There are so many things to celebrate on Vancouver Island that one could say every day is a festive occasion. The ocean, rivers and lakes, the mountains, farms, cities and towns; the foods, residents, history, weather, scenery; all are exceptional enough to deserve a party.
Our Island includes the oldest cultures in the Western Hemisphere, as well as some of the newest. We’ve got North Pacific mainstays such as salmon; European-born treats such as sun-kissed vineyards and apple orchards; Asian foods and Old World music and artists and performers whose ranks include some of our planet’s most famous stars, and local residents who pursue arts just for the love of the craft.
In other words, we’re blessed—and we know it. So, in the famous words of Max Bialystock, if you got it, baby, flaunt it.
The very word ‘festival’ derives from festus, Latin for “joyful and merry.” One of the origins of festivals lies in the market days that arose in European towns in the Middle Ages. Farmers and crafters would gather to sell their merchandise to residents who needed supplies for the weeks ahead. Jugglers, clowns, magicians and musicians would perform; criers would declaim; vendors would sell food; a good time was had by all.
That centuries-old tradition continues strong, here as much as elsewhere. Our growers, gatherers and artisans are second to none, and their wares are on display at many markets. Some are seasonal, some operate year-round, all are festive indeed.
Among others, the Duncan Farmer’s Market takes place in the Cowichan Valley’s main town every Saturday, year-round. Salt Spring Saturday Market, on one of our most pastoral neighbour islands, runs March 26 – October 29. Halfway up the Island, the Pier Street Farmer’s Market in Campbell River is a Sunday affair from May 1 – September 4.
The purveyors and cooks who take part in Feast Tofino largely (but not totally) focus on the town’s most distinctive and bountiful delicacies. Here you may find local chefs offering the chance to taste gooseneck barnacles (you don’t see that every day!) or salmon and halibut combined with Cowichan Valley wines. It’s May 6 – 22. Across the Island just a few weeks later, the BC Shellfish & Seafood Festival in the Comox Valley, June 9 – 19, focuses on more of our local sustenance, the oysters, scallops, clams and crabs that join with all our fish to provide an unsurpassed ocean bounty. Who knows, you may find barnacles on offer here too.
Jazz is often reckoned North America’s oldest contribution to Earth’s cultural arts. It has long had a home here (Nanaimo native Diana Krall got her start in Island venues) and TD Victoria International JazzFest provides a marvelous summer home for dozens of performances, big and small, indoors and out; June 24 – July 3.
Right afterward, the Vancouver Island MusicFest in the Comox Valley has a broader scope—folk, rock, country, jazz and more resound at the valley’s fairgrounds, including legendary songwriter John Prine, July 8 – 10. Should you come to the Island for three whole weeks of music? Why not? In fact, there’s more; see below.
Asian culture takes over during the Nanaimo Dragon Boat Festival; the time and effort that goes into training for this demanding sport is not as evident to spectators as the elaborate decoration of the boats; July 8 – 10. A very different, but equally elaborate, form of decorative art is on display at the broad sand beaches of Parksville during the Quality Foods Canadian Open Sand Sculpting Competition & Exhibition July 15 – August 21 .
Most of the entrants in Nanaimo’s Great International World Championship Bathtub Race, July 21 – 24 , are not as artfully attractive as dragon boats or sand castles. But they are entertaining! And sometimes perilous” Will they all float? And how, exactly? Artists of the traditional sort take over up Island that same weekend at Campbell River’s River City Arts Fest (July 22 – 24), which is essentially a marketplace created by artists and artisans solely to greet the public.
More music is on hand at the Alert Bay Sea Fest (July 22 – 23), but this neighbor island is also one of the most important capitals of indigenous culture in Canada; its U’mista Cultural Centre holds one of the world’s finest collections of potlatch regalia, especially masks.
The spirit of those original town-market festivals comes alive in British Columbia’s capital July 15 – 24 during the Victoria International Buskers Festival. The streets, promenades and parks of the city are filled with street performers from around the world: jugglers, acrobats, mimes, singers, magicians, thespians, puppeteers and other specialists you didn’t even know existed.
Back up in the Comox Valley, a biking capital turns into a music centre for a long weekend at the Coombs Bluegrass Festival July 29 – 31. The beautiful wooded foothills in which the historic coal town lies provide a perfectly appropriate setting for this music, born in the hills of Appalachia a century ago.
