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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.

Saanich Peninsula

November 10, 2015 by Martin Vernon

The city of Victoria lies at the southern end of the Saanich Peninsula, a narrow 30 km (20 mile) north-south neck of land jutting out on the south eastern corner of Vancouver Island. At the north end of the Peninsula is Sidney, Victoria International Airport (YYJ) and the BC Ferries terminal. In between lies a pastoral land of rolling hills and scattered communities and attractions which should be explored on a visit to the Victoria area.

  • The Butchart Gardens is at Brentwood Bay on the west side of the Saanich Peninsula Relaxing at Beaver Lake on the Saanich Peninsula
  • Nearby is Butterfly Gardens, a tropical jungle delight
  • Stroll through the quiet the themed Gardens at HCP
  • The warm waters of Brentwood Bay are a good place for kayaking
  • Numerous provincial and regional parks for gentle strolls or tougher hikes: Gowlland Tod, Mount Work, John Dean Park, Mount Douglas
  • Or there’s the Lochside Trail down the easterly side of the peninsula, connecting with the Galloping Goose Trail
  • Walk around the freshwater lakes of Elk / Beaver Lake or Durrance Lake, a popular swimming spot
  • Stroll along coastal beaches at Cordova Bay or Patricia Bay with their driftwood and shells, or discover a quiet cove
  • Agriculture surrounds you, past and present. Even a lavender farm
  • Savour the flavours at wineries and farm stands with wines, fruit and local produce
  • Play a round of golf year-round on our many courses
  • Tackle a world-class climbing wall
  • Browse through the Sidney bookshops or the Thursday evening street market.
  • Also in Sidney: visit the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre or take a ferry trip to Sidney Spit.

… there really is something for everyone!

You’ll see some unique aspects of life here such as local distinctive trees: the Arbutus with its rust-coloured peeling trunks and the twisted branches of the Garry Oak, both growing on rocky ground. Driving around the Saanich Peninsula you become aware that Coast Salish people lived here, and still do on reserves mostly overlooking the Saanich Inlet on the west; the Tsartlip, Tsawaout, Tseycum and Pauquachin first nations. Their names can be confusing but so can others, with such municipalities as Saanich, Central Saanich and North Saanich, and the roads named Saanich Road, Central Saanich Road, East Saanich Road and West Saanich Road. But you can’t go too far wrong on this little self-contained strip of land.

 

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.

 

The Butchart Gardens lights

July 20, 2015 by Martin Vernon

The Butchart Gardens lights are often overlooked by visitors; strange, since these summer night illuminations are so impressive and delightful. As you stroll through each garden its character is not revealed by the flowers and plants but by highlighting through varied lighting. This selection of photos is the best way to illustrate how this is achieved.

From 15th June until 15th September thousands of bulbs, of the luminous not floral variety, bring drama everywhere. The Butchart Gardens lights range from subtle under-plant luminescence to full illumination of features aided by interesting effects. The Sunken Garden brings ooh and aahs, just as in daylight, but our favourite is the romantic Japanese Garden, a place to linger.

Many people leave directly after the evening concerts and the Saturday night fireworks, not realizing what they are missing. Having a car or taking the right tour allows you to enjoy a wonderful finale to your day at The Butchart Gardens that will long be remembered.

 

The Butchart Gardens lights - Sunken Garden The Butchart Gardens lights - Rose Garden

 

Butchart Gardens summer night illuminations - Ross Fountain Butchart Gardens summer lights - Star Pond at night

 

The Butchart Gardens night illuminations - the Italian Garden and statue of Mercury Butchart Gardens summer lights - the Japanese Garden

The Butchart Gardens fireworks

June 30, 2015 by Martin Vernon

Every summer, tens of thousands of people enjoy The Butchart Gardens Fireworks – usually one of the highlights of a visit to Victoria BC.

For nearly 40 years the Butchart Gardens have added this spectacle on Saturday evenings, at no extra charge. As if that is not excellent value enough they also present free concerts on the lawn (these on every summer evening). And then ensure you enjoy the delightful illuminations. The Butchart Gardens FireworksThere will be very many other people there taking advantage of a memorable evening so let’s step back a moment to consider how you can enjoy it to the full.

On arrival, leave items in your car in the parking lot: warm clothing (there can be a chilly breeze during the fireworks) and a blanket/ground covering (perhaps borrowed from your Victoria B&B). You can purchase these at the Gardens too.

