I was excited to see that you and your family like to travel how I do–on a budget, but taking in as many experiences as you can! I have been splitting my time between Seattle, Vancouver Island, and DC for the last year. I would love to guide you through some must-sees in Vancouver and then get you down to Seattle by an inexpensive bus.
Seattle can be quite pricey, but I have a few AirBNB recommendations I can make for you and your family, and of course a ton of low-cost and free activities like strolling along Alki Beach and seeing the Seattle skyline from Kerry Park. There is also a great opportunity for a day-trip to nearby Whidbey Island–you’ll rent a car for an inexpensive drive-on ferry and explore all the beautiful nature Washington state has to offer. For the final leg of your trip, you’ll take a ferry from Seattle to Victoria and I will guide you through must-sees in the city and just outside. You mentioned Banff and Calgary and I am wondering whether you have travel means to get to each of those places from the Vancouver area, as both are close to ten hour drives away. If that’s not doable, I’d like to help you extend your stay on Vancouver Island, as the island has SO much to offer.
Explore Vancouver: Stanley Park
There is SO much to see at Stanley Park for all ages. With free parking and attractions and 1000 acres of park land, you will easily fill your day here. You can pack a picnic lunch or stop into one of the many restaurants you’ll find along the way.
I suggest you start off your day by doing a loop around the park. You can walk or rent a bike or rollerblades at stores near Georgia and Denman Street. Denman street has lots of little shops if you’re needing to put things together for a picnic. The loop will show you some of what the area has to offer–the rose garden, the train, and the Vancouver Aquarium. (If you’re interested in spending the day here, tickets are $29 for adults, $15 for 4 & up and Free for 3 & under. Tickets can be bought online ahead of time) Stanley Park provides you with a day full of activities set at your own pace. There is plenty of beach space if you’re looking to laze in front of the Pacific.
Explore Vancouver: Lynn Canyon
A 617-acre park, Lynn Canyon is one Vancouver place not to be missed. With it’s locally famous suspension bridge (internet-famous for the photo opportunities!) and 80 to 100 year old trees, it’s understandable why the park is so popular–its sheer beauty.
The Lynn Canyon Ecology Centre is located in the park and wonderful for your little explorers. You can also spend much of your day exploring the many trails. Bring a picnic and some snacks and you can easily spend your whole first day exploring the park.
You can travel by bus from Downtown Vancouver/ Take the sea bus across to Londsdale Quay bus loop and take bus #228 or #229. Bus #228 will take you to Lynn Valley Center–Lynn Canyon Park’s main entrance is a 15-minute walk from the stop. If you take bus #229, you will need to transfer to Bus #227 and it will take you directly to Lynn Canyon Park’s main entrance.
For more transit information visit translink.ca or ask your bus driver (they’re friendly!) The park is open weekends and weekdays from 10am-5pm .
Vancouver to Seattle, dinner in Seattle
After some breakfast and coffee, you’re going to catch a Quick Shuttle bus to Downtown Seattle. Fares are $43.00 for adults and $20.00 for children. The shuttle runs from the airport and many Vancouver hotels. Check their website to see whether your accommodation is on there or if a pick-up area is near your hotel and you can walk or taxi there. The schedule is online as well and the bus runs quite frequently. The trip is usually around three hours.
Once in Seattle, you’ll be pulling in right by the famous Space Needle. You can easily catch a cab to your accomodations from here. Seattle is not much of a walking town, unless your hotel is situated right in downtown. I would recommend looking at rental car sites for your time in Seattle. Avis and Enterprise are good companies to look with.
For dinner, catch a cab or take your rental to the Fremont neighborhood. Fremont is lined with restaurants for you to choose from.
A day in Pike’s Place
No trip to Seattle is complete without a visit to Pike’s Place Market, where the original Starbucks still stands. You’ll only need a few minutes to catch some of the smells to make you very, very hungry for everything. Two of my favorites are The Crumpet Shop and the handmade donut stand. The donuts are just next to the Pike Place Fish Company…pause here to watch them throw fish back and forth!
