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Dubbed Canada's 'Paradise on the Pacific', Vancouver Island is an exquisite combination of dense rainforest, pristine coastline, rugged mountains, glittering glaciers and crystalline lakes and rivers, all within an easy distance from the mainland of British Columbia.
The island is 285 miles (460km) long and 50 miles (80km) wide, with the Vancouver Island Ranges running down most of the island's length, dividing it into a drier, undulant east coast and a wetter, rockier west coast.
Known as the Pacific Rim, the rugged west coast is littered with bays, inlets and fjords, boasting beautiful landscapes and a diversity of wildlife. This makes it a popular spot for tourists, who come to indulge in hiking, fishing, kayaking with orcas, whale watching, and more. But the area does receive some of the heaviest precipitation in the world and visitors should plan activities around the possibility of heavy storms in winter and plenty of rainfall throughout the year.
Inland, one finds dozens of lakes (the largest of which is Kennedy Lake). Dominating the central part of the island is the popular Strathcona Provincial Park, home to the island's glaciers, including the largest, the Comox Glacier, as well an abundance of birds and wildlife that includes Roosevelt Elk, bears, cougars and wolves.
There are two ski resorts on Vancouver Island: Mount Washington in the central part of the island, and the smaller Mount Cain to the north. Mount Washington offers a range of downhill, cross-country, snowboarding, snowmobiling and winter camping opportunities, while Mount Cain is community-owned and offers a less commercial experience away from the crowds.
Victoria, on the southern tip of the island, is the capital of British Columbia, and home to just under 50 percent of the island's population. The city is a major tourist destination and visitors flock here to enjoy its many sights and sounds, including the Legislative Buildings, The Empress Hotel, Craigdarroch Castle and the famous Butchart Gardens. Vancouver Island is well worth a visit and with so much to see and do, visitors can hardly ever be bored.
With well over a million annual visitors, the more-than-a-century-old Butchart Gardens remain one of Vancouver Island's most popular attractions. Situated about 14 miles (21km) north of Victoria, the gardens were founded in the early 1900s by Jennie Butchart in an abandoned limestone quarry. Fifty-five acres are open to the public and visitors can wander the paths through exquisitely manicured gardens, including the Sunken Garden, a Japanese Garden, Rose Garden and Italian Garden.
The gardens become a riot of colour in the spring and autumn, although winter and summer hold their own delights. Every Saturday, from the beginning of July to the end of September, the Gardens are transformed by a dazzling fireworks show, as well as a recital on the self-playing, rare Aeolian Pipe Organ and the Night Illuminations light display.
Other attractions and events in the park include an ice-skating rink and Twelve Days of Christmas display in December, and afternoon and evening shows and concerts during summer. Opening times and admission costs vary according to season, so visitors should check the official website listed below for details.
One of the iconic images of Victoria is the much loved and well-visited Fairmont Empress Hotel, a fully restored Edwardian treasure visited by both royalty and celebrities. Set on the banks of Victoria's Inner Harbour, the Empress is a grand and majestic building with a storied history. It retains its British air through its traditional afternoon tea, popular with tourists and locals alike since opening in 1908. Reservations up to a week or two in advance are essential and the dress code is smart casual. The Empress is centrally located, and also enjoys a spa and golf course. It's a definite highlight of any visit to Victoria and well worth a stay.
Built in 1893, the British Columbia Government Parliament Buildings were initially criticised as an unnecessary expense, but has since become a major tourist attraction in Victoria, and also serves as the legislative centre for the province. Designed by 25-year-old architect Francis Rattenbury (who also designed The Fairmont Empress Hotel), these beautiful buildings and exquisite grounds are situated at Victoria's Inner Harbour, close to many of Victoria's other main attractions.
Various performances routinely take place on the grounds and visitors can enjoy the spectacular sight of the buildings at night, when more than 3,000 lights outlining the buildings create a fairytale picture. Tours of the buildings are available daily at regular intervals throughout the year and visitors can observe the House in session from the public galleries.
Tofino is swiftly becoming a popular holiday destination with international travellers. The resort enjoys natural beauty, a mild climate and plenty of outdoor activities, including kayaking, whale watching and fishing. In addition to hot springs and gorgeous beaches, it also serves as Canada's premier surfing spot.
Tucked away at the entrance of the Clayoquot Sound, Tofino is home to the Pacific Rim National Park and islands with ancient primeval forests. Home to only about 2,000 locals, it serves as an ideal spot to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Hot Springs Cove, accessible only by air and sea, is open year round and visitors can soak in naturally hot rock pools.
Other popular sights include the Eik Cedar, an 800-year-old tree that was rescued by residents after it was condemned to be felled; the Tofino Botanical Gardens with acres of forest, shoreline and gardens; and the Whale Centre Maritime Museum housing fascinating artefacts. The Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre, containing interesting information about the region and the area's first inhabitants, the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations, is also well worth a visit.
Vancouver Island has a temperate climate, and is in fact the mildest place in the country, with temperatures modified by the currents and winds of the Pacific Ocean. Summers, between June and August, are warm and sunny, and winters, between December and February, are temperate, though the Pacific Rim (the west coast of the island) receives the most precipitation in North America and can be battered by strong winds.
The average temperature on Vancouver Island in summer is about 70°F to 80°F (21°C to 27°C), with temperatures cooling in the evenings, while the average temperature in winter is just below 32°F (0°C). Snowfall occurs in winter, though more so in the higher altitudes and the east coast. November, December, and January are the wettest months, which is worth taking into consideration when travelling to Vancouver Island.
Vancouver Island is easy to negotiate and there are several transportation options. Ferry services operate from both Vancouver and neighbouring Washington State in the USA, as well as between points on the island and the neighbouring Gulf Islands.
Scheduled flights by major airlines, as well as helicopter and floatplane services, are also available. There is a rail service between several island communities along the east coast, from Victoria to Courtenay, and the island's highway connects all major points. It also has loops to scenic marine-side highways.
Within Victoria, where many travellers choose to stay while exploring Vancouver Island, some quality sightseeing can be enjoyed. Notably, the British Columbia Parliament Buildings are hard to miss and well worth a tour.
The Inner Harbour is a tourist hotspot, with restaurants and shops aplenty; the Royal British Columbia Museum rates as one of the best small museums in the world among travellers; and the Butchart Gardens beg to be picnicked in.
Those in search of actual Victorian charm should visit Craigdarroch Castle, an imposing mansion once owned by a coal tycoon which boasts lovely views of downtown Victoria. For those travelling with families, there are a number of wonderful attractions for kids in Victoria, including the Victoria Bug Zoo, the Victoria Butterfly Gardens, and Miniature World.
The prime tourist sites on Vancouver Island, apart from the ski resorts, include the wine-producing Cowichan Valley, the Goldstream Provincial Park and Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, and the quaint town of Sooke on the southwestern tip of the island.
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