Explore a Slice of Vancouver Island
Fully exploring British Columbia’s Vancouver Island takes longer than a weekend. But you can discover the adventurous spirit, rugged landscape, and natural beauty of this 12,000-square-mile island by visiting just a slice of it. Fly directly from San Francisco to Victoria (the capital) in just over two hours. From the Saanich Peninsula (north of Victoria where the airport is located) west to Sooke Harbor and back to Victoria on the southern tip, the island is full of fun, delicious food and drink and friendly people.
The first night, we chose the eco-friendly Sooke Harbour House, nestled on the island’s west coast less than an hour from Victoria. This luxury beachfront inn boasts spacious rooms with wood-burning fireplaces, misting showers, and soaking tubs – all with private balconies and views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Olympic Mountains. Local artisan works are plentiful throughout the property and represent the best of the region with masks, carvings, paintings, and more. The staff provides the ultimate in service (including rain suits and boots for inclement weather). Unwind and watch the wildlife at your doorstep – deer, bald eagles, sea lion, whales, and hummingbirds.
The next night, we stayed at the magnificent Fairmont Empress Hotel. This stately property, with its 1900s-style architecture, is an imposing site in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Most rooms have a view of the action on the waterfront. Some of the guestrooms retain the old charm and original details while others have been updated after a multi-million-dollar renovation. Either way, comfort and service are top-notch. With its prime location, the Fairmont Empress is the perfect spot from which to discover Victoria.
Vancouver Island is a year-round playground. On the Saanich Peninsula, find rich agricultural land full of independent wine, spirits, and fruit and vegetable producers. Visit the stunning Butchart Gardens. These internationally recognized gardens date from 1904 in an abandoned limestone quarry on the estate of Jennie Butchart. Take pleasure in the flowering plants, manicured grounds, and scenic vistas.
From here, drive past redwoods and Douglas firs (and free-range chicken eggs for sale) to Victoria Spirits, the first artisan gin distillery in British Columbia. A gregarious extended family runs the business and makes their small-batch, full-bodied gin in a wood-fired copper-pot still. Also look for their hemp vodka and soon-to-be-released whiskey.
Once you hit the coastline (either in Sooke Harbour or Victoria), water sports abound – sea kayaking, boating, and windsurfing. Or take an exciting zip-line ride at Adrena LINE Zipline Adventure. Zip your way down through the forest – from up to 150 feet off the ground to an exhilarating 1,000 feet – over more than 100 acres on eight scenic lines and two suspension bridges.
If you feel safer on the ground, head to East Sooke Regional Park. Whether you follow the rocky coast, cross the rugged hills or head into the rainforest, you’re guaranteed beautiful sightings of the Olympic Mountains and Strait of Juan de Fuca, secluded coves, and a fantastic hike.
Ft. Victoria was settled by the British in 1843. Since then Victoria has become a cosmopolitan city with a small-town feel. It’s the “fittest” city in Canada and one of the most walkable. Create your own route or follow one of the tours that provide glimpses of Victoria’s history, neighborhoods, and stunning views. Or jump on a bike and pedal in the regional parks.
Learn about the rich history of British Columbia as you wander through the Royal British Columbia Museum. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria houses a huge collection of Japanese, Canadian and contemporary art.
Victoria celebrates its 150th anniversary this year with many exciting activities.
As you tour the farms, wineries and distilleries, buy locally. The honor system is in place at roadside stands. Artisans sell their original pieces in the small town of Sooke and The Sooke Country Market is the spot for local produce and crafts.
In downtown Victoria indulge at Rogers’ Chocolates or buy a homemade sausage at Choux Choux Charcuterie to eat as you walk along. Lower Johnson Street features more than 40 locally owned businesses – including the latest in fashion, cosmetics, and restaurants. Chinatown is a mix of traditional Asian markets and contemporary stores. Wander down Fan Tan Alley, Canada’s narrowest street and check out the shops that line the tiny way. You’ll also find a downtown public market throughout the year.
It’s hard to go wrong when eating on Vancouver Island. At the Sooke Harbour House Restaurant, enjoy fabulous dinners in the candlelit dining room and sumptuous breakfasts in the privacy of your room. The menu changes daily so whatever the fishermen catch, the farmers produce, and the chef forages and picks from the kitchen gardens, you’ll find on your plate. The extensive wine list boasts nearly 700 BC selections. For dinner we started with the halibut and mable grey broth with seared scallop, stinging nettle and mascarpone ravioli and butternut squash and a chervil and nasturtium purée. We finished with the smoked Otter Point rabbit leg served with brandied rabbit liver mousse, spiced chickpea and potato roesti, pickled purple cabbage, and roasted carrots with a yellow plum and meat stock reduction.
At the Point-no-Point Resort, about 30 minutes west of Sooke, relax with a leisurely lunch overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the mountains. Spy on the birds and other wildlife (binoculars are on every table). The creamy homemade seafood chowder with scallops, whitefish, salmon, shrimp, and clams was some of the best we’ve had. And the steamed clams and mussels with roasted tomato, chorizo, chipotle, and orange with a BC Merlot were perfect.
For a cozy area favorite, try Markus’ Wharfside Restaurant. Chef Markus infuses the local ingredients (many from his own garden) with his European training to produce spectacular dishes. Seared scallops with double-smoked bacon, orange reduction, and marinated beets was an amazing starter, as was the grilled lamb sirloin with peppered balsamic glaze and pan-seared polenta for the main course. Don’t miss the decadent panna cotta with caramel sauce.
The Fairmont Empress has interesting places to eat and drink. We chose the plush surroundings of the Tea Lobby to celebrate Victoria’s afternoon tradition. We sipped specialty tea, nibbled on savory and sweet treats, and watched the Inner Harbour activity. Later that night, we had a brandy at the hotel’s richly appointed Bengal Lounge.
One of Victoria’s hottest spots is Café Brio. Dinner is lively and delicious. Everything on the ever-changing menu is made from scratch and served in half and full orders. The patés and salumi are great openers before caramelized onion and gorgonzola ravioli and pan-roasted halibut with sautéed spinach, potato gnocchi, and red wine butter sauce. Pair each course with a favorite BC wine and you’re set for a memorable evening.
On the way to the airport the next morning, we grabbed beautiful cappuccinos and warm baked goods from Habit.
Patty Burness can be found on Twitter at @pattygb.