Vancouver Island Road Trip: Whales, Waterfalls, & First Nations Culture [PART 1]

Vancouver Island Flowers

My Vancouver Island Road Trip

Vancouver Island, Canada

Just when we’re about to give up searching, a group of humpback whales pop their heads above the water, feeding on a school of fish swimming in the turbulent coastal currents. Then they dive below, flashing us glimpses of massive tails.

But the whales come later in this tale. My first impression of Vancouver Island is not whales, but trees. So many trees.

They rise in a green wall on each side of the road, or fall away to reveal incredible views of cliffs, rivers, inlets, the straits that separate it from the mainland, or the endless sweep of the Pacific to the west.

There’s no doubt about it: Vancouver Island is a natural wonderland.

I arrive to the island by ferry, just a 2 hour journey from the city of Vancouver to Nanaimo. After driving off the boat, I grab some breakfast at a coffee shop in town, and begin my 8 day Vancouver Island road trip.

Vancouver Island Driving Adventure

Canada by Design Self-Drive Tour

Vancouver Island Highway

Exploring Vancouver Island’s Wilderness

Canada By Design Self-Drive Tour

This is not your typical road trip. I took a self-drive tour with Canada By Design – specifically, their 8-day Coastal Cultural Explorer, starting and ending in Vancouver.

As you’d imagine, the itinerary takes in all the most beautiful spots on this mesmerizing, rugged stretch of coastline – but as the title suggests, it’s also designed to open your mind as well as your eyes, giving you a taste of the inhabitants’ rich, culturally fruitful relationship with this vast expanse of natural beauty, both now and in the past.

While some aspects of the trip have been planned (accommodation, rental car, and a few activities) I’m basically free to move at my own pace, and take side-excursions whenever I see something fun along the way.

Canada By Design’s local experts put together a general itinerary for me to follow along with recommendations. But there is plenty of free time to figure stuff out on my own too — and have a real adventure.

As someone who prefers independent travel over group tours, this is an ideal mix of convenience and freedom.

I don’t have to worry about the more tedious aspects of planning a trip, and can just relax and enjoy the discovery of a new travel destination.

Vancouver Island Kayaking

Sea Kayaking on Quadra Island

Vancouver Island Wildlife

Wild Deer On the Side of the Road

Lighthouse on Quadra Island

Cape Mudge Lighthouse

Exploring Quadra Island

My first stop is Quadra Island, which crumbles off Vancouver Island on the eastern side, marking the passage northwest into Johnstone Strait.

Many hundreds of years ago, long before Europeans set foot on these shores, it was called “Tsa-Kwa-Luten” – gathering place in the Kwak’wala tongue.

Based on the relics and carvings discovered in this area, it was well-named.

I spent my time wandering around the island, hiking some trails, photographing wildlife like deer and bald eagles, and rented a sea kayak with Quadra Island Kayaks to paddle along the coast.

Sea kayaking is a popular sport here – there’s tons of varied coastline to explore.

I saw seals playing off the side of my boat, and watched jellyfish float under the surface of the water. Some of the smaller islands also have colorful starfish clinging to the rocks.

Cape Mudge Vancouver Island

Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge

Totem Pole on Quadra Island

Nuyumbalees Cultural Center

Vancouver Island Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles Nesting Nearby

Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge

My home for 2 nights is Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge, located within a large peaceful forest on the coastline of Discovery Passage. The lodge, owned by the Laichwiltach people, is built on the site of a former First Nations village.

It’s decorated with indigenous art from the area, and surrounded by wildlife like deer, bald eagles, and seals. In the early morning at low-tide, you can find ancient petroglyphs carved into rocks on the shoreline.

A short drive away from the lodge is the Nuyumbalees Cultural Center, which displays an array of Native artifacts of cultural, artistic and historic value to the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

Potlatch masks, totem poles, ceremonial costumes, and more. The craftsmanship was incredible!

Telegraph Cove Vancouver Island

Telegraph Cove, BC

Telegraph Cove Sea Plane

Sea Plane Parked In The Cove

Wildlife & History In Telegraph Cove

Driving further North, my next stop was the tiny former lumber/canning community of Telegraph Cove. With a population of only 20, this is one small town!

However it feels like a picture postcard, nestled on the edge of a tiny bay in the middle of the Pacific North West wilderness. These days tourism is the main draw, wildlife fans visit for access to excellent whale watching, grizzly bear viewing, sea kayaking, and fishing.

In the morning I met with Mike Willie, owner of Sea Wolf Adventures, for a local whale watching & First Nations cultural experience on his inflatable zodiac speed boat.

Mike is a member of the Musgamakw Dzawada‘enuxw First Nation, and his family has lived off this land for generations.

First Nations Wooden Mask

Ceremonial Mask at U’mista Cultural Center

Vancouver Island First Nations

Mike Willie of the Musgamakw Dzawada‘enuxw

U’mista Cultural Center

Before we go looking for humpback whales, Mike takes me to Alert Bay and the U’mista Cultural Center to learn about some sad history.

In 1884, the Canadian government outlawed the most important of all ceremonies performed by Canada’s First Nations – the Potlatch – to assimilate and acculturate the country’s indigenous people.

