The east coast of Canada’s Vancouver Island from Victoria northwest to Campbell River has become congested. This is the only densely populated area of Vancouver Island. If you stick with Highway/BC-1, you can complete its 165 miles in about 3 hours. I’d recommend a day to drive it if you want to see something besides dual highway, mountains, and trees. There’s only one scenic bay and island viewpoint all the way to Campbell River. If you get off to explore a visitor center, take a walk, have lunch, etc., you’ll surely end up on slow coast highway 19A. Because 19A goes through many towns, you will add hours to your drive and won’t see much. It’s really not worth doing unless you want to stop at a lot of shopping centers and traffic lights.
The towns along this coast–Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo, Duncan, etc.–are basically thriving communities without much for tourists beyond local parks and trails. Nanaimo, among the largest towns, has the best ferry service to the mainland. It’s worth a supermarket stop there to get some Nanaimo bars in the bakery section. This is, as far as I know, the only convenient place to sample these sinfully rich, triple-layered custard and chocolate squares that once found their way into many lunch pails. Some locals once told us that Parksville was the best town on the coast, so Ruth & I went there. It was pleasant enough with all the amenities of a big city, but we found not much to do. Retirees love it. The sensational road to Tofino, Highway 4, is just south of Parksville and a far more scenic choice. At its end is the best town on Vancouver Island.
The city with the most tourist attractions is Campbell River. North of it the highway all the way to the top of Vancouver Island at Port Hardy is curvy, 2-lane, and without people. The self-designated salmon capital of the world, Campbell River is an anglers’ magnet because all 5 species of Canadian salmon spawn nearby. Three other notable attractions include Quadra Island, a tourist playground, a new and fun suspension bridge and waterfall in Elk Falls Provincial Park, and the Museum at Campbell River.
The Museum is a fairly good place to learn some local history. My favorite display was about Ripple Rock. Large cruise ships sail the waters of the Strait of Georgia and regularly pass Campbell River. In fact, there’s a cruise ship terminal just north of this town’s Discovery Harbor Marina. Ripple Rock was more like a mountain jutting up from the Seymour Narrows and a serious shipping hazard. More than 100 vessels hit it before it was removed in 1958 via the largest non-nuclear explosion in history.