Known simply by many locals as the "Island Hwy", this route stretches 390 kilometres and takes 4 ½ hours to connect the mid-Island city Nanaimo to the quaint community of Port Hardy at the northern end of the Island.
Start your journey in Nanaimo, easily accessible from Victoria (90 minutes' drive away), or from the mainland via ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay.
Nanaimo is also known as "The Harbour City", with a scenic waterfront area and adjacent vibrant downtown. Visitors are often thrilled with the dining and cultural opportunities in the heart of downtown. The city is also famous for their annual "bathtub races" (late July) and a sweet treat known as the Nanaimo Bar. In fact, you can lead yourself on a self-guided tour through the region's various Nanaimo Bar hotspots (click here for the guide).
It's also a favourite destination for scuba divers. In 1997, the HMCS Saskatchewan (a navy destroyer) was sunk offshore to create an artificial diving reef. The Saskatchewan was joined on the ocean floor in 2001 by the HMCS Cape Breton, now recognized as the World's Largest Artificial Upright Reef. In 2005, a third vessel was sunk, the RivTow Lion, a retired deep sea rescue tug. Add to these the abundant natural sea life, and you'll see why there are numerous professional dive shops and charter companies in the area, ready to assist you.
From Nanaimo, Highway 19 follows the ocean north to Parksville. Named after the area's first postmaster, Nelson Park, in 1877, the community officially became a city in 1981. It's home to Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, filled with majestic old growth trees, beautiful ocean sunsets and an inviting, wide sandy beach. At low tide the ocean recedes almost a kilometer, providing an ideal place for visitors of all ages to play in the sand and explore the shoreline. There is a large day-use area, perfect for an afternoon picnic and bird watching is a popular activity, particularly in the spring when large numbers of seabirds congregate for the annual herring spawn.
Parksville is also known for The Old School House Arts Centre, a heritage building containing three galleries featuring monthly exhibtions by British Columbia artists. The gift shop showcases over 100 BC artists, and is a must-stop destination for art lovers.
To the East of Parksville, near Errington, Englishman River Falls has excellent picnic, swimming and hiking as well as two spectacular waterfalls in the midst of the forest. And just 35 kilometres West of Parksville is MacMillan Provincial Park, and Cathedral Grove: one of the most accessible stands of giant Douglas fir trees on Vancouver Island, majestic pillars untouched by the modern world - some more than 800 years old.
North of Parksville are the neighbouring communities of Courtenay and Comox, which together with the town of Cumberland form the area known as the Comox Valley.
In Comox, visit the Comox Air Force Museum & Heritage Airpark which pays homage to the region's Air Force roots. Nearby Filberg Heritage Lodge and Park, is described as "a Jewel in the Comox Crown", with a historical home and expansive heritage gardens open for public viewing. Filberg is home to an annual Arts Festival (visit http://filbergfestival.com/ for more), showcasing arts, crafts and music at the beginning of August.
Neighbouring Courtenay also has much to offer. Vibrant, fun and unique, Downtown Courtenay has a classic charm that is not often found, and one that is well worth the trip. From cozy bookshops to cutting edge fashion, fresh flowers to hand-made chocolates, antique treasures to fossil discovery tours.
Just moments away you'll find Strathcona Provincial Park, the oldest provincial park in British Columbia, a rugged mountain wilderness comprising more than 250,000 hectares. If winter sports are your thing, be sure to visit Mount Washington Ski Resort. And if it's culture you seek, try the Visit the fascinating Cumberland Museum, nestled in the foothills of the Beaufort Mountains.
From the Comox Valley travel North again along the coast as you breathe in fresh sea air and enjoy expansive ocean views. Travel through Black Creek and plan stops at Saratoga Beach and Miracle Beach, known for their expansive sandy shores, perfect for frolicking children. Nature lovers would also enjoy The Oyster River Hatchery, birthplace of a variety of salmon and trout. For the speed demon in the family try the Saratoga Speedway, which offers go-kart rentals and is home to weekly races.
Next you'll encounter Campbell River, also known as the Salmon Capital of Canada. Beyond fantastic fishing this coastal community is home to a museum and a first-rate maritime centre. Two local 18-hole golf courses, Sequoia and Storey Creek, take advantage of their breathtaking natural surroundings. And the region boasts some of the best cross country/all mountain biking terrain anywhere. Ride length is almost unlimited, and the terrain varies from rolling singletrack to technical traverses with rock out-croppings and lake side descents.
Fresh from your outdoor adventures in Campbell River, head 120 kilometres north to Port McNeill, hometown of NHL player Willie Mitchell, who recently brought the Stanley Cup for a visit. A stroll along the town's scenic seawall brings you to the start of the Schoolhouse Creek Trail and a protected fish habitat. The Port McNeill Boat Harbour is open year-round for both commercial and pleasure boaters. It is centrally located for all services and has become a major re-supply point for travelers up and down the coast of British Columbia.
Your final destination on this route is Port Hardy. Just half an hour north of Port McNeill, Port Hardy was named for Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Masterman Hardy who, as captain of the H.M.S. Victory, held the dying Lord Nelson in his arms at the end of the Battle of Trafalgar.
The town has a strong cultural leaning, attracting visitors from around the world. It is also the starting point for northern adventures by plane, boat, and ferry with ferry sailings through the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, Bella Coola and Haida Gwaii.
The area is perhaps best known as a haven for nature lovers. Fishing enthusiasts and marine fans of all ages will enjoy the Quatse Salmon Stewardship Centre, complete with a working hatchery.
Spectacular encounters with wildlife such as bears happen regularly in the area. Watch for black bears along the highway in spring and summer, or feeding along river banks during the salmon run in the fall. Watch from a distance as Blue Herons wade into the sparkling blue estuary in search of food and eagles soar, swooping down to catch the salmon.
Cape Scott Provincial Park, on the north-western tip of Vancouver Island, comes alive with species that range from Black, Surf and White-winged Scoters, to migrating Trumpeter Swans. The nearby Scott Islands are a breeding ground to the unusual Puffin species, where more than 70,000 birds reside. San Josef Bay and Hansen Lagoon are also great spots for viewing, and are a favourite resting place for some of the Island's Bald Eagles particularly from April to September.
Every year, orcas, also known as killer whales, travel in Blackfish Sound and Johnstone Strait. The excitement of seeing one of these immense mammals is a favourite of many visitors to the region. With several companies offering whale watching trips from late June through early October, you can have the experience of a lifetime with opportunities to view humpback, grey, and Minke whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, Dall's and harbour porpoises, seals and sea lions.
From the dynamic harbour city of Nanaimo, to the natural splendor of Port McNeill, this route can be achieved in a day, or can easily stretch over multiple nights. Enjoy the trip!
Background Photo Credit: Destination British Columbia