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Island Hopping: A Complete Guide to Vancouver's Islands
Vancouver Island is less than a two-hour ferry ride from Vancouver, but in many ways, it feels like a world away. This diverse destination offers an array of experiences, whether visitors would like to enjoy the cultural aspects of a metropolitan city or explore untouched coastal rainforests. Aside from outdoor activities like kayaking, hiking, diving, swimming and wildlife watching, Vancouver Island also is home to more than 30 wineries and more than 40 golf courses to explore. Here are some popular areas to visit while touring the island.
Southern Island – Vancouver Island’s southern region is an ideal place to discover arts and culture and urban luxuries. This is the location of the island’s capital, Victoria, where visitors can enjoy the symphony, art galleries, opera, film festivals, museums, fine dining and more. Although Victoria is a modern city, it has preserved much of its European heritage and charm — think double-decker buses, regal architecture, well-manicured gardens and teatime. Nearby island communities include Sidney, Sooke, Port Renfrew and Brentwood Bay.
Central Island – This centrally located area is perfect for leisure activities, particularly if sandy beaches, calm fishing areas and serene golf courses sound appealing. Here, you can also visit Nanaimo, the island’s second-largest city, which offers both breathtaking scenery and luxury accommodations. Nearby attractions include Parksville and Qualicum Beach.
Cowichan Valley – This agricultural enclave is a foodie’s paradise, as farmlands, vineyards, orchards and pastures provide an unending breadth of culinary offerings. Tour a winery or distillery and make sure to pack a picnic — the valley is also home to a number of scenic parks, lakes and recreation areas.
Northern Island – Peaceful, rugged and lush, the northern region of Vancouver Island is just waiting for adventure. Here, explorers can encounter abundant wildlife as they take part in their favourite outdoor activities: fishing, hiking, kayaking, mountain biking or diving. Visitors interested in learning more about First Nations culture will also find a number of aboriginal attractions and historical sites in this region.
Southern Gulf Islands
Known for its pristine wilderness and an enchanting population of artisans, farmers and winemakers, the Southern Gulf Islands combine the best of British Columbia’s rugged coastal beauty with small-town charm. Explore lush forests, brilliant blue waterways and sandy beaches, or venture to the islands’ small towns, where the laid-back lifestyle lends itself to lazy afternoons of browsing quaint shops and walking along the marina.
Gabriola Island – Art lovers will delight in this bucolic retreat, which is known for its high concentration of resident artists. Tour the numerous galleries, or take your own photograph of a natural “art” exhibit: the Malaspina Galleries, which are beautiful wave-like sandstone formations that were created by years of water erosion.
Galiano Island – This rugged island is ideal for active adventurers, as it is home to a number of natural parks and recreation areas. Follow the island’s forested hiking and biking trails, or explore the coastline with a kayak or sailboat. Dionisio Point Provincial Park is a popular place for locals to go swimming and hiking and to discover tide pools along the shoreline.
Mayne Island – Plan a romantic getaway to this rural island, where rustic cottages and cozy cabins are located near idyllic farmlands and seascapes.
Pender Island – Bring your hiking boots to this small island, where more than 60 walking and hiking trails provide a scenic network of sightseeing routes. Expect to see charming pastoral landscapes, including fields, orchards, old farmhouses and weathered cottages.
Salt Spring Island – As the largest and most populated of the Southern Gulf Islands, this destination is a cultural enclave, featuring arts and crafts galleries, musical and dance performances, and a number of annual community events.
Saturna Island – This rural island has plenty to offer for nature lovers. Explore tide pools to find starfish and small marine creatures, or plan a guided kayak tour to spot larger animal life, including whales, otters, seals and more.
Northern Gulf Islands
From Lasqueti Island to Savary Island, British Columbia’s Northern Gulf Islands are largely undeveloped and sparsely populated, with few resources for tourists. Some of the islands are accessible only by private boat or water taxi, which can be a desirable feature for visitors seeking virgin rainforest, serene wilderness and outdoor adventures.
Hornby Island – This rural island has a small resident community, but during the warm summer months, its population is known to quadruple in size due to the influx of tourists looking to enjoy outdoor activities. Hornby Island offers a number of vacation rentals and camping grounds, as well as seasonal restaurants and shops. While you’re visiting, bring a mountain bike and take advantage of the island’s numerous trails, which can be found throughout Mount Geoffrey Nature Park and Mount Geoffrey Escarpment Provincial Park.
Located off the coast of West Vancouver, Bowen Island is technically part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District and is considered an island municipality. Its close proximity to the mainland and its frequent ferry and water taxi service makes Bowen Island a popular vacation destination for Vancouverites — as well as an easy day-trip for tourists. A ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay takes approximately 20 minutes.
On Bowen Island, visitors can partake in a number of leisure activities, including golf, bird watching, mountain biking, hiking, swimming, kayaking and snorkeling. Those looking for a taste of island arts and culture won’t have to look far either — Bowen Island’s Artisan Square and Snug Cove are home to a range of art galleries, jewelry shops, organic eateries, yoga studios and clothing boutiques. This island haven becomes even more popular during summer months, when annual festivals and outdoor celebrations draw locals and visitors to the rural community.
Before you go
From mainland British Columbia, it’s surprisingly easy to reach nearby islands. Many people choose to ride on BC Ferries, which can accommodate RVs, cars and bicycles for travelers who wish to bring their own ground transportation.
A number of air transportation services also are available when traveling between islands, from floatplanes and chartered flights to helicopter services.
What to Bring
The islands’ cool, moderate climates make them ideal year-round destinations, but you’ll definitely want to pack waterproof items like a rain jacket, as well as warm layers like a GoreTex or PolarFleece pullover. Also, if ample sightseeing or exploring is on the agenda, make sure to pack a sturdy pair of walking shoes or hiking boots.