Half a century of arrests and confiscations later, cultural treasures of the Kwakwaka’wakw remained scattered.

Today U’mista works to promote the Kwakwaka’wakw language and culture, and to preserve the heritage of the 5,500 Kwakwaka’wakw making a living in and around modern Vancouver Island.

The center sits next to a recently demolished Indian Residential School, a tragic part of Canada’s history.

Humpback Whale Tail in the Water

Humpback Whale Watching

Whale Watching Telegraph Cove

Searching For Whales With Sea Wolf Adventures

Whale Watching In The Rain

So after a somewhat depressing yet eye-opening experience learning about Canada’s indigenous First Nations history, it was time to cheer up and head out on the whale watching part of our wildlife & cultural trip.

Mike knows these waters like the back of his hand, and it wasn’t long before we came across a pod of three giant humpback whales feeding on fish along a roiling tidal current.

It was mesmerizing watching the massive animals crest the surface of the water, arching their back in the “hump” shape they’re named after, before diving into the depths with a flick of their large tail fins.

Humpbacks are about as large as a school bus, growing up to 60 feet long and weighing 40 tons!

Myra Falls Vancouver Island

Myra Falls in Strathcona Provincial Park

Strathcona Provincial Park

I had some more time to venture off my itinerary, so I decided to visit Vancouver Island’s largest provincial park, called Strathcona. The park is known for it’s many lakes, mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers.

The drive through Strathcona Provincial Park was spectacular, tons of amazing scenery to take in on the winding mountain roads. Not very busy at all, I was able to stop at a few overlooks and a waterfall called Myra Falls.

Much of the park was empty, too far for most Vancouver Island tourists to venture, but well worth the trip if you have the time! If I had more myself, I would have loved to do some overnight hikes in the area.

Road Tripping Vancouver Island

After experiencing the nature, wildlife, and culture of North Eastern Vancouver Island, it was time to drive to the opposite coast and see what the West side had to offer.

Make sure to read PART 2 of my Vancouver Island road trip, where I visit an ancient rainforest, take a dip in some natural hot-springs, catch a glimpse of orcas and bears – plus give cold-water surfing a try. ★

Bonus Video! Vancouver Island Road Trip

(Click to watch Vancouver Island BC – Road Trip on YouTube)

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Vancouver Island Road Trip. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Vancouver Island Road Trip. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about visiting Vancouver Island? Are you planning a trip? Drop me a message in the comments below!

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Iceland’s Amazing Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon in Iceland

How to Visit Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon

Jokulsarlon, Iceland

The landscape is full of broken icebergs, streaked blue and black, floating with the tide, occasionally breaking apart in a mighty crash. This is Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon in Iceland.

Jokulsarlon iceberg lagoon is Iceland’s deepest and most spectacular glacial lake, beloved by tourists, photographers, adventurers – even world-famous Hollywood super-spies.

If you visited this frozen landscape a hundred years ago, all you would have seen was ice. But then, the world started to heat up… thanks global warming!

Because of this increase in the world’s climate starting around 1920, the icebound edge of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier started to melt. The Icelandic word Jökulsárlón actually means “glacier’s river lagoon”.

Jokulsarlon lagoon forms part of Vatnajökull National Park, and has become one of Iceland’s most popular attractions.

Jokulsarlon Lagoon Selfie

King of the Ice!

Icebergs At Jokulsarlon

In less than a century, this vast frozen landscape collapsed into a mess of shattered ice & liquid that we see now — Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon.

A river soon formed, and found its way to the sea, pulling broken icebergs into the North Atlantic and sculpting unearthly shapes along its black-sand banks.

Every year, this fledgling glacier lagoon is made larger as icebergs break off Vatnajökull glacier, float around in the lagoon, and eventually drift out to sea in the summer months.

Jokulsarlon doubled in size between 1975 and 1998. It now covers 7 square miles – and is growing every year.

Jokulsarlon Lagoon Sunrise

Colorful Sunrise at Jokulsarlon

Iceland At Its Most Beautiful

Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is a photographer’s paradise. I was in heaven during my visit in November. First and most obviously, the ice is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Compressed glacial ice often turns glassy and a deep, luminous blue, and that’s best seen when the icebergs break and flip over.

You’ll see plenty of broken blue icebergs at Jökulsárlón – and the contrast against the white backdrop of the distant glacier and the black sand of the lagoon’s beach is truly other-worldly.

You may even see seals too. Thanks to that small river leading to the ocean, the lagoon is filled with fish, and seals regularly gather at the river mouth to feed, along with huge numbers of seabirds.

Jokulsarlon Lagoon Bridge

Bridge Over the Glacial River

Jokulsarlon Iceland boat tours

Boat Tours on the Lagoon

Glacier Lagoon Boat Tours

A tour company called Glacier Lagoon has been running boat rides at Jokulsarlon for nearly 30 years, ever since the world’s most famous super-spy James Bond himself made an appearance.

In the opening scenes of Roger Moore’s A View To A Kill (1985), the iceberg lagoon was used as a stand-in for Northern Siberia – and when news got out, tourists started arriving, as did boat tour services.

