5 lessons how not to do a Vancouver Island road trip

Along Highway 19A, Vancouver Island, Canada

Vancouver Island is only some 90 minutes away from Vancouver on Canada’s Pacific coast, making it super popular for summer getaways.

When we were planning our massive Canada road trip last year, we didn’t really think too much about Vancouver Island. To kick off our trip, we were keen to take the ferries up the Inside Passage. Since the initial BC Ferry left from Port Hardy in the north of Vancouver Island, zipping around the island became part of our road trip adventure.

Read more: 5 reasons to travel the Inside Passage by ferry

After a bit of research on what to do and confirming ferry schedules, we decided to allow five days for our Vancouver Island road trip. We mapped out a rough route that took us almost around the whole island, booked some campsites and considered our preparations done. Well…

Obviously things didn’t turn out so well or this post wouldn’t exist. Or maybe it would simply be called Ten awesome things to do on Vancouver Island

Here’s how we completely miscalculated our Vancouver Island road trip…

You’ll probably find this list completely pointless or full of ‘duh‘ moments if you’re either from Vancouver or Vancouver Island, even from Canada in general, or simply plan your holidays a little bit better than what we obviously do…

But if you’re equally clueless, this might help you get more out of your visit to the island than we did.

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Heading towards Vancouver Island on the ferry as we wind our way through the Southern Gulf Islands

LESSON 1: DON’T UNDERESTIMATE HOW BIG VANCOUVER ISLAND REALLY IS

Vancouver Island is just under 500 km long and at its widest spans 100 km so it’s not exactly a small place. In fact, with a landmass of 32,000 km² its North America’s largest island. That’s about half the size of Tasmania for all you Australians. Or all of Belgium, if you prefer to think in Euro-terms.

So what made us think that this would be a small, rural place that we could easily zip around in five short days and kind of see everything?!

I think precisely that. It was half the size of Tasmania, and we thought ‘oh yeah, we can squish in the capital Victoria, zip around the southern tip of the island, back to the eastern shores, across to Tofino on the Pacific Rim (west coast), back east, back west, up north… easy.’

Just remembering that now makes my head spin.

What actually happened was:
  • being stuck in traffic almost as soon as we rolled off the ferry at Swartz Bay the first day,
  • skipping Victoria altogether because we ran out of time,
  • being stuck in traffic again across three lanes on Pacific Highway 1 (we didn’t expect a 3-lane highway, let alone being stuck on it!),
  • getting to campsites around 9/10 pm because we didn’t think that travel on the minor roads would be so slow,
  • waiting in road work queues for what seemed liked hours,
  • spending way more time driving than exploring, hiking or simply taking it easy, and as a result
  • being frustrated and stressed by having to rush around and not enjoying much of the island.
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Driving along Buttle Lake, Strathcona Provincial Park, wishing we had more time

What we should have done instead was:
  • left out the southern tip of the island completely (even though I really liked Botanical Beach and did want to see Victoria),
  • caught the ferry from West Vancouver to arrive in Nanaimo, further up the coast (instead of catching the ferry from Tsawassen across to Swartz Bay, right at the southern end),
  • spent two days in Tofino and the Pacific Rim because, though a tourist magnet, it was rather pretty around there,
  • and then simply headed north to enjoy some of the more untamed wilderness and isolation.
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Long Beach, Pacific Rim National Park near Tofino – we had about 5 minutes here (mostly due to having a non-existent national park’s permit…)

All this driving around back and forth to cover the whole island was stressful (and probably very stupid), and didn’t allow us to experience much of Vancouver Island at all.

Either give yourself more time or focus on specific areas to hang out for a few days.

LESSON 2: DONT DRIVE AROUND LOGGING ROADS JUST BECAUSE THEY’RE ON A MAP AND YOU THINK YOU’LL FIND YOUR WAY

To get to Tofino on the west coast, you pretty much have to take Highway 1 along the eastern shore and then cut across the island on Highway 4.

We ended up doing exactly that. But not until we first spent four hours getting lost on logging tracks beyond Cowichan Lake in an attempt to save time. The idea was to cut across the interior from Cowichan Lake to Port Alberni along Highway 4 (E to F on the map). Sounded good in theory.

Google Maps didn’t really want to give me any directions (hint! hint!) but my print map showed a road so I figured it must fine. We even asked for directions, and the advice we got ran to the tune of ‘yep, just take the second turn-off past blah blah campground, and you’ll be fine‘.

After having driven around for over two hours and finding ourselves back on the shores of the lake, we landed in the tiny settlement of Nitinat whose sole existence seemed to be issuing hiking permits and selling oily junk food… Here we got the sage advice ‘just follow the telegraph poles and you’ll get to Port Alberni‘…

Follow the telegraph poles?!! What, you mean the ones that lead up a hill, through a locked gate and into oblivion??!! Sigh…

So we gave up, drove back around Cowichan Lake, all the way south onto Highway 1, stopped in Ladysmith for a dinner of canned soup and a glorious sunset (which restored my mood somewhat since they have the power to do that 🙂 ), and pulled into our campsite at Stamp River around 10:30 pm that night.

