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10 BEST Stops on the Drive from Nanaimo to Victoria

10 BEST Stops on the Drive from Nanaimo to Victoria

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Victoria is the capital city of British Columbia for a reason – this gem of a city has all of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, tons of arts and culture, and an unmistakable charm that you just can’t get in a huge metropolis like Vancouver. It’s no wonder we consider it one of the best destinations on Vancouver Island!

Many people take the ferry to get from Vancouver to Victoria and don’t see any other part of Vancouver Island. But we think that if you have the flexibility in your schedule, you should absolutely take the time to do a little road trip on Vancouver Island!  

While it only takes about 1.5 hours to drive from Nanaimo to Victoria, you can easily spend a day making stops along the way. We recommend this road trip for anyone planning to go to Victoria from Vancouver as there is a ton to see and do, and the ferry ride is a beautiful trip in itself! 

We will walk you through our top road trip spots on the trip and all your options to get to beautiful Victoria! (And if you’re starting in Victoria instead – head over to our road trip guide for Victoria to Nanaimo!).

Getting to Nanaimo on the Ferry

Bailey enjoys a coffee on the outside deck of a BC Ferry to Vancouver Island
It’s like a scenic cruise!

If you’re starting the trip from Nanaimo to Victoria all the way in Vancouver, you’re going to need a plan to get to Vancouver Island. My favorite way to get across the Strait of Georgia (which is the body of water separating Vancouver Island and the mainland) is aboard the ferry!

Whether you’re boarding the ferry with your own car, a rental car, or no vehicle at all, it’s a beautiful way to get to Vancouver Island.

Renting a car

If you don’t have a car, we recommend renting one. It’s the only way to really see all of the different places on the island, and it allows you the freedom to take your time and stay as long as you want.

We recommend Discover Cars for car rentals as the price points are fair and they have tons of options. Then you can rent a car in Vancouver and drive right onto the ferry.

If you’re flying into the Vancouver airport, you can follow the signs to the rental car area and rent a car once you arrive. However, if you’re planning this trip in the peak season of May to September, we suggest booking in advance to ensure there’s a car ready for you.

If you don’t need a car while you’re in Vancouver and you’re looking to save a bit of money, it would be more cost-effective to just rent a car when you arrive in Nanaimo. If you’re arriving at the Departure Bay terminal, it’s just a quick cab ride (under 10 minutes) to a variety of car rental places. If you’re arriving into Duke Point, the car rental companies are a bit further, so plan for about a 20-minute ride.

The cost to bring a car onto the ferry is around $65 CAD not including the cost of each person’s ticket (around $19 CAD), so the savings might be worth the small hassle of a cab ride to the rental car company!  

Taking the ferry

The ferry ride to Nanaimo is spectacularly scenic, so relax and enjoy the view for the two-hour sailing. Be sure to keep your eyes out for whales and porpoises!  

All the ferry schedules can be found on the BC Ferry website so you can easily figure out which one you want to catch. There is a direct ferry to get from Vancouver to Victoria, but then you skip the Vancouver Island road trip (including amazing nanaimo bars!), so you’ll want the ferry to Nanaimo for this trip.

There are two options for departure terminals in Vancouver: either Tsawwassen ferry terminal or Horseshoe Bay ferry terminal. The Tsawwassen Ferry travels to Nanaimo Duke Point ferry terminal and the Horseshoe Bay Ferry travels to Departure Bay Ferry Terminal.

If you’re going from the Vancouver airport, Tsawwassen is the closest option. It is also the main terminal in Vancouver, so there are usually more sailings from Tsawwassen than Horseshoe Bay.

We recommend booking your ferry ride in advance to ensure that you don’t have to wait at the terminal for multiple sailings if the ferries are fully booked. The fares will run from around $19 CAD for a person traveling with no vehicle to $75-$125 CAD for a vehicle and two passengers, depending on which fare option you select.

You do pay a little bit extra to reserve in advance, but it is worth it if you don’t want to risk missing your chosen sailing time. There are multiple sailings from 5:15 am to 10:45 pm.

The BEST Stops on the Drive from Nanaimo to Victoria

1. Nanaimo

Bailey takes a photo with the Nanaimo Sign
The Nanaimo sign!

Once you get off the ferry into Nanaimo, you can hit the road to Victoria immediately. But with so many things to do in Nanaimo, it’s worth it to spend a couple of hours here before you set off.

