Island Whirl: Exploring British Columbia’s Vancouver Island by Motorcycle

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
The Trial Islands Lighthouse, built in 1906, continues to be staffed by two full-time lightkeepers. Photos by the author.

It was the middle of the night when Elizabeth’s husband died. Dark still when the funeral home came to take him away. I watched from the apartment over the garage, knowing what the commotion in the driveway meant, but still shocked when he was taken away. At the time, Elizabeth and her husband Brant were my landlords while I was living in British Columbia. She, drawn and overworked, and he, slowly evaporating as cancer worked him over. They were too young for it. That’s about all I knew.

Five years on I still live in the apartment above the garage when I’m in BC, the house now occupied by Elizabeth alone, Brant’s material things long packed off to find a new purpose. Even his cherished Harley-Davidson eventually rolled out of the garage and followed him down the driveway and up the road.

I’ve watched Elizabeth slowly reanimate over these last few years. The smiles at last more ready than the tears. Our bond may have been forged that night Brant died, but our friendship was borne of smaller things: a hike here, a concert there, tea. And then, I brought home the Indian Roadmaster.

She’d always been interested in the motorcycles I’d show up on, but this particular bike touched her somewhere new, which I must say was the norm for the brashly nostalgic green-on-cream Roadmaster upon which I was busily racking up miles. It caused whole towns to swoon. She even asked me timidly if I might take her for a quick ride sometime. She hadn’t been on a bike since Brant was healthy and she missed it.

And that’s how the two of us ended up on a ferry headed for Vancouver Island and a two-day adventure on that Indian. She was feeling nostalgic for riding, and I was riding nostalgia.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
Elizabeth and I would never have imagined a two-up motorcycle trip was in our shared future before the Roadmaster arrived.

The Other Big Island

Vancouver Island is a very scenic ferry ride from Port Angeles in Washington State and also from British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. It’s a huge island by anyone’s standards: 290 miles long and 62 miles at its widest, with a backbone of alpine mountains and more than 2,000 miles of shoreline, all of it delicately jagged, like a fringe of filigreed lace. Stately Victoria is the island’s largest city, and Butchart Gardens its most touristy trap, enticing about a million visitors per year to gaze upon its lavish blooms.

There is also a famously fun-to-ride road on Vancouver Island, better known by its nickname—the Road to Tofino—than by its official designation as Highway 4. A little more than 100 miles of swoop and swirl, this rollicking two-lane highway is the only way to reach Tofino, a tiny hamlet famous for good things like empty beaches and big-wave surfing, taco trucks and ancient fir trees.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
Highway 4 tumbling out of the mountains and into Tofino.

But it all starts with a ferry ride, such a treat for motorcyclists, and not only because you load and leave the ship first, even more so because it’s always a bit of a party. At the front of the queue, you quickly learn where other riders are headed and where they’ve been so far, though on the day Elizabeth and I board the ferry to Victoria, the conversations are all about the showy Indian Roadmaster.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
Traveling on the ferries in British Columbia is an extra-special treat for motorcyclists. Bikes board and disembark first, creating a bit of a party in the prow.

In 30 years of testing motorcycles, I’ve never had a bike get as much attention. It starts with people being charmed by the nostalgic profile and two-tone paint scheme. Next, they want to hear about the renaissance of the Indian brand—about how Polaris Industries raised the icon from the ash, and finally, everyone wants to know what the huge bike feels like to ride. The answer is, it feels great once you get used to it. The Roadmaster is enormous—more than 1,000 pounds fully loaded—but once underway it’s always well mannered and surprisingly nimble, even on the most challenging roads.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
From every imaginable angle the Indian is an eye-pleaser.

From Farm to Dignity

By the time Elizabeth and I ride off the ferry we are eager to cover some ground. In addition to riding to Tofino, we want to explore another squiggle on the map, Highway 14, which loops around the bottom of Vancouver Island, up the west coast to Port Renfrew, then across the mountains and back to the east coast. As we ride past idyllic farm communities, bracketed by their own schoolyards and cemeteries, I think about how visceral motorcycling is—about how for me, and for Elizabeth, and all of us who love to ride, it elicits such strong feelings and anchors the most powerful of memories.

We are just sinking into a good pace when we see an old white barn and a faded “Farm Market” mural and turn around for a look. As I tiptoe the Roadmaster into the field for a photo in front of the barn a young girl pops her head out and lets us know we are welcome inside.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
Had we not stopped for a photo of Woodwynn Farms’ colorful sign we would have missed the treasures hidden within.

We learn this is Woodwynn Farms, a 193-acre organic farm that provides a therapeutic community for a handful of the Island’s homeless. Behind the main barn the beauty of the project manifests itself in the one-acre “Peace Garden,” which integrates sculptures of metal and wood with flowers, fruit trees and stained glass. The garden moved us both. I’ll always remember Elizabeth reaching out to touch a blown glass bloom and saying how so many of life’s most beautiful scenes are often hidden from everyday view. Luckily for anyone traveling this route, Woodwynn Farms is open to the public Tuesday through Sunday from 10-4.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
Behind the huge faded white barn is an intricate garden of interwoven art installations.

A little farther down the road we pull the Roadmaster into famous Butchart Gardens, its Disneyland-like grounds teeming with tourists queuing up for $70 tickets. The enterprising sprawl feels small and empty compared to the tiny, humble farm we’d just perused, and so we turn away, valanced fender pointed toward the sea.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
The healing intentions of the garden working its magic on Elizabeth.

The Long and Bumpy Road…

Highway 14 is narrow and winding, a little-used two-lane road tracing the Pacific shoreline toward the tiny fishing village of Port Renfrew. We grab a tasty lunch on the patio of the Renfrew Pub and watch admirers orbit the Roadmaster in the parking lot below. We’ve already been traveling for seven hours, so we hurry on.

