Vancouver and Vancouver Island stand apart from the rest of British Columbia, the big-city outlook and bustling, cosmopolitan streets of Vancouver, Canada’s third-largest metropolis, and Victoria, the provincial capital, dramatically at odds with the interior’s small towns, remote villages and vast tracts of wilderness. While Vancouver Island has scenery that occasionally matches that of the interior, its landscapes are generally more modest, the island’s intimate and self-contained nature and relatively small extent creating a region that feels more sea-based than the rest of mainland BC.
Vancouver is one of the world’s great scenic cities, its water and mountain-ringed setting equalling those of Sydney and Rio de Janeiro. Long after the many fine galleries and museums, and the even better restaurants, have faded, the memory of the Coast Mountains rearing above Burrard Inlet, or the beaches and semi-wilderness of Stanley Park, will linger. Vancouver is also a sophisticated and hedonistic city, having more in common with the West Coast ethos and outlook of San Francisco than, say, Toronto or Ottawa to the east.
With all its natural advantages, it is no wonder most of Vancouver is booming, the Downtown core growing rapidly in a wave of gleaming new condominiums; the city’s eastern fringes, however, remain grittier and, in places, downright impoverished. The boom, and Vancouver’s enhanced international profile, received an additional boost after the city hosted the 2010 Winter Olympics, the honour in no small part due to the proximity of Whistler, 125km north of Vancouver, a modern centre for winter sports, hiking, golf and, above all, mountain biking (the resort now has as many summer as winter visitors). Beyond Whistler stretch the endless forests and ranch country of the Fraser Valley and Cariboo region, a largely untamed wilderness whose remote towns sprang up in the fever of the 1860s Gold Rush.
The Sea to Sky Highway (Hwy-99) to Whistler is one of two tempting obvious road excursions from Vancouver. The other is the 150km Sunshine Coast (Hwy-101), distinguished by stretches of fine coastal scenery, but experienced by most travellers only as far as Horseshoe Bay, one of several points of embarkation for ferries to Vancouver Island.
The proximity of Vancouver Island to Vancouver makes it one of Canada’s premier tourist destinations. The largest of North America’s west-coast islands, it stretches almost 500km from north to south, but has a population of just under 750,000, mostly concentrated around Victoria, whose small-town feel belies its role as BC’s second metropolis and provincial capital. Today, the city is considerably smaller than Vancouver, a comfortable and easy-going place of small-town values, a pretty waterfront, excellent restaurants, one superb museum and, despite being home to BC’s oldest Chinatown, a decidedly English ambience.
Most visitors to the island start in Victoria, easily reached by ferry or seaplane from Vancouver or nearby ferry terminals. Few break their journey en route between the cities, missing out on the Gulf Islands, an archipelago scattered across the Strait of Georgia between the mainland and Vancouver Island. If you have time, the islands’ laidback vibe, numerous small galleries, and attractive beaches make them great places in which to catch your breath for a few days.
Vancouver Island’s main attraction is the outdoors and whale-watching, an activity which can be pursued from Victoria, Tofino, Ucluelet, Telegraph Cove and several other places on the island. The scenery is a mosaic of landscapes, principally defined by a central spine of snowcapped mountains that divide it between the rugged and sparsely populated wilderness of the west coast and the more sheltered lowlands of the east. Rippling hills characterize the northern and southern tips, and few areas are free of the lush forest mantle that supports one of BC’s most lucrative logging industries.
The beaches on Vancouver Island lure locals and tourists alike, while the magnificent seascapes of the unmissable Tofino and the Pacific Rim National Park and the mountainous vastness of Strathcona Provincial Park are the main destinations for most visitors. Both parks offer a panoply of outdoor activities, with hikers being particularly well served by the national park’s West Coast Trail, a demanding and popular long-distance path. Of the visitors who venture farther north, most are either fishermen or whale-watchers, or those intending to catch a ferry from Port Hardy, linked by bus to Victoria, at the northern tip, along the Inside Passage or Discovery Passage to Prince Rupert or Bella Coola, two of western Canada’s most memorable journeys.