Exploring Vancouver Island - The Top 16 Hidden Gems

16 Min Read
Aug 10, 2023

Welcome to Vancouver Island, a captivating destination nestled off the southwestern coast of British Columbia, Canada. With its breathtaking natural landscapes, charming coastal towns, and rich cultural heritage, Vancouver Island offers a plethora of activities and attractions to enchant every visitor. 

Getting to Vancouver Island is an adventure in itself. The most common route is to fly into Victoria International Airport, conveniently located near the island's capital city, Victoria. 

Alternatively, you can take advantage of BC Ferries, which offer regular sailings from mainland British Columbia to various ports on Vancouver Island. The journey aboard the ferry presents an opportunity to savor the stunning coastal views and spot wildlife such as seals and eagles.

Seaplanes are another fantastic transportation option to reach Vancouver Island. Seaplanes provide a unique and scenic experience, allowing you to enjoy breathtaking aerial views of the coastal landscapes as you make your way to the island.

Harbour Air and Seair Seaplanes are two popular seaplane operators that offer scheduled flights between downtown Vancouver and various destinations on Vancouver Island

1. Visit Butchart Gardens

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Imagine a paradise spanning over 55 acres, bursting with vibrant hues from more than 900 different species of plants. This isn't just a garden - it's a horticultural masterpiece.

First carved out over a century ago, Butchart Gardens is not just an "attraction", it's a testament to the transformation of space. Once a limestone quarry, Jennie Butchart envisioned the barren land as a canvas, steadily cultivating it into a stunning botanical showpiece. Today, 50 professional gardeners meticulously maintain its beauty, ensuring that this space remains one of the top-rated things to do on Vancouver Island.

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Nestled just north of Victoria, the Gardens offer year-round splendor. However, the months from spring through fall serve up an exceptionally dramatic panorama.

Come in this period, and you will witness the place pulsating with an astounding array of colors, textures, and fragrances. Each corner is a celebration of nature's diversity and resilience, and every pathway is a new adventure waiting to be unfolded.

2. Go whale watching

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As you navigate through the vast expanse of Vancouver Island activities, getting on a Whale-Watching Adventure emerges as an exhilarating must-do experience. Here, in the rich waters surrounding the island, a grand ballet of the ocean unfolds, where mighty cetaceans command the stage.

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Every year, a variety of majestic whales, including Humpbacks, Grey Whales, Orcas, and Minke Whales, pass through these parts, offering spectacular displays of their aquatic prowess.

Whether you witness an Orca pod gliding gracefully through the azure expanse or catch a Humpback whale breaching in a playful dance, each moment is an unforgettable spectacle that nature has been perfecting for millions of years.

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The best time to ensure you don't miss this awe-inspiring sight?

Plan your visit between April and October, when sightings of Orcas and Humpbacks are most frequent. This isn't just an activity; it's an immersion into a world that usually lies beneath the waves, hidden from our daily lives.

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3. Surf Beaches in Tofino

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If there's a place on Vancouver Island where the wild spirit of the Pacific Ocean truly comes alive, it's Tofino - especially the famous Chesterman Beach.

This slice of surfers' paradise is where powerful waves collide with Canada’s surfing capital, making it an essential item on your Vancouver Island bucket list.

Check Surf Lessons in Tofino to find the gear and the instructor. No matter if you're a beginner looking to catch your first wave or an experienced surfer seeking to improve your skills, they have the perfect lesson for you!

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Separated by a wave-breaking sandbar and a picturesque islet, the two-pronged Chesterman Beach is an open challenge to surfers looking for the thrill of riding the ocean's energy.

Meanwhile, nearby Mackenzie Beach offers a more sheltered surfing experience, perfect for beginners looking to dip their toes into this exhilarating sport.

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For the more seasoned wave riders, the legendary Cox Bay, host of numerous surfing competitions, and the expansive sands of the 10-mile Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park await.

Each provides a unique blend of challenges and experiences that will leave your adrenaline pumping.

4. Explore Malahat SkyWalk

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Let's change gears for a moment and ascend into the clouds. Rising from the verdant heart of Vancouver Island is a spectacle that you must not miss: the Malahat SkyWalk.

