With coastline on two sides and mountains in the middle, Central Vancouver Island is a popular vacation and recreation area on Vancouver Island. You can take it easy with gentle strolls amongst old-growth trees, walk along wide beaches or check out some of the local museums to learn about the area. Or get the heart going and ski, bike, rent a kayak, visit a cave, do a multi-day hike or surf.
The central part of the island covers a wide area. The cities, towns and villages can be roughly broken down as follows:
Comox Valley and North Central Island
- 1 Campbell River — Small city at the northern end of the central island region. It is known for fishing and is nicknamed the Salmon Capital of the World.
- 2 Courtenay / 3 Comox — The gateway to Mt Washington, Strathcona Provincial Park and some spectacular fishing. These two towns are a beautiful place to visit in summer and winter.
- 4 Gold River — Village at the end of Hwy 28. It has some caves and is the gateway to Nootka Sound and the Yuquot National Historic Site.
- 5 Arrowsmith Coombs Country — A popular stop on the road to Tofino best known for the Goats on the Roof in Coombs — both an attraction in its own right and a very popular market with a number of unique and imported items — and the old growth forest at Cathedral Grove.
- 6 Lighthouse Country — Rural area northwest of Parksville/Qualicum Beach. Coastal communities like Qualicum Bay and Deep Bay offer quiet respite and great views. Inland, Horne Lake is an adventure center with caving and rappelling.
- 7 Nanaimo — The largest city in the region and transportation hub. Nearby Saysutshun Newcastle Island is a popular attraction with trails, lookouts and First Nations history.
- 8 Parksville / 9 Qualicum Beach — A summer vacation spot about 30 minutes north of Nanaimo. Its best known for its beautiful shallow beaches where you can walk and walk and walk when the tide goes out. There are also family-friendly parks and farms to entertain the kids. The two cities make a good base to explore the Mid Island area and have a range of accommodation options, but do fill up July and August.
- 10 Bamfield — Small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island, renowned for fishing charters.
- 11 Port Alberni — Developed as a major forest industry town and a service town for the fishing industry, today it is a popular salmon fishing destination.
- 12 Tofino — Ecotourism center on the beautiful (if wet) west coast of the island. The main attractions are storm watching. whale watching, surfing and Long Beach, which is part of Pacific Rim National Park.
- 13 Ucluelet — Small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island about 30 min from Tofino. Traditionally a service center for the fishing industry, it has a growing number of resorts and accommodation options due to its proximity to Tofino and Long Beach.
- 1 Denman Island — Regular ferry service from Hornby Island and Buckley Bay (on Vancouver Island); it is known for its festivals, quiet roads, and scenery. decades.
- 2 Hornby Island — A small island between Parksville and Courtenay. It has a number of parks that are popular for hiking, biking and beaches.
- 3 Mt. Washington Alpine Resort — Four season resort with more than 80 downhill runs and 55 km of cross-country ski trails in winter. In summer, there's hiking, mountain biking and the lifts are open to take in the views.
- 4 Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (Long Beach Unit) — Surf or take a stroll on the long sweep of the aptly named Long Beach, and learn about the natural and cultural history of the area at the Kwisitis Visitor Centre. Limited camping is available close to the beach but most visitors stay in nearby Tofino or Ucluelet.
- 5 Strathcona Provincial Park — A popular destination for hikers, mountain climbers, swimmers, canoeists and kayakers. The park contains the highest peaks in the Vancouver Island ranges and Della Falls, considered to be Canada's highest waterfall. Hikes range from short ambles to multi-day adventures. There are both drive-in and backcountry campsites and one lodge in the park.
- 6 Yuquot — Named Friendly Cove by James Cook, it was the site of Santa Cruz de Nuca, the first European colony in British Columbia, a Spanish settlement founded in 1789 and abandoned in 1795, today a National Historic Site.
Nanaimo is the transportation hub of the region, with road access up- and down-island, ferries to Metro Vancouver and a regional airport with flights from Canada's two main airlines. There are three other small airports in the region and Comox has a ferry connection with the Sunshine Coast.
The main highways into Central Vancouver Island are Highways 1 and 19.
