Despite being an “Islander,” born and raised on Vancouver Island, I still have a number of nearby destinations to cross off my bucket list. Telegraph Cove, on the north Island, and the Sunshine Coast were two of them … until this summer during my west coast road trip.
The southwest coast is regularly named among the best travel destinations in the world, and it’s clear why: mild temperatures, stunning scenery and a stellar mix of cultural and outdoor recreation opportunities.
From Victoria, the plan was to head north to Telegraph Cove and Port McNeill for a whale watching experience, before crossing over to Powell River and to enjoy a picturesque drive down the opposite coast back to Vancouver, returning to Victoria via BC Ferries.
For those planning a West Coast visit, it’s a highly recommended route. As locals, we skipped over some of the central and south Island highlights on this trip, but visitors will definitely want to build in ample time to explore!
West Coast Road Trip: North to Port McNeill
Heading out from Victoria along Highway 1, over the Malahat Drive, clear skies afforded beautiful views over the Saanich Inlet and across to the Saanich Peninsula. Visitors will want to stop at the region’s newest attraction, the Malahat Skywalk, an accessible, elevated 600m walk through arbutus forest leading to a spectacular spiral ramp rising 32m to a sightseeing lookout and interpretive centre.
With a 5 1/2-hour drive in front of us, we pressed on to the Comox Valley, where we enjoyed a late lunch and a libation at Gladstone Brewing Co., along the Vancouver Island Ale Trail. Housed in a 1948 heritage building – formerly the home of Seale and Thomson garage and dealership – this is a fun and funky destination for craft beer enthusiasts, with nods throughout to the location’s automotive past.
Visiting on a hot summer afternoon, though, we headed for a shady spot on the inviting patio.
Back on the road, we continued north to Port McNeill, a small town of about 2,000 people boasting a knock-out location. Located just a few minutes off Highway 1, this town built on logging and fishing is focused on the harbour and today is the ideal jumping-off point for outdoor adventures, wildlife viewing and cultural experiences.
While we didn’t have time this trip, a return visit is in the works to visit the Umista Cultural Centre. Located in Alert Bay, on Cormorant Island, and accessed via a 40-minute ferry ride from Port McNeill, the centre shares the cultural heritage of the Kwakwa̱ka̱ʼwakw, including origin stories of their villages, the Potlatch Collection, and in the summer, dance presentations by the Tʼsasała Cultural Group.
We settled in for the night in a large, comfortable room at the Sportsman’s Inn, overlooking the Port McNeill harbour front. While the on-site restaurant was closed the day we visited, a short walk took us to neighbouring Gus’s Pub for a hearty meal, great view and friendly service.
West Coast Road Trip: Telegraph Cove and … whales!
The highlight of this leg of a trip was Telegraph Cove, the picture-perfect site of a former sawmill town, established in 1912, and now a resort built on and around the boardwalk.
With many of the old cabins restored, and signage sharing some of their history, strolling the boardwalk is definitely part of the charm. But this morning we were on a mission – a much-anticipated whale watching excursion with Prince of Whales, which has boats in Victoria’s Inner Harbour and in Vancouver, as well as this unique north Island cove.
Our guide for the day, Capt. Andy, had grown up in Alert Bay and on local waters. After sharing what we might expect during our four-hour Zodiac excursion (a larger cruising vessel is also available) we donned our PFDs, listened to the safety rules and climbed aboard for an exhilarating run along calm waters.
Of course, wildlife, being wild, don’t always show up where you expect, but along the away Andy shared interesting facts and tidbits about the landscape and wildlife. (It’s notable that Prince of Whales offers a “Whale Sighting Guarantee,” meaning that if you don’t see whales during your trip, you’ll receive a free re-booking for another trip at any of their locations).
Several hours in, Andy spotted a spray, and we were in fact treated – at a safe distance – to an amazing view of a breaching humpback. A little while later, after a visit from a curious sea lion, a second humpback appeared, and Andy explained how the massive mammals will breach several times before taking a deep dive. As the tail fin gave us a final flip before dropping deep into the ocean, I was left amazed at the wonder of nature on our doorstep.
Back on the dock at Telegraph Cove, we took the time to grab a bite from one of the wharf-side eateries and browse the historical displays before heading back on the road – to the Comox Valley once again, and the crossing to Powell River.
With an hour before we could check in with BC Ferries in Comox – given the summer travel rush, we had reserved our spot – we stopped for a light dinner at Land and Sea. Pulling up a chair on the patio, we shared a fresh, locally made Mediterranean naan bread and a tasting flight from this 2019 winner of the BC Ale Trail’s Best Brewery Experience Award.
West Coast Road Trip: Sunny days on the Sunshine Coast
Arriving into Powell River as the sun set, we enjoyed a well-earned rest at Town Centre Hotel, ready for the full day ahead.
The Sunshine Coast is a 180km stretch of the British Columbia south coast, from Lund and Savary Island in the north to Gibsons in the south.
Powell River is the largest community, offering a variety of events and cultural experiences. It’s also a great jumping off point for outdoor adventures in Desolation Sound, popular with boaters and paddlers. For hikers, it’s the location of the Sunshine Coast Trail, Canada’s longest hut-to-hut hiking trail stretching from Sarah Point to Saltery Bay.
During our tour, Saltery Bay was our next coastal stop, and the location of the first of two small ferries connecting Sunshine Coast communities. Do be sure to check the BC Ferries schedule to plan your travels accordingly as ferry times vary through the year. A gorgeous, 50-minute ride through small islands and calm waters brought us to Earl’s Cove, and the start of a picturesque, 80km drive south past large lakes, quiet coves and a series of small towns. No wonder this region is also home to many artists!
Stopping for lunch at Madeira Park, near Pender Harbour, we tucked into sandwiches at the unassuming Euspiria Café, where we could also browse the works of local artists while we waited. Though quiet during our visit, the staff was welcoming and the turkey club was among the best we’ve had.
Continuing south, we arrived in Gibsons, a town of about 4,900 people, and the “gateway to the Sunshine Coast,” connected to West Vancouver by a 40-minute ferry trip. Visitors will find a wide variety of activities to pursue here, from cultural explorations and food tourism to outdoor adventures on land and sea.
From Gibsons, we enjoyed the scenic ferry ride to Horseshoe Bay, spending the evening in Vancouver before returning to Victoria.
While necessity made our circle tour just a four days, with so much to explore, you could easily stretch it to two weeks and still not experience everything you want to enjoy. We’ll definitely be back!
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