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Canada: the history and must see sights of Vancouver Island

Kieran Meeke / 26 January 2017

Celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2017, Canada is a fascinating country full of history and intrigue. The last installment in a series of articles, we look at Vancouver Island.

Humpback whale near Vancouver Island, Canada
Dolphin and whale watching tours are a must when visiting Vancouver Island.

History of Vancouver Island

Now part of the province of British Columbia, Vancouver Island lies in the Pacific and has one of the mildest climates in Canada.

Victoria, the capital, is connected by ferry and flights across the Strait of Georgia to the city of Vancouver on the mainland. Around half the island’s total population of 750,000 live in the capital.

Captain Cook claimed Vancouver Island for Britain in 1778, although native peoples had lived here for at least 4,000 years before that. 

The Spanish had also planted their flag as early as 1774 but disputes between the two countries, and later the USA, were resolved by the 1850s when a British colony was established.

The island had long been hunting grounds for fur traders and Hudson’s Bay Company set up a trading post at what is now Victoria in the 1840s.

From 1858, the harbour became a vital port of supply during the Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and then the larger Cariboo Gold Rush, both on the mainland.

The gold ran out in 1863, leaving Vancouver Island facing economic decline. It amalgamated with British Columbia in 1866 and Victoria was proclaimed a city, and capital of the island.

Victoria’s Inner Harbour is a port of call for cruise ships and a centre for whale watching and ecotourism. 

It is also home to Harbour Air, the largest all-seaplane company in the world, which runs flights to Vancouver and Seattle among many other destinations.

Besides tourism, the island’s economy depends on hi-tech industries, logging and fishing.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here

Getting Around Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island has one major north-south highway and a wide network of other roads. There is a good public bus service around the island and Greater Victoria is one of the few cities in North America to have double-decker buses.

BC Ferries operates vehicle and passenger between the island and the mainland, including Seattle and other places in the US state of Washington. 

The most popular route is between Vancouver and Victoria, which takes about 90 minutes.

The ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy is a 15-hour cruise through the Inner Passage. It offers a good chance to see whales, as well as the coastline. 

Prince Rupert can be reached by road in a drive through some of Canada’s most dramatic scenery.

Major Sights

Victoria Inner Harbour

Any working harbour has a romance all of its own and the Victoria Inner Harbour adds amazing scenery and a historic cityscape to the mix. It is also the busy home of seaplanes flying to Vancouver and beyond. 

The waterfront is a popular spot for evening walks, when grand buildings such as the Fairmont Empress Hotel (famous for tis Afternoon tea) and BC Legislature are lit up, and hosts regular events.

Butchart Gardens

In 1904, Robert Pim Butchart, who made his fortune from Portland cement, turned 55 acres of abandoned lime quarry into the Butchart Gardens

Around a million visitors a year enjoy these sunken gardens, which include spectacular fountains and a Japanese and Italian garden among others.

Must-do: See the Light and Fireworks Show every Saturday night from June to August.

Dolphin and Whale Watching Tours

A number of local tour operators take boats out to see the marine and bird life of the waters around Vancouver Island. You might spot Pacific grey, minke and humpback whales but almost certainly orcas. 

These “Killer whales” are found in pods of up to 100. The season runs from April to October but the smaller Transient orcas can also be seen during winter.

Must-do: Keep an eye out for Bald eagles catching fish; Victoria has the world’s second-largest population of these birds of prey after Alaska.

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

If you want to know why people rave about Vancouver Island’s beauty, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is a good place to start. 

Running along the western shore, and encompassing coast with a 50-mile rainforest hiking trail behind it, 100 islets and the best beach in Canada, there is something for everyone. The West Coast Trail is worth the visit alone, passing waterfalls and ancient trees, with views of cliff and sea.

Must-do: Paddle a kayak around the calm waters of the Broken Group islands in Barkley Sound, camping in the forest on the larger ones.

Wild Pacific Trail

The other side of the Broken Group islands from Pacific Rim NP, the Wild Pacific Trail takes its name from the view of the Pacific waves, rather than its difficulty. 

There are a series of walks, some very short but scenic and longer ones that take you through old growth rainforest.

Must-do: Take in the view from the “Painter Perches”, five tree-house viewing decks on the Artists Loop.