- The Trans-Canada Highway 1 connects with West Vancouver (by ferry to Nanaimo) and, on the Island, south to Victoria. The drive to Victoria is about 1.5 hours.
- BC Highway 19 heads north from Nanaimo to Campbell River, Port Hardy and North Vancouver Island.
- Vancouver (Tsawwassen) to Nanaimo (Duke Point) - 1.5 hr sailing with eight departures daily
- Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay, West Vancouver) to Nanaimo (Departure Bay) - 1.5 hr sailing with seven-nine departures daily
- Powell River to Comox - 1.5 hr sailing with four departures daily
There are regional airports in Nanaimo (YCD IATA), Comox (YQQ IATA), Campbell River (YBL IATA) and Tofino (YAZ IATA). Nanaimo and Comox are served by Air Canada and Westjet with daily flights to/from Vancouver and Calgary. Campbell River and Tofino have flights from smaller companies to/from Vancouver.
Museums and Aquariums
- There are small-scale aquariums focusing on local aquatic life in Ucluelet and Campbell River. The working marine field station at Deep Bay in Lighthouse Country has displays and touch tanks
- Campbell River has the Maritime Heritage Center with all things nautical, including restored boats, displays on maritime history and an activity center where you can learn about knots
- Courtenay / Comox have a couple of military themed museums with exhibits on the Canadian armed forces and air force, including an Air Park that provides an up-close view of some of the historical planes
- The McLean Sawmill in Port Alberni is a steam-operated sawmill and has exhibits on logging machines and history
- Many communities have local museums about the history of the area
The scenery is beautiful and some highlights are:
- The surf beaches of Tofino and Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
- Parksville/Qualicum Beach is known for its wide shallow beaches where you can walk a kilometer out in some places when the tide goes out
- Get a view of the mountains in Strathcona Provincial Park and Mt. Washington Alpine Resort
- View the giant old-growth trees in Cathedral Grove, which are a short walk from the highway in MacMillan Provincial Park in Arrowsmith Coombs Country
There are plenty of outdoors things to do in Central Vancouver Island.
- Fishing - Both Port Alberni and Campbell River make claims to be the Salmon Capital of the World. Bamfield is also known for fishing charters.
- Hiking – There's a hike for everyone with a wide range of trails. At the difficult end, there is the multi-day West Coast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which is considered one of the best and toughest hikes in Canada, and backcountry hiking opportunities in Strathcona Provincial Park. Many of the smaller provincial parks around the region have shorter hikes that still have some great views.
- Kayaking – The coastline is abundant and kayaks are a great way to see it. Many towns and villages will have shops that rent kayaks. Some of the popular areas are Tofino and Parksville/Qualicum Beach.
- Surfing – With three good surf beaches, Tofino is the center of British Columbia's surf scene. Bring a wetsuit though, because the water is chilly year-round.
- Wildlife viewing tours – Whale watching is popular out of Tofino and Campbell River. Grizzly bear viewing tours are run out of Campbell River.
- Discovery Islands – Catch the ferry or water taxi, or take a float plane, from Campbell River to one of the many islands between Vancouver Island and the mainland of British Columbia. There's kayaking, the off the beaten path charm of Quadra Island and wildlife ranging from orcas to grizzly bears.
- North Vancouver Island – The more remote and less touristy part of Vancouver Island, with fishing, hiking, camping, kayaking, whale watching and other wildlife viewing.
- South Vancouver Island – Down the Trans-Canada Highway from Nanaimo, the southern part of Vancouver Island is a mix of stately charm and rugged outdoors. Victoria, the capital, has the world-class Royal British Columbia Museum and the renowned Butchart Gardens. Further afield, Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Juan de Fuca Provincial Park have stunning multi-day coastal hikes.
- Vancouver – Vibrant, multicultural and the largest city in British Columbia, Vancouver has parks, museums, trails of all types and some beautiful scenery. It's a 1.5 hour ferry ride from Nanaimo or catch a short flight from one of the region's airports.
- Sunshine Coast – Low-key 180-km (110-mi) stretch of forest, seashore and mountains. Those who appreciate the beauty of outstanding marine parks and marshland bird sanctuaries, old growth forest and alpine peaks will find this the perfect destination. It's accessed by ferry from Comox.