The West Coast of Canada in British Columbia is a big, beautiful, sometimes remote and untamed place. Which also makes it one of the best Canadian road trips you can ever take. But trying to plan an itinerary to see a good chunk of it can be daunting. Where do you go and what do you do when you get there? On a recent trip that Henk and I took to BC in May, I was determined to create a 14-day itinerary that would allow us to experience some of the best of Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, so it only made sense to share our itinerary with you so you could do the same. Here then, is our 14-day West Coast of Canada road trip itinerary in British Columbia.
Day 1 – 3: Visit Vancouver’s Top Attractions
DAY 1 – Explore the City
Any visit to British Columbia has to start with the city of Vancouver, not just because it’s the airport you will fly into, but because the city itself has so much to offer, especially if it’s your first time here. Start your visit off easy with a walk along the waterfront near Canada Square, where you can enjoy a drink at the Tap and Barrel and watch the float planes take off for Vancouver Island, all with the beautiful backdrop of the North Shore Mountains.
Or enjoy a little nature in the city with a visit to Stanley Park where you can walk, rent a bike, or take a horse trolley tour to see the sea wall, beautiful gardens, iconic totem poles, and maybe even an outdoor concert if your timing is right.
DAYS 2 and 3 – Adventure Just Outside Vancouver
Why not crank it up with a little soft adventure right on Vancouver’s doorstep: don’t miss the Capilano Suspension Bridge, one of the top attractions in the province, that has everything from treetop trekking to a cantilevered Cliffwalk to complement the Park’s namesake suspension bridge.
And a visit up to the top of Grouse Mountain is a must, whatever time of year you come, as this is a four-season playground with spectacular views and exciting adventures that start right at the base of the mountain.
BONUS: Both attractions offer free shuttle buses for tourists in the summer, which you can catch right at Canada Square.
TIP: Don’t rent a car just for getting around Vancouver. Traffic is very heavy, parking is expensive in the city’s hotels and elsewhere, and if you choose accommodations in the centre, you can walk to many of the city’s most popular attractions. (Note: British Columbia does not allow Uber or other ride-sharing services, but taxis are plentiful.)
Day 4 – 5: Off to Victoria on Beautiful Vancouver Island
DAY 4 – Head to Victoria
TIP: If speed is of the essence, you can also take a floatplane or helicopter between the two cities which will also offer their own spectacular views. Or if you are bringing your own car, or looking for the most economical passage, there are regular BC Ferries departing from Tsawwassen (a bus or taxi ride from downtown Vancouver) to Swartz Bay just north of Victoria.
The highlight of Victoria is of course Victoria’s harbour, where you’ll definitely want to visit the iconic Fairmont Empress Hotel, one of Canada’s grand railway hotels of the early 1900s that has just undergone a multi-million dollar renovation.
Then head across the street to the Royal British Columbia Museum, one of the top museums in Canada, with an excellent permanent collection of First Nations artefacts, including the impressive Totem Hall and the actual ceremonial house of Chief Jonathan Hunt.
DAY 5 – Victoria
Victoria is a brunchy kind of town so start your day at Johns Place, a favourite local hangout known for their Eggs Bennies. Only a few blocks away you can hit up downtown Victoria to window shop in their trendy boutiques along Johnson Street.
Whatever you choose to do during your days in Victoria, you’ll want to return to the harbour come nightfall to enjoy the magical lights on British Columbia’s Legislature.
Day 6 – 8: Pacific Circle Marine Route (South Vancouver Island)
DAY 6 – Pacific Coast to Port Renfrew
Today’s the day to pick up your rental car in Victoria and head out to explore some of the Pacific Circle Marine Route. We chose to do the route clockwise (the ‘reverse’ according to some), heading northwest towards Port Renfrew on Highway 14. This highway is a windy, picturesque one that hugs the coast and goes by beautiful beaches, so be sure to stop by one like French Beach with its huge driftwood logs, or look for waterfalls at Sandcut, Sombre and Mystic beaches.
When you’re done beachcombing or chasing waterfalls, spend the night at Wild Renfrew in Port Renfrew. This pristine wilderness lodge is a great base for exploring one of Vancouver Island’s few remaining old growth forests, Avatar Grove, home to ‘Canada’s Gnarliest Tree’.
Or just enjoy the beauty of this remote location right on the inlet’s shores: with the tides coming up practically to your door and a view of the stars with no light pollution you’ll get a real feel for the Island’s unspoiled natural wonders.
DAY 7 – Cowichan Bay to Tofino (long driving day)
Today starts by crossing through the interior of Vancouver Island to the eastern coast, where you’ll find the community of Cowichan Bay, or ‘Cow Bay’ to the locals (about a 2-hour drive). This charming little town takes its uniqueness seriously (no chain coffee shops or restaurants here) and boasts a cute waterside street filled with eclectic boutiques and restaurants. Then wander down to the docks and discreetly admire the pretty house boats (being respectful as these are people’s homes).
