From kayaking among orcas to watching grizzly bears feast on salmon, the wildlife encounters that await on Vancouver Island are stupendous. The scenery—from rocky fjords to impenetrable old-growth evergreen forests—is the Pacific Northwest at its most spectacular. And the postcard-perfect city of Victoria awaits when you want a dose of urban sophistication along with your natural splendors. Vancouver Island is too big, and its highlights are too diverse and numerous, to cover on a single visit, but no matter what itinerary you carve out, you won’t be disappointed.
At over 32,000 sq. km (12,355 sq. miles), “Van Isle” is the largest island in Western North America—it’s about the same shape as New York ’s Long Island, but 10 times the size. Most people’s point of entry is Victoria, one of the loveliest port cities in the Pacific, and which a smitten Rudyard Kipling once compared to “a little bit of old England,” set against something akin to the natural beauty of Italy’s Bay of Naples combined with the Himalayas. The city’s enchanting Inner Harbour is lined with such landmark buildings as the Fairmont Empress Hotel; stop for a drink in the hotel’s Bengal Lounge, but skip the over-priced guest rooms. Victoria’s top attraction is the marvelous Butchart Gardens , whose 20 hectares (49 acres) of painstakingly maintained, gorgeously arranged plants and flowers leave even non-garden-types agape. From Victoria, the only way to go on Vancouver Island is west: It takes about 5 hours to drive from end to end, though many remote areas are accessible only by floatplane.
Killer whales are the big cheese of Vancouver’s wildlife offerings, and Telegraph Cove, near the northwestern tip of the island, is one of the best places in the world for orca watching. Here, Johnstone Strait is home to more than 100 orcas, so sightings are practically guaranteed. To see the whales from land, head 17km (11 miles) south of Telegraph Cove to Robson Bight Ecological Reserve, where the orcas scratch their bellies on socalled “rubbing stones” along the shore. Sea kayaking is also possible along Vancouver’s protected waterways—with such majestic surround-ings, this is always an unforgettable experience. Whether you see a pod of orcas or just a few playful porpoises, you can’t help but come away humbled by nature.
The town of Campbell River, along Vancouver’s northern coast, is known as the “salmon-fishing capital of the world,” but there are plenty of spots all over Vancouver for freshwater and saltwater fishing (for steelhead, trout, halibut, rock cod and ling cod, shellfish, and five species of salmon). Grizzly watching has also become quite popular here, and the best way to see these formidable bears is with Knight Inlet Lodge’s grizzly tours . Viewing is from the safety of a boat cruise along shores where grizzlies are known to fish, though depending on the season, you may be able to climb tree stands to observe the bears from land.
The rough and rugged west side of Vancouver is famously pounded by Pacific gales and waves in fall and winter. Storm watching is an activity in its own right here and most awesome at Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park (near the resort towns of Tofino and Uclulet). Gaze in amazement at the sheer power of nature lashing the shore, and then tuck in some-where cozy and dry for a hot chocolate.
When the city of Vancouver (across the Strait of Georgia) hosts the Winter Olympics in 2010, visitor numbers—and prices—are likely to go up all over the region as soon as Bob Costas and crew show TV audiences worldwide just how breathtaking, and jampacked with outdoor activities, this part of the world is.