When people ask me why we choose to visit Vancouver Island, BC with our kids, I answer with the following travel anecdote: within minutes on a Tofino, Vancouver Island beach, my son Calvin spotted a bright pink, five-legged sea star clinging to a rocky tide pool. Amazed with his find, he turned around to tell me about it, and spotted another one. And another. That first day, he endeavored to discover 100 sea stars before he left Vancouver Island. By the time we took the ferry home, his running total had topped 700. You may go to Vancouver Island for the natural beauty, but I guarantee you’ll remember most the stunning abundance of protected wildlife.
There’s so much uninhabited space on Vancouver Island (which is over 12,000 square miles in size), visitors need at least two weeks to reach the remote northern port towns along the Inside Passage. But if you only have five days to explore the island, you can still cover a lot of (incredibly gorgeous) ground.
Day 1: Vancouver BC to Ucluelet, BC
Getting to Vancouver Island: There are only a few ways to arrive on the island, and you can bet that all of them involve water. We launched our trip from the city of Vancouver, BC on a Vancouver Island ferry, as ferry passage is limited in Seattle. Alternatively, float planes fly from both Vancouver and Seattle, but be advised that you’ll need to rent a car on the other side.
From Vancouver, book a morning passage on a BC Ferry for Nanaimo, BC. Ferry schedules are straightforward, but you’ll want to be at the ferry terminal at Horseshoe Bay (20 minutes from downtown Vancouver) at least 1 hour prior to your passage. Once in Nanaimo, drive north on BC-19 to Parksville, BC (30 minutes), then head inland on BC-4 for Port Alberni. A must-stop pit stop is the Coombs Country Market just outside Parksville: you’ll know it by the goats grazing on the roof. (Yes, you read that right.) Pick up some makings for a picnic, then drive a little farther to Cathedral Grove, a BC state park with picnic areas amid a temperate rain forest setting.
Continue west on BC-4 past Port Alberni to your first west coast overnight stop of Ucluelet, BC. (Approximately 2 hours drive time — you won’t mind, though, as this is beautiful scenery through the island’s mountains). A working-class fishing and logging town, Ucluelet only recently appeared on tourist maps: its harbor is ideal for kayaking, and its proximity to the Broken Group Islands makes it a great starting point for multi-day excursions.
After a long travel day, treat yourself to some nice digs at Black Rock Resort, located at the end of the Ucluelet peninsula on a dramatic rocky shore. Soak in their oceanfront hot tubs and have a nice dinner at Fetch, their premiere restaurant. While Black Rock Resort doesn’t have much in the way of beach access for kids, the pool will keep them entertained.
Day 2: Kayaking in Ucluelet Harbor
Wake up to the sea crashing on the rocks on the other side of your Black Rock floor-to-ceiling windows, then drive two minutes to the far end of the Ucluelet peninsula to Majestic Ocean Kayaking tours. We opted for a half-day harbor tour because we have young kids, but if you have kids over age 12 or are without children, you may want to reserve a full day open ocean excursion. Our guide, Jeremy, was professional and fun, and in our 2 1/2 hour tour of the harbor, we learned about the area’s history, the intertidal inhabitants, and kayaking technique. Within minutes of our tour, we’d spotted bald eagles, harbor seals, and our first (aforementioned) sea stars.
After kayaking, drive the short distance up BC-4 toward Tofino BC, stopping en route to explore Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Easily accessed from the highway, the park’s main section, Long Beach, spans along several wide-open, driftwood-laden surfing beaches and includes many coastal hiking options. For kids, a stop at the K’isitis Visitor Centre is very informative.
Upon arriving in Tofino, check in at MacKenzie Beach Resort, directly on beautiful MacKenzie Beach. The oldest resort in the Tofino area, MacKenzie Beach Resort is showing some wear, but its location cannot be beat, and its no-frills beachside cottages include all you need: kitchens and BBQs, wood-burning stoves, and incredible views.
Day 3: Whale Watching and Island Hiking with Remote Passages
Head into the town of Tofino, BC and park all the way at the water on Wharf Street to join Remote Passages for a morning whale watch. The guides here actually call it a “whale watch plus” and it’s easy to see why: during our half-day tour on one of their 12-passenger Zodiac boats, we saw not only gray and humpback whales, but seals, sea lions, sea otters, puffins, jelly fish, and more. The small boat size made for incredible 360 degree views, and I loved that our captain and guide Tyson took us on both the open water and in-between the many small islands hugging the coastline. Of note: throw a stone, and you’ll hit a tour operator wanting to show you whales in Tofino. What sets Remote Passages apart is their customer service and professionalism. We were treated royally throughout our adventure, and everyone was very knowledgable and passionate about the area’s wildlife.
Picnic in the friendly town square of Tofino, or grab a lunch at Big Daddy’s for traditional fish and chips, poutine, or burgers. Head back to Remote Passages in the afternoon to catch a ride to nearby Meares Island. This First Nations protected island sports a cedar plank boardwalk visitors can take approximately 1/4 a mile into the dense tangle of the coastal rain forest, where they can view some of the oldest cedar trees in the region. It’s a beautiful walk, and a fun way to experience the Zodiac boat even if a whale watch is out of your budget.
When you return to your lodgings at MacKenzie Beach, be sure to explore the tide pools at low tide. Families can build small fires on the beach: perfect for roasting marshmallows while waiting for a stunning Tofino sunset.
Day 4: Tofino BC to Parksville BC
After experiencing the wild, remote stretches of Vancouver Island’s west coast, returning to the east coast’s milder coastline and warmer weather is a shock, albeit a pleasant one at this stage in the journey. Once back in Parksville, check in at Tigh-Na-Mara Beach Resort and Spa, Parksville’s most full-amenity resort. Families can choose from private log cabins tucked into the woods surrounding the resort’s recreation space, or oceanfront units overlooking the long, wide beaches for which Parksville is known. This is a place to relax after so much touring: kids can join the Tigh-Na-Mara kids’ club activities at no extra charge, or check out tennis rackets or ping-pong paddles. There’s a basketball court and an indoor pool, and beach access is just a few steps away. If you’re still looking for more to do, Tigh-Na-Mara has a wonderful array of family excursions available for an extra charge: our kids tried their Twilight Golf lesson with a local pro and their tide pool exploration with a local marine biologist. Both were well-run. While the kids are busy, consider purchasing a day pass to the Grotto Spa to enjoy BC’s most famous mineral pools for less than the cost of a spa treatment.
Day 5: Parksville to Victoria or Sidney, BC
To leave the island by ferry, visitors must either drive north back to Nanaimo or farther south down the east coast to Victoria (to return to Vancouver) or to Sidney (to return directly the US via the San Juan Islands and Anacortes). Not surprisingly, the drive toward Victoria is scenic — though less so than the drive across the island to the west coast — and below LadySmith, BC Ferries offers the “most scenic shortcut in Canada,” a 25 minute ferry ride from Mill Bay to Brentwood Bay, which cuts off a good deal of time. (Reservations cannot be made, and ferries run back and forth all day.) On the other side, you’ll find famous Butchart Gardens, which is a good place to wait for your US-bound ferry since the Washington State ferry terminal at Sidney, BC is less than 20 minutes away. If you’re sailing out of Victoria, continue another 20 minutes in the opposite direction, and take high English tea at the Empress Fairmont Victoria before departing back for Vancouver.
Have you been to Vancouver Island? What were your favorite activities there?