The rest of your day you’ll be driving to Tofino, a 4-hour drive from Cow Bay that takes you through Cathedral Grove, one of the Islands most accessible old growth forests. (No need to stop here on this leg of the trip, since you’ll have a chance to visit the Grove after you’ve been to Tofino, as you’ll be retracing your steps along this same highway.) But if you need a place to stop for a quick bite or latte, check out the funky Steampunk Cafe in nearby Port Alberni which has tasty soups and sandwiches and some pretty cool decor.
DAY 8 – 10: Tofino
Tofino is Canada’s surfing mecca, with its long, wide beaches and wild Pacific surf. But there are plenty of things to do here if you are not a surfer including bear watching by boat, helicopter rides, fine dining and shopping.
You’ll want to spend a couple of nights here just to take advantage of all of the options available and enjoy the laid-back rhythm of this boho community.
DAY 11 – Cathedral Grove and A Treehouse Stay near Qualicum Beach
Today you’ll head for the east coast of Vancouver Island, retracing your steps along Highway 4 through the centre. Now is your chance to explore the giant forests at Cathedral Grove at leisure before heading on to Qualicum Beach where you can spend the night.
Qualicum is a small town that Canadians on Expedia recently voted as one of the “18 cities to visit in 2018″ and a good place to enjoy its beach and spend a night before heading across to the Sunshine Coast on the mainland. If you’re looking for a truly one-of-a-kind experience, try sleeping in a spherical tree house at Free Spirit Spheres.
TIP: Free Spirit Spheres only has a few treehouses, so if you are keen to stay here, you’ll need to book well in advance.
DAY 12-13: Sunshine Coast
DAY 12 – 13 – Sunshine Coast
Head north to Comox to catch the first of a couple of ferries that will take you to the Sechelt Peninsula on the Sunshine Coast. This 189km stretch of BC’s mainland is only accessible by air or sea, and because of its remote nature, the Sunshine Coast remains largely unspoiled. Towns here are small and charming, and there are oceanview accommodations all along the coast. If you really want to spoil yourself, check into the Rockwater Secret Cove Tenthouses at Halfmoon Bay.
This is ‘glamping’ in style and the location itself is a great base for exploring some of the Coast, hiking one of the many trails, or just relaxing with a glass of wine and an amazing oceanfront view after a very busy road trip.
DAY 14 – Vancouver
The last leg of your road trip starts today with a 40-minute drive to Langdale to catch a ferry to Horseshoe Bay, just outside of Vancouver. But allow yourself more time so that you can explore the town of Gibsons, a few minutes’ drive from the ferry terminal. Gibsons is where the Beachcombers TV series was shot in the ’70s, and if you’re Canadian you’re sure to recognize Molly’s Reach (a former set and now a casual restaurant that keeps the spirit of the show alive with memorabilia and other ‘Relics’!) Have a bite to eat before catching the ferry, or squeeze in a little shopping at one of several interesting boutiques near the wharf.
Once at Horseshoe Bay you are now only a 30-minute drive to Vancouver and your 14-day West Coast of Canada road trip is almost complete! All that’s left to do is drop off your rental car and head back home (wherever that may be).
With a combination of city, nature, culture and some grownup indulgences all along the way, this 14-day itinerary is the perfect introduction to British Columbia’s West Coast. And if you’re like Henk and I, these two weeks will have only whetted your appetite to explore more of British Columbia.
Practical Info for Your West Coast of Canada Road Trip
ACCOMMODATIONS: For our reviews of recommended places to stay along this route, check out our Boutique Accommodations in British Columbia page.
RENTAL CAR: If you are flying in and out of Vancouver, we recommend renting your car in downtown Victoria with a return drop-off at Vancouver airport. Normally a one-way drop-off rental comes with an expensive surcharge, but in this case, the charge was minimal (about $100) and made sense. Here’s why: by picking up the rental car in Victoria we saved the cost of ferrying it from Vancouver to Victoria ($57). Plus, Victoria is a walkable city, so we didn’t need a rental car there, saving us a few extra days on the rental. That’s $100 right there.
GETTING TO VICTORIA:
FERRIES: V2V Vacations operate passenger-only ferries from May-October that run between Canada Place in downtown Vancouver to the harbour in downtown Victoria (the most convenient if you do not have a car of your own).
If you do have a car, you can book passage with BCFerries. However, you will need to make your way to their mainland terminal at Tsawwassen (about 30 minutes’ drive from Vancouver, give or take rush hour) to catch the ferry to Swartz Bay (also a 30 minutes’ drive into Victoria).
FLIGHTS: You can book a short flight from downtown Vancouver (Canada Place) to Victoria harbour with Harbour Air Seaplanes. Rates start at about $200 one way per person.
HELICOPTERS: Helijet operates helicopter flights between Vancouver Harbour and Victoria Harbour for between $215 – $325 per person one way.
Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.