Five must-stop places on your Vancouver Island road trip
By Linda Barnard
With tall trees, ocean beaches, wildlife and limitless opportunities for outdoor experiences from high adventure to languid forest bathing walks, Vancouver Island is the ideal road trip destination.
And brunch. Lots of brunch.
Capital city Victoria is famous as home to the most passionate brunch fans in Canada, thanks to creative chefs who focus on ingredients from local farmers and fishers.
(Vancouver Island is cautiously moving ahead with Phase 3 reopening of the province, where British Columbia residents are invited to explore my spectacular island home once again. Inter-provincial travellers are being asked to follow BC’s travel guidelines about safe and responsible travel. The border, including with the United States, is closed to recreational tourism.)
Here are five of my must-visit places on Vancouver Island, for everything from hiking trails with thrilling views to a visit, to crashing surf and some celebrity goats. Add these to your future plans file for your Vancouver Island road trip when we can all travel safely again.
Tofino and Ucluelet
The isolated jewel of Vancouver Island’s wild west coast, Tofino and neighbouring Ucluelet are where I head to feel openness and space, to walk on packed pale-sand beaches and hunt for colourful sea stars in craggy rock pools at low tide.
In fact, I’d suggest you stay in Ucluelet, a blue-collar, commercial fishing town that welcomes tourists but feels way less touristy than surf capital Tofino 40 km down the road.
About a 4 ½-hour drive from Victoria, the area is bracketed by dramatic northern rainforest on one side and the great expanse of the Pacific Ocean on the other. The monster waves here entice surfers but I’m a hiker and the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet (or Ukee as the locals call it) is my passion, especially the winding, 2.5 km Artist Loop stretch. Walking the undulating forest path is invigorating, with smells of spruce and wildflowers all around. I can spend a long time just watching the surf pounding the black rocks below from step-out viewing decks. Trails are open for hikers who keep two metres apart.
Make sure you dine at Pluvio restaurant + rooms in Ucluelet, named one of Canada’s Top 10 Best New Restaurants by Air Canada’s enRoute Magazine. Located in the heart of the small town, the cozy rooms are terrific, with lots of Scandinavian-cool custom touches, including a felt in-room monster mascot for the night.
The luxury Black Rock Oceanfront Resort rooms have fantastic slate-lined rain showers and deep soaker tubs, gas fireplaces and deep soaker tubs, plus a kitchenette. Want an dramatic view where you can drift off to sleep to the murmur of the waves? This is the place.
Just beachy in Parksville
About a two-hour drive north of Victoria, when the tide goes out at Parksville’s Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, you can walk out nearly a kilometre into the Strait of Georgia. It’s a fun experience and one of my top spots on the Island. And this is such a big area, it’s an ideal way to social distance, too.
I can’t resist kicking off my shoes to walk on the cool, ridged sand. Tiny tidal pools left by the retreating water are home to clams and wee sea creatures — always fun to watch. Then I’ll pop over to Morningstar Farm, a few minutes’ drive away, to meet the resident cows that are automatically milked by a robotic milking system. Their grass-fed, whole milk goes into a range of delicious cheeses, made on-site at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and on sale in the Farmgate Store. Check to see if Canada’s first coin-operated, milk-on-tap dispenser is open and top in a another cold litre of super-fresh whole milk from. But I don’t mind coming back.
Celebrity goats Pip and twin brothers Minyon and Nibbles are usually on duty on the roof over the The Old Country Market at Coombs. Instagram-famous for their luxuriant beards and impressive horns, the goats keep the grass roof mowed and the tourists coming.
The market, a short drive from Parksville, is also known as Goats on the Roof and has expanded from its early days as a road-side fruit stand. I like to drop in to pick up fruit and vegetables from Vancouver Island farms. There’s also lots of deli, a good selection of Island-made cheeses, plus groceries.
There are several small restaurants on site, but I rarely make it past the doughnut shop or ice cream stand.
Jam Café brunch bonanza
Victoria earns its cred as the brunch capital of Canada and among many options, Jam Café (542 Herald St.) is my favourite.
Maybe it’s because it’s the first brunch we had the day after we moved to Victoria, waking up in our empty downtown apartment after a late-night cross-Canada flight with a need for coffee and something comforting and substantial to eat.
Victorians are used to lining up for Jam, which is always busy. Sidewalk chalk boxes ensure it’s done safely.
I’m always tempted by the Green Eggs and Ham (pesto and spinach) and anything with the house-made buttery biscuits. But my usual brunch is Jam’s Eggs Benny, West Coast style, with sliced cold-smoked local salmon under a smoosh of homemade hollandaise. It comes with a thin, flat square of crispy hash browns and jammy, oven-roasted Roma tomatoes on the side. I sometimes get a creamy sliced avocado, too. Great coffee, too.
Tea with a side of love
Victoria is known for its afternoon tea services. The Fairmont Empress Hotel is famous for its lavish and delectable tea, a tradition since 1908.
I know of a hidden gem that serves an excellent tea overlooking a magnificent garden and costs about 30 per cent less. And it comes with a royal love story. Abkhazi Garden is on a quiet street in a residential Victoria neighbourhood and was the home of Shanghai-born Peggy Pemberton-Carter and exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi.
They met in Paris in 1922 and were separated by the Second World War, finally reuniting in 1946. They married and settled at Peggy’s home in Victoria, turning the one acre around their house into a lush garden that reflected their exotic travels. It became their shared passion. Filled with magnificent flowers and trees, the garden even has the green grass river they designed still winding through it. It became known as “the garden that love built” and a walk along its paths to carefully arranged viewpoints is delightfully relaxing. Their modest former home is now The Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden. Reservations are recommended. Make sure to ask for a table on the stone terrace overlooking the garden.