Vancouver Island in Western Canada has become increasingly popular as a local getaway in recent years. Though known as the retirement hotspot for Canadians, thanks to a university and summer cottagers, it also has a younger edge to it these days. A lot of mainlanders are moving here because of cheaper costs and you’ll find a burgeoning natural food and beer scene here in addition to the beautiful beaches, hiking trails, lakes, rivers, mountains, and scenic farmland. Use the tips in this guide to find your way there.
Hostel prices – There are only a few hostels on the island, so expect a dorm bed to start at 25 CAD and private around 50 CAD. Prices are more expensive during the summer and hostels often fill up, so be sure to book in advance. WiFi is standard in all hostels.
Budget hotel prices – Some budget hotels have rates as low as 60 CAD, though they aren’t going to be fancy or in a central part of the island. For a more legit location, expect to pay about 110 CAD and up for singles and doubles. Family-run bed and breakfasts are very common on Vancouver Island and really contribute to the intimate, cozy feel of island life. Airbnb is rather sparse on the island. Shared rooms can be found for 40 CAD per night, and private homes/apartments are closer to 150 CAD. The island is quite large, so be sure you find accommodation in the area you are looking for!
Average cost of food – Since it’s an island, a lot of food is imported from the mainland and groceries tend to be expensive. Expect a day of groceries to cost about 20 CAD. Most restaurants will cost around 20-26 CAD per meal, so if you’re looking to stick to a budget, street food will be your best bet. If you are coming from the mainland for a few days, stock up on groceries before you arrive — this will save you a lot of money!
Transportation costs – Transportation around the island is very easy. All the towns are walkable and you can take buses for 2-4 CAD anywhere you need to go. If you are going into the mountains or spending a few days here, it might be best to rent a car or bike. There are numerous ferries that can take you to the island, depending on where you are leaving from and arriving to. The ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo, for example, is 14 CAD per person, and 47 CAD per vehicle. To get between cities, Greyhound and Island Link offer inter-city bus services, though they don’t have the most convenient schedules.
Suggested daily budget – 70-80 CAD / 52-60 USD (Note: This is a suggested budget assuming you’re staying in a hostel, eating out a little, cooking most of your meals, and using local transportation. Using the budget tips below, you can always lower this number. However, if you stay in fancier accommodation or eat out more often, expect this to be higher!)
Money Saving Tips
- Gas up on the mainland – If you’re coming from Vancouver by car, make sure you gas up before boarding the ferry. Gas prices are always higher on the island, as are most grocery prices. Stock up on everything before you arrive!
- Take the ferry as a walk-on passenger – Ferry prices for vehicles are astronomical, depending on the vehicle length and number of occupants. If you’re just making a short trip and staying in one destination on the island (like Victoria or Nanaimo), then consider ditching the vehicle and traveling as a walk-on passenger. Walk-on fares are only 20 CAD, and traveling this way also saves you up to an hour waiting in line for the ferry.
- Explore the island by bike – British Columbia was made for mountain biking, and Vancouver Island is no exception. There are tons of bike paths, both inside the cities and in the provincial park areas. Pack a picnic lunch, lots of water, and make a day of it.
- Hitchhike – Since the island sees a huge boost in population during the summer months, you can try your hand at hitchhiking between cities. It isn’t very common, but it can save you the cost of renting a car or taking the bus. Just don’t get off the beaten trail as you may end up waiting some time for a ride!
Top Things to See and Do on Vancouver Island
- Visit the “goats on the roof” experience – For a fun experience, visit this small market in Coombs that has actual goats living on the roof. It’s definitely unique and different. Don’t feel too bad for them as the roof has plenty of grass and room for them to roam around.
- Visit Cathedral Grove – This forest is on the southwest part of the island. As part of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, it has some of the oldest cedar trees in the world (many are over 1,000 years old!). It’s a great place to hike ,and all the birds will appeal to bird and nature lovers.
- Hike the rainforest – You can spend a few days hiking all the trails on the island through the rainforests. The natural beauty is one of the main reasons to come here, and if you don’t do some hiking, you’re missing out.
- Beacon Hill Park – This scenic park is a great place to relax and take a stroll, though it offers a bit of history as well. Aside from being a wonderful place for a picnic, it also houses a tree planted by Winston Churchill.
- Visit a winery – Vancouver Island has twenty different wineries. While they may not be the best wineries in the world, the wine is more than drinkable. If you’re here in September, you can attend the annual wine festival.
- Visit the U’Mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay – For a unique experience, learn about the potlatch ceremonies of the Kwakwaka’wakw people. They have been living on this island for thousands of years, and it offers an interesting look at life on the island before white colonizers.
- Whale watching – The inside passage and the area around Vancouver is one of the most active areas for whales in the world. You’ll be able to see a variety of species of whales. Tickets are generally around 100 CAD and the tours last several hours.
- Ghost tours – Looking to peer into the spooky side of the island? Take one of the many ghost tours around here, and learn about what still lives here from the afterlife.
- Butchart Gardens – Aside from the traditional, peaceful pathways, and bench areas you would expect to see, this garden is host to a spectacular flower exhibit. Occasionally there are concerts and firework displays within the garden as well. Admission is 17-33 CAD, depending on the season (this includes admission to events).
- Victoria Butterfly Gardens – This is an indoor tropical rainforest filled with butterflies that are flying out in the open among the flora and fauna. You’ll also be able to spot koi fish, turtles, and various types of parrots. Admission for adults is 16.50 CAD.
- Abkhazi Garden – Spanning just over an acre, this garden created by the Russian prince and princess Abkhazi features Japanese Maples, native Garry oaks, and hundreds of rhododendrons. Try to check it out while the flowers are blooming. There is a suggested donation of 10 CAD.
- Day-trip to the smaller islands – Vancouver Island is the only one with a major international name, but the Gulf Island strip around Vancouver actually consists of hundreds of small islands and inlets, many of which make for a pleasant day trip. Consider renting a boat or arranging a tour to Gabriola, Saltspring, or Thetis, three of the most popular islands. Here, you can hike, spend time exploring the bays and beaches or visit local artisans and eateries.