Victoria: Southern Gateway to Canada’s Vancouver Island

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By: Tourism Victoria & Bob Kenyon
Empress Hotel
The marina and Seawall in Front of the Empress Hotel
Photo: Hellobc.com

Canada’s furthest west provincial capital is Victoria, located on Vancouver Island and short ferry ride across the Straits of Georgia from Vancouver. According to the Government of Canada (Statistics Canada 2001), Victoria is rated the fittest city in Canada. Thirty-six percent of the adult population is active which is nearly double the national average. With the mildest climate in the country, Victoria is Canada’s destination for year-round outdoor adventure. Vancouver Island’s natural beauty also inspires people to get out and enjoy their surroundings. Victoria provides easy access to miles of scenic trails and sites that incorporate old growth rainforests, ocean shores and mountains. Hiking, cycling, kayaking and golf are just a few of the activities regularly enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

Thousands of hiking fans, from all over the world come to Victoria and Vancouver Island to hike. Due to the climate you can do so pretty well year-round, except in winter things can get pretty wet. What for most Canadians is a time of year for snow and cold, the south part of the west coast is cold and wet. So bring your rain gear, because even in summer rainforests can be a tad damp.

Victoria provides easy access to miles of scenic trails that lead hikers through old growth rainforests, along ocean shores and up mountains. Local favourites, including Goldstream Provincial Park, East Sooke Regional Park and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, offer short hourly excursions to multi-day treks. Due to the number of shipwrecks that once occurred along the rocky shoreline of Southwestern Vancouver Island, a lifesaving trail for shipwrecked mariners was created. That lifeline is now the world famous West Coast Trail. Stretching for 75 kilometres between Port Renfrew and Bamfield, today the trail is only for the prepared and experienced backpacker seeking the ultimate hiking experience.

Visitors can join Island Adventure Tours for three days of hiking the rugged coastline, lush rainforests and sandy beaches of the 47 km Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. Guided by a trained naturalist, visitors are likely to see whales, eagles, black bears, otters, sea lions and seals. Other highlights include rich inter-tidal life, ancient forests and 200 ft. suspension bridges. The hike is supported by a guide that sets up camp so that participants carry only their lunch and water. Hikers can camp overnight on the beach or stay in a nearby Bed and Breakfast. This hike is recommended for experienced hikers and small groups only.

Gulf Islands National Park has recently been created as the nation’s 40th national park. It is the first new national park established under the Government of Canada’s plan to create ten new national parks and five marine conservation areas in the next five years. The Gulf Islands are located in the Strait of Georgia east of Vancouver Island and the new park, with a total area of approximately 6,425-acres, is spread out over 29 sites on 15 islands and includes over 30 islets and reefs. The park will include a Parks Canada Discovery Centre and will offer endless opportunities for visitors to hike, kayak, camp and sail. For more information visit www.parkscanada.gc.ca.

Cycling Capital of Canada

Victoria is the “Cycling Capital of Canada” according to the Government of Canada (Statistics Canada 2001). In the Greater Victoria Region, cycling accounts for 6.2% of commuter travel – more than any other city in Canada. Ottawa comes in at 2.1%; Vancouver at 1.7% and Toronto at 0.75%. In Victoria, most people live within a 30-minute bike ride of their workplace and from some neighbourhoods, up to 20% of trips to work are made by bicycle. Bike lanes on many of Victoria’s downtown streets and bike racks on city buses that travel to the suburban communities also promote cycling. More people also wear bike helmets in Victoria than anywhere else in the world (92%).

The Galloping Goose Trail is a linear park that stretches 70 km from Victoria to Sooke. Built on abandoned railway tracks and trestles, and named after a 1920’s rail car, the Galloping Goose is part of the Trans Canada Trail. The Galloping Goose trail surface is wide, mostly flat and leads through a wonderful diversity of landscapes. Many local cyclists, both commuters and recreational, use the Galloping Goose Trail to get around southern Vancouver Island. The Galloping Goose Trail connects with the Lochside Trail and Seaside Cycling Route to create the first bicycle touring route in the southern Vancouver Island region.