(In 2001, Jökulsárlón again doubled as Siberia for scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – and in the same year, the James Bond crew returned to film parts of Pierce Brosnan’s Die Another Day.)

There are two types of tours to choose from. There is an amphibious boat ride (ISK 5500 / $55 USD) for a relaxing tour round the biggest icebergs, accompanied by guided commentary.

For the more adventurous, get fitted with a flotation suit and lifejacket and take a Zodiac (ISK 9500 / $95 USD) for much closer views of the ice, including right under the glacier’s edge if conditions permit.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Black Sand Beach

Ice Scattered over the Black Sand

When To Visit The Lagoon

Jokulsarlon’s boat tours only run between May and October, and outside of those months, Icelandic weather can get fierce – although bad weather can hit at any time, so it’s wise to always be prepared for white-out conditions.

The best months for good weather (and clear-sky photography) at the lagoon are July and August – but September/October can be a better time to visit Iceland because the tourist season has ended, prices are lower and there will be be less people around.

You’ll also have a better chance of seeing Iceland’s incredible northern lights!

Getting To Jokulsarlon

The Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is hard to miss off the side of Iceland’s famous ring road (Route 1) – but it requires some planning to get out here. Rather than try to cram it into a single day, you should really plan for two days.

Rental Car

I visited while driving around Iceland’s Ring Road in a campervan from Happy Campers – it helps to have your own transportation because Jökulsárlón is pretty far away from major towns.

The trip takes about 5 hours from Reykjavík, provided you don’t stop along the way (which is almost impossible in Iceland, there’s so much to see!). Another service I’ve used in the past is called Sad Cars.

By Bus

Strætó Bus: Route 51 from Mjódd bus terminal (Reykjavík) to Jökulsárlón. It’s a 6 hour trip that starts at 1pm – and the next bus back is usually at 12:55pm the next day.

If you visit Jokulsarlon by bus, you won’t be returning the same day – and since accommodation at the lagoon is non-existent (see later), you’d have to be pretty adventurous to pick this option.

Hitchhiking

Another adventurous option, but hitchhiking in Iceland is pretty common and safe. How long it will take you to hitchhike here from Reykjavík just depends on your hitchhiking skills, luck, and how many stops you make.

Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon Camping

Overnight at Jökulsárlón in my Camper Van

Best Places To Stay

I spent the night camped out at the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon parking lot in my Happy Campers van. There are no hotels, hostels or guesthouses at the lagoon itself. Höfn is the closest large town, about an hour away.

If you’re wondering where to stay in Iceland near Jokulsarlon, here are my recommendations:

Budget Accommodation

Vagnsstaðir Hostel – This is the closest hostel to Jokulsarlon, about 13 miles to the northeast.

Höfn Hostel – An environmentally friendly hostel with sea views, located an hour away in the village of Höfn.

Mid-Range Accommodation

Hali Country Hotel – This small hotel is a 15-minute drive from the lagoon, offering double & triple rooms and apartments plus a restaurant.

Hotel Höfn – Located in Höfn about an hour away, this hotel offers modern rooms with glacier & sea views.

Ice at Jokulsarlon Lagoon

Shiny Diamonds of Ice on the Beach

Jökulsárlón Travel Tips & Advice

  • Iceland in the summer can be surprisingly warm, but icebergs at Jokulsarlon lagoon give off waves of cold air you can feel on your face. Take a hat and a warm gloves, even if it looks sunny.
  • Watch out for the fiercely territorial skua seabirds that live in the area – if you get close to their nests, they’ll dive at you noisily until you back off!
  • Sunrise is the best time to photograph the glacier lagoon icebergs, not only because of great lighting conditions, but also because there are less tourists. Sunset is also good, but more crowded than sunrise.
  • During the tourist season, there’s a small café that serves a limited amount of snacks. But that’s about it.
  • Iceland’s incredible crystal ice caves are not far away from Jokulsarlon, so if you happen to be visiting in the winter, I highly recommend exploring them with a guide!

No trip to Iceland is complete without a stop at Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, as you can see, there’s a good reason why it’s one of Iceland’s most popular natural attractions! ★

Traveling To Iceland Soon?

Don’t forget travel insurance! I’m a big fan of World Nomads for short-term trips. Protect yourself from possible injury & theft abroad. Read more about why you should always carry travel insurance here.

Watch Video: Adventures In Iceland

(Click to watch Iceland Adventures with LifeProof on YouTube)

More Information

Location: Jökulsárlón, Iceland
Useful Notes: While Jokulsarlon is open year-round, the lagoon is often frozen over in the winter. Due to the summer heat, you’ll see the most icebergs in the summer months as ice calves into the lagoon from the glacier and floats out to sea.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Iceland
Suggested Reading: The Little Book Of Hidden People

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Tips for visiting Jokulsarlon lagoon Iceland. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Tips for visiting Jokulsarlon lagoon Iceland. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about Jokulsarlon Lagoon in Iceland? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Disclosure: Some of the links in this post are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase an item, I will receive an affiliate commission, at no extra cost to you. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers.