Welcome to Canada, our lovely neighbor to the north. Sweeping mountain ranges, rugged coastlines, raw wilderness and a lot of snow make Canada a veritable wonderland of adventure. Living in Washington, I feel incredibly lucky to be just a quick drive away from the border and have taken advantage of this convenience many times over the years. One of North America’s premier cosmopolitan cities, Vancouver B.C. is but a *two-hour drive from Seattle and one of the most amazing places to ski in the world, Whistler-Blackcomb, is a couple of hours beyond Vancouver. (*Depending on border waits) As neighbors, we have so much in common and so many similarities to keep us close. However, whenever I cross the border and the traffic signs suddenly go metric – or I pull into the gas station and the prices are by liter (or litre, in Canada) – I feel as if I’ve been magically transported to the other side of the world.
Canada is a powerhouse all on its own – and a sprawling one, at that. It is the second largest country in the world by total area (land and water) and the fourth largest country in the world by land alone. I will never forget the first time I drove past Vancouver B.C. towards Whistler. Well-accustomed to the lofty mountain ranges and open spaces of Washington, I was still not prepared for the epic majesty of the Coast Mountains and the spectacular Sea-to-Sky Highway (BC Highway 99) which guides you closely along Pacific Ocean inlets and into the vast wilds of the Canadian wilderness. I was simply put, slack-jawed and amazed. The first time I saw the monolithic face of The Stawamus Chief (second-largest granite monolith in the world) or the soaring panorama of endless peaks from atop Blackcomb are visions which shall live forever glorious in my mind’s eye.
For this particular Canadian adventure, we kept it closer to the shoreline and fairly close to home. My Scotophile friends, Kristen, Tori and I were in need of whisky, bagpipes and kilts – and maybe a bit of haggis and the tossing of heavy objects. In short, we wanted to find a good Highland games event to attend. There are several great Highland games during the summer in Washington State, but given Canada’s close ties to England, Ireland and Scotland, there are many to be found in Canada as well. Since Victoria, B.C. is just a quick ferry ride away and they’ve been hosting a Highland games for the past 156 years, we figured it would be a great spot to fulfill all of our Scottish dreams. (And my pal Kristen and I are still financially recovering from our recent adventures to the actual Highlands of Scotland)
Combine the welcoming, good nature of Canada with the beautiful wilds of the Pacific Northwest and the pomp and grandeur of Britain and you come close to concocting the unique setting that is Victoria, B.C. Situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and named for Queen Victoria, Victoria is not only an amazing place to visit, it is also the capital of the province of British Columbia. Many important goings-on take place in this quaint city along with the regular flow of tourism.
As it is an island, there will be some sort of boat or plane involved in your trek to the area. We hopped the Black Ball Ferry Line (MV Coho) out of Port Angeles in Clallam County and sailed into Victoria’s Inner Harbour. To get to the ferry from the Seattle area, we took the Edmonds to Kingston ferry and headed to Port Angeles via the Hood Canal Bridge. There are several other ways to get to Victoria, but an important thing to note for any route into Canada is the need for a valid passport, passport card, Enhanced Washington State driver’s license/ID or NEXUS card.
Additional routes to Victoria include:
- Head to the Waterfront in downtown Seattle and sail to Victoria via the passenger-only Victoria Clipper. The journey is a little under three hours and it’s likely you’ll see marine life along the way. They also offer a bevy of hotel, car and sightseeing package deals which are very worth checking out. On a recent trip, just as we were getting close to the Victoria harbor, a pod of orcas was swimming not too far off the port side. To add to the majesty, there was a rainbow perfectly situated over the harbor as we pulled into dock. WOW!
- If you’re up for a gorgeous bird’s-eye view of the Puget Sound, hop aboard a seaplane flight with Kenmore Air. Many friends have made the journey, but it is still on my travel bucket-list. SOON!
- If you’re coming from mainland B.C., head through Vancouver and cross to Victoria on the Tsawwassen – Swartz Bay (The ferry accommodates both foot passengers and vehicles) The crossing time to Swartz Bay is 1 hour and 35 minutes.
- You can also utilize the Washington State Ferry out of Anacortes in Skagit County. (The ferry accommodates both foot passengers and vehicles) They offer a 3-hour cruise to Sidney B.C. which is a 20-minute drive outside of Victoria. (Pro Tip: If you are driving, reservations are strongly recommended.)
In order to make the most of our few days in Victoria, we had made reservations for the first sailing out of Port Angeles. The morning was crisp and the water smooth; the makings of a beautiful journey! Once aboard, we got the lay of the vintage ship and staked out a few seats with a view out over the bow. (The MV Coho has been in operation since 1959 and they’ve largely kept the vintage décor.) Since it was early and I’d only gotten a few hours of sleep, caffeine was high on the list of things to do. We found our way to the cafeteria, which is adjacent to the tiny, but well-stocked gift shop, and loaded up on breakfast goodies and strong coffee. There’s something great to be said about warming your hands with a steaming cup of coffee while looking out over the bow of a ship. Ahhhh….