The mandatory road trip snack or just tasty treat to try is one this city is famous for – the nanaimo bar! This is chocolatey goodness with three layers including crumbled wafer, coconut, custard icing, and chocolate ganache. Every time I’m in Nanaimo I head to Hearthstone Artisan Bakery and grab two of their peanut butter crunch nanaimo bars – one to eat there and one for the drive!

If you’re wandering around Nanaimo, pop by the giant Nanaimo sign for a fun photo op. It may be cheesy, but I love posing by the colorful signs in spots around the world. It’s a great memory of your trip! You’ll find this sign in front of the Swy-A-Lana Lagoon in Maffeo Sutton Park.

Downtown Nanaimo is also worth exploring. This part of the city is known as Old City Quarter and has lots of small businesses and neat shops in buildings that date back to the 1800s. Make sure you walk past the striking Nanaimo Courthouse!

Not too far from downtown is Petroglyph Park with carvings that are over 1,000 years old! It’s a great place to see ancient artifacts without the price tag since it’s completely free to visit.

If you have a bit more time, one of my favorite memories of Nanaimo was my day spent on the water looking for whales. I went in without many expectations, only to be shocked to see a pod of orcas in the water around me! The best chance for seeing whales is on an adventure like this open boat whale watching tour. You’ll have nothing blocking your view of the water and the professional guides are so nice. It’s one of the top-rated whale watching tours on Vancouver Island!

Where to stay in Nanaimo: 

If you’d like to spend a night or two in Nanaimo before heading to Victoria, there are plenty of places to choose from.

If you are looking for something mid-range, The Spot is a great place to stay that was just renovated in 2022. This hotel has the typical amenities of a mid-range hotel like included wifi and TVs in all of the rooms.  

For a luxury option, check out Coast Bastion Hotel. This clean and modern hotel has all of the in-room amenities you could want, such as a fridge (which is great when on a road trip and traveling with food!). The location is stellar – right downtown and about 3 km (2 miles) from the ferry terminal.  

Related Read: If you want to head a different direction from here, you can always take the road trip from Nanaimo to Tofino to check out all the activities in this surf town!

2. Ladysmith

Coastal views in Ladysmith, BC
Ladysmith is stunning!

Ladysmith is a small town of about 9,000 people. Many people drive right through without stopping to see how cute this town is, and we think they are missing out! This town was built up on a hillside overlooking the water. Yes, it’s as dreamy as it sounds!  

We always stop at the Old Town Bakery when we’re here. They are famous for their cinnamon buns, voted Vancouver Island’s best cinnamon bun! While we haven’t tried every cinnamon bun on the island, we would be willing to wager that this is correct. They have a ton of other baked goods and pastries as well. Their bread looked amazing, so it could be fun to get a loaf, grab some meats and cheeses from the grocery store, and head down to the waterfront for a picnic!  

Another fun thing to do is to head down to the Ladysmith Marina and have a bite to eat at the Oyster Bay Cafe (note that they are only open seasonally). There is also a little maritime museum at the harbor which is cool to check out! If you want a tour of Ladysmith, you can stop by the Harbour Heritage Centre and get a guided tour of the Ladysmith harbor.  

Did you know: Pamela Anderson was born and raised in Ladysmith, BC, and has recently moved back!

3. Stocking Creek Waterfall

This waterfall is located in Stocking Creek Park, which is a really lovely park that has walking paths to the waterfall. The paths are well maintained and easy to walk along, however, there are some places with stairs, so they may not be accessible for people with mobility issues. There is a parking lot at the park, as well as toilets and a picnic area.  

If salal berries are in season, you’ll see tons of them along the trail. We love to snack on salal berries while we walk! They are sort of like blueberries with a slight hint of an herbal element to them, almost like a bit of rosemary.

They pair perfectly with soft cheeses like brie, so if you’re planning to have a picnic at the picnic area, pick some salal berries to go with your lunch! (Please note that you should never eat berries that you cannot properly identify. Make sure to familiarize yourself with what salal berries and the leaves look like).  

4. Chemainus

Chemainus Public Market
Photo credit: Chemainus Public Market

This little town is known as an artisan village! You could easily spend an entire day in Chemainus meandering in and out of local shops and galleries.

We recommend going to The Public Market. There are a bunch of artisan vendors, as well as a few food options. The coffee at Coffee Row is the perfect pick-me-up when your energy starts to wane from all of the shopping!  