This jaw-dropping attraction is a celebration of nature, architecture, and adventure that's sure to take your breath away.

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Just a short, 30km drive northwest of Victoria, the SkyWalk is a multi-tiered spiral tower, a beacon of adventure promising a 360-degree panorama.

From its 105-foot high lookout, you can feast your eyes on vast forests, the shimmering sea, distant islands, and even the glaciated hump of Mount Baker in the US. It's like having a bird's eye view of the natural world at its most majestic.

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The journey to the top is just as enchanting. A 600-meter elevated walkway weaves its way through a beautiful arbutus forest, its rust-hued barks adding a vibrant splash of color against the emerald backdrop.

The tower, a testament to woodwork craftsmanship, was brought to life in collaboration with the Malahat Nation, adding a touch of local cultural heritage to the experience.

Now, about that giant trampoline on top... yes, you read that right! As if the sights weren't exhilarating enough, you can bounce to your heart's content while soaking in the vistas. Then, swoop back to the ground via a winding slide in just 15 seconds.

5. WestCoast WILD Zipline

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Nestled in the region's enchanting wilderness, this Zipline Experience is sure to get your heart racing while offering an immersive dose of natural beauty and cultural significance.

The adventure lasts about 90 minutes, but the memories will last a lifetime. You'll traverse six zipline segments of varying lengths, each taking you on a thrilling ride through a dramatic canyon landscape. As you soar above the treetops, the panoramic views will give you a unique perspective on the island's breathtaking scenery.

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However, the WestCoast WILD Zipline isn't just about the thrill. Before you embark on your flight through the canopy, you'll receive a captivating introduction to the area's rich cultural heritage and diverse flora.

The narratives of the First Nations people intertwined with the tales of the region's trees make this more than just a fun ride; it's a journey through time and an exploration of the indigenous roots of Vancouver Island.

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And the best part? This zipline experience caters to everyone, regardless of your adventure level. Whether you're a seasoned thrill-seeker or a first-time zipliner, the friendly, safety-conscious staff will ensure you have a fantastic time.

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6. Explore Pacific Rim National Park

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Immerse yourself in the stunning coastal beauty, hike through old-growth rainforests, and walk along pristine beaches. Spanning a vast area of 511 km², this iconic park beautifully illustrates why the island is renowned for its untouched beauty and diverse landscapes.

Divided into three distinct sections - Long Beach, the Broken Group Islands, and the West Coast Trail - the park promises a myriad of experiences. Whether you're a land lover or a water enthusiast, you're bound to find something that resonates with your spirit of adventure.

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Long Beach offers a sweeping stretch of golden sand, bordered by the foaming waves of the Pacific Ocean on one side and lush temperate rainforest on the other.

It's an idyllic spot to unwind or partake in beach activities while basking in the breathtaking surroundings.

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For maritime explorers, the Broken Group Islands present an archipelago of scenic islands and islets that are a haven for kayaking, boating, or simply enjoying marine biodiversity.

Lastly, the West Coast Trail is an adventurer's delight. A challenging 75-kilometer hiking trail that winds through dense rainforest, rugged coastline, and historical sites, it's an immersive way to experience the Pacific Coast Mountains and the area's rich history.

7. Go kayaking in the Broken Group Islands

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This unique landscape is an open invitation to navigate the peaceful inner islands by kayak or feel the adrenaline surge while braving the waves of the open ocean.

Paddle through the picturesque archipelago, marvel at the diverse marine life, and camp on remote islands for an unforgettable adventure.

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The Broken Group Islands are not just about natural wonders, but they also offer a deep cultural immersion. Visitors can engage with the rich history of the Tseshaht First Nation who have called these lands home for thousands of years. Ancient middens, village fortifications, stone fish traps, and archaeological sites wait to reveal stories of a time gone by. 

Adding to the charm of these islands is the astounding diversity of marine life that thrives here, ranging from vibrant intertidal creatures to migrating whales. Accessible only by boat, the Broken Group Islands guarantee a truly remarkable kayaking experience.

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Hello Nature Adventure Tours, offers organized tours to the Broken Group Islands. The tour begins with a thorough equipment and safety orientation, followed by a journey that maintains a balance between a thrilling adventure and a peaceful retreat.

