Visiting gardens in Victoria BC

December 30, 2015 by Martin Vernon

The many gardens of Victoria BC have led to the city being called the “Garden City” in the hype of some tourist publications. There’s some truth in the name though since the perfect gardening climate of southern Vancouver Island, its earlier British heritage, and its attractiveness to visitors have all resulted in some magnificent gardens being created for our pleasure. The Butchart Gardens comes to mind first but there are many other delightful gardens on a smaller scale. Visiting gardens in Victoria BC is best done by car to provide full flexibility but buses service most gardens.

The Butchart Gardens

55 acres of dramatic floral displays created in over 100 years draw crowds and superlatives. Some cynics may consider it to be rather a “Disney” garden but it’s hard to imagine anyone not being impressed. Open year-round, its five (yes!) seasons present the many themed gardens in full seasonal splendour: the famous Sunken Garden and the enchanting Japanese Garden are favourites. Summer visits might include enjoying concerts on the lawn and Saturday evening fireworks. Their summer and winter illuminations (“The Magic of Christmas”) are special delights.

Butterfly Gardens

Close to the Butchart Gardens is this tropical greenhouse jungle. Thousands of butterflies charm visitors, as do the flamingoes, small birds, koi and frogs.  Look out for the giant Atlas Moth.

The Gardens at HCP

Another garden on the Saanich Peninsula is the little known, and therefore quiet, Gardens at HCP (Horticultiral Centre of the Pacific). Over 30 themed gardens include the lovely Takata Garden with its adjoining Bonsai and Zen gardens.

Beacon Hill Park

Just south of downtown is “the jewel of Victoria”, 200 acres of varying park and gardens since 1882. Look out for the medieval-style stone bridge, the Children’s Farm and one of the tallest totem poles in the world. Lovely for a peaceful wander.

Finnerty Gardens

Near the south-west corner of the University of Victoria are a network of paths passing over 4,000 trees including over 1,500 rhododendrons and azaleas which create drama late April to early June.

Abkhazi Garden

Tucked away near Oak Bay is a small garden with a romantic story which will warm your heart.

Playfair Park

Visiting gardens in Victoria BC - Playfair Park

A special municipal park (photo above) hidden away in Saanich. Enjoy the rhodendrons in May and the long colourful perennial summer border.

Government House

The grounds of the official residence of the Lieutenant Governor, the Queen’s representative in British Columbia. A colourful cutting garden, rose garden and perennial flower beds set in the Rockland area of heritage homes.

Hatley Castle

West of Victoria are these Japanese, Rose and Italian gardens set in a 500 acre Edwardian estate with views to the distant Olympic Mountains.

Visiting gardens in Victoria BC is more than just a pleasure, it gives insights into the lives of so many who have helped make Victoria the lovely place it is today.

The Gardens of Victoria

September 30, 2015 by Martin Vernon

The Gardens of Victoria represent an aspect of life here perhaps most anticipated and appreciated by visitors. Some may expect quaint heritage but let’s not overstate that. The gardens, on the other hand, are gems enjoyed by us all, even if only to admire a planting on a boulevard. A vast range of plants thrive in the climate of southern Vancouver Island and gardeners seem to thrive too. Let’s take a peek at the gardens of Victoria which you can explore at leisure.

Clearly the dominant one which attracts most of the visitors and of the publicity is The Butchart Gardens. Over 50 acres of magnificent display gardens including the famous Sunken Gardens. They are fortunate to have a team of about 50 gardeners to care for the many areas: Japanese, Mediterranean, Rose, Italian and more. Concerts, fireworks and both summer and winter lighting delight the crowds.

No crowds but a wide variety of themed gardens can be quietly enjoyed at The Gardens at HCP. The Takata Japanese Garden, Zen Garden and Bonsai Garden are highlights for many.

Also in this area is Butterfly Gardens more noted for its 3,000 butterflies and other tropical wildlife but luxuriant gardens they are.

