Vancouver Island is the largest island off North America’s Pacific coast and violates the 49th parallel, much to the annoyance of some. Anchored west alongside the British Columbia mainland and on the other side of the Strait of Georgia, Vancouver Island spans 280 miles (450 kilometers) and covers an area of 12 square miles (32 square kilometers). The center of the island is cut north to south by snow-tipped mountains, creating two halves with altogether different personalities; the west side is wild and characterized by an exposed coastline ridged by deep inlets, while the east features a tame, gentle, and sheltered coastline lined with seaside towns, sandy beaches, rolling slopes, and productive farmlands. But east or west, the entire island enjoys mild climate year-round with generally substantial rainfall all around. The warmest and driest part of the island is the southern end where Olympic Mountains across from the Juan de Fuca Strait serve as natural shelters. It comes as no surprise then that most of the island’s 735,000 population cluster in Victoria and the seaside towns of the southeast, leaving the western portions uninhabited save for a few scattered fishing villages.
The neatly trimmed lawns of Victoria and the cozy towns in the southeast are a stark contrast from the wild coastal shores and the soaring Douglas firs crowning the ice-age born rain forests in the west. But it is this combination of the gentle charms of Victoria with the rugged wilderness of elsewhere that makes Vancouver Island so appealing to vacationers. Unassuming and laidback people certainly help as well. And the culture is quite diverse too. There’s the part of societal Vancouver Island left behind by the British Empire and then there are the fishing villages that project strong influences from the Sooke, Haida, Cowichan, and Kwakiutl Indians. These people have lived on the island long before the arrival of Europeans. They built their totem poles, honed their fishing skills, plied their crafts, and told their myths and legends. Today, Native Indian culture remains an ever-present force on the island.
Economically, Vancouver Island’s main industries are fishing, forestry, and mining, which all occur mostly on the eastern half of the island. Stubbled mountain sides in this sector testify to this and a passionate battle continues over the future direction of the island’s logging program.
The island is loaded with restaurants, cafes, and pub-style eateries. Food is served at affordable prices. And wherever you go, seafood will be the main calling card. Fish and chips and clam chowder seem to make its way to most menus and are often served with garlic bread. Naturally, the best menus and choices of cuisines are found in the bigger towns or attractions, which means you’ll find the most quality restaurants and cafes in Victoria, Nanaimo, Campbell River, Port Hardy, and Tofino.
Campsites are found everywhere on the island and range from the most basic to the most luxurious of campgrounds equipped with showers and other facilities. The Tourist Information Centres have detailed information on every campsite. You can also obtain a copy of the British Columbia Accommodations brochure, which lists the national parks and campgrounds and provides further details about their facilities.
Vancouver Island is also stocked with Bed & Breakfasts. The accommodations brochure lists agencies and Bed & Breakfast associations that will help you find the most suitable places.
Juan Perez of Spain was the first European to visit Vancouver Island in 1774. He was followed by Captain James Cook in 1778. The British explorer landed at Nootka Island and conducted a small trade with the Indians for fur. In 1792, Captain George Vancouver mapped and chartered the island from the Johnstone Strait. His visits were largely exploratory and left the native tribes as they were. Things changed however in 1843 when the Hudson’s Bay Company took control of the island and founded a trading post in the southeastern tip.
In 1849, the British established Vancouver Island as a crown colony and gave the Hudson’s Bay Company administrative control from Fort Victoria. The “colonization” of the island was slow and minimal, as the company focused mainly on fur trading. Aside from a few company farms set up by the subsidiary Puget Sound Agricultural Company, the island was left in its natural state.
When gold was discovered in the Fraser River during the 1850s and ’60s, thousands of prospectors flooded Victoria, the only port at the time. They came for supplies and provisions and created a development boom. The city, however, continued as an administrative center after the gold fields were mined out. In 1866, the island merged with British Columbia. Five years later when B.C. entered Confederation, Victoria was designated the capital of the province. The Canadian Pacific Railway had also intended to make it the western terminus for their railway, but stopped short at Vancouver. This allowed Victoria to avoid industrialization and build itself rather as a center of genteel society. The Canadian Pacific Railway helped this cause when they built the beautiful Empress Hotel in 1908. It quickly became the scene of Victoria’s socialites and helped launch the city’s tourist industry.
How to Get There
A few airlines have routes to Victoria and other Vancouver Island cities, linking usually with Vancouver. There are also seaplane flights running from Nanaimo to the mainland. However, most people reach Vancouver Island by ferry. B.C. Ferries operate services from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert on the mainland; from Horseshoe Bay in Vancouver to Nanaimo; and from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay near Victoria. The Port Hardy to Prince Rupert service is a particularly scenic trip and makes its way through the Inside Passage. It is a 15-hour journey and operates a few times a week in the summer and only once a week in the winter. Reservations are also required.
Island Coach Lines and West Coast Trail Express are the two main bus companies on the island. The former has its depot at 700 Douglas Street, Victoria V8W 2B3 (250) 388-5248 and serves Victoria, Nanaimo, Port Hardy, Duncan, Campbell River, Tofino, Port Alberni, and Ucluelet. West Coast Trail Express, on the other hand, has its depot at 3954 Bow Road, Victoria V8N 3B1 (250) 477-8700. They serve Victoria, Duncan, Nitiwat Village, Nauallto, and Pachena Bay.
VIA rail has a train service called the Malahat that is based at 450 Pandora Avenue, Victoria V8W 4L5. The train runs from Victoria to Courtenay, stopping at various points along the way, including Cowichan, Duncan, Chemainus, Ladysmith, and Nanaimo among other waypoints. Reservations are recommended in the summer during the busy tourist season.
If you are driving to Vancouver Island, Trans-Canada Highway will be your main route of transportation. The highway connects Victoria to the North Island. You can reach Tofino, Ucluelet and other points on the west coast by taking Highway 4 from Parksville.
Carroll, Donald. Insider’s Guide Canada. Edison: Hunter Publishing, Inc, 1996. ISBN: 1556507100.
“Vancouver Island.” < http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vancouver_island>
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