25+ Responsible Ways to Explore the Magic of Vancouver Island
From nature tours to craft distilleries, these Vancouver Island attractions put the focus on local ingredients, sustainable practices and thoughtful stewardship of the land.
The Best Things to Do on Vancouver Island
Spend one day inhaling the fresh air, standing among the giants of the rainforest or dipping your toes in the ocean and you’ll understand why Vancouver Island has a hold on so many hearts. It’s the spirit of the region—something that’s not only seen, but felt, and well worth protecting through sustainable tourism practices. The best things to do on Vancouver Island take their debt to the land seriously. From Tofino to Victoria, Courtenay to Nanaimo, they’re Indigenous-owned businesses, farm-to-table restaurants and carbon-neutral companies that not only provide incredible experiences for travellers, but also work to ensure this magical place will be around for future generations to fall in love with.
Big Tree Trail
Walking the Big Tree Trail, a wooden boardwalk that winds through old-growth forest, is like taking a step back in time. The trail is cared for by the Tribal Parks Guardians and is home to sacred red cedars that are more than 1,000 years old, bearded lichen draping from their boughs. Only accessible by kayak or a 10-minute water taxi ride, the hike is one of the most incredible things to do on Vancouver Island.
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Rhino Coffee House
Rhino Coffee House is a local hotspot for fresh coffee and decadent homemade donuts. And if you’re craving something a bit heartier, they also have wraps, sandwiches and breakfast goodies like the “bro”-nut: a savoury donut loaded up with a fried egg, bacon, ham or sausage, aged cheddar and veggies. Stop in to fuel your day and pick up a few bags of hand-roasted beans to bring home as gifts (or keep all to yourself).
Like many of the Tofino businesses on this list, Rhino Coffee is a member of the Tribal Parks Allies, which means a one per cent ecosystem service fee goes to the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s guardianship of the region.
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A psychic’s den, hidden arcade, lobby bike path and rainforest hot tub—Hotel Zed has them all. The spot was designed with ’70s flair, from the sunken living room lobby to the rotary phones in the rooms. The hotel shuttle is even a 1969 station wagon named Grizz. During your stay, be sure to stroll down the boardwalk at the back of the property to see the mudflats, take the seven-minute walk to Chesterman Beach and enjoy waste-free coffee in your room (or takeaway salads and sandwiches from the Beachside Provisions snack stand in the lobby).
Here are more great Canadian hotels worth adding to your travel plans.
Whether or not you stay at Hotel Zed, you won’t regret making a dinner reservation at its restaurant, Roar. With ingredients like foraged mushrooms, charred fruit, plus meat and seafood cooked over live fire, the food has a wildness that will make you feel connected to the earth. And with cocktails inspired by the War in the Woods, a historic protest against industrial forestry in the region, the menu at Roar is something you won’t find anywhere else.
Read up on the long battle to save B.C.’s old growth forests.
Coastal Bliss Yoga
Take your yoga practice to the beach with Coastal Bliss Yoga’s weekend classes from June to August. You’ll be able to breathe in that fresh sea air at North Chesterman Beach as you downward dog, cobra and tree pose to your heart’s content. Heading to town in the spring or fall? Book a private session at the stretch of sand of your choice or attend an in-studio class.
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Jamie’s Whaling Station
As stunning as Tofino is from shore, it’s a whole other world from the deck of a boat. Take to the waters of Clayoquot Sound with Jamie’s Whaling Station and track orcas, grey whales and humpbacks as they glide through the swirling waves. (You may even find out the names and ages of various whales based on their markings!) Already spotted whales on your island journey? You can book a bear tour instead and search for black bears foraging for food.
Find out what it’s like kayaking with humpback whales in the Johnstone Strait.
Certified organic and handcrafted in the rustic surf town, Tofino Distillery’s gins and vodkas (not to mention absinthe, limoncello and cinnamon liqueur) are mouth-watering additions to any bar cart. Visit the tasting room to sample mini cocktails that feature flagship spirits like the Old Growth Cedar Gin, which is flavoured with western red cedar tips, and spicy Jalapeño Vodka.
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Wolf in the Fog
A top dining destination in Tofino, Wolf in the Fog is famed for the unique spin Chef Nicholas Nutting puts on local ingredients. Whether it’s seaweed salad with mushrooms, crunchy puffed rice and sesame mayo or oysters crusted with strands of fried potato, the dishes are always unique and exciting. If it’s available when you visit, be sure to finish your meal with a decadent cream puff to share.
Here are more unique Canadian restaurants worth adding to your bucket list.