The market does get crowded, but you can wander a little bit up the street and past the market to find a bit more quiet. You can also wander into bubblegum alley, a wall made up of, you guessed it…bubble gum!
For dinner, pop over to Capitol Hill neighborhood. Seattle is known for it’s food and restaurants…you’ll find a wide selection of places to eat and wander for the evening. If you want to catch a gorgeous sunset or have a picnic, get to Kerry Park in Queen Anne. It has one of the best views of the Seattle skyline and harbor.
Exploring Alki Beach
Located in West Seattle, Alki Beach has a day full of fun and sun activities for your family. The strip of beach is great to walk or bike around. There are picnic tables, a bathhouse housing an art studio, and restrooms along the 2.5 mile strip of beach…not to mention all of the ocean and city skyline views. There are three places on the beach where you can rent rollerblades or bikes. Wheel Fun Rentals has a double surrey bike you can borrow that will accommodate your whole family for $35 per hour. Directions to the beach park can be found on the park’s website Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find easy driving directions or a link to take public transportation there. Parking can be difficult in the summer, so it’s up to you!
Day Trip to Whidbey Island
Whidbey Island is a beautiful, fairly secluded island close to Seattle in the Puget Sound. If you’re looking for a break from the city, this is the perfect place to escape to. From Port Townsend, you’ll catch the drive-on ferry to Whidbey Island. Schedules can be found here. Roundtrip fare should be about $35. Once on the island, follow signs for Coupeville. You’ll find lots of trails (Grandpa’s Legend in Rhododendron Park is especially easy for young ones), food, and site seeing along the way. Coupeville will be an especially good place to stop, eat, and wander. Locals are incredibly kind and helpful.
Ferry to Victoria, dinner in Victoria
The Victoria Clipper is the easiest (and most beautiful!) way to travel from Seattle to Victoria. Ferry’s run twice a day during your visit–at 7:30 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. The ride is 2 and hours and 45 minutes and tickets are significantly cheaper when bought at least 7 days in advance. The ferry will land you right in Victoria’s beautiful inner harbour. You don’t need a rental car for your time in Victoria, depending on your accommodations. I recommend looking for AirBNB accommodations in Victoria–Canadians are incredibly friendly and the houses in downtown Victoria and Cook Street Village are beautiful and charming. If you do decide to rent a car, try Enterprise and Budget Rent a Car.
For dinner, take a wander around Cook Street Village (Bubbie’s is delicious, so is the small pizza just next door!).
Everyone will tell you that Victoria is a walkable city and it truly is. There are several fun activities you can do:
Victoria Public Market at the Hudson – A great beginning, middle, or end to your day. Tons of food options for all (authentic Mexican, world-famous Curry, island spices, island-made cheeses, cupcakes and cakes…) settled right in downtown Victoria. You can linger here for a while or just grab a meal.
Victoria Bug Zoo – A two-room mini zoo completely devoted to bugs!
Miniature World – “The greatest little show on earth!” Over 85 miniature dioramas and displays, including two of the world’s largest doll houses.
Victoria Inner Harbour – Beautiful walkways and views at any point of day.
The Butchart Gardens – A breathtakingly beautiful place, The Butchart Gardens receive over a million visitors a year…and for good reason. The flowers, trees, and arrangements are beautiful to wander through all year ’round. Adults are $28.70 each, but children under 11 are only $2. You’ll need transportation to get here–they offer several options on their website.
Drive to Port Renfrew
Many visitors to Vancouver Island only explore one place–Victoria. While it is the biggest city on the island and has much to offer, the rest of the island has so much to offer, too. After grabbing a coffee (try Union Pacific Coffee Co. downtown or Moka Coffee in Cook Street Village) and some food for a picnic (try Mother Natures Market in Cook Street Village…they have a great selection of healthy, organic meals and snacks to go!) you’ll hit the road to Port Renfrew. The wonderful thing about driving on Vancouver Island is that there are exactly TWO highways. You’re going to get onto BC 14-W and follow it all the way to Port Renfrew on the west coast of the islands–a drive of just over 2 hours.