Much more majestic performance is on hand at the famous Victoria Symphony Splash, which finds the city’s excellent orchestra on a barge in the Inner Harbour—surely one of the ultimate al fresco arenas anywhere—for an evening performance that concludes with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with cannon fire and fireworks; July 31, 2016.
Few communities are as distinctive as Ucluelet—here is the world’s only aquarium whose inhabitants return to the sea every autumn—and every facet of this uniqueness is on hand at Ukee Days July 22 – 24. Work up your appetite for the pig roast by entering the standup paddleboard race—it’s more fun than it looks, folks.
The water theme continues at the Port McNeill OrcaFest August 20, during which this small community celebrates the famous marine mammals who inhabit the waters just offshore. At Port Alberni, the fish that are the orcas’ favorite food are the centrepiece of the Salmon Festival September 3 – 5, but you don’t have to work as hard as orcas to enjoy salmon here.
The Island’s most famous agricultural region provides the inspiration for Savour Cowichan, a fall harvest festival whose delights range from apples to wine and zucchini; September 23 – October 3. And Back over on Salt Spring, the annual Apple Festival October 2 allows participants to explore the dozens of varieties of apples grown here. Many are unfamiliar to those who only know supermarket apples; opportunities to taste them range from fresh dessert plates to pies to cider.
Next spring, the festive cycle begins all over again on our West Coast. As some of our most famous visitors begin to arrive from their winter “vacations” down south, they are celebrated during the Pacific Rim Whale Festival in Tofino and Ucluelet in March. While everyone has lots of fun, there’s serious work at hand, too, with educational and fund-raising events designed to help ensure that the whales keep coming back—and the celebrations greet them—for centuries to come.
No doubt there will be cause for celebration of all sorts here on our Island for that long. Please visit to celebrate anything at all. If we don’t have a party devoted to what you seek, it’s almost certain we have a close substitute; check vancouverisland.travel for a full calendar of events.
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Sip & Savour
Good chefs know the quality of ingredients in a meal is crucial. The same goes for the "cooks" who brew and vint Vancouver Island's many wines, beers and spirits. Obviously, we have a fantastic landscape in which to live and work; luckily, it's also one of the best on the continent for growing many of the ingredients for the beverages that have been central to human life for millennia.
Apples, for instance: Every household and farmstead in Europe centuries ago had an orchard whose purpose was to provide fruit, not for pies (a modern invention) but cider. Most public water was not sanitary, but fermented and bottled, apple cider was. That tradition holds today at one of our most famous brewing facilities, the Cowichan Valley’s Merridale Ciderworks, which relies on 13 acres of apple and pear orchard to create not just cider, but gin, vodka, brandy and more. Aside from fruit, Merridale uses Island herbs and botanicals to flavor its spirits, foraged by local gatherers.
Of course, Merridale has more than a dozen estate wineries as neighbors; the Cowichan Valley has such now-long-established vineyards as Blue Grouse, Cherry Point, Godfrey Brownell and Zanatta. Pinot Gris, Marechal Foch, Pinot Noir and Ortega are among the cool-climate vintages the thrive here. Now that the industry has been here several decades, it’s hard to remember that most folks scoffed at the pioneers who first believed a wine region could be created here.
A half-dozen more estate vineyards on the Saanich Peninsula, north of Victoria, add to the variety; here, too, is a cidery, Sea Cider Farm, whose 10 acres or organic orchards provide 16 varieties of cider, including one embellished with blackberries.
Fresh ingredients also help flavour the many ales, beers and other brews on tap at more than two dozen craft brewers across the Island. Victoria’s Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub was one of the first in Canada (North America, actually). As the pub’s name suggests, it is also an expert purveyor of tavern food, thus blending an old Canadian-British tradition (the best food in many places is at the local pub) with the 21st century boom in craft brewing.
Now there are artisan brewers in almost all the towns on Vancouver Island. Yes, each is distinctive; and as with cider, beer and ale represents a historic reliance on brewed beverages when plain water was not safe. So, from beer to vodka, it’s back to the future on the Island. Just be sure to have a designated driver when you’re exploring this facet of Island life—or consult local tourism bureaus to find tour guides who make it easy.
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