Families seeking the great outdoors often flock to well-trodden locales like Alaska or Jackson Hole, but Vancouver Island is a top-tier alternative that deserves consideration. This large Canadian island off the southwest coast of British Columbia boasts an astonishing breadth of ecological wonder, up-close wildlife encounters, adventure and more than 2,000 miles of scenic coastline. Add to that the rich cultural heritage of the indigenous First Nations peoples (including the Coast Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Kwakwakaw’akw) who have long navigated the surrounding waters, and you have the makings of family holiday gold.
For those unfamiliar, Vancouver Island may conjure an image of a small footprint and sparse population. In fact, the island is quite large; it takes about six hours to drive north to south and three hours across at its widest point. It draws visitors year-round for everything from skiing to hiking, diving, fishing and beach exploration. The most notable city on Vancouver Island is British Columbia’s charming capital and most populous city, Victoria, and the mountainous Vancouver Island Ranges run the length of the isle, providing the ideal backdrop for active pursuits.
You could easily spend a week or more exploring, but you can also get a good feel for the area in four to five days with a more compact itinerary.
Best Things to Do on Vancouver Island with Kids
Mid-island enticements on the east coast include sport fishing, salmon fishing, skiing, paddling, whale watching, farmers’ markets and wineries, with Parksville and Qualicum Beach as hubs. Here are some of the highlights:
North Island Wildlife Recovery Center. The goal of this extensive nonprofit rehabilitation center is to re-introduce as many birds and animals as possible to the wild. Families can spend time viewing the many animals who live on the property, including orphaned black bears, eagles and other birds, as well as learning about wildlife and environmental issues.
Mount Arrowsmith Biosphere Reserve Amazing Places Geotour. The Amazing Places project connects people with locations in Canada’s UNESCO biosphere reserves and educates them about the ecological significance of well-loved, publicly accessible outdoor spaces. Mount Arrowsmith is the only one of these locations on Vancouver Island. A fantastic way to appreciate this unique spot is to take part in the Geotour, which families can complete based on a field guide or an app.
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks. Experience a working farm with animals, a self-guided tour, milking robots, picnic areas, and a fantastic farm gate store that sells cheese made onsite, milk from a dispenser and more.
Beaches. The waters in Parksville and Qualicum Beach are shallow with warm, long tides, making for calm fun for even the youngest beachgoers.
Paradise Fun Park. Burn off some steam at this traditional fun park, complete with two 18-hole miniature golf courses and an arcade as well as adult and kiddie bumper boats.
Moving south, you’ll come to Nanaimo, which may be familiar for its eponymous (and delicious) no-bake layered dessert bars. Don’t miss this confection, featuring a coconut crumb base, custard and a top layer of chocolate.
Whale watching. The Salish Sea — the name for the entire body of water that separates Vancouver Island from mainland British Columbia — is known as a spectacular spot for viewing orcas, humpback whales, sea lions, porpoises, seals, eagles and other creatures.
WildPlay. This outdoor adventure park offers ropes courses (with a special kids’ course for ages 5-12), ziplining, bungee jumping and a primal swing.
Saytshun Island. A quick 15-minute ferry ride from Nanaimo brings you to this small island. Begin at the totem pole for a walking tour of to learn about the Snuneymuxw First Nation sacred village sites and traditions, and Saysutshun’s cultural history.
Nanaimo Museum. Stop in to learn about the history of Nanaimo and its unique cultural heritage.
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Another hour’s drive south will land visitors in the Cowichan region. Cowichan has plenty to keep families busy, whether enjoying the local scenery and learning about its animal inhabitants to hiking, mountain biking and visits to farmers’ markets or local wineries.
Malahat SkyWalk. Wheelchair and stroller-friendly, this fully accessible tree walk takes families through a beautiful arbutus forest. The. path leads to a spectacular gentle spiral ramp toward incredible sightseeing at the lookout, with views of Finlayson Arm, Saanich Peninsula, Mount Baker and the distant Coast Mountains.
Pacific Northwest Raptor Centre. Get up close with birds of prey and learn about their care and habitats.
BC Discovery Forest Center. Ride a historic train over the Somenos Lake Trestle, learn about the forest industry in British Columbia, and relax and enjoy views of the 100-acre museum from the train.
Hand of Man Museum. Explore this small but engaging look at the history of the area’s diverse ecosystems and the efforts to protect them.
Forty-five minutes farther south brings you to Victoria at Vancouver Island’s southern tip. This beautiful capital has a distinctly European feel and is known for its art, theater and music scene as well as being Canada’s most ethnically diverse city. Active pursuits include kayaking and whale watching, and activity options abound.
Harbour Ferry ride. Get acclimated with fantastic views of the harbor from the water and learn more about the waterside neighborhoods.
DinoLab. Budding archeologists will want to book a tour to learn about the fossil restoration process and even give it a try using pneumatic tools.
Tea at the Fairmont Empress. Partake in the ritual of afternoon tea at this grand hotel, which has been serving tea daily since 1908 in the Lobby Lounge.
Butchart Gardens. Open all year round, these stunning flower gardens are one of Victoria’s premier attractions.
Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea. Visit Canada’s only aquarium at this cultural center dedicated exclusively to the exploration and conservation of the Salish Sea bioregion.
Families can also visit the Butterfly Gardens and the Bug Zoo to learn about and see the smallest inhabitants of British Columbia, or get the blood pumping at AdrenaLINE with a thrilling zipline adventure.
On the west coast, often referred to as the Pacific Rim, families will be captivated by Tofino and Ucluelet. Located on a peninsula about forty minutes apart, these spots and the area in between are brimming with breathtaking natural scenery that is part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The area features wide, sandy beaches (Long Beach is a favorite) and is a popular spot for surfing.
Surfing. Locals rave about the surfing at Wickaninnish Beach, Chesterman Beach, Florencia Bay and Cox Bay.
Rainforest Trail. Hike among some of the oldest trees in Canada on these two relatively short loops on raised wooden boardwalks.
Wild Pacific Trail Lighthouse Loop. This round-trip hike, which includes the 1915 Amphitrite Point Lighthouse, is stroller-friendly and easy to do with younger kids.
Kayaking. Sea kayaking is an ideal way to explore Clayoquot Sound and the nearby old growth forest of Meares Island.
Bear watching tour. Black bears can often be spotted on the shore at low tide, and these tours allow families to get a glimpse from a safe distance.
Where to Stay on Vancouver Island
Choose a central home base for your adventures such as Nanaimo, Parksville or Qualicum Beach. Any of these provides easy access to local highlights like Cowichan, Victoria, Tofino and Ucluelet, which are all within a two- to three-hour drive.
For the ultimate luxurious escape, stay at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn, one of the most special properties in North America. This Relais & Chateaux hotel is perched over Chesterman Beach and was thoughtfully designed to amplify the beauty of the surrounding wilderness. Families will be delighted with the chance to explore tidal pool ecosystems, build sandcastles and enjoy beachside picnics. The inn can also arrange fishing charters and wildlife excursions. Want help booking a stay? Reach out to our Family Vacation Advisor team and we’ll take it from there!
Getting There and Around
The most popular ways to access Vancouver Island are by ferry to Victoria or by float plane into Victoria, Tofino or Nanaimo. Renting a car is helpful to explore the island with ease.
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