Lush, exhilarating Vancouver Island has a vista for everyone. Call it North America's greatest hits.
Credit: iStockphoto

A typical New Yorker: I had to push my luck. As I watched the cop saunter up to my illegally parked black Mustang convertible, I knew I was busted. I had pulled into a cul-de-sac in Pacific Rim National Park on Vancouver Island to admire the miles of broad beach, ignoring the sign that said I should buy a parking permit first. I figured I wouldn't be hanging around long enough to get caught. I figured wrong. The Mounties always get their man.

This was day two of a four-day, 420-mile circuit that I began in Vancouver and, after a ferry ride, continued on Vancouver Island. There I explored the storm-beaten western shore and then headed south to Victoria, the very British, very pretty provincial capital, before returning to Vancouver by another ferry. It was an ambitious but spectacular route, lined with snowcapped mountains, towering and fragrant cedar forests, stunning cliff-top ocean views, and old-world towns-- the sort of exhilarating landscape that makes you want to climb the nearest tree, rip off your shirt, and do a mighty Tarzan yell. But that would not be the Canadian way.

The policeman was a big fellow with a crew cut. He was carrying a book of parking tickets.

"Don't you know you need to buy a pass if you're going to park?" he asked gravely. I told him I only meant to stop for a snapshot, seeing as it was such a nice day. "Oh, it's a beautiful day," said the cop from behind his Terminator sunglasses. "You can't ask for more gorgeous weather than this. Mind you, in the winter it's a different story. Last season the waves were breaking right here on this parking lot. . . ."

Ten minutes later, I had a detailed natural history of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve under my belt, no ticket, and a renewed amazement at the singularity of Canadians. They have their own government, their own currency, even their own bacon. But they are most distinct in character. Canadians behave the way we were always told adults are supposed to behave: they are reasonable, even-tempered, and cheerful. Even the cops would rather talk to you than throw you a choke hold.

The day before, with a long trip ahead of me, I had left Vancouver at dawn. I followed the signs to Horseshoe Bay, a half-hour north of the city, where the ferries depart for Nanaimo, a town on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island. The word ferry hardly seemed to do justice to our enormous steel marshmallow, which looked more like a junior cruise ship. I found my way up to the top deck for a bracing look back at the Coast Mountains, backlit by the spreading golden light of the rising sun.

The Northwest, of course, is famous for its persistent rain, drizzle, and fog. The upside is that the moisture produces a thick forest of cedar, spruce, and fir, draped with Spanish moss and clogged with ferns. Once on the island, I stopped off at Englishman River Falls for a close-up look. The main attraction here is a broad, gentle mountain stream that suddenly throws itself into a shiny black gorge, from which 100-foot logs protrude like discarded pencils. The bridge that spans the falls is not for the acrophobic: underfoot, the torrent churns through its deep, narrow channel to spill into a jade-green pool overhung with mossy cliffs and leaning cedars.

Thanks to the wicked storms that peel off from the Gulf of Alaska, the western shoreline of Vancouver Island-- and, in fact, of Canada itself-- is sparsely populated. The island's major towns are all located on sheltered straits, and Route 4, also called the Pacific Rim Highway, is one of the few roads that cross to the far coast. An hour's drive from Nanaimo, the only sign of humanity is the road itself, which winds from cedar forests up into gradually steepening foothills, along the banks of gravel-bedded trout streams and through mountain passes where the highway skirts sheer-walled peaks topped with snow. Just before the coast, Route 4 veers north through the Long Beach portion of Pacific Rim National Park, its endless stretches of sand lined with rafts of bleached and twisted driftwood. My goal lay another 20 miles up the road, the little fishing port of Tofino.

Running late, I turned into the gravel parking lot of Jamie's Whaling Station; there I zipped into bright orange survival gear and trotted down to a Zodiac raft, where 10 Taiwanese tourists were waiting. Out of the harbor we sped, to a rocky cove five minutes away where a solitary female gray whale had taken up residence. Each day, our guide told us, the whale would filter a ton of tiny organisms from the sandy bottom. We watched in rapt silence as she dove and rose, her knobby back curving out of the water. Then we slipped away for a tour of the area's other natural wonders: puffins and seals bobbing in the waves, a crew of bald eagles perched menacingly over a colony of nesting gulls.

After a long day's drive and two hours playing Ahab, I was grateful to retire to the nearby Wickaninnish Inn, which sits at the end of a headland, half-shrouded in a tangled cedar thicket. All 46 of the inn's rooms look out over the sea and have soaking tubs, gas fireplaces, and whimsical but surprisingly comfortable chairs fashioned from local driftwood. Manager Charles McDiarmid spent 13 years with the Four Seasons group, and it shows in every detail. In the dining room, chef Rodney Butters presents fresh and occasionally surprising local ingredients (marinated gooseneck barnacle!) with nouvelle flair.

The next morning I did a terrible thing: I left. I wanted to hit the southern end of the island-- a four-hour drive-- by afternoon. The skies had cleared, turning the brooding, cloud-shrouded precipices of the day before into monumental sparkling crags.

By the time I reached Nanaimo, I was starting to fade. Fortunately, I happened to be coming upon the ultimate cure for mid-afternoon drowsiness: the Bungy Zone, home of North America's only bridge built for bungee jumping. Whatever doubts I may have had about the wisdom of jumping into 140 feet of empty air were dispelled once I found myself standing on the edge of a steel ledge: this was unquestionably insane. There was, however, no going back. Fifteen seconds later I was on solid ground again, trembling, glassy-eyed, but very much awake.

Within an hour I had arrived at my stop for the evening, the Aerie Resort, overlooking the Gulf Islands to the northeast and the fjord-like Saanich Inlet to the south. The Aerie spells Romance with a big, rolling R. Its Austrian owner was once the head chef for Donald Trump's hotels. In the guest rooms there are gilt Romanesque pillars, Jacuzzis, and lots of overstuffed furniture. Everyone on Vancouver Island gushes about the Aerie, and I think I know why: they had the best sex of their lives there.

The next morning it was on to Victoria, where you will find red double-decker buses, Harris tweed, and tea drinkers aplenty. Victoria hugs the gorgeous Inner Harbour, which is flanked by the ornate provincial Parliament Buildings and by the Empress hotel.

On a sunny day there are lots of places to go-- an aquarium, whale-watching excursions, the Royal British Columbia Museum-- and lots of tourists going to them. But I was content to take things slowly, because I had to conserve energy for the main event-- dinner in the hotel's Empress Room. This magnificent space appears today much as it did when it opened back in 1908: tapestried wall fabric, patinated brass sconces and chandeliers, waiters in black tie, and a magnificent 22 1/2-foot-high ceiling of carved mahogany. By the time I finished the bottle of British Columbia's Tinhorn Creek Merlot, with the sun flourishing its farewells behind the sailboats in the harbor, I was ready to break into "God Save the Queen."

Which is another way of saying that the next morning I awoke with a splitting headache. By miraculous good fortune the sun was shining again, giving Victoria the superlustrous sheen that rainy places get when the light finally hits them. But now my time was up. With the top down, I cruised to Swartz Bay, where I rolled onto another big marshmallow bound for the mainland.

On the upper deck I found a spot to stretch out. Slowly the rocky shores of the Gulf Islands slipped past, the greens of their cedars, spruces, and firs bright against the sparkling blue of the water. Overhead, gulls wheeled and a sailboat or two swept past. I realized that I was finally settling down from my habitually frenetic pace. The whisper of a pine-scented breeze masked the hum of the engines. It was very soothing. Very nice. Very Canadian.