After fully perusing the ship and refueling with caffeine, we hit up the on-board Tour Desk to find out about special deals for various tours in the Victoria area. It’s definitely worth checking out and not only will you save a few dollars, but you’ll be able to skip the sometimes long ticket lines at the given attraction. We opted for tickets to Butchart Gardens, the Butterfly Gardens and the Royal B.C. Museum. We were all set for our first two days of touring and we hadn’t even docked yet!
As we sailed into Victoria’s Inner Harbour, we were met with the beautiful skyline of downtown Victoria. The vibrant Causeway Marina, the glorious Parliament Building and the stunning Empress Hotel were all there to greet us. The scene was bustling with boats coming and going, tourists renting scooters and tour buses shuttling visitors off to neighboring attractions. (There are many bus tours available through the MV Coho and Victoria Clipper tour desks) The area near the stately Steamship Grill & Bar (the old Heritage Steamship Terminal building, c. 1924) is a great pick-up/drop-off point with many excursions taking off from the general vicinity. Not too far from the Inner Harbour, especially if you happen to be entering the area via cruise ship, is Fisherman’s Wharf. Colorful float homes, restaurants, shops, live music and more make this another great waterfront area to explore.
As we’d arrived fairly early on a Thursday morning, we had time to fit in some of the more popular tourist destinations. Since we were only visiting for a few days and it was the very busy Victoria Day 3-day weekend, we wanted to get ahead of the crowds. (Victoria Day celebrates Queen Victoria’s birthday and is the unofficial start of summer in Canada. It falls on the last Monday in May, preceding the 25th.)
After switching my GPS over to accommodate the metric system and Canadian byways, we struck out towards the spectacular Butchart Gardens, located about 30 minutes outside of Victoria. It was a grey morning and threatening rain, but we maintained our hope for things to clear up. That said, we’re from the Pacific Northwest and are typically prepared for any type of weather. Most of the time…
To say that the Butchart Gardens are a marvel in horticultural design would be an absurd understatement. They are an amazing display of design, cultivation, whimsy, passion and vision. Originally masterminded by Jennie Butchart beginning in the early 1900s, utilizing the old limestone quarry in her backyard, it has grown (literally) into an absolute national treasure. After being gifted The Gardens in 1939, Jennie’s grandson, Ian Ross has continued to enhance and expand the garden experience into what greets modern-day visitors.
Once we’d gotten past our initial ooo’s and ahhh’s, we formed a strategy to help us both enjoy and see all of the grounds during our brief stay. There is so much to take in and so many garden themes and landscapes to enjoy – we didn’t want to miss anything! As we wound around beautifully manicured trails and flower-filled alcoves, we popped out at the fantastical view overlooking the famous Sunken Gardens. Words can’t fully express the breathtakingly beautiful scene, so please enjoy some pictures!
To be honest, I would’ve probably been fine having only seen the Sunken Gardens. My mind was swimming in a glorious flower explosion and I couldn’t imagine anything could compare. However, since I knew, based on long-ago visits, the rest of the grounds absolutely could compare, off we went to the next amazing scene. (I do wish we could’ve been there on a summer Saturday night to see the excellent fireworks show from the Sunken Gardens, but that will have to wait for another visit.)
Over the course of the next couple of hours, we visited Italy, Japan, the Mediterranean and England, not to mention the beauty of the native Pacific Northwest landscape which brings it all together. It seemed around each corner was a new, mind-boggling panorama to leave us speechless. Again, since words fail me when attempting to fully describe the beauty, here are a few more pictures!
After all of our gallivanting around the flowers, it’s fair to say we’d become a little peckish. Since there are several dining spots on the garden grounds, it wasn’t hard to find something to fulfill our needs. We’d considered afternoon tea at The Dining Room, but since it’s a more leisurely affair, we opted for a less formal and more expedited lunch at the Blue Poppy Restaurant. It was just what we needed and soon enough, we were back to exploring the grounds and finishing it off with a stop into their lovely gift shop. (Because of course we did! Several dainty tea cups were chanting my name and I’d be a monster to not heed their call…) There are also several quick snack spots dotted around grounds for on-the-go occasions. Coffee and ice cream accompaniments for your flower viewing pleasure!
After getting our fill of flowers and teacups, we drove back up the road a few miles to get our fill of butterflies and wine. (As one does…) Since Kristen and Tori were more excited about the Butterfly Gardens and I was more excited about doing some wine tasting, we decided to divide and conquer. Conveniently, since the beautiful vineyards of Church & State Wines were basically next door to the Butterfly Gardens, it all worked out quite nicely. I hear-tell Kristen and Tori very much enjoyed communing with the butterflies. I, too, enjoyed my communing…
Church & State Wine sits overlooking their vineyard and rolling grounds. The main tasting room and restaurant is spacious and there is an outdoor, covered seating area with a great view of the vineyards. Since it was a Thursday afternoon, they weren’t super crowded and I easily found a seat at the tasting bar. Upon learning more about their wine from the well-informed Sommelier, I sampled a few and enjoyed a lovely locally-sourced cheese selection alongside. I very much enjoyed their Trebella and Viognier and opted to bring home a couple bottles of the Trebella. (One of which actually made it home – We enjoyed one that evening at our Airbnb) I guess I’ll have to return to pick up a few more bottles. Oh no!!