Late Victorian heritage and a grand setting give the gardens at Hatley Castle much character. A little further west than the others, these Japanese, Rose and Italian gardens were once tended by 100 gardeners.

Very much smaller in scale are the charming Abkhazi Gardens near Oak Bay. There is a genuinely romantic tale behind them for you to discover.

All of those do require an entry fee whereas three Victorian treasures can be enjoyed free of charge:

Beacon Hill Park has 200 acres set aside for relaxation just south of downtown Victoria. There’s much variety here, my favourite being the lake with its stone bridge and multitude of ducks all overseen by a heronry.

Two secrets generally only known to the locals remain:

Finnerty Gardens at the University of Victoria. Imagine 1,500 rhododendons and azaleas in full bloom in May and June.

Hidden away are more rhodendrons and an impressive floral border at Playfair Park.

For further information and a map, see our guide to the gardens of Victoria BC.


BC West Coast History

April 10, 2015 by Martin Vernon

A relaxing and very enjoyable four-in-one exploration of BC West coast history can be found just west of Victoria, one we recommend to our B&B guests. Combined on one reasonable entry ticket are Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse, both adjoining the Esquimalt Lagoon and close to Hatley Castle.

Fort Rodd Hill was built in 1890 to protect the naval base at nearby Esquimalt. A garrison of 300 were stationed to protect it – from whom you might wonder … Russia. Its military life was brief but some of the buildings remain including three artillery gun batteries with their original guns overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Personally, I get as much pleasure from the pleasing parkland which has softened the military setting and which occasionally plays host to special events. From here it is a short walk to a place everyone enjoys.

This stretch of the wild west coast can be very wild indeed, becoming known as the Graveyard of the Pacific, BC West coast history - Fisgard Lighthousewith hundreds of wrecks lining the west coast of Vancouver Island. Naval ships bound for Esquimalt Harbour passed by, as well as merchant vessels, so a beacon was a clear necessity. In 1860, Fisgard Lighthouse was built, the first on Canada’s west coast. It was automated in 1929. The more recent causeway allows us to walk to the lighthouse and examine its interior giving a sense of life for a lighthouse keeper, with displays of some of the more notorious wrecks.

The lighthouse sits just east of Esquimalt Lagoon, almost fully enclosed by a bar of stones creating a salt-water bird sanctuary, with views to the distant Olympic Mountains. A pleasing place to ponder and wander.

Then, if you’ve the time and inclination nearby Hatley Castle beckons, with an interesting interior and lovely gardens.

You’ll need a car although bus route 39 goes fairly close at its western terminus at Royal Roads University so that you can wander around Hatley Castle and its gardens. GPS co-ordinates for Fort Rodd Hill are Latitude: 48.434821, Longitude: -123.45212.

In a short day you’ll have amassed a sizable amount of our BC West coast history: naval and nautical, natural and nostalgic (four n’s for this four-in-one trip without even trying!).

Variety is the Spice of Life

December 30, 2014 by Martin Vernon

If, as they say, variety is the spice of life then Victoria is a hot spot. I have been struck by the immense variety of things to see and do in this part of Vancouver Island. If you are thinking of visiting Victoria BC in 2015 you’ll find this array of information helpful for your planning.

For convenience, let’s divide them into:
– things to see, ie the attractions of Victoria, and
– things to do, ie the activities.

Things to see in Victoria

Not all are in the downtown area so it’s good to have use of a car.

The Inner Harbour – strolling the causeway next to the moored boats is always a pleasure. Here you’ll see the Royal BC Museum, a fascinating must-see top-quality museum, with an IMAX theatre too. You can tour the neighbouring BC Parliament Buildings and visit the harbourside Robert Bateman Centre with its collection of wildlife art. The Maritime Museum of BC in Bastion Square presents our rich nautical heritage.