Many of Vancouver Island’s back roads are lumpy and roughly patched, with the section of Highway 14 between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan being the worst in my experience. More than once Elizabeth lifts right off the pillion with a giggle, despite the bike’s air-adjustable rear suspension being set to the appropriate pressure, and for the first time in 5,000 miles of riding, I touch a hard part to the pavement during cornering. Still, the big Roadmaster keeps its cool, carrying us safely over the route’s many single-lane bridges and bumpy corners to arrive at the Island’s east coast and the smooth, fast Trans-Canada Highway 1 and, finally, the Road to Tofino.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
Fifty shades of green.

The first memorable section of this highway snakes through the Cathedral Grove, a forest of ancient Douglas fir trees, some so close to the roadbed you could reach out and touch them as you ride by. As we pass one rider after another, Elizabeth begins to wave back, rediscovering the universal act of moto-greeting. At a gas stop she reminisces about how she’d been assigned the waving duties when she rode behind her late husband, and how she always thought that was one of the coolest things about riding. Which it is, of course, though we seasoned riders tend to take it for granted.

We stop for the night in Port Alberni, a town about which I know nothing more than it has the only room in 100 square miles that’s vacant for a mid-summer Saturday night stay. The booking site had mentioned it was not exactly a hotel, it was more like a boat, and still, we were not prepared for what was waiting for us at the Swept Away Inn. First, it’s a 100-foot tugboat built in 1944. Second, the smell of the Moroccan food wafting from the galley made us swoon. And most importantly, the couple that owns the Swept Away Inn, Daniel and Broucha, are the warmest, most sincere hosts imaginable.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
To our delight, my hastily-booked accommodation, The Swept Away Inn, turned out to be a 100-foot tugboat built in 1944.
Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
Our shared berth was only slightly more roomy than the Roadmaster.

The next morning we enjoyed great conversation along with a delicious breakfast of Moroccan Chakchouka and rode away from the Swept Away Inn with our hearts as full as our bellies.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
At breakfast we were served Moroccan Chakchouka and fresh boat-made bread.

Mastering the Road

For a good 60 miles the Road to Tofino twists its way over mountains and through dense rainforests. At times as rough as Highway 14, Highway 4 has its share of crude patches that can be a dangerous surprise in the middle of a tightening corner. Despite our cautious pace we jostle our way down onto the peninsula making good time and head straight into foggy Tofino. It’s the first time I’ve ridden the Roadmaster in cold weather—the first time the bike’s intense engine heat is welcomed and not loathed. I switch on my heated grips and bum warmers for us both and we revel in the cozy warmth.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
A runway through the rainforest.

Elizabeth hasn’t complained once about the long hours on the Roadmaster, which must feel like flying first class compared to the 1200 Sportster pillion she once occupied. The Indian is exceedingly comfortable for me as well, and in three weeks of continuous riding I’ve not once grown tired of its plush seat, roomy ergonomics and luxurious amenities. Buckets of torque keep the fun factor high, and as I’ve said, the bike’s styling is a literal showstopper. The Indian has a few drawbacks, such as an appetite for fuel (it ended up getting 36 mpg average), the relentless engine heat and stereo speakers you can’t hear well once you’re going faster than 40 mph.

But overall, she’s a huge winner, with a big heart and a plush ride, something we really appreciated on our bumpy-but-beautiful trip.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
The super-roomy Roadmaster was perfect for our long days.

The Going That’s Good

As riders know, it’s not so much about the getting there as it is about the going, therefore Elizabeth and I don’t stay long in Tofino, just long enough to have a coffee and take a walk through the virgin woods. We still need to ride all the way back across the big island, find passage on a ferry, cross a chunk of ocean and then ride through the late night home.

When we finally arrive back at the house we share the windows are dark, the night still. It feels like peace, far more than it feels like sorrow. Memories of men loved and motorcycle rides shared cannot be replaced, but they can certainly be celebrated.

Our friendship now sealed on another dark night, we take off our helmets and we laugh.

Vancouver Island motorcycle ride
A map of Jamie and Elizabeth’s route, by Bill Tipton/


  1. If you think that road from Port Renfre to Cowichan is “lumpy and roughly patched” now, you should have seen it before it got paved.

  2. Butchart gardens … I wonder how much my parents paid when we went there the 4 of us back in the summer of ’79 … The most magic aspect of the island that I can remember though was strolling along the Pacific beaches. And the oh-so-brittish high teas 🙂

    I’ll never get the idea of listening to music on a bike that doesn’t come from the engine, esp. not on an air-cooled big twin. If you want to hear recorded music, get a well insulated car and keep the windows closed (and the sound to yourself) O:-)

  3. A 900-lb motorcycle is not nimble in any sense; wrong choice of word. Only 36 mpg. relentless engine heat, lousy radio; any one of those would be a deal breaker, but three strikes and you’re out! Doesn’t sound like such a huge winner.

    • I beg to differ Alan. A good rider can definitely make a ballerina out of a 900 lb motorcycle. I put 6000 on that test bike in every situation and could make it dance in the twisties. It’s obviously not your thing, nor is it mine, but there are a lot of happy Indian Chief riders out there. Don’t be such a sour puss.

  4. Wow…”three strikes and you’re out!”
    That’s a really harsh and unwelcome comment Mr Paulsen.
    No need to judge the author’s choice of bike, just enjoy reading about her wonderful experience…chill out dude!

  5. During a time where I’m looking for a nice out-of-the-way place to adventure on my BMW K1600gt, I found the author’s story to be very nurturing to read. I’ve rode/owned many types of bikes over the last 50 years. What stays with me most are the experiences and the people I’ve met from riding and hearing other’s stories. Thanks for sharing your story.


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