Kinsmen Beach Park is a cute sand and gravel beach right in central Chemainus. It has gorgeous views of some of the gulf islands, such as Penalakut and Thetis Islands. For those of you traveling with kids, this is a great place to spend a few hours, as there’s a playground, a picnic area, and public washrooms. Being that it is right in the core of Chemainus, it’s a great place to bring some takeout and watch the boats go by. On summer days, the water can be warm enough to swim in, so bring your bathing suit!

They also have a dock with a slide into the water! If you’re feeling like a game of volleyball in the sun, there are volleyball courts at the beach as well. There is always lots of parking, and the beach has accessible washrooms, too.  

5. BC Forest Discovery Centre

The train at the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan, BC
The train ride is most famous!

As you near the halfway point of the trip from Nanaimo to Victoria, you can trade in your wheels to travel by train for a bit!

The BC Forest Discovery Center is an open-air museum covering over 100 acres and while you can learn all about the history of logging and forestry, the coolest way to get around is by train. And not just any train – they have vintage gas and steam locomotives you can ride over the Somenos Lake Trestle and around the property.

We opted for the best of both worlds and took the train to the halfway point, then continued to walk around and explore.

The museum is open (and the train is running!) April to September from Thursdays to Mondays. Ticket prices range from $16-$18 CAD for adults and $14-$16 CAD for kids – check the schedule and prices here before you go.

6. Duncan  

Worlds thickest totem pole in Duncan, BC
The world’s thickest totem!
A bald eagle at the Pacific Northwest Raptors show near Duncan, BC
A bald eagle at the Pacific Northwest Raptors show near Duncan, BC

Duncan is more than meets the eye when you’re driving by on the highway! As you drive through, there are a bunch of box stores on either side of the highway, so it doesn’t look like much. But when you actually go into the town off the highway, it is something else completely filled with amazing activities and sights.

Duncan is the smallest city (by area) in Canada, so it’s very walkable if you want to just park your car downtown and go for a stroll.  

Duncan is on the land of the Cowichan First Nation, and is full of amazing totem poles. It is actually known as the city of totems! The totem poles are an integral part of First Nations history and storytelling. Totem poles represent histories, events, ancestry, people, and spirituality. Duncan is even home to the world’s thickest totem pole!  

If you’re feeling hungry by this point in your road trip, we would recommend checking out the Craig Street Brew Pub. They have a lot of great menu options, and a killer Reuben sandwich! They usually have five house beers on tap. If you’re not a beer person, we recommend trying the Merridale Cider, which is made right in the Cowichan Valley!  

If you’re a bird lover, you have to check out the Pacific Northwest Raptors, which is a bird sanctuary home to birds of prey such as eagles, falcons, and owls. We highly recommend getting the “Close” General Admission, which gets you admission for the whole day, as well as access to the flying demonstration!

You get to see the raptors up close and personal, which is unreal. I didn’t realize how big eagles actually are! They fly so close that you can practically feel the wind from their wings. This was an unforgettable experience, well worth the $22 CAD admission ticket.  

If you’re a wine lover like me, check out the Averill Creek Winery, which is just north of town. You can either do a self-guided tasting ($10 CAD), or do the guided experience ($25 CAD – reservations are recommended!). We just did the self-guided option, but the guided option is great if you’re looking to learn more about the wine. The guided experience also comes with a cheese board, which doesn’t hurt either!  

Related Read: Duncan is also a great place to catch the ferry to explore Salt Spring Island!

7. Mill Bay

Drinks at Merridale Cidery & Distillery
Photo credit: Merridale Cidery & Distillery
Food at Merridale Cidery & Distillery
Photo credit: Merridale Cidery & Distillery

This little village is a nice place to stop to grab a coffee or something to eat. If you’re in need of a caffeine kick, we really liked BruGos Coffee. They make great hot drinks, and the baked goods are super tasty!  

If you’re feeling hungrier and a pastry just won’t cut it, we recommend checking out Bridgemans Bistro. They have a bunch of burger/sandwich options, and great pizzas too! Their happy hour is from 2-5 pm, so bonus points if you’re there during that time!  

If taking a stroll on a beautiful orchard sounds up your alley, stop in at Merridale Cidery & Distillery. The farm itself is absolutely stunning, and the cider is even more delicious! If you happen to be there on a Saturday, you can book orchard tours. You can also do a self-guided tour if you prefer.

The Farmhouse Eatery at Merridale has delicious food if you need something to soak up the cider and spirits. You can even spend the night here in a yurt (a circular wood-frame tent). There are sometimes events like live music and picnics, so check their website to see if there is anything happening on the day you plan on going.  