Pacific Sands Beach Resort
There are few things better than waking up to the sound of the surf crashing outside your window or watching a storm brew while you’re cozy inside. That’s what you get when you stay at Pacific Sands, a 41-acre property that hugs the sandy beach alongside Cox Bay. The environmentally friendly resort is perfect for families—or anyone who likes a kitchen and a little extra space to spread out—with its waterfront suites and beach houses. Plus, there are a ton of amenities including bike rentals, beach yoga, a movie library and an on-site Surf Shack that’s run by Surf Sister Surf School. Be sure to catch the sunset at Pettinger Point at least once during your stay.
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Pull up a colourful chair at one of the patio’s firepits and nosh on salmon burgers, cod fish tacos and chowder at Surfside Grill. The laidback takeout restaurant at Pacific Sands focuses on local seafood (not to mention beef, chicken and greens) and has views of Cox Bay, where you can often see fishing boats at a distance as they haul in their catches of the day.
Here’s more on what makes Tofino an essential stop on Vancouver Island.
Harbour Air Seaplanes
Flights around Vancouver Island and the mainland
Taking off and landing on water is the bucket list experience you never knew you needed. Plan yours with Harbour Air Seaplanes—which became the world’s first carbon neutral airline in 2007—whether you book a flight between Vancouver and your island destination or a tour of Victoria or Nanaimo. (Hint: Landing in the heart of Vancouver after a few days on the island is an eye-opening treat.)
You’ll want to add these day trips from Vancouver to your itinerary.
Port Alberni, B.C.
Master carver Gordon Dick founded Ahtsik Gallery in 2008 to showcase West Coast artists working primarily in traditional Nuu-chah-nulth, Kwakiutl, Coast Salish or Nuxalk style. Not only can you purchase their one-of-a-kind creations, but you can also visit Dick’s on-site studio, where he uses elaborate techniques to craft large-scale wood carvings, mostly from western red cedar.
Find out why B.C.’s Calvert Island is Canada’s answer to the Caribbean.
MacMillan Provincial Park (between Qualicum Beach and Port Alberni, B.C.)
British Columbia is known for its lush rainforests filled with majestic trees that are hundreds of years old. At Cathedral Grove, the tree variety is ancient Douglas fir—including one grande dame that has a circumference of more than nine metres. Walking among the trees, as sunlight filters through the canopy, is an other-worldly experience.
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For gorgeous craft spirits fermented and distilled from sustainable honey, look no further than Wayward Distillery in the Comox Valley. The company works with an apiary on the mainland that has grown from 300 to 1,700 hives with Wayward’s involvement, which means even more of the province’s food can be pollinated by local honeybees. Visit the distillery for a tasting and to learn more about the importance of healthy honeybees via two demo hives cared for on-site.
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Vancouver Island is home to a huge range of First Nations artists working in both traditional and contemporary styles. At I-Hos Gallery, which is owned and operated by K’omoks First Nation, old and new collide in a colourful space that features everything from painted wood masks and woven cedar hats to hand-carved silver jewellery and children’s books. Whether you’re looking to invest in your art collection or find a new accessory, the gallery is a worthwhile place to blow your souvenir budget.
Check out the eye-opening artwork of Indigenous artist Jim Logan.
Free Spirit Spheres
Qualicum Beach, B.C.
Want an utterly original way to reconnect with nature during your visit to Vancouver Island? Spend a couple of nights in one of the Free Spirit Spheres, three spherical treehouses suspended in the forest. The spheres were created as alternatives to traditional hotels, which clear away trees to build. Instead, these spaces preserve the ecosystem while allowing you to commune directly with nature from a private bubble.
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Qualicum Beach, B.C.
A lifestyle and home boutique in the seaside town of Qualicum Beach, Faire Living launched in 2020 as an antidote to the fast-fashion mindset. Everything in the shop is ethically made and environmentally conscious, from recycled-wool blankets to dip-dyed stoneware.
Here’s what it’s like taking a cruise along Vancouver Island’s wild west coast.
Gabriel’s Gourmet Cafe
While working your way along the east coast of Vancouver Island, place an order at Gabriel’s Gourmet Cafe in Nanaimo, a farm-to-table hotspot with hearty breakfasts (think “Green Eggs and Ham Yam I Am,” which is ham and scrambled eggs on yam lentil cakes) and lunches (butter chicken rice bowls, anyone?). The café is a love letter to small, sustainable farms—and you can trace your food from producer to plate on their website.
Here are more hidden gems in British Columbia that are well worth visiting.