Located a few minutes away from Church and State Wines is De Vine Wines & Spirits. They’re not only a winery and vineyard, but also a distillery! I was hoping to visit on this trip, but the afternoon had gotten away from us and it was time to locate our Airbnb. No worries – I’ll be back soon!
After we pulled ourselves away from the butterflies and viognier (sounds like a Hallmark movie), we plotted our course to the Airbnb. It turned out to be the lower-half of a cute home in a Victoria suburb with a private entrance in the back. Sweet! The hosts were a very kind family who had just begun to open their home to Airbnb guests. If you have a car, staying at an Airbnb a little outside of town can save a good chunk of change. We were about 20-minutes away from downtown Victoria and the drive into town was main thoroughfare most of the way. Additionally, we were more centrally located for visiting the surrounding towns. Win-win!
Once we’d settled in at the Airbnb, we took a little bit of time to relax and recharge for a night on the town. (But not too late a night as I’d been up and driving since 4am. We were all a bit tired, suffice to say.) Since we were in town for the Highland games, we decided to look for something along the lines of Shepherd’s Pie and Guinness Stew for dinner… Yes, please! And if I could find a place with a good Scotch egg, all the better!
Enter Irish Times, a traditional Irish pub in the heart of downtown Victoria. Both Kristen and I had been there before and knew they could fulfill at least two of our culinary needs. But did they win the trifecta with an entry of the Scotch egg? Why, YES – yes, they did! If you’ve never had a Scotch egg and you happen to see it on a menu – order it! It’s a soft-boiled egg rolled in crumbled sausage, breaded and fried. How can you go wrong?? Ohhh, delicious Scotch egg, how I love thee so… The only thing I found vaguely off about our Irish Times experience was their inclusion of ice in the cider pints. Why?? I’ve seen it a couple of other times on past Victoria visits. I need to get to the bottom of these icy cider shenanigans…
After our delicious dinner, we were completely full and positively spent. We didn’t have much left to give, but we figured it best to at least walk off a few of the calories we’d just consumed. (Hello there, Scotch egg…) We hit up the fantastic Munro’s Books and found a few great books and generally wandered around the area for a little while. We didn’t have it in us to make it over to nearby Russell Books, but that’s also a great spot for the bookworm. Next time!
If you’re like us and always on the hunt for good pub food and a well-pulled pint, Victoria has so much to offer. It’s like walking down a street in London or Edinburgh – great pubs everywhere! A few of the places we didn’t get to on this visit, but have enjoyed on past stays:
- The Churchill, located in the downtown area, hosts a modern pub menu and a rather large taps list. Cozy, low-key atmosphere and ‘lots of good beer – Sounds good!
- The Sticky Wicket is located in downtown and features a modern pub menu, a good drink selection, a games room and hotel lodging.
- Garrick’s Head Pub has been serving hungry and thirsty Canadians since 1867. They serve classics like shepherd’s pie and bangers and mash, but they also feature a more modern side with nods to Pacific Northwest favorites and seafood. They also have a pretty impressive taps selection.
- Whether it’s poutine, fish & chips or perhaps a duck burger, Swan’s Brewery & Pub has you covered. They also feature an onsite brewery, a liquor store and a hotel. All the things!
- Spinnakers is Canada’s oldest craft brewpub and a great place to relax out of the downtown hub. They’re located across the Johnson Street Bridge, past Chinatown and also feature guest house lodging. And they have a tea-infused beer – so terribly British!
- If you happen to be heading back from Butchart Gardens, Todd Creek Craft Cider is a lovely cidery located not too far off of Highway 17.
- Should you want to venture further north on Vancouver Island, Merridale Cidery & Distillery is about a 45-minute drive out of town. Located in the tiny town of Cobble Hill, they feature cider, spirits and a restaurant and if you get too tired to drive back to Victoria, they have yurts! Keep an eye out for their new location coming to the Victoria Dockside area.
And for a few great festival and tour options to compliment your pub quests:
- Great Canadian Beer Festival – Check out Canada’s oldest/longest running Brewfest! Happening every Labour Day (First Monday in September in Canada) 90+ craft breweries, cideries and food trucks. Yes, please!
- West Coast Brewery Tours offers 3-hour tours of many of the local breweries. (Brewery tour lists often changes from day to day – collect them all!) They also offer tours of local distilleries, wineries cideries and food options. What a great way to spend the afternoon!
- Canadian Craft Tours offer fabulous food, wine, beer, distillery tours and more! Operating out of both British Columbia and Alberta, they cover a lot of amazing territory and delicious treats.
