An island of delights
Words and pictures by Kim O'Hare

It might be a slight exaggeration to say Victoria, in Canada’s British Columbia, is more British than Britain. But one thing is certain - Victoria is unlike any other part of Canada. In fact, snow is a rare occurrence in the West Coast capital and you are more likely to spot flowers in February than you are snowdrifts.

Inner Harbour at dusk
The Inner Harbour at dusk
Located on Vancouver Island, a spectacular 90 minute ferry ride west of Vancouver, Victoria has twice been named the best city in the Americas, and Vancouver Island has been named Best Island in the world. The city offers a unique mix of culture and history including First Nations totem poles, heritage architecture and quaint English tea rooms Shop windows boast a unique blend of native art alongside British imports. All this against a backdrop of the Pacific Ocean and the snow capped Rockies.

The city’s inner harbour - home to countless musicians and performers in summer months - is frequented by tall ships on their way up the Pacific coast. Across the harbour thousands of twinkling lights cast their magic from the provincial legislative building.

Among Canadians, Victoria has long suffered from a reputation as a retirement venue. But in recent years younger people have come to realise that the city provides a wealth of outdoor leisure activities. It’s still possible to wile away an afternoon playing bowls, but there is a lot of fun and adventure for the more active visitor.

Bike path
There are bike paths all over the island
Cycling, both on and off road, is hugely popular. In fact, Victoria has more bicycles registered per capita than anywhere else in North America. You can tour most of the city using an extensive network of bike paths which criss-cross the entire 31,000 sq km of Vancouver Island, winding round snow capped mountains and through old growth rainforests. Bike and motor scooter rental shops are plentiful, and most offer a wide selection of on and off road bikes. Be advised there is a lot to explore - Vancouver Island is about the same distance North to South as Ireland, and its total area is about the same as Belgium. 

Vancouver Island is rated by National Geographic as among the best dive locations in the world. The Jacques Cousteau Society ranks it as second only to the Red Sea. Multi-day charters, day trips and live-on-board boats are available for hire along with all the gear you need. You can visit the largest artificial reef in the world the HMCS Cape Breton.

The opportunity to go fishing is never far away, but not many destinations offer such a range of fresh and salt-water outings. Drift, troll or fly-cast into the lakes, rivers and streams of Victoria and Vancouver Island. As you dip your line in the water, be prepared for an explosive strike and a hard fight from a Steelhead trout or any number of freshwater fish that inhabit island waters.

Knowledgeable guides and comfortable fishing resorts abound on Vancouver Island. Freshwater fishing charters and resorts offer access to many of the Island’s prime fishing spots (some of them in remote areas) and all of the equipment and local fishing tips you need. Accommodation varies from rustic to luxurious, but service and scenery are always unparalleled. Victoria and Vancouver Island offer breathtaking surroundings and you may find yourself to be the only fisherman on the water. Enjoy the serenity of old growth forests, mountain views, fresh air and clean water.

Seascape
Fun, from sea to snowline
One of the most peaceful ways to experience Victoria and Vancouver Island is by kayak or canoe. These vessels provide a unique vantage point and provide an opportunity to venture into many places inaccessible by boat or car.

As you explore the coastal waters around Victoria and the inland lakes and rivers of the island, the only sound you will hear is your paddle dipping into the water. Victoria and surrounding area is considered to have some of the best kayaking and canoeing in the world. Vancouver Island has approximately 3,500 kilometres of ocean coastline, 700 lakes, 160 rivers and 890 streams in which to paddle. These waterways are located amid spectacular West Coast scenery and are shared by an abundance of marine creatures and wildlife.

Whether you are new to paddling or looking for an exciting adventure getaway, allow a local guide to introduce you to some of the prime areas to kayak and canoe. Follow your guide past a colony of sea lions or a pod of orca whales. Discover abandoned native villages with toppled totem poles or ride in the largest native whaling canoe of its kind in North America. Relax your mind, body and soul as you paddle into the sunset and soak up the last of the day’s sunshine.

Kayak trips aboard motherships are also popular tours. A mothership (a large, luxurious sailboat or a rustic tugboat or barge) takes kayakers to the more desolate stretches of Vancouver Island’s coast. Motherships provide a home base for paddling and offer warm beds, hot showers and good food for kayakers after a long day on the water.

