Central Vancouver Island's major population center is Nanaimo, the arrival point for visitors taking ferries from the mainland and the site of a major 19th-century coal-mining operation. The city has moved away from its dependence upon resource extraction and is now sparkling with redevelopment, taking advantage of its scenic location -- overlooking a bay full of islands, the choppy waters of Georgia Strait, and the glaciated peaks of the mainland.

In sharp contrast to the serenity of the island's east coast, the wild, raging beauty of the Pacific Ocean on Vancouver Island's west coast entices photographers, hikers, kayakers, and divers to explore Pacific Rim National Park, Long Beach, and the neighboring towns of Ucluelet, Tofino, and Bamfield. Thousands of visitors arrive between March and May to see Pacific gray whales pass close to shore as they migrate north to their summer feeding grounds. More than 200 shipwrecks have occurred off the shores in the past 2 centuries, luring even more travelers to this eerily beautiful underwater world. And the park's world-famous West Coast Trail beckons intrepid backpackers to brave the 5- to 7-day hike over the rugged rescue trail -- established after the survivors of a shipwreck in the early 1900s died from exposure because there was no land-access route for the rescuers.

On east-central Vancouver Island, the towns of Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Courtenay, and Comox are famous for their warm, sandy beaches and numerous golf courses.