The Sitka spruce is the signature tree of coastal areas on Vancouver Island, and a magnificent tree it is. One of the world's largest conifers, our spruces reach great size and age—hundreds of feet and thousands of years, in the case of ancient trees in hidden groves protected along our western shore. Spruces form the canopy in old-growth forests throughout the Island at low elevation; they are also a much-loved timber species, providing everything from massive house beams and boards to delicate panels for guitars and pianos.
So it should be no surprise that spruces play a role in many of the places in which visitors to the Island overnight. One can camp beneath the spicy-scented spreading boughs of old spruce trees; or sleep beneath the glistening ivory wood of spruce beams. We have lovely cabins made of spruce and cedar that rest in the shade of massive old spruce and cedar trees. We have unique treehouse lodgings made of spruce and cedar that hang in the branches of spruce and cedar trees and look ever so much like they belong in Hobbiton. Some of our most famous lodges hold huge beams and posts made of spruce; some of our quirkiest boutique hotels and hostels include spruce in their framework.
This is all just one way of illustrating the vast variety of places to sleep and stay on Vancouver Island—a particularly meaningful window in which to view our lodgings as it is framed by a local icon, this wonderful tree we share the land with. But we have accommodations of almost every description, ranging from canvas tents (sometimes yours, sometimes provided by accommodation operators) to deluxe suites atop world famous hotels built of stone and resembling European manors.
On the Island, you can sleep on a boat, near a boat or far from any boat. By a river, a lake, a pond, a bay, a sandy beach or a snowy hillside. In the heart of a major urban area, or so far from cities that no hint of urban life intrudes into the wilderness. We have expensive hotel suites the size of houses, and modestly priced tiny cubbyholes. You can ride a bike, a boat, a pedicab, a train, a plane or a helicopter to your lodging. You can look out the window at subalpine firs, Himalayan rhododendrons or palm trees.
Here’s a selection of places to set your pillow for the night:
- Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park: Hugging the foothills above the coastal wilderness of Pacific Rim National Park, this remote preserve holds ancient spruce groves beside musical streams where, among other things, backpackers can make camp on gravel bars or in a few select walk-in sites. No matter where you spread your sleeping bag in Carmanah-Walbran, you will be sleeping beneath ancient cedars and spruces
The park is the home of the Carmanah Giant, one of the largest spruce trees on Earth. Its location is unmarked (and extremely difficult to reach), but it’s worth reflecting that visitors here sleep in the neighborhood of a 315-foot tree close to a millennium old. Officials discourage travel to the tree, but there are groves of other trees nearly as impressive that are easy to reach, and camp near on gravel bars in the creek during summer. Perhaps the most memorable such spot is the Stoltzman Grove, which commemorates conservation activist Randy Stoltzman, whose efforts saved the park.
A totally different camping experience can be had across the Island, along our eastern shores, at two parks set amid the dryland habitat of sister islands. On Salt Spring Island, at Ruckle Provincial Park, old growth Douglas-fir trees date back centuries. But on the rocky ground in this relatively dry leeward climate, the trees do not even reach 100 feet. Ruckle’s walk-in campsites are interspersed amid the firs, bigleaf maples and Garry oaks along bluffs just above the Salish Sea, and the whole scene seems worlds away from the dense rainforest across the Island at Carmanah.
Our other parks and campgrounds offer experiences ranging from car-camp sites near burly rivers bearing snowmelt down from the mountains above, to shoreline sites tucked in the oceanfront forest fringe, to placid spots beside subalpine lakes where loons may wake you at dawn.
We also have plenty of commercial campgrounds where you can pull up your RV, plug into the electrical outlet, and enjoy the Stanley Cup finals on your satellite TV after a post-supper walk along the beach. Bring your own RV—or pick one up at one of our airports offering scheduled commercial service from the mainland, such as Victoria, Nanaimo and Comox.
- The accommodations at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort are tents—but these tents are quite different from those you’d likely pitch at a provincial park. These large canvas tent cabins are akin to those you find at safari lodges in Africa. Set on wood platforms, supplied with power, heat and water, they are luxury lodgings in every sense of the word. But few deluxe accommodations offer a setting this memorable: The shores of the Bedwell River estuary, a land of bears, salmon, otters, eagles and more.
“Glamping” is the word that’s been coined to describe the experience at lodges such as CWR, and the glamour that comprises part of that term is evident in the deluxe furnishings inside the tents; the gourmet dining provided by the resort’s chefs; the unparalleled peace and quiet of the accommodations. No worries about the earth-shaking noise when someone visits the ice machine down the hall at 3am; instead, the soft breeze in the spruce boughs may wake you at dawn so you can stroll out on your tent-cabin’s deck and watch a bear stalk the river shallows for salmon.
