Victoria Island and Vancouver Island are commonly mistaken for each other but are actually quite different places. Located in the Arctic, Victoria Island is incredibly difficult to get to. Wonderfully wild Vancouver Island, however, is just a hop, skip and a jump away from the mainland of British Columbia. Vancouver Island offers an incredible mix of temperate rainforest, rugged ocean coastline, long sandy beaches, soaring mountain peaks, sparkling lakes and one compact capital city.

When I first learned about Vancouver Island, I knew I wanted to go. But I was a bit confused about the best way to get there and how big it really was. I also kept referring to it as Victoria Island. Sound familiar? Read on for a quick start guide on Vancouver Island.

early morning mists on Vancouver Island coast

View of Tofino from seaplane, Vancouver Island

Victoria Island vs. Vancouver Island?

Before I start, let’s just break down some of the name confusion surrounding Victoria Island and Vancouver Island. It will really help with your trip planning.

  • Vancouver is one of Canada’s largest cities. It sits on the southwestern corner of mainland British Columbia.
  • Across a channel from Vancouver is Vancouver Island. At around 460km in length and 100km across, Vancouver Island is the largest island on the West Coast of North America.
  • The capital city of British Columbia is Victoria. Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is home to just under 400,000 people (greater metro area).
  • Victoria Island is an island in the Arctic Ocean, on the boundary between Canada’s Nunavut and Northwest Territories.

So to sum up, we have a large city (Vancouver, on the mainland), a big island (Vancouver Island), a smaller city (Victoria, on Vancouver Island). Finally, there is a huge island nowhere near any of the others mentioned (Victoria Island). 

Victoria Island and Vancouver IslandLocations of Vancouver, Victoria, Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island weather

Vancouver Island, along with the Lower Mainland area (Vancouver and around) has the mildest climate in Canada. The western side of Vancouver Island is exposed to winds, rains and storms coming directly off the Pacific Ocean. Most communities and attractions are on the more protected eastern coast.

Spring and autumn are usually wonderfully mild, with sunny days (12-18c) mixed in with rainy ones. Vancouver Island is a great place to hike at low elevations in spring, despite the mud.

Vancouver Island summers can be hot, hot, hot. Some years, it is wall to wall sunshine in July and August, with temperatures rising to 28-30c. The overall average is a little lower, around 22-26c. Snow is still often still present in the mountains until July.

Winters on Vancouver Island are incredibly mild. Snow falls at sea level maybe once or twice a season. The tradeoff, however, is plenty of rain. Victoria escapes the worst of the weather. If you want snow, simply head up into the mountains.

Pacific coastline of Vancouver Island, not Victoria IslandCape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island Points of Interest

Aside from the Victoria Island confusion, there are a few other misconceptions about Vancouver Island. One is the size. This island is big, as demonstrated by the six-hour drive needed to drive from bottom to top. Consider this a quick guide to the highlights of Vancouver Island, from south to north.

Victoria –  Located on the south coast, British Columbia’s capital city since 1871, historic buildings, beautiful location

Juan de Fuca coast – Easily accessible coastline to the west of Victoria, interesting rockpool beaches, rainforest

Cowichan Valley – Wine, fresh produce and a long, narrow lake for recreational activities

Parksville and Qualicum Beach – Two beach communities in the central Island area

Tofino and Ucluelet – Small communities on the wild, west coast where the rainforest meets the ocean. Sandy beaches, storm watching, surfing and more.

Strathcona Provincial Park – BC’s first Provincial Park. Alpine, lake and valley scenery with hiking, climbing, paddling, camping. 

North Island – Vancouver Island’s true wilderness. Lesser visited, unique communities, interesting natural features (karst landscape), beyond the beaten path

The Islands – Access dozens of individually distinctive islands in the Strait between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland with the extensive ferry system

Canada's highest waterfall Della Falls on Vancouver Island (not Victoria Island)Views from Mount Washington on Vancouver Island

Things to Do on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is home to a host of activities and attractions. Those who like the outdoors will feel especially at home here.

