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 — has a 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 (34 mi) 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.
- Highway 1 (Trans-Canada Highway) connects with West Vancouver (by ferry to Nanaimo) and, on the Island, south to Victoria. The drive to Victoria is about 1.5 hours.
- Highway 19 (Island Highway) heads north from Nanaimo to Campbell River, Port Hardy and North Vancouver Island.
- IslandLink Bus, email@example.com. Operates daily using a hub and spoke bus service with hubs in Nanaimo and Buckley Bay. Trips run non-stop from the hub to the destination area. Using this service, the hubs connect to Campbell River, Oyster River, Comox, Courtenay, Cumberland, Bowser, Parksville, Nanaimo, Duncan, and Mill Bay, and Victoria. As of January 30, 2023, service is also available to Port Alberni, Tofino, and Ucluelet, though trip frequency ranges from 3 days per week in the winter to daily in the summer.
- Tofino Bus (Vancouver Island Connector). Seasonal service operating between May to October with routes daily on Vancouver Island between Victoria and Tofino, and between Victoria and Campbell River. Both routes travel between Victoria and Parksville with stops in Langford, Duncan, Ladysmith, and Nanaimo. The route to Tofino continues with stops in Coombs, Port Alberni and Ucluelet. The route to Campbell River continues with stops in Qualicum Beach, Bowser, Courtenay, and Oyster River.
- West Coast Trail Express, ☏ , toll-free: . Seasonal service allowing hikers of the West Coast Trail to reach the northern (Bamfield) and southern (Port Renfrew) ends of the trail. Operates route that connects Victoria with Port Renfrew, Gordon River, and Bamfield. The route operates from May 1 to September 30.
- Waivin Flags Taxi, ☏ . During parts of the year, operates a bus service between Campbell River and Port Hardy with stops in Woss and Port McNeill.
BC Ferries, toll-free: . Operates ferries connecting coastal communities.
- Vehicle ferry routes that connect Central Vancouver Island to the Lower Mainland. Two routes arrive in Nanaimo and one arrives in Comox.
- Vancouver (Tsawwassen) ferry terminal in Delta to Nanaimo (Duke Point) ferry terminal - 2 hours sailing with eight departures daily, departing once every 2.5 hours. Public transit at Vancouver (Tsawwassen) ferry terminal only.
- Vancouver (Horseshoe Bay) ferry terminal in West Vancouver to Nanaimo (Departure Bay) ferry terminal - 1 hour 40 minutes sailing with seven-nine departures daily. Public transit at both terminals.
- Powell River (Westview) ferry terminal to Comox (Little River) ferry terminal ferry terminal - 1 hours 25 minutes sailing with four departures daily. Public transit at both terminals.
- Veh icle ferry from the Southern Gulf Islands
- Gabriola Island (Descanso Bay) ferry terminal to Nanaimo (Nanaimo Harbour) ferry terminal - 20 minutes crossing, departures every 35 to 70 minutes. Public transit near Nanaimo (Nanaimo Harbour) ferry terminal only.
- Other vehicle ferries from islands
- Hornby Island (Shingle Spit) to Denman Island East (Gravelly Bay) - 10 minutes crossing, departs hourly.
- Denman Island West to Buckley Bay - 10 minutes crossing, departs every 40 to 60 minutes. Buckley Bay is on Vancouver Island. Public transit at Buckley Bay only.
- Campbell River (YBL IATA) - flights from Vancouver
- Comox (YQQ IATA) - flights from Calgary and Vancouver
- Nanaimo (YCD IATA) - the largest airport in the region, flights from Calgary and Vancouver
- Tofino (YAZ IATA) - a small airport, flights from Vancouver
There are seaplane facilities with scheduled commercial flights located at Nanaimo harbour. Seaplane routes connect frequently from-to downtown Vancouver and Vancouver International Airport (YVR IATA), and Sechelt on the Sunshine Coast.
By public transit
In addition, BC Transit has an intercity routes between the transit systems, which include:
- Between Campbell River and Courtenay with a transfer at Oyster River. Campbell River Transit System bus route 6 between Campbell River and Oyster River. Comox Valley Regional Transit System bus route 12 between Courtenay and Oyster River. Connections between the two routes are available Monday to Saturday.
- Between Qualicum Beach and Duncan using the following routes:
- Between Qualicum Beach, Parksville, and Nanaimo (Woodgrove Centre) on bus route 91 *Regional District of Nanaimo Transit System), operating daily.
- Between Nanaimo (Woodgrove Centre) and downtown Nanaimo on bus route 50 (Regional District of Nanaimo Transit System), operating daily.
- Between downtown Nanaimo and Duncan via Ladysmith on bus route 70 (operated by Regional District of Nanaimo Transit System and Cowichan Valley Regional Transit System), which operates Monday to Saturday.
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 near 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.
Earthquakes occur in British Columbia every day; luckily, most aren't felt and don't cause any damage. However, earthquakes that occur in the Pacific Ocean and along the Pacific Rim pose a tsunami risk. Many of the scenic places along the coast of Central Vancouver Island, including parts of Tofino, Ucluelet, and the Pacific Rim Natural Park are in evacuation zones. Know what to do in case of both an earthquake and tsunami warning. Remember that if you are on the beach or in the evacuation zone, the "shaking is the warning"- you only have several minutes to head to higher ground and won't have time to check a map or website. Roadside signs on some routes remind you when you are in a tsunami zone and some areas are served by public warning sirens. Ask your host for the specific instructions in your location as soon as you arrive.
- 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.