Take a bus or horse-drawn carriage tour for an informative introduction to Victoria or a guided tour on foot. Hop on a harbour ferry or taxi to explore the Inner Harbour and Fisherman’s Wharf.

The best shopping is in the streets running off Government Street as far north as Chinatown.

East of downtown is baronial 19th century Craigdarroch Castle with its restored Victoria interior.

Relax in charming Beacon Hill Park with its old-style stone bridge and its petting zoo. The temperate climate of southern Vancouver Island is perfect for gardens; two of the most popular are The Gardens at HCP and, of course, The Butchart Gardens whose 55 dramatic acres are generally considered the top attraction in British Columbia. Nearby you’ll discover 3,000 butterflies and moths in the tropical jungle at Butterfly Gardens.

The Saanich Peninsula vineyards and wineries offer samplings and excellent souvenir opportunities. Buy a bottle to enjoy at your Victoria B&B in the evening.

Discover the importance of Fisgard Lighthouse to mariners and see the gun batteries at Fort Rodd Hill. These are west of Victoria close to Hatley Castle which was built in 1908 and set in lovely gardens.

Our small communities have their own character – visit the “book town” Sidney-by-the-Sea, or drive to Sooke on the rugged west coast.

– For further information view this summary of attractions with a Victoria BC map.

Inner Harbour Victoria BC The Butchart Gardens - Sunken Garden


Things to do in Victoria

It’s so beautiful here: the parks, lakes and beaches cry out to be explored. Take a look at some hiking trails, from easy to moderately challenging. Favourites include Elk / Beaver Lake and Gowlland Tod, and to the west East Sooke and Sooke Potholes parks. Get out and about to discover the natural beauty.

Play golf year-round on over a dozen courses.

Marine recreation is important to the locals (I’m often surprised at how many people own boats) so plan to join them: kayak along the shoreline such as in calm Brentwood Bay or the ocean, take a fishing charter or go scuba diving, discover how sailing tours are sooo relaxing AND don’t forget memorable whale-watching.

Clamber up walls in the world-class Boulders Climbing Gym, or try zip-lining.

Walk or cycle along trails such as the 55km Galloping Goose Trail. There’s horseback riding too.

After all that it’s easy to justify indulging in afternoon tea at one of several venues.

–  –  –

The phrase “variety is the spice of life” was coined by the poet William Cowper some 250 years ago. He was a lover of his natural surroundings and would, I feel, appreciate the beauty of southern Vancouver Island.


Money doesn’t matter, just build what I want

July 10, 2013 by Martin Vernon

Hatley Castle designed by Samuel MaclureIn 1906 James Dunsmuir, son of Robert Dunsmuir, purchased 800 acres of land in Colwood near Victoria overlooking the distant Olympic Mountains. Like his father, who had built Craigdarroch Castle, he had grand schemes for his own castle. He also shared his father’s use of cheap labour and fought organized labour.

James Dunsmuir commissioned Samuel Maclure, a renowned architect in Victoria to design his 40 room home in the Scottish baronial style much like his father had done. Maclure was instructed “Money doesn’t matter, just build what I want.”


Hatley Park

Local stone was used for the grand exterior and the interior was equally impressive. Hatley Castle was completed in 1908. Landscape artists from Boston created the various gardens which, like the house, can be enjoyed today. 100 men were employed in the gardens alone. Today the 565 acre estate is tended by less than a dozen staff. James Dunsmuir retired in 1910 and lived at Hatley Castle (the name we most commonly call Hatley Park) until his death in 1920. His wife continued to live there until she died in 1937. In 1939 the family sold Hatley Park to the Dominion Government for $75,000 and it became Royal Roads Military College. Then Royal Roads University was established there in 1995.


Hatley Castle - Japanese GardenThe gardens are a particular joy to visit, Particularly impressive are the Japanese, Rose and Italian gardens. It is interesting to compare the Japanese Garden with other Japanese gardens in Victoria: those at the Butchart Gardens and at the Gardens at HCP (Horticultural Centre of the Pacific).