I’m fairly certain none of us had any issues with insomnia that night. After we made it back to the Airbnb, we all promptly retired to our rooms and if Kristen and Tori were anything like me, they were out within minutes of hitting the pillow. Even though we were on vacation, we’d planned a pretty packed itinerary and needed to get up early the next day to fit it all in. There are so many amazing things to see and do in Victoria! Dreams of morning coffee and afternoon tea filled my head as I drifted off to a well-earned sleep…
The next morning came much earlier than felt reasonable, but our itinerary was raring to go. We’d planned to get in some early morning hiking outside of town and what better way to fuel our morning adventure than with some Canadian morning fuel. Enter the Canadian breakfast of champions, Tim Hortons! (Dear Tim Hortons, Please open stores on the US west coast. Thank you! Your Pal, Dayna)
Donuts, great coffee, breakfast sandwiches, donuts, tea, pastries, donuts, donuts, DONUTS!! They’re now also serving delicious Cold Stone Creamery ice cream. You can’t go wrong at Tim Horton’s. I stop at the Squamish location on every Whistler trip and pretty much any other time I see one. That morning, we all enjoyed tasty breakfast sandwiches and I’m fairly certain a few donuts were also involved. Did I mention they have great donuts?
With bellies full of coffee and donuts, we made our way north on Highway 17 towards Island View Beach Regional Park. Only 20 minutes out of town, it’s a great place to stroll along the beach and take in the views of Haro Strait, James Island and our own San Juan Island and Mt. Baker. It was a somewhat hazy morning, but things were starting to clear a little as we walked along the water and enjoyed the scene. The park also offers RV and tent camping should you want to get closer to nature and still be close to the city. It was a lovely way to work off a few of those donut calories…
I’d also hoped to visit Coles Bay Regional Park that morning as it’s only about a 20-minute drive from Island View Beach and affords a great view of the water on the Saanich Inlet side of the peninsula. As it’s also located on Inverness Road, I thought it seemed rather appropriate given the purpose of our Victoria visit! But alas, we realized we’d have to cut a few things off the itinerary in order to make it to the places for which we’d already purchased tickets. (The small drawback to purchasing in advance – you need to actually make it to the places to get your money’s worth. Heh.)
As Vancouver Island is a wonderland of outdoor opportunities, I still have many places on my bucket list left to visit. Here are but a few of the spots I’m hoping to soon check off my list:
- The West Coast Trail is at the top of my ‘Canadian Hikes’ bucket list. It’s an epic 47-mile coastal trail used by the First Nations for hundreds of years before any explorers arrived. From their website: Hikers climb more than 100 ladders with a heavy pack, trudge through deep mud, wade through mountain-fed rivers in fast-flowing hip-deep waters, and push through whatever weather the wild West Coast delivers — often driving wind and rain. YES!! I’m IN!!! (Note: A reservation is needed to make this trek.)
- Check out Jordan Falls Regional Park for beautiful trails through cedar-filled rainforest. The trails lead down to beaches along the Strait of Juan de Fuca with views of the Olympic Peninsula. Don’t miss the gorgeous Sandcut Beach Waterfalls which fall directly onto the pebbled beach. Camping available.
- Goldstream Provincial Park is located close to Victoria, but offers all the deep-forest features. BIG trees, hiking trails, waterfalls and camping – All just a 30-minute drive from downtown!
- The Coast Trail and Aylard Farm area offers both an epic weekend backpacking adventure along with accessible picnic areas for daytrip relaxing. Great views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including Coast Salish First Nation ancient Petroglyphs found at Alldridge Point.
- The Juan de Fuca Provincial Trail is yet another epic Vancouver Island trail. Roughly 27-miles along the west coast of the island, it provides great shoreline access and stunning views. China Beach and Mystic Beach are two of the areas I’m really looking forward to checking out.
- One part of Vancouver Island I’m very excited to investigate is the Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park and Central Walbran Valley. Beautiful rainforest and some of the world’s largest spruce trees make it one of the more stunning spots on the island – and the grandest, old-growth rainforest in Canada. Also in the area is the Gonzales Hill Observatory at Walbran Park. A perfect spot to check out the night skies.
- For beautiful rainforest trails close to town, head to Francis King Regional Park. The Centennial Trail basically circles around the park and hooks up with the High Ridge Trail. It begins at the Nature Centre, which is open on weekends until 4pm.
Since we’d worked off a bit of our Tim Horton’s donut feast, it seemed reasonable to consider where we’d be eating lunch; Or at least some sort of tasty snack and maybe a pint of… Cider! Since I’d put nearby Sea Cider on my list of hopefuls for the trip, we struck out to see what kind of sustenance they could provide.
Open daily from 11am to 4pm, Sea Cider, located in the Saanichton community (situated on the Sannich Peninsula), is a quick 25-minute drive from downtown Victoria. The tasting room offers both indoor and outdoor deck seating and is a lovely place to spend a sunny afternoon. They offer tasty small plates as complement to their delicious ciders and I was particularly impressed with their Rum Runner cider. (Of which I’ve been hoarding at home. One of these days I’m going to give in… Or return for more!)
Other spots in the Saanichton and North Saanich area for tasty food and beverage:
- On the way to Sea Cider, Victoria Caledonian Distillery and Twa Dogs Brewery offers all the best in beer AND whisky! Run by native Scotsman, Graeme Macaloney, he brings a wee bit of the tasty Highlands to Victoria. Slàinte mhath! (Open daily. Check website for hours.)
