Victoria is widely known as the Garden City of Canada. The city boasted almost 565 million blooms in the 2020 Greater Victoria Flower Count, a light-hearted competition held each March. And that’s the off-season.
15-Jul-21 – If you’re planning a getaway to Vancouver, be sure to add a side trip to Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia.
The vibrant waterfront metropolis anchors Vancouver Island, the second-largest island in the country (the first is Montreal). With a temperate microclimate and enviable rainfall to foster verdant gardens and natural landscape, Victoria is widely known as the Garden City of Canada. The city boasted almost 565 million blooms in the 2020 Greater Victoria Flower Count, a light-hearted competition held each March. And that’s the off-season.
Other fascinating talking points are a seaside lifestyle with bountiful marine life and recreation, deep dives into indigenous and colonial history, and a fierce commitment to locally-sourced cuisine.
But we had only 48 hours to skim the highlights of the Pacific Northwest’s oldest city. Here’s the rundown on what we did and how we did it.
From Vancouver to Victoria and back
The 90-minute voyage takes you across the scenic Strait of Georgia and through the Gulf Islands.
Our ship, the Spirit of British Columbia, can transport 2,100 passengers, 34 semitrucks, eight commercial vehicles and 190 cars. I held my breath as our motorcoach expertly eased onto one of the two vehicle levels and parked literally within inches of the semis that surrounded us on four sides.
You’re not allowed to remain inside your vehicle, so we ascended the stairs (you can take the elevators). Two amenity-rich passenger levels are fashioned with cushy seating options, large-screen televisions, workstations, restaurants, boutique shopping, children’s playroom, and a pet area. There is also outdoor deck seating if you prefer to view the seascapes with the wind ruffling through your hair.
Where to stay
The hotel is a short jaunt over the modernist Johnson Street Bridge or by water taxi to the downtown sights. Enter on the floral-flocked street side, and the see-through lobby engulfs you in a panorama of the Inner Harbour.
From the rear patio after dark, you have prime viewing of the bridge, British Columbia Parliament Buildings, and the regal Fairmont Empress Hotel aglow in brilliant lights.
Discover Victoria’s downtown
Victoria is a very walkable city, and most of the bustle is along or near the Inner Harbour. Shops and eateries galore are interspersed with floral displays and public artworks. On the pier level are kayak rentals, whale-watching launches, and a seaplane airport.
Downtown is treasured in grand historic buildings such as the 1875 Old Victoria Customs House in the Second Empire style and the Burnes House, a Victorian-era mansion with immaculate Italianate detailing. Meander through Bastion Square, the site of an early fur trading post, for more heritage architecture.
Don’t miss the photogenic ceremonial Gates of Harmonious Interest that bridges Fisgard Street at Government Street.
Duck down famous Fan Tan Alley, a narrow side street named for an ancient Chinese gambling game and the illegal dens that once thrived there. Measuring just 35 inches at its narrowest point, the alley today is alive with boutiques and snack bars.
We stopped for a sumptuous dinner of salmon and red raspberries at Finn’s, housed in a circa 1880 red brick and fieldstone building. Reservations would have been a good idea, but the hour-long weeknight wait gave us more time to wander.
Cruise for whales
One of the most popular activities in Victoria is the whale-watching excursion. Majestic cetaceans abound in the surrounding waters, primarily orcas and humpbacks but also grays and minkes.
We booked with Springtide Whale Watching and Eco Tours for a three-hour cruise from the Inner Harbour. First, we were instructed to don bright orange flotation jumpsuits, which would keep us buoyant (but not dry) in case we fell overboard. Then we stepped onto a 12-seat inflatable motorized boat similar to a Zodiac.
Springtide also operates cabin cruisers with larger passenger capacities and amenities like beverage service and restrooms. We, on the other hand, were happy to be huddled together and drenched in our compact boat. Seriously. This was fun!
We headed for open water, dodging the seaplanes taking off and landing, and water taxis crisscrossing the harbor. A sweet-faced sea otter swam alongside us for a short distance.
As we cruised into the vastness, striated cloud formations and calm waters seemed to merge into a monochromatic palette of indigo.
We continued on, pausing whenever the water rippled, a sign that a whale might be contemplating coming up for air. Several did. Some raised their heads just high enough to check us out, a behavior called spyhopping.
Others breached and fluked, far too distant for my photography talents, but I have a great picture of my husband and me in our jumpsuits. It was thrilling to imagine these great creatures were living in a hidden underwater world beneath us. All too soon it was time to return to the harbor.
Back on land, we walked over to The Old Spaghetti Factory for lunch. It’s a chain and we usually like to try local establishments, but I had never been to one. The service was fast and the food was tasty, especially the minestrone soup. Then we were off again.
Tour renowned Butchart Gardens
An absolute must-see is the botanical paradise of Butchart Gardens. Designated a National Historic Site of Canada, the meticulously maintained grounds sprawl through 55 acres laced with themed gardens, water features, topiaries, statuary, a carousel with 30 hand-carved animals, two authentic totem poles, restaurants, and a seed and gift emporium.
The gardens are the former home of Jennie and Robert Butchart, who moved to the area in 1904. Jennie desired a garden, so she planted a rose bush and a few sweet pea seeds. One thing led to another, and her passion and vision blossomed into 900 bedding plant varieties, 300,000 bulbs, year-round splendor, and worldwide followers. The gardens are still family-owned and operated.
Pick up a free map with a suggested route and guide to the major attractions. The staircase to the sunken garden – a former limestone quarry – leads to winding pathways lined with ornamental trees and stunning beds of colorful foliage.
We followed along through rose, Japanese, Italian, and Mediterranean gardens, then ended our tour with dinner at the onsite Blue Poppy Restaurant.
The next morning, we boarded the BC Ferry once again to make our way to Vancouver International Airport and our flight home. We had packed our stay with enthralling activity and excellent dining, and we unpacked loads of inspiration for a return visit.
Photos by Pamela Dittmer McKuen.