Select from either a guided tour or take a self-guided tour. The Castle interior can only be viewed on the guided tour. Afterwards you might like to explore adjoining Fort Rodd Hill and the Fisgard Lighhouse.

The Top 10 Attractions in Victoria BC

May 10, 2013 by Martin Vernon

This is the time of year when trips are being planned so we think this insider’s guide to the top 10 attractions in Victoria BC is timely.

Attractions in Victoria BC

This list may help you with two key questions:

Is it worth including Victoria in our trip?
How long should we spend there?

Naturally, this has a subjective element but as a rule of thumb we reckon these ten will feature high on the “to do” lists for most of our visitors. You will need a few days to fit in the right balance of activities and rest.

The Butchart Gardens

Over 50 acres of floral drama. The Butchart Gardens evolved from a limestone quarry and fields into a series of beautiful gardens. You will not forget the Sunken Garden or the Japanese Garden. Ask your bed and breakfast hosts about their special events – concerts, illuminations and fireworks. GPS: lat 48.4284207, long -123.36564440000001

Sunken Garden - Butchart Gardens

The Royal BC Museum / IMAX Theatre

Victoria is proud to have one of the top museums in North America. You will be impressed as you enter into life in the pioneer days, even the Ice Age. The First Nations display is exceptional. This is history come to life. GPS: lat 48.42020669999999, long -123.36716130000002

Craigdarroch Castle

From the era when tycoons built their status, Craigdarroch Castle was placed in a commanding position overlooking Victoria. Tour its 1889 Victorian splendour. GPS: lat 48.422507, long -123.34341

Craigdarroch Castle

Inner Harbour

Victoria’s Inner Harbour is the focal point of the city. Here you’ll find the Tourism Victoria information centre adjoining the causeway with its musicians and artists. There’s always an interesting selection of moored boats and you can take a harbour ferry or water taxi. Tour the impressive BC Parliament Buildings.

Whale watching

An unforgettable experience. The three local pods of killer whales (orcas) are sometimes supplemented by transcient pods who conveniently pass through the waters of Vancouver Island during our tourist season. You may also see humpback whales, even a grey whale. Seals and sea lions will fascinate on Race Rocks as your skipper takes you through the Juan de Fuca Strait or Haro Strait in search of more memories.

Orcas - Killer whales

Afternoon tea

Treat yourself to some quintessentially English elegance. There are several venues for Victoria afternoon high tea. Ask your B&B innkeeper for recommendations.

Parks and beaches

The natural beauty of south western Vancouver Island is best seen in its stunning ocean settings and many parks.
For beaches visit: Willows Beach in Oak Bay, Cordova Bay, Witty’s Lagoon and East Sooke Park, and others.
For hiking trails (easy to reasonably arduous): explore Gowlland Tod, Goldstream Park and other parks near your B&B base.

Gowlland Tod park - Vancouver Island parks

Hatley Castle and Gardens, combined with Fisgard Lighthouse / Fort Rodd Hill.

These are all close together so worth a joint visit.
Hatley Castle was built by the same family as Craigdarroch Castle. It’s a pleasure to wander through the gardens, especially the Japanese Garden.
Fort Rodd Hill’s parkland has original gun batteries from the military defences. It overlooks Fisgard Lighthouse, built in 1860 and now with a exhibit about life in a lighthouse.
The mariners lives have been preserved and shipwreck folk lore is still documented at the marine museum called the Fisgard Lighthouse. Hatley Castle GPS: lat 48.4393656, long  -123.47697260000001.

Butterfly Gardens

Enter a tropical jungle full of life; not just 3,000 butterflies but also moths, flamingos, parrots, koi and more. Look for the Great Atlas Moth somewhere within the 200 species of plants at Butterfly Gardens. GPS: lat 48.5644863, long -123.4391642.