Once in Port Renfrew, you’ll find many trails and beaches that are within the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. If you’re hoping to hike through the rainforest and end at beautiful beaches with purple starfish and seals nearby, Port Renfrew is the place. I recommend Botanical Beach for the ease of hiking and the ocean view at the end.
For accommodations, I recommend Handsome Dans Cabins for a truly Canadian cabin experience.
Drive from Port Renfrew to the Cowichan Valley
The Cowichan Valley is an hour and a half drive from Port Renfrew, taking Cowichan Valley Highway/BC 18-E. There are many places to see along the way, but one of my favorites for family’s is BC Forest Discovery Centre. You’ll get off the highway at Drinkwater Rd. to arrive. They are open 7 days a week at 10am. The park is a 100-acre, open air museum with an operational railway. There are forest and marsh trails with excellent bird-watching opportunities, but the best part is riding the train through.
There are many attractions to visit in the Cowichan Valley, but, if you’re feeling up to another drive, you can go another hour and 15 minutes north (take BC-1 N to BC-19 N and then take Exit 51. Follow signs for the park.) to Englishman River Falls Provincial Park to see the massive trees and waterfalls.
Depending on where you end your day, there are plenty of small, inexpensive highway-side hotels for you to spend the night.
Getting to Tofino paradise
If you’re day ended in the Cowichan Valley, Tofino will take about 3 hours and 45 minutes by route BC-4 W. If you stopped near Englishman River Falls, the drive will be just under 3 hours using BC-4 W as well (I told you driving here is easy!). Be sure to fill up on gas, as gas stations get fewer and fewer as you near Tofino.
Tofino is where residents of Vancouver Island go for vacation. It’s also arguably one of the best surfing places in the Pacific Northwest. Chesterman Beach is one of the most popular beaches for locals, with white sands, great surf, and bed&breakfasts. In North Chesterman Beach you can explore tide pools with your little ones–at low-tide there will be a plethora of sea creatures to check out. You can also walk the tombolo (sandspit) to Frank Island at low-tide. This will give you a gorgeous view of the whole beach and the snow-capped mountains.
Tofino is a place to relax and enjoy. There are a ton of hikes and beaches to explore, but I would save that for a second day.
Tofino Day 2
Now that you’re rested, relaxed, and aware of all of the beauty around you it’s time to really explore Tofino. The great thing about a visit to Tofino is that the options for adventure are endless. You can kayak with a guide, take a whale tour, rent boogie boards and wet suits, fly kites, have bonfires on the beach, and more. There is a list of vendors and guides here.
The Tofino Botanical Gardens are particularly beautiful, with 12 acres of gardens, waterfront, and rain forests to explore.
If you’re looking to hike, few views are more rewarding than the one at the end of the Lone Cone Trail. You’ll end with a view of the Clayoquot Sound and its islands. However, the hike is a bit more difficult, as it is mostly vertical. For something easier, try hiking the Tonquin Trail. More information on hiking trails in Tofino can be found here.
Head back to Vancouver
There are two ways to get you back to a ferry to Vancouver–through Nanaimo or Victoria. If you’re hoping to do a bit less driving, I would suggest Nanaimo. If you’re looking to take one last slow drive around the beautiful island (or your car needs to be returned there!), I would head towards Victoria.
As you’ve probably learned by now, some of the best views happen as you’re driving. If you have the time, I suggest a leisurely ride back to the ferry’s, with a picnic packed for a beautiful found spot and your cameras ready.
Crossing time from Nanaimo to Vancouver is 2 hours and from Victoria to Vancouver it is 1 hour and 35 minutes. Both ferry’s have several departure times spread throughout the morning, afternoon, and evening.