The itinerary, set by experienced guides, adjusts according to weather conditions and group preferences. Gourmet picnic lunches, beach camping, and exploratory hikes complete this unforgettable adventure.

8. Adrena LINE Zipline Adventure Tours

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This thrilling escapade offers a unique blend of natural beauty and heart-pounding adventure that's hard to resist.

Not only will you witness the breathtaking views of Vancouver Island from a vantage point that few get to experience, but you'll also enjoy the rush of Zipping Through The Treetops on high-quality equipment that ensures a smooth, safe ride.

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What truly sets them apart, though, are their incredible guides. They not only ensure you feel secure and comfortable, regardless of your experience level, but they also infuse the adventure with a sense of fun and excitement.

Their blend of professionalism, safety consciousness, and humor helps you relax and immerse yourself fully in the experience, allowing you to savor every second of the exhilarating journey through the treetops.

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9. Visit Cathedral Grove

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Stand in awe of the towering ancient Douglas fir trees in this enchanting old-growth forest near Port Alberni.

Cathedral Grove is home to some of the most impressive Douglas fir trees on Vancouver Island, standing tall as living testimonials of the island's natural heritage. Some of these grand sentinels have even seen more than 800 years of history unfold, making them an awe-inspiring sight. 

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A network of trails welcomes you to walk amongst these towering giants, where you can truly feel the pulse of the old-growth forest.

The park also houses majestic groves of western red cedar trees. These ancient trees can be found near Cameron Lake, providing yet another reason to explore this extraordinary place.

10. Relax at Pacific Mist Spa and Hydropath

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This renowned spa takes its inspiration from the bountiful ingredients of the sea, combined with the unique elements of the west coast surroundings.

Here, you're invited to immerse yourself in the soothing embrace of the Pacific, experience rejuvenation, and enhance your overall well-being.

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The spa's centerpiece is the Pacific Mist Hydropath, a specially designed spa journey that mimics the rhythmic movements of the nearby ocean.

Guests are guided through a sequence of wellness stations, each one intended to detoxify the body, soothe aching muscles, and stimulate circulation. Under the skillful guidance of professional spa therapists, you'll emerge from the hydropath experience with a renewed sense of vitality and tranquility.

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Complementing the hydropath are the Pacific Mist Spa's signature services. These bespoke treatments focus on personalized care, ensuring that your unique needs and preferences are met.

From revitalizing seaweed wraps and marine-based facials to therapeutic massages, each service is designed to provide a holistic approach to wellness.

11. Walk through Sooke Potholes Provincial Park

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Sooke Potholes Provincial Park stretches across a 7.28-hectare expanse of natural splendor. This provincial park offers a unique spectacle of deep, polished rock pools along the Sooke River, a fascinating product of glacial action dating back to the last ice age around 15,000 years ago.

The moving ice packs of that time stripped away surface layers, etching a deep path into the bedrock. Massive boulders, caught in the powerful flow of the river, became swirled against the canyon walls, sculpting the distinct potholes we see today.

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The park's facilities, managed by the District of Sooke, include a small parking area, making it a popular day-use destination for both local residents and visitors from afar. The park’s charm lies not only in its geological wonders but also its rich biodiversity.

Walking along the Sooke River reveals the park's importance as a thriving habitat for coho and chinook salmon. These species utilize the river as a crucial spawning ground, adding another layer of ecological significance to this unique location.

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12. Visit Pacific Northwest Raptors

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This must-visit Vancouver Island attraction - Pacific Northwest Raptors provides a range of interactive opportunities that cultivate a deep appreciation for these majestic birds and their environment.

Embark on a guided woodland walk with a hawk perched on your arm, or hold a falcon on your glove for a more personal encounter. If you're fascinated by the mystique of owls, take the opportunity to meet one face to beak. Alternatively, you can fully immerse yourself in the raptors' realm by dedicating an entire day to learning about their lives and habits.

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Each day, the center hosts enthralling flying demonstrations that allow you to observe a variety of raptors, such as eagles, hawks, owls, and vultures, in action.

Witness these magnificent birds as they soar overhead, showcasing their power and grace. The center's educators provide valuable insights into various raptor species worldwide, highlighting their essential roles in ecosystems and the threats they face.