Flamingos - Butterfly Gardens

As we wrote, this is a very subjective selection. Your interests may be quite different. Regardless, you will find plenty more information available at your Victoria bed and breakfast.

Go West young man

April 30, 2013 by Martin Vernon

Most people would consider Victoria to be about as far west as one can go but residents here consider Sooke to be the west. In fact, the suburbs of Victoria en route to Sooke are called the Western Communities

In 1865, after the American Civil War, author Horace Greeley encouraged soldiers to “Go West young man”, ie head west and colonise the country. Now arrivals to Victoria are mostly transcient: killer whales, geese and tourists.

Guests at our Victoria B&Bs soon discover that the Victoria area is compact with a great deal to see and do within a short drive. We recommend you rent a car so that you can enjoy all that Victoria offers since there is much more to Victoria than the downtown Inner Harbour.

Sooke and SW Vancouver Island

Sooke is just 45 minutes from downtown Victoria. We do not suggest you merely drive to the little centre of Sooke and return since you’ll be disappointed. But if you add some of these itinerary stops along the way you will have a delightful, memorable day. Your innkeepers can help you prepare the route if you are not pre-prepared.

Hatley Castle

Hatley Castle was built in 1908 by the same family responsible for Craigdarroch Castle. The gardens are particularly enjoyable, once with over 100 gardeners. Compare the Japanese Garden with that in The Butchart Gardens, designed by the same man. GPS: lat 48.4393656, long  -123.47697260000001.

Hatley Castle

Hatley Castle

Fisgard Lighthouse and Fort Rodd Hill

Nearby is this two for one visit. Fort Rodd Hill was established in the 1890s to protect the Esquimalt Naval Base (from whom, one wonders?) and is now a pleasing parkland with gun batteries and assorted military buildings remaining. You then walk down to Fisgard Lighthouse, with the lighthouse in the foreground and Olympic Peninsula rising beyond it. It was built in response to the hundreds of wrecks which occurred along the south western Vancouver Island coastline, “The Graveyard of the Pacific”. The now non-functioning lighthouse houses an exhibit about the life of a lighthouse. GPS lat 48.427085, long -123.46162600000002. You can then walk or drive aling the spit enclosing Esquimalt Lagoon.

Fisgard Lighthouse

Fisgard Lighthouse

Witty’s Lagoon

Follow Metchosin Road to Witty’s Lagoon with its enclosed beaches. Do note that the lagoon changes character significantly with the tides; sand dunes appear when the tide is out. Look for the Sitting Lady waterfall. GPS: lat 48.382005, long -123.53784999999999.

East Sooke Regional Park

You will get an excellent feel for the natural beauty of the rugged west coast of Vancouver Island. East Sooke Regional Park has numerous coastal trails accessed at three places. If you park at Aylands Farm your trail may take you to petroglyths. GPS: lat 48.4284396, long 48.4284396.

East Sooke Regional Park

East Sooke Regional Park

Sooke Potholes

Return to the Sooke Road, Hwy 14, and go west (what else?). If you drive east you will encounter a centre for zip-lining – great fun flying through the trees. Take a right along Sooke River Road for the Sooke Potholes. These deep sinkholes are a popular, though cold, swimming spot in fast-running water. The Galloping Goose trail runs nearby, from Victoria to beyond Sooke – we’ll doubtless talk about this in a future blog post. Look for the ambitious remains of a partly built stone lodge overlooking the Sooke River. GPS: lat 48.4284396, long -123.71239200000002.

Sooke Potholes

Sooke Potholes


Sooke at last! Just beyond the little town, with lunch stop-offs, you turn left onto Whiffin Spit Road to walk along Whiffin Spit. GPS: lat 48.3583483, long 48.3583483.

That’s the end of our Sooke tour but you could consider omitting most of the above places and simply continue your drive past Sooke along the west coast to French Beach, China Beach and more, but that’s another story.

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