When people, primarily of the Canadian persuasion, think of Vancouver Island, an oasis of salty sea air, arts and culture, and ancient forests spring to mind; an accurate visualization. A lush, rainy destination, Vancouver Island is a hotspot of eager hippies and retirees alike, no doubt both drawn in by the island’s laid-back lifestyle, lower-than-Vancouver (but rising all the time) rent, and exploration opportunities.
My road trip up the east side of Vancouver Island late last fall had a triple purpose – I was to fly into Nanaimo for an interview (which was only an instigator of the trip, as I knew I probably didn’t want the job), after which I would spend my days hiking, exploring, and having some much-needed family time with my Aunts, Uncle’s and Cousins that reside on the island (they’ve all moved there in the past 5 years – just in case you were wondering how popular this island is!)
The trip took me through Nanaimo, Coombs, Cathedral Grove, Courtenay, Tsolum Spirit Regional Park, and Campbell River.
I flew into Nanaimo on a Wednesday, and stayed until that Saturday, after which I caught a ferry from Nanaimo to Vancouver, where I spent a couple of days hanging out with friends and sightseeing. But in those few days, I fell totally in love with Vancouver Island, and found out that it was a lot more than its reputation.
A Vancouver Island Road Trip: Nanaimo to Campbell River
As I mentioned above, I started off my Vancouver Island Road trip in Nanaimo. A quaint, colorful town, Nanaimo is home to incredibly cute boutique shops, cafes, and of course, the famously sweet Nanaimo bar.
I didn’t realize it until I got on the island, but for the Northern islanders, Nanaimo acts as a hub of sorts that not only connects the island to the mainland but is home to some great shopping spots.
For my night in Nanaimo, I opted to stay in a hostel called the Painted Turtle Guesthouse which, despite its age, was cute and comfortable. I chose a private room for about $70 as I wasn’t keen on the backpacker bunk-bed life the night before a job interview, and was delighted by the friendly and courteous staff.
After my job interview, which isn’t even really worth mentioning, I decided to spend the morning walking around surveying the town.
The thing about walking around a city with your DSLR in hand, is that people pick you out as a tourist almost instantly; and that’s not always a bad thing. As I was taking a few photos, a man stopped me on the street and told me about Bocca Cafe, a cute little joint down the street that made award-winning Nanaimo bars. I guess it looked like I needed a Nanaimo bar.
Now, I’m someone who at holidays and community functions will steer as clear away from the Nanaimo bars as possible. In case you’ve never tried one, they’re basically a square of icing sugar topped with chocolate sugar, and the feeling of impending dental doom just doesn’t appeal to me.
But, when in Rome, you eat the award-winning Nanaimo bar, damn it. It may have taken me a few hours, but I finished it.
After my Nanaimo bar, I picked up my rental car and hit the road with Courtenay as my final destination for the night.
On the road to Courtenay (or about 5 km off the road) is Coombs; the most bohemian, quaint spot I visited on my road trip. While I would have loved more time in Coombs to check out the Butterfly sanctuary and meditation spots, I admit I made a beeline for Coombs Old Country Market where, in the summertime, goats live on the roof.
While I, unfortunately, didn’t see any goats during my November visit, I was impressed by the fun items I found inside the market. Homemade jams and jellies, home decor trinkets, and lots of umbrellas lined the walkways.
If you’re looking to do some shopping for one-of-a-kind items, Coombs is the place to do it. Walking down the main drag I fell in love with the sheer amount and diversity of mom and pop shops.
Around the back of the market is this, the single cutest DOUGHNUT SHOP on the planet.
For the next stop on my road trip, I went to Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park, which is only about 20 minutes down the Alberni Highway from Coombs.
In a word, Cathedral Grove is majestic. Old (some more than 800 years) Douglas-fir trees tower over you as you stroll along the path, birds chirp nearby, rain patters on your head, and the world just becomes… peaceful.
Before you begin your hike through this area, note that there is, in fact, a roadside parking lot and that you have two hiking options, one leading from the south side of the road and one from the north. If you choose the north route, you’ll find ancient Western Red Cedar trees surrounding the glistening Cameron Lake, and if you choose the south route you’ll find the aforementioned Douglas-firs, one clocking in at more than 9 meters in circumference.
The south route didn’t take me more than an hour, and that includes a lot of doddling and taking photos, so hiking both routes in an afternoon is absolutely feasible.
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Once I was thoroughly soaked from my time spent in Cathedral Grove, I headed on to Courtenay in Comox Valley.
My time there was more or less spent drinking Guinness, eating wings, and having deep talks with family members, so my photos from Courtenay proper are minimal, however, after my night there I was recommended to spend some time at Point Holmes on Lazo Road, which rests on Comox’s shores.
With the mountains in the distance, salty sea air all around and only a few others around, Point Holmes is a great place to kick back with a book or to spend some time meditating.
Tsolum Spirit Regional Park
After I left Courtenay, I really didn’t have a plan other than I wanted to get back out into nature before continuing on to Campbell River. Enter Tsolum Spirit Regional Park.
Only a quick 15-minute drive from Courtenay, I found Tsolum Spirit Park by letting my spidey senses guide me inland in whatever direction I was feeling; and what I found was unreal. Tucked in beside a river of the same name, Tsolum Spirit has a few trails that are perfect for those who are interested in an open-ended adventure.
To start my hike, I parked my car in the parking lot where there were a few others and headed down the path until there wasn’t more than a few turkey trails. And then I kept walking.
When I wiped off my boots from my Tsolum Spirit adventure, I once again hit the road; this time with the destination of Campbell River, which was only about 40 minutes away. My time in Campbell River was spent with family; my Auntie Bev in particular. She was kind enough to show me around the hotel she manages, the Anchor Inn & Suites, take me out for Ice Cream, and introduce me to some friendly locals.
How to Get Around Vancouver Island
As mentioned earlier, I rented a car for my road trip around Vancouver Island. While there is a bus that will take you from Nanaimo to Campbell River, if you’re interested in getting out into nature or taking the trek at your own pace, I highly recommend driving.
However, if you do choose this route, note that because of the rain and wildlife, the highways can be treacherous at times. There were points in my route where I slowed down to around 80 in a 120 zone out of sheer fear of hydroplaning. There were also a couple of points on the trip where I was forced to slam on the brakes to avoid hitting deer.
Moral of the story, stay in the slow lane and safety first!
Vancouver Island Packing List
Have you ever been to Vancouver Island? What are your favorite spots!?