Vancouver Island is the largest island on North America’s west coast at 460 kilometres long and 80 kilometres wide. Factor in a sub-Mediterranean climate and a population nearing 1 million, and suddenly it’s no surprise that this landmass is home to some of the finest beaches in the world.
Let’s start on the southernmost tip of the island in British Columbia’s capital city of Victoria…
Meet Dallas Road, the famously scenic route that winds east from James Bay, along the city’s coastline where it eventually becomes Scenic Beach Drive – over 20 kilometres of Mazda-commercial-quality road that weaves around the coast all the way to the east side of the island. This popular route provides access to some of the city’s most amazing beaches and coast-side attractions. The Breakwater at the Port of Victoria is a cement jetty that juts out almost 2 kilometres into the sea with a lighthouse at its tip. A favourite with walkers, it provides staggering views of the American Olympic Mountains across the glimmering Strait of Juan de Fuca as well as close-ups of the massive luxury cruise liners that make Victoria a port-of-call. Heading east along Dallas Road, you can literally stop anywhere and find a beach access. Footpaths wind down the steep cliff-sides arriving at some of the most intimate and idyllic little coves this coast has to offer. Albeit, the beaches are a little pebbly along this stretch but there’s plenty of driftwood that serves as perfect temporary furniture! Whether you’re watching the para-gliders float on the updrafts off Fonyo Beach, enjoying children wrestling with their kites at Clover Point or strolling down the Ross Bay Sea Wall, this is one of the most amazing ways to spend a warm afternoon in Victoria. But the beach-scape begins to change as Dallas Road merges into Scenic Beach Drive…
Firstly, the road gets a little windier and climbs a little higher, offering stunning postcard-like views of the lazy, hazy south coast. Secondly, the pebbles disappear and are replaced by smooth, sandy expanses of beach. Almost European in its quaint charm, Gonzales Beach on the bay of the same name is a favourite summer destination with young adults. This little cove is so tucked away you’d miss it if it wasn’t for the small Public Beach Access sign and the public restrooms.
Keep driving along Beach Drive and you’ll find yourself heading north up the east side of Vancouver Island, past ocean-side golf courses and luxury homes. Eventually, as you come into Victoria’s upscale British enclave, the city-neighbourhood of Oak Bay, you’ll discover one of the area’s favourite beaches: Willows Beach. Nowhere in the city is there an oceanfront expanse that more resembles an English seaside town. A large tree-lined field provides room for picnickers, sunbathers and volleyball players while full playground, concession and restroom facilities mean you can bring the kids and make an entire day of it. The beach itself is over a kilometre of beautiful sand with a paved esplanade running its length. But by far the most charming attraction is the English-style tea room overlooking the water and the distant American San Juan Islands.
Further along Beach Drive in the neighbourhood of the University of Victoria lies Cadboro Bay Beach. Another favourite sandy beach, this is also an ideal place to bring the kids. The larger-than-life Gyro Park will keep them amused for hours! This beach is the alleged home of the Cadborosaurus, a sea serpent similar to the Loch Ness Monster that has been sporadically sighted in and around these waters for well over 100 years – never before have a pair of binoculars kept the kids happy for so long! Looking for a bigger beach excursion? Drive up the Saanich Peninsula to Sidney. A quick ferry-ride will deposit you on Sidney Spit, a 400 hectare marine park with tidal flats, salt marshes, meadows, trails and of course, sandy beaches.
All the way up Vancouver Island’s east coast the beaches are nothing short of spectacular. Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park in Parksville is loaded with hiking, picnicking and sunbathing possibilities while Parksville Beach is more geared toward summer sports like beach volleyball, tennis and even lacrosse. Only 12 kilometres north, Qualicum Beach and its accompanying town corner the market on picturesque with its bungalow community and endless tidal flats.
The west coast of Vancouver Island paints an entirely different picture. Not benefitting from the inland protection afforded to the island’s east coast beaches, the west coast provides the more rugged and adventurous experience of a face-to-face encounter with the great Pacific Ocean. This is a surfers’ paradise with huge waves crashing on beaches that are rimmed by acres and acres of wild rainforest. The best destinations lie between the towns of Ucluelet and Tofino and include Radar Beach, Combers Beach, Wickaninnish Beach and the 6-mile long (aptly named) Long Beach. If you’re coming for the big waves, fall and winter are the most ideal but if you’re coming for everything else, a summer day out here is almost unbeatable. Not only will you see surfers and sea kayakers but also local wildlife such as seals, sea lions and even whales!
While conditions might be a little less remote and rugged in the southwest of the island, they are no less amazing. In fact, the areas in and around Sooke are popular with many visitors because they provide the untamed West Coast feel while being only a short drive from Victoria. Witty’s Lagoon Regional Park is comprised of a long swath of sandy beach that protects the adjacent marshlands from oceanic erosion. Due to its location, every day is a windy day here, so dress appropriately. Bring the telephoto lens, too. Exceptional views of the Hurricane Ridge glacial formation in Washington State’s Olympic Range are visible across the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Many other amazing beaches are within 25 kilometres of Sooke. It’s a steep hike down to French Beach, China Beach and Mystic Beach, but the little one will have no problem navigating the gentler trails down to Sandcut Beach, Sombrio Beach and Botanical Beach. Many south islanders consider these beaches some of their best kept secrets which is why you’ll almost always find them relatively deserted. The catch is, area road signs don’t make a big deal out of pointing these access points out. Keep your eyes peeled and don’t be shy about asking the friendly locals for directions!