A few summers ago I flew out to meet my family, as they spent their holiday in Vancouver, Canada. We were really lucky with our trip. Rosie’s friend Mel had spent a whole year in Tofino on Vancouver Island, and one of dad’s friends actually lived on the east coast in North Saanich. So we had some first class recommendations for where to go and what to do.
Travelling to Vancouver Island
The ferry to Vancouver Island departs from Tsawwassen in Vancouver and arrives at Swartz Bay, on the north peninsula of the island.
We left Vancouver at about 9am and drove over to the ferry, which was exactly like all other ferry experiences I’ve had except that the view from the front of the boat was absolutely extraordinary. Blue waters with rocky land jutting straight up out of it, covered in fir trees and the occasional remote house. Apparently whale sightings are common, but we didn’t see any.
I bet you’re wondering about the name “Tsawwassen” huh? Same. So I did some research. It turns out the peninsula and surrounding lands are the ancestral home of the Tsawwassen First Nation, a Coast Salish people. It’s said they have lived there for over 4,000 years. In fact, 8 different prehistoric villages have been unearthed in and around the area.
Fun fact – Swartz Bay, where the ferry lands on Vancouver Island, is named after the original land owner John Aaron Swart in 1876. It was spelt wrong on all the paperwork when it was transferred to the government.
Deep Cove, North Saanich
Vancouver Island is a crazy place. In Deep Cove, the neighbourhood of North Saanich where we started our week, some of the native animals include cougars, deer, mink, otters, raccoons and bald eagles. A raccoon actually visited us on our deck a few times as we were enjoying the view.
All the houses along the marina in Deep Cove have enormous windows so you can get the most from the view. Ours was no exception, graciously opened to us by Dad’s friend Alistair. He moved to Vancouver Island to spend his retirement amongst this beautiful scenery.
Lucky for us, his neighbor Bob popped up and invited us out crabbing on his little fishing boat. And I mean serious crabbing with traps, not casual rock pool crabbing.
We spent the morning on Bob’s boat, jetting around Saanich Inlet. It’s so large it could be its own sea – ringed with misty mountains, the shoreline dotted with little houses and jetties.
As we went Bob pulled up his crab traps from the bottom of the sea. The crabs were about 7 or 8 inches across, with mean looking pincers. You need to have a license to set up shrimp and crab traps, but it seems most of the locals of Deep Cove have invested in one. Bob told us all about how commercial crabbing has greatly reduced the amount of wild crabs in the local waters.
After pulling each crab from the trap, Bob inspected them for size. Your license covers what size crab you’re allowed to keep, any smaller and you have to toss it back.
He also brought up his prawn traps. One of them had these red strings hanging off them like blood vessels and Bob said it must have got caught in a swarm of jelly fish and pulled their tentacles off.
When Bob pulled up his shrimp traps, he fished one of the translucent wriggling creatures from the pile and asked “Who wants to try one?”. He assured us that you couldn’t get any diseases from a catch this fresh.
“If you like sashimi, you have to try fresh shrimp.”Bob
Well, I love sashimi, so I decided to go for it. Bob wrenched the head off the shrimp, peeled back the shell and handed it to me.
I’m telling you, raw fresh shrimp is one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten. The flavour and texture is exactly like the best quality salmon sashimi you can buy – perfectly tender with a fruity yet buttery taste. 10/10 would try again. And I hate shellfish!
Catch of the day
After our day on the water we returned to Bob’s house on the marina. Before long his beautiful deck overlooking the water was all set for dinner. There were salads, corn on the cob, chilled white wine, and grilled shellfish paired with his own homemade dipping sauces.
Like I said, I don’t usually like shellfish. I certainly would never order it at a restaurant. But with the day we’d just had I couldn’t possibly pass it up. The sauces were totally delicious (tahini with rice wine vinegar and lemon juice) and went perfectly with the catch of the day. We were there for hours, drinking wine and cracking crab pincers open and watching the sun set behind the mountains.
I’ll be honest, even after this experience I’m still not a massive fan of crab or shrimp. I mean blimey getting all the shell off a crab takes so much time, is it even worth it? And would you just look at how gross shrimp are? If I’m not converted after this I think it’s time to throw in the towel.
The Butchart Gardens
Something absolutely not to be missed if you’re in Vancouver Island is the Butchart Gardens. They’re famous around the world, attracting over a million visitors a year.
