A large island off the south coast of British Columbia. Separated from the mainland by the Georgia Straight and the Straight of Juan De Fuca. BC's capital of Victoria is on the south tip, along with CFB Esquimalt. The second largest city on Vancouver Island is Nanimo. Pacific Rim National Park and Strathcona Provincial Park are both on the island. The southern part of the island dips bellow the 49th parallel, which intersects the island in the town of Ladysmith. The highest point on the island is The Golden Hind. Between Vancouver Island and the mainland are the Gulf Islands. Vancouver Island is home to the World's Largest Hockey Stick in Duncan.

Vancouver Island is the largest of the group of islands off the southwestern coast of British Columbia, Canada. With a land area of over 32,000 km2 and a population of approximately 700,000, it is the second most populous island in Canada, after the much smaller Île de Montréal (home to Canada's second-largest city, and not much else). Vancouver Island is home to British Columbia's capital Victoria, which is situated at the southern tip of the island. Somewhat confusingly, it is not home to the city of Vancouver, situated across the Strait of Georgia on the British Columbia mainland.

A Tour of Vancouver Island

Greater Victoria

Most of the visitors to Vancouver Island will arrive in its most populous area, Greater Victoria. With ferry access from Tsawwassen south of Vancouver, Anacortes on the shores of Puget Sound in Washington State, Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula, and Seattle, as well as an international airport and float plane service from Vancouver, it is the best-connected part of the Island, and for good reason. Greater Victoria is home to about half of the Island's population, and is the site of the provincial capital.

Victoria has a reputation as a quaint, traditional town where many of the genteel traditions of the British Empire days survive, at least for the benefit of the ever-present tourists. From the more practical perspective of a resident, it hosts a large retired population, drawn to the mildest climate in Canada, much of the provincial government bureaucracy, the main port of Canada's Pacific navy in the suburb of Esquimalt, and several centres of advanced education, making it the odd combination of a retirement community and a college town. That said, it remains a significant centre for tourism, aided by its fine selection of museums and one quintessentially British pastime adopted heartily by the people of Victoria: gardening.

Victoria is sometimes called the "Garden City", an appellation reinforced by the many planters and hanging baskets found in the central city, and the presence of the (self-proclaimedly) world-famous Butchart Gardens on the Saanich Peninsula north of the city centre. These large, spectacular gardens were developed initially from a spent cement quarry by the family of the quarry owner, who still own and operate the 55-acre estate. This garden sensibility transfers over to the lush green campus of the University of Victoria, home to 15-20,000 students.

Victoria is connected to the rest of the Island (except the other communities along the south-west shore) by a narrow, steep stretch of highway generally called 'the Malahat'. This road extends for 25 km and reaches from near sea level to a peak elevation of 352 m, leading to a steep drive, especially on the northern slope.

The Cowichan Valley and Duncan

Crossing out of the Greater Victoria area, one first encounters the primarily agrarian Cowichan Valley, home to several small towns and a central city, Duncan. Vancouver Island's wine industry is centred on the southern half of this valley, producing some of the more highly-rated Canadian wines, though greatly outshone in quantity by the Okanagan Valley in the BC interior. Unlike the service-driven Victoria area, much of the rest of the Island is centred around resource industries, especially forestry. The northern Cowichan Valley is home to one of the Island's several pulp mills, with many active logging areas in the central areas of the Island west of Duncan.

Duncan itself has, as its main claim to fame, the world's largest hockey stick, displayed with the corresponding world's largest hockey puck outside the local arena, in full view of the highway through Duncan. Other than that, Duncan distinguishes itself from the rest of the small towns on the island through the large number of totem poles erected in the (admittedly rather small) downtown.

Other possible places of interest in the Valley include the tourist town of Chemainus, whose particular fame comes from the many large murals painted on the sides of buildings in its central core, and also notable for its ridiculous (and officially-specified) demonym "Chemainiac". At the very northern end of the Valley is Ladysmith which claims it's famous for sitting directly on the 49th parallel, but if you've ever heard of it before it is probably as the birthplace of famous Canadian, model, and unintended porn star Pamela Anderson. At the south end of the Valley are Mill Bay and Shawnigan Lake, home to one prestigious boarding school each and a public high school that counts among its alumni the author of this article. The Island Highway continues north from Ladysmith towards Vancouver Island's second-largest city, Nanaimo.

