Festivals

An artisan at the Filberg Festival in Courtenay pauses near her display of glassware at her booth on the filberg grounds.

Photo Credit: Boomer Jerritt / Tourism Vancouver Island

Can you call a geographic location "festive"? We think so. On Vancouver Island, we love to celebrate.
Festive describes how we feel about the innumerable wonders of life here on our Island—the natural, cultural, culinary and recreational diversity we enjoy—and that feeling translates to creating and attending and enjoying dozens of festivals.

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We live in one of the best places on Earth, and our celebrations of that fact are as fine as any, we believe, reflecting a unique array of facets as diverse as the Island itself. We are festive winter, spring, summer and fall; indoors and out; weekends and weekdays; morning, afternoon and night; north, south, east and west. Our festivals stretch from stove to stage, from beach to peak, from land to sea.

For example, each year about this time the North Pacific whale population pursues its annual migration from warm tropical waters back to the cool, food-rich, sheltered waters of the Northwest coast. As they head north they pass by our outer coast, the humpbacks and grays that thrive in this corner of the ocean, even a few minkes and fin whales. Most head past the Island for more northerly waters in Alaska, but some linger for a while. Some even hang around all summer.

These are among Earth’s most magnificent beings, possessing a size and grandeur that induces great wonder among us terrestrial admirers. Thus the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, an annual March celebration in Tofino and Ucluelet (March 11-26 this year; pacificrimwhalefestival.com).

Spanning three weekends and the weeks in between, the onshore activities constitute a classic human celebration—food, gatherings, performance, excursions, speeches and so on. In fact, there is a charming confluence between what’s going on offshore and what’s taking place on dry land nearby.

For instance, while hundreds of whales parade past the West Coast, hundreds of whale fanciers will parade through Tofino on Saturday, March 11. While the humpbacks are singing their distinctive songs in the ocean, a bluegrass band will be performing its distinctive music in Ucluelet March 18. While the whales are feasting on the herring, krill and other fresh seafood in our temperate waters, the humans will be doing the same at the Chowder Chowdown March 26 in Ucluelet.

So, our seasonal whale neighbors prompt us to celebrate. And who says they are not doing the same? Hard to say who has a better time, people or whales.

There’s more—way more. It’s hard to find a spot on the Island calendar that does not have a festival, especially between March and October. We live in a lovely, nourishing, beautiful place. We could, and do, celebrate that every day when we step out our door. Here are some of our more notable festivals and gatherings:

  • Festival Nanaimo: This monthlong event (March 1-April 1; festivalnanaimo.com) is a classic community celebration that incorporates everything from music to chocolate… A pretty fine menu, yes? Performances take place throughout the month in local venues, and include international stars such as the Celtic Tenors (March 2); Canadian standouts such as Kiran Ahluwalia, and local luminaries like blues legend David Gogo.
    The Nanaimo Symphony marks St Patrick’s Day with Celtic band Rant Maggie Rant March 17; Scotland’s favorite beverage is celebrated March 3 at the Wee Tipple Festival; and Hops & Hounds on March 19 pairs two mainstays of Island life, craft beer and dogs.
    Community walks, bike rides, sporting contests, a boat show and arts fairs add to the mix. The festival concludes with the uniquely Nanaimo Piratefest FunDay April 2; and Nanaimo’s famous contribution to dessert menus, the Nanaimo Bar, will be handcrafted and purveyed in numerous locations throughout the month. Can you mix chocolate, cycling, beer and music all in one day? Here’s your chance to find out.
  • Victoria Symphony Splash: This annual event blends two long-favorite human festivities, outdoor music and fireworks. The capital city’s symphony, one of the finest small-city orchestras in North America, sets up on a barge in the Inner Harbour to perform a summer evening concert that always concludes with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, one of the most stirring pieces in the musical canon. Artillery accompanies the music, as Tchaikovsky intended—nothing moderate about Russian music—which is obviously much better accomplished outdoors than in symphony halls. Fireworks conclude the evening as dusk descends over one of the most scenic urban harbours in the world; victoriasymphony.ca.
  • Tofino Wine & Food Festival: Seafood is the centrepiece of this annual celebration of all things oceanic. OK, so wine isn’t exactly maritime, but Island vintages from the east side of the island (and of British Columbia) are featured to enhance the fish and shellfish of the outer coast. If you’ve ever wondered what barnacles taste like, prepared by a gourmet chef, this is the time to find out; June 2-4, tofinaowineandfoodfestival.com.
  • BC Shellfish & Seafood Festival: Considering that some of the finest oysters in the world are grown in the clean, calm waters of Fanny Bay near Comox, it makes sense for the community to celebrate bivalves and more, the weekend after the Tofino fest. This event offers the chance to taste-test oysters and other shellfish drawn from different waters, and you’ll be amazed at how much difference there is among types and origins; hearty helpings of crab, salmon and other seafoods round out the menu. Tours to local producers offer an eye-opening education into how these famous gourmet delights transform from tiny seeds to palm-sized treats.
  • Nanaimo Marine Festival: Though this event has a relatively sober-sounding name, its central happening is anything but—the World Championship Bathtub Race, which is exactly what its name implies, has to be seen to be believed. It was invented in 1967 to celebrate Canada’s centennial (some honor, eh?) and has grown into one of the best-known, and wackiest, saltwater events in North America. Contestants still do mount outboards on bathtubs and proceed around local waters, blending speed and hilarity.
    Food fairs, performances, street parties, craft fairs and a parade round out the frivolity. Yes, of course, the bathtubs roll down the street in the parade before they get wet in the harbour. The actual race is the final-day culmination of the festival, which takes place July 22-24 this year; bathtubbing.com.
  • Salt Spring Island Apple Festival: How many kinds of apples are there? Walk into your local supermarket and you might think a dozen, at most. The actual answer is more than a thousand; growers have been creating and tending new varieties since apples were first added to the human pantry thousands of years ago in the foothills of Asia’s Altai Mountains.
    They found their way to Salt Spring Island in the 19th century, and have thrived here ever since. Today there are 350 varieties (yes, really, 350) grown on the island, and this one-day event (October 1; saltspringmarket.com) allows residents and visitors to see how they are grown, sample the apples themselves, and savor all the many culinary delights made with this ancient fruit. Apple pie is just the beginning!
    The apple festival is just one facet of Salt Spring’s Farmer’s Market, a longstanding community enterprise that provides venues for dozens of island growers, producers, crafters and artists. From apple pie to zucchini—with stops at baked goods, quince jelly and yarn, among others—Salt Spring thrives on local goods. Many such delights are available at the island’s famous Saturday Market, which sets up in the middle of Ganges April-October and brings approximately 140 different vendors into town to sell to residents and visitors. It is a thoroughly local enterprise, with a strict requirement that items sold be produced on the island, and made by those selling them.
    Now that’s celebrating local culture!
  • Vancouver Island Musicfest: This midsummer affair brings international stars to the Comox Valley Fairgrounds July 14-16—and when we say “stars,” we aren’t kidding. Bruce Cockburn and the peerless Emmylou Harris are this year’s headliners for a three-day roster of performers ranging from Celtic to jazz to soul to Latin and more.
    On-site camping adds to the festive atmosphere, with food and crafts vendors enhancing the bustle. It’s one of the musical highlights of the year in British Columbia; islandmusicfest.com.
  • Victoria Fringe Theatre Festival: Once upon a time Shakespeare was on the fringe. Well, maybe not; but the point is that dramatic art respects no boundaries in its evolution from Elizabethan times to the 21st century. This annual gathering of edgy playwrights, producers and performers involves dozens of stagings of music, drama, spoken word and more. There are no guidelines whatsoever, and all ticket revenues go directly to the artists; August 23-September 3, intrepidtheatre.com.

Other events include the Tofino Shorebird Festival, May 5-7, which celebrates the plovers, geese, swans, sandpipers and whimbrels (yes!) that pass through the area on their annual northbound journeys; the Victoria Ska Festival celebrates a unique and superbly danceable British-Caribbean music style June 14-18; Victoria International Jazzfest brings Canadian and international stars to the capital June 23-July 2 for a celebration of the music North America sent out to the world; Alert Bay Seafest, July 28-20, has a parade, craft fair, kids talent show and music performances; the Campbell River Salmon Festival August 11-13 celebrates the wild fish that have been central to life here for thousands of years; and fall fairs in Sooke, Cobble Hill, Cowichan Valley and Port Alberni promote the year’s harvest to residents and visitors alike.

We have so much to celebrate here on the Island—come join us!

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