Established in 1904 by Jennie Butchart, the gardens are a designated National Historic Site of Canada. It’s made up of lots of smaller themed gardens, like a Japanese garden, Italian garden and a rose garden. Jennie commissioned these from various garden designers from around the world. Her husband Robert made his fortune from manufacturing cement. After his limestone quarry was exhausted, Jennie turned that into a garden too.
The Butchart family still own the gardens, and have expanded and added to it over the century since it first opened. Now there’s a menagerie, fountains, pavilions, night illumination and summer firework displays.
We got the Butchart gardens early evening and walked around the different sections and had dinner in the restaurant. Then we walked over to the shore view where there’s a boathouse and a jetty. The sunset was reflected on the water and it was so beautiful we just stood and looked at it for ages.
The fireworks were Awesome with a capital A. Best I’ve ever seen. They were all set off from in and around a lake, with the audience sat on rugs on the bank like an amphitheatre. They all went off to very dramatic music and there was a definite structured choreography about it, with peaks and troughs and various different climaxes.
We’d read on the website beforehand that after the fireworks finish the exits get really congested and it can take up to an hour to drive out of the park. So as soon as the fireworks were over we leapt up, grabbed our rug and absolutely legged it to the car park. We sprinted across restricted areas, dodged around young Japanese families and old Indian couples… It was quite something. And we managed to get out in 10 minutes so ha take that Canada.
On the southern end of Vancouver Island, Victoria is actually the capital of British Colombia. You’ll find a bunch of very colonial styled castles, and some impressive parliament buildings, as well as lots of trendy bars and shops.
While we were there we explored some of the streets and did a bit of shopping. For some reason there are loads of places selling really extravagant toffee apples? But the main reason for our journey down from Deep Cove was to go whale watching.
The Prince of Whales (geddit?) “Zodiac Whale Watching Adventure” is a 3 hour trip on an open air boat with only 12 passengers. It takes you up the Haro Strait and the Strait of Juan de Fuca in search of whales.
When you put on your full body jump suit in the summer heat, your first thought is, really? We need these? But then you get out on the water, the boat hits full speed and boy do you need them.
On our trip we saw dolphins and seals. When we got to the Strait of Juan de Fuca we were lucky enough to stumble across two families of orca that were showing off for each other. Technically the boats aren’t allowed within a certain distance of the whales, but these orcas were so playful they came right up to our zodiac and jumped clean out of the water.
Top tip: It’s worth checking with the company what the water is like the day you go on your tour. We were warned beforehand that the sea was very choppy. I think if mum could give you her advice it would be to play it safe and sit it out if the water’s rough and you’re prone to seasickness.
Victoria Golf Club
On our whale watching trip our zodiac actually went right around the Victoria Golf Club, since it overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Established in 1893, it’s now the oldest golf club in Canada!
Dad was lucky enough to be invited to play by Alistair’s friends. The weather was beautiful and they could see all the way out to the horizon, where the spotted a few seals and dolphins in the water.
“Victoria Golf Club is in a stunning location, perched on the rocks next to the sea. Some of the greens and tees are right on the edge of the water making the game very exciting. Beautiful views all around and a quality golf course. What more could you wish for?”Mike Whitehead
We spent the second part of our trip in Tofino. Tofino is a relaxed surfing town on the tip of a peninsula within Clayoquot Sound. The wild natural scenery includes lakes, inlets, ancient rainforest, and sandy beaches, all part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
The quaint vibe of the town comes from a local agreement that stops big chains from buying property. This means all the shops, businesses and restaurants are authentically local. We were there for a few days and our favourite places to eat were Wolf in the Fog (a higher end restaurant with a delicious locally sourced menu) and Rhino Coffee House. The town is surfer-central, lots of very tanned young people, tattoos, dreadlocks, etc. About everyone we talked to moved there to surf.
Middle Beach Lodge
We stayed in a cabin at Middle Beach Lodge, which turns out is the perfect oceanfront accommodation. The main lodge near our cabin was were we ate our complimentary breakfasts, and played board games on blustery evenings overlooking the water.
Just outside our cabin door was almost a mile of private beach and rugged headlands. The water is freezing but there are little islands cropping out of it covered in fir trees that make the view really striking.
On our first night we had dinner in the main building of the resort – fresh halibut with wild rice and broccolini salad, and chocolate caramel ganache with strawberries for dessert. We made friends with a Californian couple sat at the table next to us. People here are so friendly!
Remote Passages Marine Excursions
Our days in Tofino were mainly taken up with outdoor activities with Remote Passages Marine Excursions – a company that Rosie’s friend Mel had worked for on her year abroad.
