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Road Trip: Vancouver Island Coastal Drive, From Victoria to Tofino

Photo: James Wheeler

By Tim Johnson

A place where the mountains meet the sea, Vancouver Island’s beauty is known the world over. At times wild and untamed, the Island can be equally refined and sophisticated as well as quirky and interesting. Traversing the two-lanes that link British Columbia’s capital with its best-known surf town is a pleasurable experience—especially if you make time for lots of stops along the way.

Modes of Transportation

Travelling from south to north is the best way to tackle this drive. You can steer your own car onto a ship operated by BC Ferries and sail onto the Saanich Peninsula near Sidney, or fly into the Victoria International Airport—also near Sidney—and rent a car from there. Then get on the Trans-Canada and head north to Parksville, then west on BC Highway 4 to Tofino. Split the drive into at least two or three days.

Roadside Attractions

Take a little time to explore Victoria, a lovely city carved out of the wilds of the Pacific Northwest. Have a look at some Orcas as they swim and breach by roaring out into the Salish Sea on a zodiac with Prince of Whales, the city’s premiere whale-watching outfit, browse the shops near the city’s picturesque Inner Harbour, or take a cute little water taxi  and go for fish and chips at Fisherman’s Wharf.

And when you’re ready to roll, head over the Malahat Drive (the winding section of mountain highway that connects the Saanich with the rest of Van Island). Stop in the charming village of Chemainus, which is painted with dozens of murals celebrating the town’s history and heritage, and browse their local artisan shops. Spend a little time in Parksville, home to some of the best beaches on the island and perhaps the warmest seawater in Canada—dramatic ties create a giant beach, the sun heats the sand, and when the tide rolls back in the sand heats the water, making for a pleasurable swim. There are also a number of interesting diversions in the area, including the North Island Wildlife Recovery Centre, which rehabilitates wounded and orphaned raptors (hawks, eagles, raptors) and black bears. Browse The Old Country Market in Coombs—it’ll be the building with goats eating tall stands of grass on the roof. Inside there’s a café and rambling store that sells everything from hammocks to Quebec cheese to bread baked right on site.

Then head west, over the mountains, to Tofino, about 2 ½ hours west of Parksville, a lovely stretch of highway that winds past lakes and snow-capped peaks. Stroll along famous Long Beach, a mystical place strewn with driftwood and lapped by Pacific waves, some of which are ridden by wetsuit-clad surfers (inquire in town about a lesson).

Eats

Victoria may seem like a strange place for Southern barbeque, but you can find authentic, mouth-watering pulled pork at Pig BBQ Joint, located right in the heart of town. En route north in Mill Bay, fuel up at the original outlet of Serious Coffee,  which opened more than a quarter-century ago and paved the way for the small chain of coffee shops that has become an island institution. Please note that they also feature some pretty serious brioche, in all its gooey goodness. A little further up the road, and a little off the beaten track, have some lunch at Genoa Bay Café, where you can munch on fresh Salt Spring Island mussels or West Coast seafood chowder while taking in the view of a charming harbor filled with small boats, skirted by mountains and dense forest (it’s worth the drive). And in Tofino, chow down on fish tacos or a hearty burrito at Tacofino, a cheery orange food truck in the back parking lot of a surf shop just outside of town that has become the stuff of legend by feeding thousands of surfers.

Sleep

In Victoria, lay your head down in style at the Fairmont Empress, perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, with its ivy-covered facade and air of English sophistication. At the midway point of the trip, relax at Parksville’s Beach Club Resort, which sits directly on the water and features large, comfortable rooms, a spa, and an excellent steakhouse.  And in Tofino, Long Beach Lodge features spectacular sea views and more than enough comfort to rest your adventure-weary bones.

Playlist

Spinning a few songs by the Aussie activist rockers Midnight Oil—the band that did more than any other to save the old-growth forests of Clayquot Sound—is a must. Listen to Nelly Furtado in Victoria—her hometown—and as you travel over the Malahat, put on some Hot Hot Heat, who hail from nearby Shawnigan Lake. And while they’re not exactly from the Island, it seems appropriate to hold a little tribute to the rockers of the Pacific Northwest who popularized grunge rock all those years ago—Seattle’s Pearl Jam, Soundgarden and, of course, Nirvana.

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