By Ken Levy
Sometimes a vacation doesn’t have to include every “must see” attraction to be the most memorable and enjoyable experience possible. Hustle and bustle gets a bit trying at our advanced ages, especially with limited time to visit. A slower, more relaxed pace can still make for a memorable experience.
For many years, my wife and I were enthralled with the idea of visiting Victoria, BC and the magnificent Butchart Gardens north of the historic city. Both of us like a mix of natural settings and the excitement of a clean, vibrant city packed with beauty and history. But we both vehemently eschew big crowds, touristy trinket traps and long lines.
We found the perfect balance in Brentwood Bay, a Greater Victoria community of mostly upscale, quiet neighborhoods and small, pastoral farms. Our Airbnb home base for four nights was situated just a few minutes away by car from Butchart Gardens in one direction, and the delightful Victoria Butterfly Gardens in the other. We could catch a bus straight into the heart of the city from the end of our driveway.
We decided to see Butchart Gardens (butchartgardens.com) early, and this was our first mistake. Although exquisite any time of day, we were caught up in the garden’s morning and midday crowds, with busloads of folks arriving constantly. The resulting logjam, coupled with harsh midday sunlight, made for a less-than-optimal experience. We decided to come back in the early evening, when the air was crisp and fresh, the crowds were dramatically thinned, and the light was soft and cool. We started with dinner in Butchart Gardens’ Blue Poppy Restaurant. Simple yet elegant—and surprisingly affordable—its salads were fresh and crisp, and their beautiful New York strip steak was perfectly cooked and tender.
Our evening stroll took us into the Sunken Garden, a five-acre focal point of the 55-acre site. We followed numerous gracefully winding pathways, gentle enough for our tired feet. They led us along and around more than 150 flower beds filled with intense colors and textures, both soft and sharp.
Walking along the upper pathways also led us to a grassy clearing with chairs set up for listening to a band playing magical Celtic music onstage. In the summer, the stage hosts different live performances from Thursday-Sunday evenings.
The following day, we made the five-minute drive to Victoria Butterfly Gardens (butterflygardens.com). We arrived about an hour before opening and decided to try out a cute little restaurant across the street.
Floyd’s Diner (floydsdiner.ca) relives the glory days of the silver screen in its décor, with old time rock and roll crooning through its speakers. As with everywhere we went, we found the people genuinely relaxed, friendly and welcoming, eager to share their joy. This, more than anything, makes for the best travel.
Strolling through the lush Victoria Butterfly Gardens was like reliving childhood wonder, with multicolored butterflies flitting by, on and near us to our delight. But there’s far more than butterflies in this delightful, indoor jungle, as gray parrots, flamingos, and macaws spent as much time gawking at us as we did them. Exotic plant life, from bamboo to coffee, pitcher plants to bird of paradise and more, enhance the tropical feel. Armies of ants filed by in a glass enclosure, each one carrying off precious pieces of leaf, and poison dart frogs and other creatures peered back at us through their windowed cages.
After several days of garden delights, we finally went cosmopolitan in downtown Victoria. We’re not exactly luxury types, but we managed a room with a commanding view and easy access to the harbor at the Days Inn, just a short walk to the British Columbia Parliament buildings and the Royal BC Museum.
Possibly one of the most walkable cities anywhere, the city’s Inner Harbor seemed designed especially for us. Besides the beauty of the harbor and its many boats, it features exquisite views of the Parliament buildings, steamship offices and the luxury Fairmont Empress hotel with its 430 rooms.
Looking for a memorable breakfast experience not gauged toward tourists, we were advised by the Inn staff to consider the Parliamentary Dining Room in the legislative building (tinyurl.com/28kj3ta4). The basement facility is uniquely comfortable, intimate, and well appointed, with soft-spoken yet friendly staff serving excellent Canadian fare.
After breakfast, we took a leisurely morning stroll to view Fisherman’s Wharf, following a lesser-used path, a favorite with joggers and walkers. The marine destination features colorful, floating shops, restaurants and 33 live-aboard floating homes. It hosts working fishing vessels and charters, and whale-watching and other eco-touring adventures launch from here.
It also hosts water taxis for those who, like us, want a quick, fun trip back across the harbor. From Fisherman’s Wharf, passengers can disembark at the dock at the Fairmont Empress. The taxis stop at numerous other locations in the harbor.
Walking the main path in the Inner Harbor took us past several sidewalk vendors, offering everything from fancy sausages to jewelry, trinkets to novelties. Street musicians, dancers and other performers stationed themselves along many spots along the way, drawing small yet happy crowds.
One of the best ways to enjoy a new location is to eat and drink where the locals gather. Our dinner walk took us to the historic Finn’s Seafood restaurant (finnsvictoria.com), built in 1882. Large and noisy, the place is popular with visitors and locals alike, with fine views of the harbor from the deck. Local oysters and steel head top the menu, along with poke bowls and rockfish, and various non-seafood choices, including pizza, steak, and chops.
Our last night took us into downtown Victoria, which offers many chic and modern spots along with its historic buildings, Chinatown, and charm. One of the most striking of the older buildings, the Bard & Banker (bardandbanker.com), opened as a bank in 1885. It is now home to a classic pub, maintaining much of its early décor and honoring Robert Service, known as the Canadian Bard. It features delightful pub food, live music and beer and cocktails. Furthermore, it’s a huge favorite with locals and is a welcoming oasis for travelers looking to take it easy during their Victoria visit. ISI