Another successful day on our Vancouver Island road trip…

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Waking up in the forest by a bubbling stream the next morning, Stamp River Provincial Park. After a quick morning face splash in the river, we were on our way again, leaving this beautiful spot to someone else to enjoy…

Unless you know what you’re doing or are with a local, don’t get onto the logging roads north of Cowichan Lake, hoping to cut through to Highway 4. There are no markers, no signs, plenty of intersections and turn-offs, potholes and gravel to kill your suspension.

If this still doesn’t put you off, go ahead, and then tell us exactly how many minutes you saved…

LESSON 3: DON’T EXPECT PEACE AND QUIET IN THE SOUTH OF THE ISLAND

We were there at the end of the summer holidays so we did expect some holiday crowds. But we didn’t consider that the south of Vancouver Island might be built up and with tons of people living on the island permanently. Somehow we expected more of a laid-back Phillip Island, Australia, feel, not like we were in infrastructure capital.

All we needed to do though was take a look at some stats and we would have been a lot wiser… but then, you always are in hindsight. 😉

The population of Vancouver Island was about 760,000 in 2011, whilst Tassie, being double the geographical size, was only 560,000 in 2014. That’s a population density of 7.5 per km² compared to 23.9 per km² on Vancouver Island! Add to that some 8 million people who visit the island annually and you’ve got a cracking busy place…

And we were dumbfounded about why it was so busy with so many roads and so many towns…

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Along Highway 19A (eastern shores), with view of the Strait of Georgia

Adjust your expectations and count upon lots of locals and visitors in the south. But if you can’t stand that, head straight north past Campbell River and you’ll probably love the remoteness away from the hustle and bustle further south.

LESSON 4: DON’T SHOP FOR EVERYTHING YOU NEED ON THE FIRST DAY IN THE FIRST TOWN YOU SEE

This one flows on from the previous one…

Because we didn’t realise the magnitude of the hustle and bustle, we drove into the first town we came across – Sidney – and went on a massive four hour grocery shop. Who would know if there were other supermarkets around?!?

So with our Australian blinkers on, we shopped like there was no tomorrow, certainly no more supermarkets on Vancouver Island or anywhere else in Canada…

Totally, utterly ridiculous…

Not only did we waste a massive amount of time (ok, it also took so long because we were working out different foods, grocery prices, store discounts, etc.) but we also ended up throwing food out because

  1. the fridge in the campervan didn’t work properly and we couldn’t keep the food cool enough in the summer heat, and
  2. we had to clear customs in Prince Rupert heading into Alaska some seven days later and weren’t allowed to take certain foods…
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Some of the ‘oh gosh, we have no more room in the van’ shopping bags from our crazy grocery shopping spree…

So let me tell you that you do not need to give in to your need for stockpiling and grocery shopping like a hamster as supermarkets exist all over Vancouver Island and beyond. Relax and enjoy being stuck in traffic instead.

LESSON 5: MAKE TIME FOR A WILDLIFE TOUR

This is probably one of our biggest Vancouver Island regrets…

Because we failed to research Vancouver Island enough, we didn’t realise how perfect – and popular – the island is for wildlife watching. Tofino is quite a hub for that sort of thing, and once we got there, I found out about all these wildlife watching kayak tours. So cool… or we could have gone to Telegraph Cove in the north for some whale watching. We were on the island at exactly the right time of the year!

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At Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew. Rock pool wildlife…

SUMMING UP…

So that’s it. Five big reasons why Vancouver Island wasn’t for us, or more likely, why we weren’t ready for ‘the Island.

There are some beautiful spots and if you’ve got a bit of time, it’s certainly worth exploring Strathcona Provincial Park, Tofino and the Pacific Rim, and the northern parts around Cape Scott. There are some remote hiking trails that we would have liked to explore…

If we ever find ourselves on Vancouver Island again, we’ll definitely head there.

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Hazy view of Barkley Sound and the Broken Group Islands along the Wild Pacific Trail on the west coast. One of the few walks we actually did.

If you want a more realistic road trip itinerary for exploring the south of Vancouver Island, check out Rhonda’s Vancouver Island trip on Travel? Yes Please!. Gemma also has some ideas on three different Vancouver Island itineraries.

Have you been to Vancouver Island? Did you go about your visit a lot smarter than us? Have you “stuffed up” a road trip or travels elsewhere because you didn’t plan enough (or for other reasons)? Feel free to share below…

Don’t want to be as daft as we were? Pin for later.

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From the road: Prince Rupert to Haines (DAY 9-12)
From the road: Vancouver to Prince Rupert (DAY 1-8)
Sunshine, baby turtles and waves: Deepwater NP
Getting eating alive by mozzies: Eurimbula NP
Cania Gorge (Sandstone Belt road trip)
Expedition National Park (Sandstone Belt road trip)

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