- Symphony Vineyard, located in the Saanichton area, features delicious wine in a beautiful setting. (Open Saturdays and Sundays from 11am – 5pm.)
- Located in North Saanich on the Saanich Peninsula, about 16 miles north of Victoria, Muse Winery / Deep Cove Winery offers delicious boutique wines in a beautiful setting. (Open Friday thru Sunday, 12-5pm)
- Also located in North Saanich, the Roost Bistro & Farm Bakery has a bit of all things good. Great wine, a tasty bistro menu, a farm-style bakery and beautiful grounds. Additionally, they offer several cool tours around the grounds. (Open daily. Check out the website for hours.)
After enjoying our reasonable fill of delicious cider, we were ready to take on some hard-core, downtown Victoria sightseeing. As we’d already purchased tickets for the Royal B.C. Museum, it was first on our list. Along with their stellar, permanent collections, the museum was featuring an exhibit of ancient Mayan artifacts and we were excited to check it out.
I’ve been to the Royal B.C. in the past and I’ve always been impressed with their exhibits. This visit was no exception and the range of the Mayan exhibit was well-curated and fascinating. I particularly love their permanent Indigenous Peoples and Modern History exhibits. They feature full-scale exhibit areas where one is free to walk amongst the artifacts and displays. It’s very easy to get lost in the feeling of the era when visiting the museum and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting the area.
Located just across the street from the museum is the majestic Parliament Building. (c. 1897) It’s impossible to miss and it regally dominates that end of downtown and the Inner Harbour. It’s regularly in use during the week for official goings-on of the British Columbia parliament, but is also open for public tours. Additionally, they offer breakfast and lunch in the Parliamentary Dining Room. (Open Monday thru Friday, 11am – 1pm – when Legislature is not in session.) If you happen to be in the area at dusk, it is quite a sight to see the outlining lights of the Parliament building turn on. It’s a beautiful scene and not to be missed. (Note: As it is a government building, official ID such as passports are required for security checks upon entrance.)
Just kitty-corner to the Parliament Building sits another icon of the downtown Victoria skyline, the ever-grand, Empress Hotel. (c. 1908) It is truly one of my favorite spots in Victoria and while on the more expensive side, well worth visiting for at least one of your Victoria stays. If anything, book a spot for one of famous, daily high-tea services. Befitting the opulence and grandeur of The Empress, the high tea is an extravagant affair to make Queen Victoria proud. Another alternative to actually staying at The Empress is to visit one of their dining rooms. On one of my last visits, I enjoyed an excellent dinner in the Q at The Empress dining room. (Pro tip: It’s possible to get some fairly decent lodging/travel packages for The Empress via the Victoria Clipper.)
Since we’d done a fair share of walking and perusing, our Sea Cider affair was close to wearing off. One of the areas we really wanted to visit was the famous Fan Tan Alley, located in Chinatown. As the shops in Fan Tan Alley close between 5pm and 6pm, we needed to get moving. There are also several great restaurants in the area, so it just seemed to make sense to head in that direction.
Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest commercial street in North America, is a quirky and mysterious marvel. Once home to gambling parlors and opium dens in the late 1800s, it has gone through several stages of growth and decline over the years. It is now restored, minus the gambling and opium, and is on Canada’s National Historic Register. It hosts an eclectic collection of shops and services and is well worth a visit. It truly did remind me of exploring the winding alleyways and hidden nooks and crannies of Beijing and Shanghai. On your next Victoria visit, be sure to check out Kid Sister Ice Cream for delicious treats and Saltspring Soapworks for some very luxurious soaps and bath products. (I love their Rosemary Mint shampoo!)
Exiting out of the alley onto Fisgard Street brings you into the heart of Victoria’s historic Chinatown district. The oldest of its kind in Canada, there are a lot of stories packed into its establishments. Restaurants, shops, grocers, galleries and even a Buddhist Temple are just a few of the places you’ll find tucked into this small, but vibrant part of town.
There were a few restaurants that caught our eye, but we opted to grab dinner at the aptly-named, Fan Tan Café. (Closed Wednesdays) Classic Chinese-Canadian favorites in a cozy, late-night friendly café and bar. We were all very happy with our orders and leisurely washed everything down with well-steeped pots of tea and quirky drinks featuring grenadine. While we were there during the respectable, early-dinner hours, I could easily imagine enjoying some late-night Beef Chow Funn and a grenadine-laced Tequila Sunrise…
Since we’d gotten up fairly early and had packed in quite a bit of action into our day, we were ready to head back towards the Airbnb. Along the way to the car, we enjoyed the bustling Friday night scene and wandered into a few shops. We contemplated buying lovely sweaters at Out of Ireland, stopped in at Rogers’ Chocolates and grabbed some of their famous candies and I stocked up on my favorites at the local Lush shop. (I’m a longtime addict of their Rockstar soap and I Love Juicy shampoo.) We also thought it prudent to stop at a local grocery store on the way back to stock up on Canadian treats such as Lays Ketchup Potato Chips, dreamy Mackintosh Toffee and Ruby Kit-Kat bars. (It’s possible to get these treats online, but they’re definitely pricier when ordering from within the US.)