It is no wonder that Victoria is home to Roland Green, 2001 World Mountain Bike Champion. The rugged terrain around Victoria is perfect for mountain biking. Located just outside Victoria, Hartland Landfill, commonly referred to as “The Dump,” is “the” place to ride and is the only designated mountain biking area on Vancouver Island. The riding actually takes place on the forested hills of Mount Work. From logging roads to extreme drops, the area is riddled with trails and new ones appear almost weekly. In general the trails tend to be technical; tight singletrack, roots, rocks, logs and drops, but Hartland has something for everyone and there are plenty of trails for beginners along the lower regions of the park. There is also a trials course 100 metres from the entrance.

orca (killer whale) victoria

Orca (killer whale) – Victoria, BC.
Photo: Mae Croft

Kayaking

One of the most peaceful ways to experience Victoria and Vancouver Island is by kayak or canoe. These vessels allow visitors to view the Island from a unique vantage point and venture into many places inaccessible by foot or car. Victoria and its surrounding area is considered to have some of the best kayaking in the world. Vancouver Island has approximately 3,500 km of ocean coastline, 700 lakes, 160 rivers and 890 streams in which to paddle. Kayakers can also depart right from the Inner Harbour in downtown Victoria. The waters in Victoria’s picturesque harbour are calm and ideal for an introductory paddling session. While kayaking, visitors may pass a colony of sea lions or a pod of orca whales. Visitors to Victoria can rent kayaks upon arrival or bring their own equipment. BC Ferries treats kayaks as hand baggage with no extra charge.

Annual Salmon Run and Eagle Extravaganza

Every autumn, visitors to Goldstream Provincial Park, located 20 minutes from downtown Victoria, to witness an amazing spectacle of nature as the spawning salmon make their annual return to the Goldstream River. The salmon appear about mid-October and are seen for approximately nine weeks. Of the five kinds of North American Pacific salmon, it is the Chum salmon that is most abundant in this river. Come mid-December, Goldstream’s Eagle Extravaganza begins. Over 250 bald eagles and other birds of prey move into Goldstream Provincial Park until February to feast on the salmon and their eggs. Vancouver Island is home to more bald eagles than all of the Continental United States.

Under the Sea

National Geographic Magazine has recognized Vancouver Island as one of the best cold-water diving destinations in the world and the renowned Jacques Cousteau Society rates the area as only second to the Red Sea for diversity of marine life and water clarity. Victoria’s Ogden Point Breakwater, Ten Mile Point and nearby Race Rocks offer exhilarating dive opportunities.

Diving excursions also include artificial reef projects like the 6 naval destroyer ships and one Boeing 737 that can be found in Vancouver Island waters. The Artificial Reef Society of British Columbia (ARSBC) creates and promotes artificial reefs for use by SCUBA divers and marine life. This non-profit, voluntarily operated society has sunk 7 decommissioned Canadian Navy ships and the one passenger airplane in the areas off the east coast of Vancouver Island, in the Georgia Strait, from:

  • As far north as Campbell River (The Columbia Destroyer Escort)
  • South to Victoria (The Mackenzie Destroyer Escort & The Motor Vessel G.B. Church)
  • On the mainland, north of Vancouver at Sechelt (The Chaudière Destroyer Escort)

Other Interesting Sites

Victoria has a British appearance and atmosphere, for many tourists, a trip to Victoria wouldn’t be complete without high tea at the Empress Hotel. Near the Empress Hotel, on the picturesque inner harbor is the Provincial Legislature Building and the Royal BC Museum, both are good visits if you get a rainy day in Victoria.

For those that like flowers and plants, don’t forget to visit to the world famous Butchart Gardens, which are a series of ornamental and theme gardens planted in an abandoned stone quarry. Take a good pair of footwear and plan on long stay. If you go in the early evening, the dancing fountain, in the grotto, is great to watch, after dark!

If you go to Vancouver Island allow lots of time for touring, as it can be a whole trip in itself. You’ll find beaches, rainforests, mountains and many opportunities for enjoying British Columbia’s outdoors.

From the Schwartz Bay Terminal of BC Ferries, travelers can west to Vancouver. As well you can go to the Gulf Islands. There is also ferry service from the terminals, further up the island, at Nanaimo and Comox. A point of warning, for those planning a trip on a ferry, ferry line-ups are long, so go early in the day and try to avoid weekends!

To find services and information, from Ya’Gotta, about Canada’s west coast, visit our our Westcoast Network and read our Westcoast Blog.

If you enjoyed this Ya’Gotta article about Victoria, British Columbia you may also like to view more of the tourism “gateway” cities of western Canada:

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