  • Wildlife watching – Vancouver Island is home a unique mix of black bears, elk, cougars, wolves and deer. Orca whales, porpoises and grey whales are found in the ocean. There are no grizzly bears or moose. Try a whale watching tour in Victoria, Tofino or Campbell River or better still, an orca kayaking adventure.
  • Hiking – If you like rainforest, rugged coast and mountains, you should not miss hiking on Vancouver Island. There are a number of rewarding multi-day hikes (West Coast Trail, Cape Scott, Nootka Trail, Juan de Fuca) along the coast alongside some excellent alpine options in Strathcona Park. There are also plenty of day hikes offering a taste of wilderness.
  • Paddling – Vancouver Island has an abundance of both freshwater and saltwater kayaking and canoeing opportunities. Lakes can be found almost everywhere but are especially concentrated around Campell River. Some favoured spots for kayaking include the Broken Islands, the Gulf Islands, the Discovery Islands, Johnstone Strait and Clayoquot Sound.
  • Ancient trees – Some of the world’s largest and oldest trees can be found on Vancouver Island. The easiest way to view some is to visit Cathedral Grove near Port Alberni. Some of the towering Douglas Fir trees here are more than 800 years old. To escape the crowds, head to Port Renfrew or Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.
  • Local food and drink – A coastal lifestyle and mild year-round temperatures mean that Vancouver Island has an abundance of local produce on offer. Go wine touring in the Cowichan Valley, stop at fruit and vegetable stands, taste seafood in the Comox Valley, brewery hop in Victoria and eat rich Nanaimo bar…in Nanaimo.
  • History and culture – Many cultures have shaped Vancouver Island as we know it today. Aboriginal people were here long before any European settlers. Influence can still be seen in artwork, place names, traditional food and historical travelling routes. More recent residents have also made their mark; Victoria’s Chinatown is the second oldest in North America after San Francisco.

Camping at Jordan River, Vancouver Island (not Victoria Island)Empress Hotel in Victoria, Vancouver Island

How to get to Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is accessible in two main ways from the British Columbia mainland. Most visitors arrive by ferry.

Vancouver Island ferries

The vehicle and passenger ferries between British Columbia’s mainland and Vancouver Island are run by just one company, BC Ferries. From the Vancouver area, there are three direct routes to Vancouver Island:

  • Horseshoe Bay (western Vancouver) to Departure Bay (Nanaimo)
  • Tsawwassen (southern Vancouver) to Swartz Bay (near Victoria)
  • Tsawwassen (southern Vancouver) to Duke Point (near Nanaimo)

There are numerous ferries operating every day. Ferry schedules, distance and fares vary but for the most part, the journey between the BC mainland and Vancouver Island takes around 2-2.5 hours. For fares and schedules, check the most updated information on the BC Ferries’ website.

New for 2018, there is a passenger-only ferry service running between downtown Victoria and downtown Vancouver.

BC Ferries travelling between Vancouver and Vancouver IslandView from one of BC Ferries routes

Travelling on BC ferries

  • Ticket sales are cut off 10 minutes before scheduled sailing time for foot passengers, 5 minutes before for vehicles (10 minutes at Horseshoe Bay).
  • BC Ferries’ recommends arriving at least 30 minutes before the scheduled sailing time. It is recommended to arrive earlier in the summer season (late June to early September), on Friday afternoons/Sunday afternoon and during long holiday weekends. On these days, be prepared to wait for a later crossing.
  • If you are driving an overheight vehicle or RV, it is a good idea to arrive early. Most crossings have a limited amount of space for taller vehicles.
  • It is possible to reserve a place on the mainland to Vancouver Island ferry crossings but there is an extra fee to do so. If you miss the window to check in (more than 30 minutes before the scheduled sailing time), your reservation is lost.

How to Get to Vancouver Island - ferries from mainland BC

Flying to Vancouver Island

For those with limited time or travelling from beyond mainland British Columbia, flying to Vancouver Island is can be convenient. There are two methods to do so:

  • A regular flight from Vancouver (YVR) or another Canadian city. There are regularly scheduled flights to these Vancouver Island destinations – Victoria, Nanaimo, Tofino, Comox, Campbell River, Port Hardy
  • A seaplane flight from downtown Vancouver or south Vancouver. There are regularly scheduled flights to these Vancouver Island destinations – Victoria, Nanaimo, Tofino, Comox, Maple Bay. Seaplane flights are fast and incredibly scenic but baggage allowances are limited.
Now you’ve got the basics down, check out more about Vancouver Island in these other great posts:

Three Awesome Beyond the Beaten Path Vancouver Island Road Trips

To the End of Vancouver Island: Cape Scott Lighthouse Hike

How to Explore Vancouver Island for Free

5 Great Reasons Why You Must Visit Vancouver Island, Canada

Planning a trip to Victoria? You probably mean Vancouver Island! Quick guide to planning a trip to Vancouver Island. - offtracktravel.ca

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Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently based in New Brunswick, Canada. Gemma is happiest with a kayak/canoe paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.

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