Since there are only so many hours in the day and we had definitely overloaded our itinerary, a few amazing spots will have to be saved for our next visit. If you make it there before us, here are a few very cool options to consider:
- I have visited Craigdarroch Castle on past trips, but never get tired of taking in its majestic and storied scenery. Built by local coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir during the late 1800s, it’s now on the Canadian National Register of Historic Places and is quite a look into the luxurious life of the Victorian-era, Victoria elite.
- In keeping with the castle theme, Hatley Castle is high on my list for the next visit. Built in 1908 and now a part of the Royal Roads University grounds, it is a beautiful turn-of-last-century example of design and opulence. Additionally, it has been the setting for many movies and television shows such as Deadpool, Arrow, X-Men: The Last Stand, X-Men 2, Smallville, Masterminds (Patrick Stewart) and MACGYVER. (Nerd Alert: These are all some of my favorites! I can’t believe I haven’t visited yet…)
- Learn about the secrets and shady past of Victoria’s bygone days with the Discover the Past Ghostly Walks I love these type of tours and Victoria definitely has some good tales to tell. The tour starts at 9:30pm from in front of the Empress.
- Another walking tour outfit, Off the Eaten Track, offers culinary tours featuring adventures such as Gourmet Victoria Dinner & Drinks and Eat Like a Canadian. Sounds good, eh?
- Located in the downtown area, Axe and Grind features…AXE THROWING! They even have a league. It’s $21.23 CAD for 1 hour session and sounds AWESOME. What could possibly go wrong?? I have to admit to being pretty bummed we didn’t get to check this out. NEXT TIME.
- If throwing axes isn’t your thing, how about flying through the air on a zipline? Or mastering an aerial obstacle course? Wildplay Element Park is located outside of Victoria and is about a 30-minute drive from downtown.
- The Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Sites areas feature secret bunkers to explore, a beautiful lighthouse, rustic camping in their oTENTik tents and beautiful coastal scenery. What’s not to like?
- I’ve visited the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria on past trips and have always enjoyed their featured exhibits as well as their permanent collections. With so much beautiful artwork in a beautiful gallery space, it’s definitely worth a visit.
After another well-earned sleep, we were up early to take in the highlight of our trip, the 156th annual Victoria Highland Games & Celtic Festival at Topaz Park. As one of longest running Highland games in Canada, it is quite an affair and we were very excited to enjoy it – Haggis and all! We’d initially thought of stopping in at the Moss Street Farmer’s Market or the Victoria Public Market at the Hudson on our way to the games, but decided to make a beeline for the bagpipes. I love a good farmers market, but I’ll have to save it for next visit.
With events occurring for a week prior to the actual games, you can enjoy several days of Scottish and Celtic celebration. Kicking off with the Tartan Parade through downtown Victoria on the Saturday prior and including the Tilted Kilt Pubcrawl, there are many ways to get excited for the weekend festivities.
As we’d gotten an early start, we were among the first to head through the gates. (Which also allowed for some great parking!) Things were just getting started and as we entered the grounds and we were greeted with a morning fanfare of traditional bagpipe melodies. Everywhere we looked, people were dressed in full kilt regalia, period costume and all things plaid. The morning was brilliantly sunny and it had the makings of a glorious, Scots-filled day. Now to find some tasty Scottish treats!
Walking around the grounds, it was no trouble finding an abundance of Scottish goodies; Not to mention kilts, Scottish clan information, accessories and more. However, since we wanted to catch the opening of the ceremony and the massing of the bands, we temporarily curbed our shopping and found a good viewing spot on the main parade grounds.
You either love bagpipes – or you hate ‘em. I absolutely love them and they never fail to inspire me. Seeing and hearing hundreds of pipers and drummers massing together and marching in time is truly a glorious thing. (Again, I love the bagpipes. I can see how this might not appeal to someone who doesn’t…) The musicians did not disappoint and it was a great start to a sunny, Victoria morning. And even though it was spring in the Pacific Northwest, I was wishing I’d applied more sunscreen…
After enjoying the bands, we did a bit of shopping and browsing. We all found things we couldn’t live without and stocked up on various Scottish treats. While shortbread and toffee can certainly be enjoyed as a meal, it seemed like a good time to check out the more hearty offerings of the food vendors. (And the beer tent!) Kristen and Tori opted for traditional fish & chips, but since there was an actual haggis stand, that’s where I lined up. I know it doesn’t sound immediately appealing and I was skeptical the first time I tried it, but I’ve grown to love haggis; especially when served with whisky gravy, tatties and neeps. (Mashed potatoes and mashed turnips/rutabagas) I’d liken haggis to a cross between sausage and corned beef hash.