13. Visit Port Renfrew & Check out the giant trees at Avatar Grove

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The Port Renfrew Giant Trees, situated in the tranquil west coast destination of Port Renfrew, offer an enchanting natural spectacle that leaves visitors in awe.

Known for its secluded charm, this small town not only boasts culinary delights and varied activities but also provides easy access to some of the most impressive trees on Vancouver Island.

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Visitors are invited to explore the trail on the right-hand side, leading into the Lower Grove, a relatively flat terrain teeming with old-growth forests.

Here, you'll encounter enormous, gnarled cedars and towering Douglas fir trees that have stood the test of time. The sight of these colossal arboreal wonders, each with their unique shapes and textures, fosters a profound respect for nature's magnificence and resilience.

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Walking amongst these titans, some centuries old, provides a humbling and grounding experience. The serenity of the surroundings, punctuated only by the rustling of leaves and occasional bird calls, lends itself to quiet contemplation and a deepened connection with the natural world.

As you navigate the trails and witness these silent sentinels of the forest, you'll leave with a lasting impression of Port Renfrew's unspoiled beauty and grandeur.

14. Explore the rugged West Coast Trail

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Embark on a multi-day backpacking adventure along this challenging but rewarding trail, offering breathtaking coastal scenery and wildlife encounters.

Before going on this exciting expedition, a good deal of preparation is essential. Due to the trail's immense popularity, obtaining permits can be competitive; thus, planning your adventure at least six months in advance is advisable. Ensuring you have all the necessary supplies is also crucial, as opportunities to replenish resources are limited along the trail.

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The trail's south-to-north direction comes highly recommended. This orientation allows hikers to tackle the most challenging parts of the trail early on, with the path becoming progressively easier as you proceed northward.

This ensures that your journey starts with a rewarding challenge, and as you grow more accustomed to the trail's conditions, you can enjoy a more leisurely trek through the pristine wilderness.

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15. Have Fun at WildPlay

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At WildPlay (multiple locations on Vancouver Island), the adventure begins on solid ground with a comprehensive training session. You are guided on how to use ziplines and the continuous belay system, ensuring safety and comfort throughout your experience.

Once you are at ease with the equipment and techniques, your aerial adventure commences.

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You climb up ladders, taking you from the forest floor into the leafy canopies. The journey through the trees presents a variety of exciting challenges. Imagine traversing tightropes stretched between trees, scaling towering cargo nets, ziplining across forest clearings, and making breathtaking leaps onto swinging logs.

Each activity pushes your boundaries and ignites your adrenaline, making WildPlay a thrilling playground for adventure enthusiasts.

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But it's not just about the rush of adrenaline. As you navigate wobbly bridges and launch yourself into the air on rope swings, you also soak in the lush, verdant vistas that surround you.

It's a perfect blend of thrill and nature, bringing an unforgettable dimension to your Vancouver Island visit.

16. Explore Horne Lake Caves

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At Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park, you have the unique opportunity to explore this hidden underground universe with Guided Caving Adventures.

They offer a range of experiences to cater to every adventurer, from the seasoned spelunker to the casual tourist. In guided tours, you'll journey through narrow passages, under low ceilings, and around the delicate stalagmites and stalactites that have formed over millennia. Guided by seasoned experts, visitors will feel secure while being engrossed in their subterranean adventure.

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An essential part of your journey is the remarkable balance between the exploration of caves and the leisurely walks through the verdant forest trails.

The well-maintained trails, even under snowy conditions, make it easier for visitors to appreciate the stark contrast between the outdoor environment and the stunning formations inside the caves.

To Sum It All Up

Vancouver Island and its surrounding areas offer an incredible assortment of adventures waiting to be discovered. From the soaring heights of the WildPlay ziplines to the mystical depths of the Horne Lake Caves, every corner of this region invites exploration.

Nature lovers can lose themselves amongst the ancient trees of Cathedral Grove and Port Renfrew, or tread lightly along the trails of Sooke Potholes Provincial Park.

The thrill-seekers can navigate the waters of the Broken Group Islands by kayak or take on the rugged challenge of the West Coast Trail. And for those seeking tranquility, the calming aura of the Pacific Mist Spa and Hydropath is a sanctuary of wellness.

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