8. Malahat Skywalk

View at the Malahat Skywalk on Vancouver Island
It was a little smokey when we went!
The slide and viewpoint structure at Malahat Skywalk on Vancouver Island
The slide was so much fun!

One of the final stops on the drive from Nanaimo to Victoria will give you some of the best views on the island! Opened in 2021, the Malahat Skywalk sits on the traditional territory of the Malahat Nation, beautifully set in the famous Cowichan Valley. Developers partnered with Malahat Nation to operate the Skywalk, ensuring that visitors get a feel for the importance of this area to the people who still call it home.  

Costing a whopping $17 million Canadian to build, the Skywalk is constructed from steel and Douglas Fir timber and was completed in a little under 2 years.

Visiting the Malahat Skywalk will take you an impressive 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level. Just follow the gentle spiral walkway that takes you up to a viewing platform. You’ll slowly wind your way up the walkway until you’re at the top, where the tops of those giant trees are now below you, revealing some amazing 360° views! 

There is also a large net at the top with nothing but air beneath you, it’s pretty scary but totally safe. Once you’re done exploring the top, it’s time for my favorite part – the giant slide! Yup, you can slide down the 20-meter (65-foot) slide, which takes 8 seconds to reach the bottom. It’s scary at first but so much fun.

The Skywalk is wheelchair and stroller friendly, so everyone can experience the amazing views! Adult tickets are $34.95 CAD, children are $20.95 CAD (but kids under five are free!), and seniors are $30.95.  

9. Goldstream Provincial Park

Goldstream Falls in Goldstream Provincial Park
The perfect place for a dip!
Bailey walks down some steps in Goldstream Provincial Park, Vancouver Island
Look how beautiful the forest is!

With Victoria almost within reach, the last stop before you cruise into the city is at Goldstream Provincial Park. It’s only 16 km (10 miles) from Victoria, but feels like a whole different world full of waterfalls, old-growth forests, and wildlife.

Between October and December, you can spot Chum salmon as they return to the Goldstream River to spawn. Keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles during the winter too – there’s a good chance you’ll see one or two swooping down to catch the salmon.

If you visit during the summer, we definitely recommend bringing your swimwear and taking a dip in the Goldstream Falls. These gorgeous waterfalls are the perfect spot to cool down on a hot day and really soak in the natural beauty of the area.

There are several other waterfalls in the park – in fact, there’s even a Niagara Falls! But don’t get confused, this waterfall is only a fraction of the size of the real Niagara Falls. However, it’s really pretty and definitely still worth seeing if you’ve got the time.

Goldstream National Park also has many hiking trails to explore. You’ll pass by 600-year-old Douglas fir trees venturing through forests on a series of paths. What’s great is that there are accessible pathways good for strollers or wheelchairs as well as more challenging hikes where you’ll pass by abandoned gold digging sites from the Gold Rush.

If you’re a camping enthusiast, you can stay overnight in the park’s campground which, again, we highly recommend. Reservations are accepted on a first-come, first-served basis so it’s best to get there during the week, especially if you’re visiting during peak season (between May and September).

Related Read: Another gorgeous hiking trail with HUGE trees is at Cathedral Grove on Vancouver Island!

10. Victoria!

Bailey walks down Fantan Alley in China Town in Victoria BC
Exploring Fantan Alley!
The-parliamentary-building-in-Victoria-BC-1
The history and architecture are rich in Victoria!

You’ve arrived in Victoria! We have a whole blog post about all the things to see and do in Victoria, but here are a few of the highlights you shouldn’t miss.

Named after Queen Victoria, is it any surprise there are castles in this city? Our favorite was Craigdarroch Castle, which is a beautiful Scottish Baronial mansion. I recommend visiting this castle on your own or as part of this bike tour as then you’ll also get to see the Legislative Building and Beacon Hill Park – so some of the top sights in one fell swoop.

If the weather is nice, head to the beach! Victoria has some beautiful beaches. A walk along the beach by Dallas Road gives you incredible views of the Olympic Mountain range. Known as a little piece of Hawaii in BC, Gonzales Beach has soft sand and is great for swimming. If you have kids along, they might like climbing on the driftwood and looking for clam holes (they’ll squirt water at you!) at Cordova Bay Beach.