In addition to our tasty lunches, we enjoyed a beer along with a demonstration of Scottish dancing on the nearby stage. It’s similar to Irish step dancing and always seems very merry. It was a great accompaniment to our meal and provided a great excuse to sit down and rest for a spell. After we got our fill of the dance, we grabbed another beer and went off to locate what would be a very cool falconry demonstration and then onto the tossing of heavy objects! (And more beer!)
The actual ‘games’ of the Scottish games celebrations involve the tossing of items such as enormous wooden poles called ‘cabers’ and ridiculously heavy weights, shot-puts and hammers. The items are tossed for height or distance and typically involve a lot of grunting and are referred to as the ‘heavy events.’ Both men and women compete and it’s never a dull display. There is also an epic tug-of-war event that blows away any schoolyard completion I could ever recall from grade school. The athletes that participate in these events are incredibly strong and incredibly fun to watch. We were absolutely entertained and it was a great way to wrap up the afternoon.
After all of that traditional Scottish pageantry, we were ready for a traditional dinner at one of Victoria’s coolest pubs, Bard & Banker Public House in the heart of downtown Victoria. I’ve visited on several occasions and I’m never disappointed. This time was no exception and everything we ordered was quite tasty. It’s an expansive pub full of traditional decor and can get quite boisterous on a weekend night – perfect for celebrating after the Highland games! I always try to make it in for at least a pint on any visit. They also have a great whisky, beer and wine list.
Even though we were pretty full after dinner, we were on vacation and decided we needed dessert. Not too far from the Bard & Banker, we ran across one of the most glorious purveyors of dessert glory to be found, Chocolats Flavoris. Bottom line, they serve CHOCOLATE POUTINE. Good lord. Chocolate poutine, I say!
Poutine, a traditional Canadian dish featuring French fries, cheese curds and gravy, is a heart-stopping mound of deliciousness. Their version of poutine, featuring French fry sized pastries, ice cream, marshmallows (for the cheese curds) and chocolate sauce can officially stop my heart anytime! They also serve amazing fondue, chocolate bars, customizable sundaes with one-of-a-kind sauces and more. WOW! I’d be in SO much trouble if there were one of these close to home…
If you’re not in the mood for traditional pub food, there are many options in the downtown area to suit any tastes. A few places to consider:
- The 10 Acres Bistro and Kitchen are two, separate spots, directly next to each other. Featuring farm-to-table fare made with goods grown on their own farm, they’re a great place to enjoy the fresh flavors of Vancouver Island. Located in downtown Victoria, near the Inner Harbour.
- Bin 4 Burger Lounge features delicious gourmet burgers and more, made with local ingredients. There are a few locations on Vancouver Island with two being in downtown Victoria and the Westwood areas.
- For classic Pacific Northwest fare and classic Jazz, check out Herman’s Jazz Club in the downtown area for a great night out. (Note: Reservations for dinner and shows are recommended.)
On the way back to the car, we timed it perfectly and were able to catch the Clan torchlight parade in front of the Parliament building. The lights popped on and the bagpipes began to play. It truly was a lovely way to end the day. The weather was sublime and the sunset over the Inner Harbour in addition to the music was absolutely enchanting. We all agreed it was a pretty fitting end to our first visit to the Victoria Highland Games and definitely plan on returning for future games.
As we’d gotten back to the Airbnb at a fairly reasonable hour the night before, we were feeling relatively refreshed the next morning. We packed up all our things at the Airbnb and resigned ourselves to enjoy one last morning in Victoria. The weather was great and the skies clear; it was going to be a beautiful trip home on the ferry.
But first, we wanted to get in one last jaunt around downtown Victoria. I’d been wanting to locate Mile 0, the genesis of the iconic, near 5000-mile Trans-Canada Highway, so off we went in search of it. (It spans the entire length of Canada!) Located on the hills just past downtown and the Inner Harbour, it’s well worth a visit and the views looking out over the water are beautiful. There are also great trails leading down to the shore and a nice park where you can pull up some grass and enjoy a picnic. (But maybe don’t actually pull up any grass…)
After checking out the highway majesty of Mile-0, we hit up the funky and very delicious, Frankie’s Modern Diner near the Inner Harbour for breakfast. While enjoying our meals, we contemplated what we could possibly fit into the few hours we had left. Since we’d missed seeing the Saturday farmers market, we all agreed the Bastion Square Sunday Market sounded like a great idea.
Turns out it was indeed a good idea and we much enjoyed the artisan scene of the market. Set along the walkways of Bastion Square in downtown Victoria, the market features all sorts of wonderful local arts and crafts. Each of us found several great items and chatted with a few of the artists. It was a great way to bid adieu to the city and all of its artful charms.
Since we needed to get in line for the ferry at 1pm, it was time to head back towards the car. Along the way, however, we made a stop at one of Victoria’s most famous shops, Murchie’s Tea. (Murchie’s founder and Scotsman, John Murchie, learned his trade by delivering tea to Queen Victoria while she was in residence at Balmoral Castle and learned to blend the teas she enjoyed.) Since Victoria is known as the “tea capital of Canada”, it goes without saying this shop helped cultivate that title. (It’s been around since 1894) I go there every time I’m in town and always stock up on their delicious tea blends, my favorites being their Black Currant and Scottish Breakfast teas. (Okay, maybe I often pick up a tea cup or two. This trip was no exception.) They also serve a lovely afternoon tea and feature a deli and sandwich counter I’d compare to my beloved Fortnum & Mason in London. (Same goes for their large tea selection!)