We started with kayaking around the beautiful Clayoquot waters. We had three kayaks between us – one for our guide Paul, one for mum and dad and one for Rosie and I.
First Paul showed us how to get into the boats without tipping them and how to fasten all the various bits to keep the water out. Then we carried our boats into the water and got in. You steer with your feet, using peddles on the inside of the boat. The peddles are attached to the rudder at the back, and pushing the right foot turns you right, your left foot left and keeping both taught steers you straight. Then you both have to coordinate paddling so you don’t clack your oars together.
We kayaked over the water, with the islands rising up around us and the mountains towering over on the mainland, with eagles circling ahead and landing on the tops of trees. The water was so calm, slicing the oars through it was almost easy. It was beautiful.
We stopped at an island on our trip, tying our boats to the roots of fir trees on the shores before setting off through the woods to find the trail’s rustic boardwalk and crane our necks to look up at the ancient trees.
It’s one of the only temperate rain forests left in the world and some of the trees are more than a thousand years old. One of the big redwoods was called the hanging garden, because it was so big that it had ferns and bushes and even other trees growing from it all the way up to its tallest branches at 90m high. They think it’s 2000 years old. Just think whilst evening that’s gone on in the last millennia, this one tree was just minding its own business. Empires and religions and civilisations and wars. It’s mind boggling.
Paul told us all about the life cycle of the rainforest and the long process of building the boardwalk, before leading us back to our kayaks.
On our journey back to Tofino Harbour, we paddled through a field of seaweed floating on the surface of the water. Our guide tore some loose and started to chew on it. “Go ahead! It’s really good for you!” he called out to us. Since I had a reputation to protect as raw shrimp eater I decided to give it a try. It was rubbery but very fresh, kind of like the seaweed you get on the side of sushi platters.
That night we ate at Wolf in the Fog, a restaurant we’d been recommended for dinner.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this was the best meal I have had in a long time, possibly ever. For an appetiser we had smoked oyster wrapped in flash fried potato with avocado. I’ve never had oyster but this was just delicious.
My main was even better – rare tuna with sesame seed and wasabi sauce, with pak choi, nori crackers and confit pork. It sounds like a weird combination right? But both the tuna and the pork were the best I’ve ever tasted, they literally just melted on my tongue, it was just blissful. I tried my best to slow down and savour it, but I still finished before anyone else.
Then for dessert we shared a butterscotch brûlée with caramelised white chocolate and raspberry gelato. Oh my gosh. Just wow.
The next day we were bear watching. This trip has to happen over lunch time because that’s when the tide goes out, and the bears leave the trees to go onto the beaches and dig up sea creatures.
We got to wear some very flattering outfits again for the trip. The same red suits as for whale watching but with an addition of bright yellow waterproofs over the top.
The boat went super fast which made it very cold, the layers were definitely appreciated. The driver took us in land for about 20 minutes before cutting the engines and drifting along by the beaches to look for bears.
The bear watching boats all communicate with each other, so when a bear is spotted a few boats will arrive from different companies. We saw a whole bunch of black bears, always on their own though. Apparently they’re very solitary creatures. They don’t have any predators in the water which is why it’s so easy to watch them from boats. They’re more worried about wolves and other bears that will come at them from the forest. So we managed to get pretty close to them which was awesome.
Each of them was ambling along the beach, turning rocks over with their paws and eating things they found. After an hour or so of looking we turned around to go back, but then we saw a momma bear and her cub! The driver was telling us that the baby bear wasn’t actually eating anything from the beach, he was just turning little stones over to copy his mum. He would have been only 5 or 6 months and still nursing rather than eating real food. He was very skittish, and kept running in and out of the trees if he ever felt threatened.
He also told us that a female bear’s body decides how many cubs to have during hibernation based on how much food the mother has managed to eat that season. If she can’t spare the body fat, she won’t have any cubs at all. Every day’s a school day!
That evening we did yoga on the beach, foggy but still warm, with the soothing sounds of the sea in the background and the voice of the yoga instructor, a nice Canadian woman in her sixties. Then we feasted on freshly caught fish for dinner with pear walnuts and blue cheese salad. We all had different desserts so we could share and try all of them – salted pecan brownie, creme brûlée, and lemon custard with blueberries. All very tasty.
Vancouver Island is definitely a destination for activity-loving families. I don’t think we’ve ever had a holiday where we’ve spotted so much wildlife!
Check out some of our other family holidays here…