Campbell River

Often called the "Salmon Capital of the World”, Campbell River and it's town are popular with anglers but also offer a chance to swim with the fishes. 

Every autumn, millions of salmon return to their freshwater spawning grounds along this coast. 

From early July to mid October you can don a wetsuit and fins, grab a snorkel and swim with thousands of them in the crystal-clear waters of the Campbell.

Must-do: See if you can identify all five species of Pacific salmon: Coho, Sockeye, Chum, Chinook and Pink.

Strathcona Provincial Park

Campbell River is the gateway for the Strathcona Provincial Park, popular with climbers, hikers, swimmers, anglers, canoeists and kayakers, and for cross-country and downhill skiing in winter. 

Its 7,200-feet-high Elkhorn Mountain is the second-highest peak on Vancouver Island.

Must-do: The King’s Peak trail rewards hikers with dramatic views of Iceberg Lake and Elkhorn Mountain and makes a great two-day camping trip.


With a population of around 5,000, Duncan is known as ”The City of Totems” for the 80 First Nations carvings around town. 

A downtown walking trail passes 40 of them and a free map tells the story of their significance to the native people. It is at the heart of the Cowichan Valley, noted for its organic farmers and vineyards. 

The valley’s cool Mediterranean-style climate also attracts many retirees.

Must-do: Go for a midnight kayak paddle in Maple Bay.

Salt Spring Island

The largest of the Gulf Islands, which are scattered between Vancouver Island from the mainland, Salt Spring Island was first settled in 1858 by ex-slaves fleeing racism in California

It has continued to attract an eclectic mix of people, including Vietnam draft-dodgers and many artists.

Must-do: Buy some of the artistic Salt Spring Dollars, which exchange at parity with the Canadian dollar and are used locally.

Chesterman Beach

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the 1.7-mile Chesterman Beach has helped the nearby town of Tofino win the title of “Best Surf Town in North America”. 

Snow-capped mountains make a scenic backdrop for surfers of all abilities tackling the Pacific waves.

Must-do: Visit the Carving Shed at the Wickaninnish Inn to watch the wood carvers at work.


This busy ferry town is known as ”Hub, Tub, and Pub City” because of its central position on the island, its bathtub racing (an annual harbour race for modified bathtubs) and number of pubs. 

The town also gives its name to a popular Canadian dessert, made with layers of crumbs, custard and chocolate.

Must-do: Try the Nanaimo bar, of course.

Major Events

Jazzfest International

The ten-day Jazz International Festival in Victoria brings in artists and spectators from all over Canada and beyond. Headliners in recent years have included Maceo Parker, Angelique Kidjo, Pink Martini and Alexis Baro. 

Venues every June/July include various concert halls and theatres, plus a stage at Centennial Square.

The Victoria Jazz Society also organises the Blues Bash over the weekend of Labour Day (first Monday of September) at Victoria's Inner Harbour. 

Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival

All the usual celebrations of Scottish culture are found in the Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival every May, from pipes and drums to Highland dancers and caber tossers. 

A Tilted Kilt Pub Crawl, Tartan Parade and the Clan Torchlight Ceremony are more local spins on the fun.

Music by the Sea

A small event held over a week in July, that’s worth the trip to Bamfield for the scenery alone. 

As implied by its title, Music by the Sea is held with a view of the Pacific and features both “classical and contemporary” chamber and jazz music.

Victoria Dragon Boat Festival

Ninety teams, some from the USA, race across the Inner Harbour in a colourful display over three days in mid-August, during the Victoria Dragon Boat Festival. The event also includes live music and a paper lantern display in aid the BC Cancer Foundation.

Symphony Splash

The Victoria Symphony playing on a floating stage in the Inner Harbour is a centrepiece to the Symphony Splash, one of the largest symphonic events in North America. 

This free event every August ends with Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, complete with bells, live cannon and fireworks.

Cowichan Wine & Culinary Festival

Cowichan’s wines, ciders and local farm produce are highlighted every September at the Cowichan Wine & Culinary Festival. Local restaurants and cafes produce special menus and a dozen wineries also take part.

Cool mountain peaks and even ‘cooler’ cities, Canada offers a world of experiences. Find out more about our holidays to Canada here


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.