Enjoy a leisurely self-guided tour of the varying themed gardens during the day. At any time take a bite, varying from a coffee or gelato, a light lunch or dinner or a full meal: the dining options are many, and recommended. Sometimes we repeat favourite gardens in a backwards directions.

The Butchart Gardens fireworks begin at these times in 2015 on ten summer evenings. The 15 minute show is set to music.

July 04 10:15 pm
July 11 10:00 pm
July 18 10:00 pm
July 25 9:45 pm
August 01 9:45 pm
August 08 9:30 pm
August 15 9:15 pm
August 22 9:15 pm
August 29 9:00 pm
September 05 8:45 pm

 

The Concert Lawn is the delightful setting for summer evening concerts before the fireworks. High quality variety is a hallmark of the Butchart Gardens entertainment schedule.

Some people are anxious to secure a “good” viewing place on the sloping lawn even at the expense of missing other pleasures whereas regulars often just show up 30 minutes beforehand knowing that everyone gets a decent view.

After the pyrotechnic show, those who came by bus have no choice but to shuffle with the crowds towards the parking areas and exits. But so many people make a big mistake; they leave when they could stay longer. If they came by car (worth renting for the flexibility) they can enjoy another free spectacle after most of the crowds have departed: the Night Illuminations. You’ll be amazed at how different the gardens appear illuminated, from the romantic Japanese Garden to the ever-changing Ross Fountain, the pretty Italian Garden to the awesome Sunken Garden, and more. No car? Take a cab home; it’ll be worth it.

This will be an evening you’ll long remember.

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.

 

The Magic of Christmas

November 20, 2014 by Martin Vernon

The magic of Christmas may bring childhood memories of candlelight and fire, tree and decorations, goodies to taste and, ooh, to unwrap. However, the Magic of Christmas is experienced every year at The Butchart Gardens by thousands of Victoria residents and visitors. My wife and I rarely miss it. It sets us up for our family Christmas.

This annual celebration of winter (a dusting of snow is possible) at the Gardens runs from 1st December until 6th January. Why 6th? The Twelve Days of Christmas is a theme running throughout the gardens and you hear people humming the song as they search for the sequence of the Twelve Days displays. So let’s spend an evening there.

On arrival there’s an immediate sense of anticipation. Even the entrance The Butchart Gardens - Italian garden at nightand parking areas are illuminated by pretty lighting. We first walk into Water Wheel Square which is transformed into an ice rink, but we want to see the lights so skating will have to wait until later. The Gardens has a recommended route so we follow this. Every few yards we see sights pretty, charming, captivating, delightful … . One wonders how many million bulbs (lights, not flowers) have been carefully placed. One year, early on the route, our children were enchanted by a flowing river of lights underneath a crust of snow. Yes, magical.

The initial view of the Sunken Garden always brings oohs and aahs. Oh for a better camera, I think. Do walk on a few yards to the little log cabin overlooking the old quarry; I adore it. Entering the Sunken Garden we are barely aware of being in a garden, it’s a panorama of lighting displays: under shrubs, within trees, even on the lake, culminating at the Ross Fountain with its constantly changing colours and swathes of jetted water. Then we take a break from the illuminated wonderland by entering a different wonderland, one which may take you back to childhood memories: the Rose Carousel.

An avenue of simply but effectively lit trees passes the concert lawn where my favourite Twelve Days display charms us everytime (you’ll have to visit to discover what it is) and then we walk under the arched avenue in the Rose Garden. The formal Star Pond and Italian Gardens draw us towards the piazza where we hear carol singers. The Dining Room and Blue Poppy restaurant are open but we’ve other thoughts: hot chocolate. The debate is always, should we take a spin (I write this metaphorically) or three on the ice rink first? Either way, we seat ourselves by the open fire in the coffee shop, drink in hand. Life’s good!

The Magic of Christmas at the Butchart Gardens

Arts and Music in the Gardens

July 30, 2014 by Martin Vernon

For some the combination of arts & music & gardens = great pleasure. For others, one or two (or none!) are required for a good time. This full combination becomes an enjoyable reality at Arts and Music in the Gardens, the gardens being the Gardens at HCP – the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific, a boring name for a charming place. (You may encounter it on some maps as Glendale Gardens, a much more pleasing name in my view).

9th and 10th August 2014 are special days here for the festival. But let’s take a tour first.