Saysutshun Newcastle Island
Saysutshun is a healing place for the Snuneymuxw First Nation, a Coast Salish people. Traditionally, when someone in the community would pass away, their loved ones would cross to Saysutshun to “yu’thuy’thut” or fix their heart. Now, the island is a protected marine park with 22 kilometres of trails. During your visit, attend a traditional salmon barbeque or take an interpretive walking tour to learn about the sacred village sites and natural medicines.
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Cowichan Bay, B.C.
Created by Indigenous artists and other local makers, the goodies assembled under the roof of Crowfoot Collective range from clothing and jewellery to home goods (like ritual candles studded with crystals). You can also pick up botanical skin and herbal supplements from this shop that donates products and money to Indigenous causes.
Here are 10 incredible Indigenous authors you should be reading.
One of the newest things to do on Vancouver Island is “climb” the Malahat Skywalk, a striking open-air tower near Victoria that was created in partnership with the Malahat Nation. To get to the top of the tower, you’ll take a 600-metre trek through the forest on an elevated, wooden walkway, then rise up through the trees on a winding ramp. From 250 metres above sea level, you’ll enjoy 360-degree views of two countries and be able to cross the Adventure Net that’s suspended at the centre of the tower. Walk or hop on the spiral slide for a ride back to earth.
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Taking a tour with Alset means you’ll ride in zero-emission style in a Tesla Model S sedan, Model 3 sedan or Model X SUV. The company’s private tours traverse the countryside around Victoria, focusing on local vineyards, craft farms and hidden gems. Try the four-hour “Castles, Gardens, High Tea and Spirits” tour, where you might see Craigdarroch Castle (above, a mansion that overlooks Victoria), the gardens at Hatley Castle (a shooting location in Deadpool and two of the X-Men films) and Lighthouse Brewing Company.
Psst—Craigdarroch is rumoured to be one of the most haunted places in Canada!
Tea at the Empress
No trip to Vancouver Island would be complete without a stop at the Lobby Lounge for the famed Tea at the Empress, which has been running since the hotel opened in 1908. Each of the luxury teas—from the Bella Coola Organic to the Kyushu Japan Sencha—is ethically sourced and traceable. Plus, the ingredients for all the dainty treats (think cucumber sandwiches, prawn salad and freshly baked raisin scones) are purchased from local suppliers.
You’ll also find the Fairmont Empress in our roundup of Canadian hotels that have hosted royal guests.
Inn at Laurel Point
With modern rooms in two separate wings, a pool and fitness centre, award-winning gardens and on-site farm-to-table dining at Aura Restaurant + Patio, the Inn at Laurel Point is the perfect spot for couples and families to unwind. (It’s even pet-friendly so you can bring the family pooch if you simply can’t bear to be parted.) The waterfront hotel boasts views of the Victoria harbour and has another exciting claim to fame: it’s B.C.’s first carbon-neutral hotel.
Here are more Victoria attractions worth adding to your itinerary.
Nourish Kitchen & Cafe
Housed in a quaint heritage home in downtown Victoria, Nourish Kitchen & Cafe is a brunch and lunch spot dedicated to local, seasonal ingredients. If you like your food colourful and as close to its natural form as possible, you’ll drool over the many gluten-free, dairy-free and vegan options on the menu.
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Eagle Wing Tours
Eagle Wing Tours is a carbon-neutral whale- and wildlife-watching company with daily tours and private charters you can book throughout the year. Pick your boat (either open-air for the full adventure experience or partially covered for more protection from the wind and spray) and get your camera ready! Though the best time to see orcas (a.k.a. killer whales), humpbacks and grey whales is the summer, there are plenty of awe-inspiring animals to witness in winter, too, including seals, sea lions and porpoises.
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With two locations, plus a newly opened sister café/bar named Sherwood, Habit Coffee is your go-to for a morning cuppa in Victoria. Aside from ethically roasted coffee and locally produced sweets, the two cozy spots are carbon neutral and, even combined, produce less than half the emissions of an average café.
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Galloping Goose Trail
A 55-kilometre walking and cycling route that runs from near Victoria to Sooke, the Galloping Goose Trail is mostly flat, which makes exploration an easy daytime activity for visitors of all ages. You’ll pass through forests and farmland, over wooden bridges and past a hidden lake on the path that was originally created as a freight railway line during World War I.
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Dakini Tidal Wilds
Since 2003, Amanda Swinimer of Dakini Tidal Wilds has been sustainably harvesting seaweed on the west coast of Vancouver Island. If you’re looking for an interactive experience during your visit, book one of her full-day workshops from May to September. You’ll gather seaweed, learn about its nutritional and healing benefits and taste snacks made from the marine plant.
Now that you know the best things to do on Vancouver Island, check out 10 more essential experiences on Canada’s west coast.