Nanaimo

A former coal-mining town that has seen better days but is revitalizing itself in recent years, Nanaimo is the gateway to the vast northern reaches of Vancouver Island. It is connected via ferry to both Tsawwassen south of Vancouver and Horseshoe Bay north of Vancouver, making it the second major entry point to the Island.

Nanaimo is probably best known as the namesake of the marvellous confection known as the Nanaimo bar, a layering of a chocolate cookie crust, custard, and a solid chocolate topping. The Nanaimo bar has been popularized in recent years by Starbucks Coffee, based in nearby Seattle, Washington, and is very popular in Western Canada around Christmas time. The nearby small island of Newcastle Island was a coal mine and then a famous resort, but is now a provincial park with a nature and historical reserve. In the category of 'small city quirks' we find the annual Nanaimo Bathtub Races, which once included an event crossing the Strait of Georgia to Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver.

Nanaimo has suffered a certain amount of urban creep in the past couple decades, with the awkward geography and general shabbiness of the nominal downtown shifting development further and further north along the corridor of the Island Highway. The largest commercial development, Woodgrove Mall, is at the very northern end of the City of Nanaimo and the associated development has spilled over into the adjacent community of Lantzville. Nanaimo is also home to the spectacular main campus of Malaspina University-College, clinging to the hills above the downtown core. The Island Highway continues north from Nanaimo to the vacation towns of Parksville and Qualicum Beach.

Parksville-Qualicum

Parksville and Qualicum Beach, due to their natural beauty, gentle climate, and proximity to the ferry in Nanaimo, are popular destinations for both vacationers and retirees. The two towns are surrounded by a number of resorts and provincial park campgrounds, spots at some of the latter which are highly sought-after by Island residents despite their relatively large number. Parksville is the larger of the two towns, the younger of the two, and the more workaday town, where Qualicum has the oldest residential population in British Columbia.

Parksville-Qualicum is also the main crossroads of Vancouver Island, being the point where the main east-west highway intersects with the north-south highway following the east coast of the island. West of Parksville the highway crosses the mountain range along the spine of the Island to eventually reach the surf town Tofino and its accompanying beachfront Long Beach. The northbound highway continues past the twin cities of Courtenay/Comox and the town of Campbell River before striking into the lightly-inhabited northern reaches of the Island en route to the north end of the Island at Port Hardy.

Port Alberni and the West Coast

The highway traversing the centre of Vancouver Island is a winding, steep, occasionally vomit-inducing road connecting Parksville at the east with Port Alberni in the middle and Long Beach at the west. Port Alberni is situated at the end of a long inlet and has been a major centre for forestry throughout most of its history due to its favourable location in the heart of Vancouver Island. In recent years, the export of sawmill and pulp mill work to cheaper locales has damaged the local economy, but its proximity to the wilderness of the central Island has spawned a burgeoning eco-tourism industry and the plentiful salmon in the many local rivers have made it a major centre for sport fishing.

Port Alberni is also the most accessible gateway to the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. Unlike the smooth, sheltered east coast of the Island, which supports farmland and cities with equal ease, the west coast of the Island is a rugged wilderness with the full brunt of Pacific Ocean weather directed upon it. The southern west coast is famous for two long hiking trails. The longer and larger of the two is the famous West Coast Trail, built to aid mariners stranded by the none-too-infrequent shipwrecks that occurred along the treacherous coastline, and is a 5-7 day deep wilderness hike. It has been joined in recent years by the much tamer Juan de Fuca Trail, extending from the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail at Port Renfrew to Sooke on the outskirts of Greater Victoria.

Further up the coast is the Long Beach region accessible by highway from Port Alberni. Delineated by the villages of Ucluelet and Tofino, Long Beach is a well-known camping and surfing destination. Both villages have a variety of tourist amenities, with Tofino the more developed of the two.The West Coast Trail and Long Beach, along with the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound at the mouth of the Alberni Inlet, make up Pacific Rim National Park. North of Tofino the west coast of the Island is mostly uninhabited wilderness, with the occasional and very controversial logging operation.