The Gardens at HCP - Glendale Gardens - Takarta Japanese GardenFirstly, let’s clarify that these are not display gardens thronged with crowds like the Butchart Gardens. Instead they are informal and quiet with over 10,000 varieties of flowers, plants, shrubs and trees set out in over 30 themed areas on nine acres. My favourite is the Takarta Japanese Garden which borders onto the Zen Garden and the new Bonsai Garden. You might prefer the rhodendrons, the winter garden, the lilies, sculptures, mediterranean or childrens’ gardens. I also like the fact that, on non-festival days, you have to walk into the office to ask to pay the reasonable entry charge! It is midway between Victoria and the Butchart Gardens at 505 Quayle Road.

Arts and Music in the Gardens is an annual event held in 2014 from 11am to 5pm on Saturday 9th and Sunday 10th August. You’ll be entertained by local musicians as you wander by the art displays from over 60 artists. Walk through the Gardens to the lower field to gaze with a different kind of awe on a gathering of gleaming vintage cars at the Classic Car Show. Then savour the healthy food at their Nourish Bistro. And, of course, the summer floral setting will be a delight!

Horticulture Centre of the Pacific - Arts and Music in the Gardens

 

The best afternoon teas in Victoria

May 20, 2014 by Martin Vernon

The best afternoon teas in Victoria will add a memory of old-fashioned elegance to your visit to Vancouver Island. There are numerous heritage settings for afternoon tea in Victoria.

At our bed and breakfasts we are often asked for recommendations on the best afternoon teas in Victoria so, several years ago, my wife decided to survey the options. Needless to say, she had to sample them all; well, someone has to do it! Her conclusions were subjective so you may like to undertake a mini survey yourself. She concluded that the venue many people think is the place for afternoon tea in Victoria is not the best although it is twice the price of the others. First though, let’s answer the questions “What is afternoon tea? and “Is afternoon tea the same as high tea?”

Afternoon tea came into existence in the 1840’s when the Duchess of Bedford introduced a mini-meal at Woburn Abbey to fill the long gap Afternoon tea in Victoria at the Butchart Gardensbetween luncheon and dinner which was generally not served until 8pm. This soon developed into a social event of the afternoon and a tradition was established. High tea referred to a meal at the end of a hard day’s work by workers of the new industrial factories or the farms. The differences are also clear in the elements and settings of the meals: one with dainty portions served on fine china in an elegant setting, the other being a hearty meal with strong tea served in the homes of farm or factory workers. Even today many in England call their evening meal “tea”.

My wife pampered herself by visiting these tearooms in Victoria, in no particular order. Prices range from $18.75 to $59.95 per person. Reservations are recommended.

The Empress Hotel. This was the obvious starting point, a venue for afternoon tea since 1908. The setting is perfect for such an elegant meal and the tea excellent. However the price was twice as much as anywhere else and she sensed that the hotel was taking advantage of its reputation at the expense of tourists.

Venus Sophia, 540 Fisgard Street. They specialise in organic foods and offer a gluten-free option too. Another nice touch is afternoon tea for kids.

Murchies, 1110 Government Street. Murchie’s has been selling teas for even longer than the Empress and is a spot locals pop into when shopping downtown.

Point Ellice House, 2616 Pleasant Street. An oasis in a commercial area that’s a little hard to find – we recommend going by a harbour ferry. Tour the Italianate heritage house then take afternoon tea in the garden.

The White Heather Tea Room, 1885 Oak Bay Avenue. Established by a former Victoria B&B innkeeper, this draws Oak Bay residents to meet up with friends. They offer three different meals, according to size. Probably the best value you’ll find.

Abkhazi Garden, 1964 Fairfield Road. I joined Linda for this part of her survey. Tour the charming garden and appreciate its history then enjoy afternoon tea in the unpretentious tearoom. (This visit reminds me to add that, as a non-tea drinker, I was glad to hear that all these establishments offer coffee as an alternative.)

The Butchart Gardens. The Dining Room is thoroughly Edwardian elegance and the tea excellent. This was Linda’s top choice. Note: you need to pay admission to the gardens so include afternoon tea within your visit.

You can enjoy afternoon tea at other Victoria hotels, tea rooms and restaurants so do not exclude those not on Linda’s list above. Your B&B hosts can advise on options which fit within your plans for the day and make reservations for you. We all need to take a break from busy days:
Oh, a lawyer in the courtroom
In the middle of an alimony plea
Has to stop and help ‘em pour when the clock strikes four
Everything stops for tea
.” (“Come Out of the Pantry”, 1935 musical)


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