Victoria is the provincial capital of British Columbia and is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, established in 1843 and named for Queen Victoria. The city is home to the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest Chinatown in North America, after San Francisco. Charmingly, Victoria is known as the “Garden City” with an abundance of flowers everywhere, just not quite yet for our arrival here in early March. The cherry blossoms are beginning to bloom and every day more and more flowers were popping up around the city.
Our apartment is located in West Victoria, across the inner harbour from the famous Empress Hotel and British Columbia Parliament Building. It takes just 15 minutes to walk across the bridge and into the heart of the city so we left the car parked for many days. We’ve done a lot of walking this month! Living across the harbour meant we also had a nightly view of the Parliament Building lights twinkling in the distance.
Our month here was relaxing yet very social, we had visits from a few Calgary friends as well as catching up with old friends who live nearby. Aside from our social activities, here are some of our favourite places to visit around Victoria:
The Butchart Gardens is a stunning 55-acre garden just north of Victoria, only a 25-minute drive from our apartment. We made a trip there in early March with our friends Jim & Terrie who were visiting us from Calgary. It is a beautiful setting however this early in the season there are very few flowers blooming ☹ Despite the lack of colour, other than inside the greenhouse, we enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the property. The Sunken Garden was a highlight as were the various statues and fountains throughout the property. A rare copy of “Porcellino” sits in the Piazza beside the dining room. Originally cast in 1620 by Pietro Tacca, this copy was purchased in Florence, Italy and brought to Butchart Gardens. The snout is burnished by the many visitors rubbing it for good luck. Admission fees were CDN $27.00 each (USD $21.15) which is the off-season rate until March 31st.
Chinatown had its beginnings in 1858 with the mass influx of miners from California. Evolving into a densely populated neighbourhood it gained a dark reputation with the appearance of opium factories, gambling dens and brothels. Between 1920 and 1970 the neighbourhood declined until the early 1980s when a revitalization project was started, most notably the Gate of Harmonious Interest was constructed. Within Chinatown is the narrowest street in Canada, Fan Tan Alley, just 35 inches at its narrowest point. This street was a popular place for opium factories until 1908 when Canada finally made opium illegal. Today the alley houses a variety of unique little shops and is a favourite tourist destination. While Chinatown is small, the area is an easy place to spend a couple of hours wandering amongst all the shops and restaurants.
Hatley Castle was completed in 1908 for prominent businessman James Dunsmuir. In 1940 it was purchased by the Government to be used as a Naval Training facility, subsequently becoming part of the Royal Roads Military College. In 1994 the Military College was closed and the property became part of Royal Roads University, which it continues to be today. While the exterior is magnificent, the interior is reported to be lavishly appointed with oak and rosewood panelling, teak floors and baronial fireplaces. Hatley Castle has been featured in dozens of movies and TV series over the past 80 years. The castle is currently closed for public viewing due to covid but the grounds are open to walk around.
Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse – Fort Rodd Hill coastal artillery, situated at the mouth of the Esquimalt Harbour, was built by the British in the late 1800s. The fort was used for active duty, protecting the Esquimalt Harbour, from 1895 through 1956. Adjacent to the fort is the Fisgard Lighthouse, the very first lighthouse on Canada’s west coast. Built in 1860 by the British, when Vancouver Island was not yet part of Canada. Once a beacon for the British Royal Navy’s Pacific Squadron, today the lighthouse marks the home base for the Royal Canadian Navy. The lighthouse was closed to visitors but inside are two floors of exhibits showing the history and working equipment of the light keeper a century ago. The location is stunning with a backdrop of the Washington State Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The Strait of Juan de Fuca almost always has a ship passing by from small sailing vessels to huge cargo ships to military craft from the nearby Canadian Navy Base.
Fishermans Wharf is a quaint collection of colourful floating homes, just around the corner from Victoria’s Inner Harbour. You will also find working fishing vessels, pleasure boats and commercial businesses all moored at the docks. The wharf is a perfect destination for those seeking fresh fish or seafood. We popped in for a fish taco during a day out walking, delicious! And for a sweet treat, Jackson’s Ice Cream has the most wonderfully rich and creamy soft ice cream cone 😋
Ogden Point Breakwater was constructed in 1915-1916 to provide protection from the vicious winter gales along Victoria’s southern shoreline. The breakwater allowed for the creation of a cruise ship dock and an increase in commercial maritime trade. Today it is a popular walk with Victorians and visitors alike. Ogden Point is also a world-renowned cold water diving spot with Giant Pacific Octopus, Wolf Eels and Anemones found even at very shallow depths. During our walk along the breakwater, we saw a couple of scuba divers in the water bringing back memories of days long ago when we used to scuba dive around Vancouver Island. Not sure we have the energy to tackle cold water diving again, although we did suit up for a dive in Adelaide last year 😊
Craigdarroch Castle in the heart of Victoria is a historic Scottish Baronial mansion constructed as the family residence for wealthy coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. Robert died in 1889 before the castle was completed so his son James took over and completed the project, James also commissioned the construction of Hatley Castle which we visited previously. Over the years Craigdarroch Castle has been a residence, a hospital, a college, a school board office, a music conservatory and finally a museum from 1979 to the present day.
Sidney by the Sea is a small town of fewer than 12,000 residents located 25 minutes north of Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula. The moderate climate makes this a year-round tourist destination and a very popular retirement community. It’s certainly somewhere we have considered retiring but with such popularity housing prices are skyrocketing. We made the trip to Sidney a couple of times, once to have lunch with an old friend from our Cayman days and the other after our visit to Butchart Gardens.
We have enjoyed our time in Victoria and other parts of Vancouver Island for the past 3 months, the only negative being the large homeless population in downtown Victoria. The problem has been exacerbated by the closure of many shelters due to covid and the government allowing camping in the public parks because of this. The local government has been working hard and over the next few months will have created housing for all these people.
As we had often thought, the island is a top contender for the day we decide to put down roots and buy a home…but probably not for many years to come 😊 After living in Grand Cayman for 16 years we always thought we would not live on another island, but Vancouver Island is large and we may not feel so island-bound. For the foreseeable future though, we’ll keep on exploring the globe while enjoying a nomads life. Next stop, Osoyoos, BC…..