping vistas as the sparkling Saanich Inlet and lush Goldstream Park glide past your car windows.

Malahat Drive offers some of the most breathtaking views on Vancouver Island. Photo: Andy S
Malahat Drive offers some of the most breathtaking views on Vancouver Island. Photo: Andy S

Stop for lunch dockside at Bridgeman’s Bistro before hopping on the Mill Bay Ferry to the Saanich Inlet. Once you’re on the Saanich Peninsula, take Highway 17A to the Butterfly Gardens & Insectarium at Keating Cross Road to get close up and personal with more than 70 different species of butterflies, insects and tropical creatures. The last hurrah before heading back to Victoria!

How to get there:

 

This nearly 190-mile (306 km) coast-to-coast journey takes you from Victoria westward toward Sooke and up to Port Renfrew, before circling back northeast to Cowichan Lake and through Duncan to Victoria.

Estimated Drive Time:  4 hours, 27 minutes

Heritage Discovery Circle Route

 Experience the rustic charm and First Nations heritage of Alert Bay. Photo: WireLizard
Experience the rustic charm and First Nations heritage of Alert Bay. Photo: WireLizard

Up for a longer adventure? Spend a week or more exploring the rich historical past of the people and places that make up the fiber of British Columbia on the Heritage Discovery Circle Route. The Vancouver Island segment of the route hugs the eastern coast of the island all the way from Victoria to Port Hardy. Swing by Petroglyph Provincial Park in Nanaimo to check out stone engravings of mythological sea creatures and other fascinating symbols created by First Nations peoples more than 1,000 years ago.

An hour up the road, duck into the Courtenay & District Museum for a look at the fossil remains of an 80 million-year-old Elasmosaur (a long-necked aquatic dinosaur), the first of its kind found west of the Canadian Rockies. Learn about the diverse culture of BC’s First Nation peoples as you wander through an impressive variety of masks used in traditional potlaches as well as a collection of dishes belonging to the Lekwiltok chief at the Campbell River Museum. Alternatively, catch the pioneer spirit at the Port Hardy Museum, which houses exhibits on Aboriginal culture (including a collection of 8,000 year-old-artifacts), European settlements, forestry, mining and fishing.

How to get there:

 

Typically the last section of the Heritage Discovery Circle Route after a journey through the Northwest Coast and Inside Passage, the Vancouver Island leg of the trip follows Highway 19 north along the coast from Victoria to Port Hardy.

Estimated Drive Time:  41 hours

With seemingly endless stretches of smooth, scenic highway to explore, Vancouver Island provides the perfect road trip locale. It’ll be just you, your friends and the open road.

Book Your Clipper Getaway Now

Clipper Recommends: 

  • While you are in Parksville, be sure to stop at the rustic Tigh Na Mara Spa for a relaxing soak in their detoxifying mineral pool.
  • If you have extra time in Qualicum, explore Vancouver Island’s underground with a visit to the Horne Lake Caves. Located 26 kilometers west of Qualicum Beach, the caves offer an up-close look at sparkling crystal formations, ancient fossils and underground waterfalls.

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