Courtenay/Comox, Campbell River, and Points North

The road north of Parksville has improved in recent years, with the slow coast-hugging Island Highway replaced with a new inland expressway named (appropriately enough) the Inland Island Highway. Both highways connect the southern Island to the two major centres of the north Island, Courtenay/Comox and Campbell River.

Courtenay and Comox are two cities on the coast of the Island separated by the Comox River. Courtenay is the larger of the two, with most of the local shopping and lodgings, while Comox is more residential, and is home to two major Canadian Forces military bases. CFB Comox is the main base for the Canadian air force on the Pacific coast, much like CFB Esquimalt is for the Pacific naval fleet. The Canadian navy, too, has a base in Comox, the training centre HMCS Quadra. The Courtenay/Comox area is also home to the Island's only ski area, Mount Washington, and to the former coal mining town of Cumberland.

Further up the coast is the town of Campbell River, which like the rest of the Island bases its economy on a combination of natural resources and tourism. Like Port Alberni, it is a popular destination for salmon fishing, and boasts an impressive eco-tourism industry, bolstered by the nearby Strathcona Provincial Park. This provincial park consists of over 2,000 square kilometres of wilderness, including the highest mountains on the Island and a network of lakes and rivers popular for canoeing and kayaking. South of Campbell River is the former shipping hazard Ripple Rock, destroyed in the 1950's by one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.

Beyond Campbell River the country becomes less populated, with only the occasional mining town or logging operation in the middle of what is otherwise pure wilderness. The Island Highway ends at the village of Port Hardy, which is connected by ferry with the northern port of Prince Rupert on the BC mainland. Port Hardy is a significant conduit for tourists driving up the island and continuing to Prince Rupert and thence to the Interior or across to the Queen Charlotte Islands and has been known to be over-full from time to time.

History of Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island has been inhabited by Coast Salish and Kwakiutl First Nations for centuries. It was first charted in the 18th century by the Spanish captain Juan de la Bodega y Quadra and the British captain George Vancouver, for whom the Island was originally jointly named, as the "Island of Vancouver and Quadra" (the ordering, of course, depending on the nationality of the speaker). Later, as the Island fell deeper into the British sphere of influence, the name Quadra was dropped and eventually reassigned to a smaller (though still relatively large) island between Vancouver Island and the BC mainland.

Vancouver Island was first fully colonized by Britain as part of the Oregon border dispute, with the foundation of Fort Camosun (soon renamed Fort Victoria) in 1843. The presence of significant British settlement on Vancouver Island was used as leverage to convince the United States government to give up its claim to 54ˆ40' and accept a border at the 49th parallel, with Vancouver Island gaining an exception due to the presence of Victoria well south of the 49th parallel. The Island was soon formally annexed as the Colony of Vancouver Island in 1849.

While the early years of this colony were successful largely from Victoria's use as a way-station for several gold rushes in the BC interior, by 1865 its economy was on the decline. In 1866 it was merged with the much larger and more prosperous colony of British Columbia, with the capital of the combined province remaining in Victoria in preference to the mainland capital, New Westminster. (The city of Vancouver would not be founded until 1886 and so was not a candidate)

This merged colony was not to last for very long, as the Dominion of Canada was formed from Britain's eastern colonies in North America just one year after the merger of the western colonies. This newly self-governing nation grew rapidly, and was soon able to offer the British Columbians the one thing they most wanted: a transcontinental railroad. As such, British Columbia became the sixth province of Canada in 1871, and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway commenced at the same time.

It is the presence of the railway to eastern Canada that led to the eventual decline of Vancouver Island relative to the mainland. Around the end of the railway grew the communities of the Greater Vancouver area, and the growth in trans-Pacific trade bolstered Vancouver's economy through its role as a seaport. Nevertheless, the presence of the provincial government in Victoria, along with the growing importance of the Island's forests for the timber industry, sustained the city of Victoria and the rest of the Island through to the recent growth in tourism.


Sources: The author lived on Vancouver Island from 1992 to 2004, first around Duncan and then in Victoria. Wikipedia was used as a refresher on details.

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