No matter what time of year you’re in Victoria, you can visit the spectacular Butchart Gardens. You’ll see a kaleidoscope of colors with flowers galore. You can also have afternoon tea, pick up some gelato or ride on the Rose Carousel. While you can explore on your own, some of the best tours in Victoria also stop here.

A trip to Victoria wouldn’t be complete without checking out Chinatown, which is the oldest Chinatown in Canada! Fan Tan Alley is the narrowest commercial street in North America, and has a bunch of really cool shops to check out. There are some great walking tours in Victoria that stop in Chinatown and let you try some of the amazing food!

Speaking of great food, Fan Tan Alley exits out onto Pandora Ave, which also has some great places to eat, such as Dumpling Drop, which has the most amazing handmade dumplings. The business started because the owner was caring for her mother with Alzheimer’s and found that making dumplings was something that her mother could do as muscle memory. They began making dumplings together regularly, and the business took off!  

Of course, for wildlife lovers, a whale watching tour from Victoria is also a must! This half-day whale watching adventure takes you looking for orcas and humpback whales near and includes complimentary photos and a whale sighting guarantee. If you don’t see whales on that tour, you can go again for free until you do!

Related Read: If you don’t have time for a road trip, there are some great tours from Vancouver to Victoria that let you see the city on a day trip!

Where to Stay in Victoria 

Outside of the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria BC
Outside of the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, BC

With one of the best road trips in BC complete, spend some time soaking up the charm of Victoria! While you could easily stay a week, even just a few days or a weekend will leave you enough time to see some of the best this city has to offer.

Victoria is most popular during the warm, summery months (think May to August), so if you’re planning on coming then, make sure to book a hotel well in advance. If you’re not sure where to book, check out our full guide on where to stay in Victoria or our top picks below!

Helm’s Inn – $

This budget-friendly hotel is a great option when traveling in Victoria. All of the rooms at Helm’s Inn are suites equipped with kitchenettes, so if you’re looking to save a bit of money and cook a few of your meals yourself, this is a great amenity to have! The location is fantastic as well, right across from Beacon Hill Park and walking distance to downtown! Rooms start at $140 a night and can be booked online here.

The Embassy Inn – $$

The Embassy Inn is right in Victoria’s downtown inner harbor, so it makes an amazing home base for exploring the city! If you’re flying into the harbor airport or taking the downtown connector ferry from Vancouver, this is one of the best places to stay as the hotel is right near the docks. Breakfast is included, which helps cut costs. Rooms start at $170 you can check availability and book on Booking.com.

Fairmont Empress Hotel – $$$

The Fairmont Empress Hotel is definitely a luxury option, but it is the most iconic Victoria hotel. The Empress is the beautiful chateau-style hotel that you see front and center whenever you see a photo of Victoria’s downtown inner harbor skyline. The rooms are stunning, and they even have high tea in the tearoom. Rooms start at $350 per night, and can be booked here.   

Renting a Car in British Columbia

A rural road with Mt Currie in the background
Road trips are the best way to explore Canada!

If you’re arriving in British Columbia via plane, then I can’t recommend getting a rental car enough. British Columbia is a large province, and traveling between the best places to visit in BC requires transport. Although you can use public transport on some occasions, this means your trip will not only require more time but more planning.

Car rental in Canada isn’t relatively cheap, but it’s not that expensive either, especially if you get a budget car. The cheapest car with a pick-up and drop-off in different locations is around $100 CAD per day. The price does vary though, depending on the time of year. For car rentals, I use the website Discover Cars. It’s a search engine with lots of deals with good customer service. In fact, I’ve used Discover Cars all over the world, including in Chile, New Zealand, and Australia. Read my honest review of Discover Cars here for more details!

Another popular option is to rent a campervan or motorhome (only for the brave in winter.) Using Motorhome Republic, you can search hundreds of deals across multiple companies to pick a great vehicle and the cheapest price. Having a motorhome is a stunning way to see Canada, and using crown land and campsites, you can often camp for free or very cheap in the most beautiful places imaginable!

Thanks for reading!

Daniel and Bailey take a selfie while in Victoria, BC
Thanks for reading!

The drive from Nanaimo to Victoria is one of the best road trips on Vancouver Island! There are so many great places to stop and both cities are worth exploring on their own too. Hopefully, this guide has helped you plan your trip!

If you’re planning to spend a while on the island, make sure to check out our other Vancouver Island blogs for more ideas! This is a beautiful part of BC to explore, so I know you’ll have a blast. If you have any questions, just leave me a comment below!

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