British-flavored Victoria is a mix of old and new. The city's horse-drawn carriages vie with modern tour buses on streets graced by vintage Victorian and Edwardian homes. At the first hint of spring, the flower boxes and hanging baskets add their riot of colors to the busy Inner Harbour and the vintage streets of Old Town.
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Explore Beacon Hill Park
In Victoria it’s all about the flowers. Beacon Hill Park (beaconhillpark.ca) is 200 acres of open space stretching from the downtown core to Dallas Road and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Pathways wander past tranquil ponds, sculptured gardens and preening peacocks. Along Dallas Road is a trail that follows a driftwood strewn beach. The Olympic Mountains in Washington State provide a eye-popping backdrop. Visit the Beacon Hill Children’s Farm, take advantage of the playgrounds and sports fields or just bring a picnic and enjoy the day.
Roughly 13 miles north of downtown Victoria, Butchart Gardens (butchartgardens.com) offers another opportunity to take in some colorful, fragrant scenery. Once part of a private residence, the site now hosts an Italian formal garden, Japanese garden, a rose garden and a rather quirky sunken garden. The private residence is now the Dining Room Restaurant serving afternoon tea year-round. The Blue Poppy Restaurant and the Coffee Shop are less formal eateries. A fireworks show, accompanied by music, is held on Saturdays during the summer. From the beginning of December until the first part of January Butchart Gardens puts on its Magic of Christmas display including an ice rink, carolers and thousands of colored lights.
Built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, Craigdarroch Castle (thecastle.ca) was completed in 1899. After the last Dunsmuir moved out, the castle became a military hospital and later the first home of Victoria College. Now one of Canada’s national historic sites, Craigdarroch is open year-round. Explore the four-story structure and the surrounding formal gardens. The Museum Gift Shop sells souvenirs, including postcards of the 33 stained glass windows, all resorted to their original splendor.
Royal BC Museum
Wander through the Natural History Gallery, the Human History Gallery and the First Peoples Gallery, all permanent exhibits at the Royal BC Museum (royalbcmuseum.bc.ca). Visiting exhibitions have included everything from dinosaurs to collections of ancient maps to the wonders of Antarctica. IMAX Victoria (imaxvictoria.com) is on the museum grounds, showing both documentaries and first-run films in the enlarged format. Thunderbird Park is on the eastern end of the museum. The boldly colored totem poles make the park hard to miss. Visitors are welcome to watch First Nations carvers at work.
Fairmont Empress Hotel Afternoon Tea
In 1908 the Fairmont Empress Hotel (fairmont.com) opened its doors, offering its afternoon tea for the first time. Since then, kings, queens, movie stars and political figures have enjoyed the decadent pastries and fragrant teas served using fine china and sterling silver service. A pianist serenades the crowd in the ornately decorated Tea Lobby. In Victorian times the event required dressing in formal wear but today it’s much more casual. Just don’t show up in swimwear, cut-offs, torn jeans or flip flops. Reservations are advised but hardly anyone is turned away. The adjacent Palm Court is set up to handle the overflow on busy days.
Old Town Victoria
Old Town is the original 1843 settlement that was once called Fort Victoria and served as a trading post for the Hudson Bay Company. The city grew up around the fort and eventually the name was changed. Today the vintage buildings hold shops, restaurants, cafes and nightclubs. The Bastion Square Public Market (bastionsquare.ca), an outdoor market and entertainment area open from May through October, sells handmade gifts and local foods. Garrick’s Head Pub, located in the Bedford Regency Hotel (bedfordregencyhotel.com) is on the southeast corner of the square. It’s been serving food and drink since 1867.
Victoria Harbour Ferry
Fronting Old Town, the Fairmont Empress Hotel and Parliament, the Inner Harbour is a busy place. Ferries bring passengers from Port Angeles and Seattle, Washington. Seaplanes splash down several times a day. One of the best ways to explore the harbor is on the Victoria Harbour Ferry (victoriaharbourferry.com). The green and white “pickle boats” operate from March through mid-October, with scheduled service and private tours. On Sundays the ferry boats perform the Harbour Ferry Ballet accompanied by the Blue Danube Waltz.
Hike the Galloping Goose Regional Trail
The Galloping Goose Regional Trail (crd.bc.ca) runs from downtown Victoria to the village of Sooke, roughly 35 miles away. Bikers, hikers and joggers take to the trail in the Victoria section. In the more rural areas it also doubles as a horseback-riding trail. The name comes from a train called the Galloping Goose that operated on the route during WWI. Day hikes from Victoria lead to Thetis Lake Regional Park and Mill Hill Regional Park.
Kayaking the Gorge
The Gorge is an extension of Victoria Harbour, a quiet backwater past the Selkirk Trestle that is rich with marine and bird life. Victoria Kayak (victoriakayak.com) offers tours from the Inner Harbour to the Gorge on both day and sunset paddles. Another option is the Inner Harbour to Seal Island Tour, taking you into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Whales, dolphins and seals sometimes surprise paddlers with impromptu visits. Kayak rentals are available if you want to paddle on your own. Ocean River Sports (oceanriver.com) is another outfit that rents kayaks, canoes and paddle-boards.
Visit Fort Rod Hill
Fort Rodd Hill (fortroddhill.com) and its Fisgard Lighthouse are on the list of Canada’s national historic sites. Built during the late 1890s, the site has hiking trails, picnic spots, bird-watching opportunities and the chance to explore the restored fortress. Visiting land and marine mammals provide photo-ops, as do the sailing vessels on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Guides in period dress take you through the guardhouse, to the Disappearing Gun at the Upper Battery and to the buildings and underground ammunition magazine in the Lower Battery. Spend a few hours or an entire day steeped in Victoria’s maritime history while getting plenty of exercise at the same time. The fort is roughly eight miles from downtown Victoria.