In addition to the excellent scene at Murchie’s, there are many other spots to enjoy tea in the area. A few more places to celebrate with your “pinkies out”:
- If you’re looking for a lovely guest house and delicious high tea, Pendray Inn & Tea House has you covered. Located just up from the Inner Harbour, they are a beautiful place to rest your head and sip your tea.
- The Abkhazi Garden &Teahouse serve high tea and light lunch items surrounded by an absolutely beautiful garden setting. Cultivated by the Prince and Princess Abkhazi over the course of 40 years, the house and gardens are a lovely tribute to their story.
- Located just outside the downtown area, White Heather Tea Room serves traditional high teas as well as light lunch fare. They get great reviews and are high on my list for future visits.
- Located in Chinatown, La Roux Patisserie is also high on my list for my next visit. Serving French pastries, cakes, coffee and tea, they are well known for their delicious treats.
- Also in Chinatown, Silk Road Tea features not only delicious teas, but also a skincare line and a day-spa. I am completely on board with spending the afternoon sipping tea and enjoying spa services. Completely.
- Serving delicious breakfast, lunch and high tea since 1956, Dutch Bakery does not disappoint. They also offer wonderful looking wedding cakes and delicious pastries.
- Venus Sophia Tea Room & Vegetarian Eatery bill themselves as a ‘modern tearoom’ and feature traditional high tea fare with a twist. Located in downtown Victoria, they are nice respite from the hubbub of the city. Reservations are recommended.
- Located outside of Victoria, Westholme Tea Company and farm hosts a tea shop, gallery, tours and tearoom. I haven’t visited yet, but it looks like a lovely spot to spend a few peaceful hours. It’s high on my list for my next visit.
And with that, it was time to board the ferry and return to Washington State. A couple of hours back on the MV Coho and we arrived safely on the shores of home. I love Victoria – and I love Canada. To know I can get a shot of Canadian goodness along with a proper spot of tea just a couple of hours from my home is a wonderful thing, indeed. We do have so much in common with our Canadian neighbors, but it is also nice to celebrate what makes us both unique. I think we have a pretty cool partnership. Until next time, Victoria. Take good care, eh?
I Ate the State – Special Edition: Victoria B.C. – Click HERE to check out my custom Spotify playlist
~A celebration of Canadian Musicians and Song~
- Dance Me to the End of Love – Madeline Peyroux (from Careless Love)
- Harvest Moon – Cassandra Wilson (from New Moon Daughter)
- Yvette in English – Joni Mitchell (from Turbulent Indigo)
- The Dry Cleaner from Des Moines – Joni Mitchell (from Mingus)
- Refuge of the Roads – Joni Mitchell (from Hejira)
- Beautiful Child – Rufus Wainwright (from Want One)
- I Don’t Know What It Is – Rufus Wainwright (from Want One)
- I’m An Errand Girl for Rhythm – Diana Krall (from All for You – A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio)
- Hit that Jive Jack – Diana Krall (from All for You – A Dedication to the Nat King Cole Trio)
- If You Could Read My Mind – Gordon Lightfoot (from If You Could Read My Mind)
- Luck in My Eyes – K.D. Lang & The Reclines (from Absolute Torch & Twang)
- Atomic Number – Neko Case, K.D. Lang, Laura Veirs (from case/lang/veirs)
- Closer to the Heart – Rush (from A Farewell to Kings)
- Fly By Night – Rush (from Fly By Night)
- Let Love Reign – Robbie Robertson (from Let Love Reign/I Hear You Paint Houses)
- Theme from the Last Waltz – Concert Version – The Band (from The Last Waltz)
- Coyote (feat. Joni Mitchell) – Concert Version – The Band, Joni Mitchell (from The Last Waltz)
- Marrakesh Night Market – Loreena McKennitt (from The Mask and the Mirror)
- Bonny Portmore – Loreena McKennitt (from The Visit)
- Misguided Angel – Cowboy Junkies (from The Trinity Sessions)
- 1234 – Feist (from The Reminder)
- Sealion – Feist (from The Reminder)
- Crabbuckit – K-OS (from Joyful Rebellion)
- There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back – Shawn Mendes (from Illuminate)
Quick links to more I Ate the State adventures:
- Thurston County
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta: THE RETURN
- Skagit County
- Snohomish County – Part I (The Mountain Side)
- Snohomish County – Part II (The Sea Side)
- Grays Harbor County
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part I (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Special Edition – Scotland – Part II (w/special guests – London & Reykjavik!)
- Clallam County
- Kitsap County
- Jefferson County
- Mason County
- Kittitas County
- Yakima County
- Chelan County
- Special Edition – Puerto Vallarta
- Special Edition – Ode to A Bygone Seattle