Butchart Gardens
In bloom: The Butchart Gardens
Every February, while most Canadians are still shovelling snow and relying on heaters to keep warm, Victorians are counting flowers! The Annual Flower Count encourages residents and visitors to report the number of blossoms in their flowerbeds or on their neighbourhood trees. The Flower Count marks a farewell to winter and a welcome to spring, months before the rest of Canada.

Many of the city’s gardens are in bloom year-round. From the perfectly-groomed grounds of The Butchart Gardens and the city’s signature flower baskets that grace downtown lampposts, it is evident that Victorians are passionate about gardening. In early spring, millions of daffodils and rhododendrons bloom through March and April, followed by tulips, lilacs and flowering cherry and dogwood trees in May.

Roses of all types are at their peak in June. In midsummer, gardens are bright with perennials and annuals. Late summer and early fall see colourful hydrangeas, begonias, gladiolas, dahlias and chrysanthemums paint the landscape.

Each year thousands of visitors come to the area to go hiking. Victoria provides easy access to miles of scenic hiking trails that lead you across the Island through old-growth forests, along ocean shores and up mountains. From short, hourly excursions to multi-day treks, hiking Victoria and Vancouver Island will challenge your physical fitness and reward your spirit.

For the new or lone hiker, regional and provincial parks provide safe, well-maintained and well-signed hiking trails through some of the most beautiful areas on the Island. Experienced or not, all hikers will benefit from joining a guided hike. A seasoned local guide can introduce you to new areas and trails and offer local history as well as identify flora and fauna along the way.

Victoria and Vancouver Island have numerous hiking tours to suit all levels. Canada’s highest waterfall is not Niagara Falls, not even close. On Vancouver Island, you can hike to Canada’s highest waterfall, explore the Island’s only remaining ice field or tackle the world famous West Coast Trail, which stretches for 40 miles along the Island’s dramatic west coast. Due to the number of shipwrecks that once occurred along this rocky shoreline, a lifesaving trail for shipwrecked mariners was created. Today, the trail is only for the prepared backpacker seeking the ultimate hiking experience.

Whale watching in Victoria and Vancouver Island is awesome! No other spectacle of nature compares to the awe-inspiring sight of a massive killer whale breaching out of the deep blue water only 100 metres from your boat.

You can view migrating and resident whales in their natural surroundings.  For a holiday memory that will never be forgotten, experience the mystical beauty of the wild inhabitants of coastal Victoria and its surrounding area. There are numerous companies providing whale watching charters but it not unusual to spot whales during the summer months while travelling on the numerous ferries that connect the Gulf Islands.

From tiny sea creatures and fish to otters, seals, sea lions and dolphins, the Gulf Islands are a gold mine for visitors hoping to see marine life. The phenomenon of salmon spawning is also something to be seen. Witness the cycle of life as schools of salmon return from the sea to lay their eggs in their freshwater spawning grounds, as they have for centuries. The spawning of the salmon signals a feeding frenzy for black bears, bald eagles and any other wildlife that depend on salmon.

A BC sunset
A peaceful BC sunset
Pamper your body and soothe your soul. After a day enjoying the many sights and activities Victoria has to offer, take time out to pamper yourself. Victoria spas offer a full range of services designed to rejuvenate, calm and invigorate. A spa experience can contribute greatly to a healthier lifestyle, indulging your senses and enhancing your health by helping you relax, de-stress and have fun.

Experiencing local cuisine is an important part of visiting any destination. Surrounded by coastal waters and the rich farming regions, Victoria’s gourmet chefs are blessed with an abundance of local produce right in their own backyards. Seafood, particularly salmon and shellfish, is a mainstay of West Coast cuisine and can be caught fresh from Pacific waters. A number of Vancouver Island wineries complete the gourmet experience by providing locally-made wine.

Victoria has several exceptional museums, rated among the best in North America, including the Royal British Columbia Museum. Victoria’s public art gallery is home to BC’s largest public art collection and features a world-respected Asian art collection, including an authentic Japanese Shinto Shrine located outside in the Asian Garden. The Art Gallery is often chosen to participate in national tours of important exhibitions. Permanently on exhibition at the Art Gallery are the paintings, writings and historical artefacts of BC’s premiere landscape artist, Emily Carr.

Because the Island is such a pleasant place to live, dozens of internationally renowned artists and performers live in the villages and towns on the Island. Victoria is alive with culture and boasts a year-round schedule of live theatre, art exhibits, concerts and summer festivals. Professional and amateur theatre and dance companies, including the acclaimed Pacific Opera perform in historical playhouses, modern arts centres and small, quaint community theatres.

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