We also have wilderness lodges that are really just deluxe hotels set on remote shores, such as Eagle Nook Resort, in Barkley Sound. The facility here is almost as urbane as any downtown hotel, but its location is far, far from urban hustle and bustle. Fishing, paddling and wildlife watching are just out the door—but your room for the night is a comfortable hotel accommodation.
- Wya Point Resort, near Ucluelet, is owned by the Ucluelet Band of the Nuu-chah-Nulth First Nation, and offers a selection of delightfully serene wood lodge buildings and cabins set beneath ancient spruces above the resort’s own peaceful beach. Crafted by local artisans of spruce and cedar, the cottages are both elegant and cozy, and offer an atmosphere of unparalleled calm in the grasp of the site’s ancient trees. The resort also has campsites set in the spruces, too—not to mention yurts that resemble the tent-cabins at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort.
Wya Point is just one among many such resorts on the Island and its smaller sister islands. Some, such as the wilderness-island retreat at Sonora Resort, can be reached only by boat or floatplane, and are the centrepiece of a vacation complex whose amenities equal almost any on Earth, from swimming pools to gourmet dining and even golf at a nearby fly-in course on a billionaire’s private island.
Many of our vacation cottages are just simple stand-alone cabins that offer comfortable places to sleep, cook meals and relax. They may be found alongside riverbanks, on the shores of our many lakes and bays, or tucked into the woods in quiet locations where the morning chatter of Steller jays is your alarm clock. Some of these you’ll find simply driving by and noticing a small sign; most are easily booked online or through tourism bureaus in local communities.
Most are not as lavish as the two-bedroom rental lodges at Wya Point. But all offer the sense of having your own home while on vacation in a beautiful place.
- You’re not even sleeping on Earth at Free Spirit Spheres in Qualicum Beach, north of Nanaimo. These three orbs are handcrafted from local wood (cedar and spruce) and hang in midair, suspended from the branches of large second-growth trees. Eve, Eryn and Melody are the spheres’ names; each offers a bed, furnishings and windows to bring in the forest-dappled light. Elevated walkways and stairs clasping tree trunks enhance the sensation of being sequestered in the rainforest.
Do the spheres sway in the wind? Best spend a night in one to find out.
- Last, but not least, are our many accommodations set in the middle of one of Canada’s most dynamic urban areas, Victoria. British Columbia’s capital city blends colonial heritage with 21st century vibrancy to create a travel setting as urbane as any small city in Europe—and the city’s lodgings provide a corollary range of options.
Most intimate are the numerous small B&Bs and inns that offer 2-10 rooms. Many of these are housed in historic homes and buildings whose character is exceptional, ranging from Victorian clapboard homes to Edwardian manors to Arts & Crafts mansions in quiet neighborhoods. The atmosphere of shimmering brass, glinting cut glass, sparkling chandeliers and polished old oak creates a lavishly romantic experience. The personal service and hospitable touches—handmade breakfasts, afternoon tea and evening sherry— are impeccably elegant. And you’ll sleep in four-poster beds with floral duvets and brocade amid antique furnishings… Taking the whole experience back in time a century or more to the days this was a thriving outpost of the British empire.
That ambience is magnified immensely at the Fairmont Empress, the grande dame of Island hotels, overlooking the Inner Harbour docks at which Pacific tea clippers once berthed. The Empress itself is early 20th century vintage, a towering stone edifice that’s one of the most-photographed hotels in North America. Its rooms feature understated luxury, with subtly elegant wallpapers, walnut furniture and delightful views out over the Inner Harbour’s boating and floatplane bustle.
Lodging in Victoria is not all historic. One of the city’s other notable hotels, the Laurel Point Inn, was designed by famed Canadian architect Arthur Erickson; its freeform concrete shape rests perfectly on the hotel’s namesake point guarding the Inner Harbour, and the spacious, spare rooms are designed to draw in light and lend every guest a view of the city, the harbour and Victoria’s lovely natural setting.
Thousands of other rooms in the city range from simple bedrooms in family homes to spiffy modern suites in waterfront facilities as modern as any in the world. The range of lodging options in Victoria is a perfect metaphor for the variety we have to offer throughout the Island. You can just lay a sleeping bag down on soft sand beside a wilderness beach fringed with ancient forest—or pull back a royal duvet in a thousand-square-foot suite atop one of the world’s most famous luxury hotels. You can spend hundreds of dollars, or nothing at all. Arrive in a limousine, or on foot.
Wherever you rest your head on Vancouver Island, sleep well
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