But even so, reaching the city and its island requires travel by either boat or plane, as there are no bridges connecting to the mainland. Vancouver Island is the largest Pacific Island east of New Zealand clocking in at an impressive 290 miles long and 50 miles wide at its largest point. Most of the sparse population can be found on the southern end in and near Victoria.
The capital of British Columbia, Victoria is known as ‘The Garden City’ thanks to it having the mildest climate in Canada allowing greenery and flowers almost year round.
Couple that with the innate courtesy and friendliness that marks Canadians and you have an ideal place to test out your overwater flying skills, your abilities to manage the logistics of international GA travel, and a really wonderful place to spend some time!
Flying to Canada from the US (and returning BACK to the US!) requires some pre-planning and electronic registration/negotiation. Once all of the registration work is handled, flight planning to/from can proceed as usual, with the added caveats of making sure you are landing at POE (port of entry) airports both on your way over AND on your way back.
For the outward journey, your only (land) choice is Victoria International Airport (CYYJ). The airport is actually about 27 km (that’s about 17 miles!) up the coast from Victoria near the town of Sydney, BC, so be sure to plan your transport to/from Victoria accordingly. With customs on site and a visitor-friendly FBO it is a perfect place to begin your international adventure.
The FBO, the Victoria Flying Club (www.flyvfc.com) has a full range of facilities including self-serve fuel, a great airplane-viewing café, and cheerful staff. Right next to the control tower and housed in a World War II-era hangar, you will be leaving your airplane in good hands. Before leaving the airport, true aircraft die-hards may want to make a stop at the BC Aviation Museum (www.bcam.net) which is dedicated to preserving the history of aviation in the province. Not a large facility with only a few dozen aircraft, it still provides a different (aka Canadian!) perspective on flight.
For those of you who a) want to bypass that pesky 17 mile trip to Victoria, and b) have a seaplane, you COULD land at the Victoria Harbour seaplane base (CYWH). That will put you right in the middle of the action... and amidst commercial seaplane traffic, water taxis, LOTS of boats (from kayaks to cruise ships) and wildlife. Definitely NOT for the faint of heart, but it IS a (wet) option!
True to its ‘Garden City’ nickname, Victoria is full of flowers and color. Blooms are everywhere, including the more than 1,600 old-style streetlights festooned with hanging baskets. Nestled around the harbor, downtown is inviting and welcoming to pedestrians.
Virtually all of the city sights and attractions are within walking distance. And for the few must-sees that aren’t, water taxis, seaplane taxis, double decker buses, and ‘normal’ cabs are available.
Lodging options abound, from the Fairmont Empress to unique and quirky bed and breakfasts and just about everything in between. For the ultimate in luxury and service, by all means choose the Empress. This Edwardian chateau-style hotel opened in 1908 and has dominated the skyline overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbor ever since.
Notable guests have included Queen Elizabeth II, Rudyard Kipling, Shirley Temple, Spencer Tracy, Rita Hayworth, the King and Queen of Siam, and Bob Hope to name a few.
Even if you opt to stay elsewhere, Afternoon Tea at the Empress is a must. This world renowned version of the beloved English ritual has been a tradition since 1908. Surrounded by rich chintz fabrics, antiqued tapestries and rugs, elegant wing back chairs, vintage furnishings, hand-carved tables, and a gorgeous view, it is the quintessential Victoria experience.
The Inner Harbor itself is beautiful, buzzing with activity, and a great place to stroll. From the pedestrian walkway you can watch all the boats and seaplanes, enjoy street performers and crafts booths, and visit Fisherman’s Wharf (fishermanswharfvictoria.com) with great seafood shacks, amazing houseboats, some resident seals and even the occasional otter! Be sure to make a stop at Barb’s Seafood Place for the BEST fish and chips!
A fun way to get to Fisherman’s Wharf is to take one of the cute little water taxis. Operated by Victoria Harbour Ferry (their motto is ‘happy people, happy boats!’) (www.victoriaharbourferry.com) these colorful 8-10 passenger boats zip around the waterways at all hours.
Sailing in the boats puts you right in the thick of the traffic, but not to worry—the captains are experienced seafarers and knowledgeable tour guides! You can purchase single tickets, day passes, and even take full tours on these tiny vessels.
One of our favorite voyages is to cross the harbor to Spinnaker’s Brewpub. Open since 1984, it is Canada’s oldest beer pub, and boasts an impressive array of on-site crafted beers, an excellent menu, and an equally impressive view of the Harbour.
Once you leave the Harbor you are mere steps from BC’s Parliament Buildings. Designed by Francis Rattenbury in the neo-baroque style, they officially opened in 1898 and boast 33 copper domes.
In a touch of whimsy, there is a life-sized statue of Captain George Vancouver atop the main dome where he points toward Vancouver, the city named after him. Be sure to take one of the guided tours to enjoy the murals adorning the rotunda, the legislative chambers, amazing artwork, stained-glass windows, and—if you’re lucky—a visit from a historical figure. And linger until evening when the buildings are ablaze with more than 3,300 white lights.
Virtually next door is the Royal BC Museum (royalbcmuseum.bc.ca). Founded in 1886, the museum’s collections contain over 7 million objects, which in part are displayed in three permanent galleries: natural history, local First Nations’ history (this being the indigenous native tribes), and modern history.
Not just a series of stuffy display cases, the artifacts here are shown in dioramas that illustrate how they were used and created bringing history to life. There are even entire street recreations with shops and homes. Throw in the occasional character re-enactments and you have a lively, entertaining, and educational experience!
On the grounds of the Museum be sure to find Thunderbird Park. Formed in 1941, this was where totem poles from the museum’s collection were on display. After the deteriorating original poles were restored and moved back inside for preservation, replicas of the originals were installed, along with an area schoolhouse (circa 1844), the Helmcken House (circa 1852), and a traditional First Nations’ “big house” built in 1953 by Kwakwaka’wakw Chief Mungo Martin.
In nice weather, stretch your legs in Beacon Hill Park. Also close to downtown, this popular urban park has been welcoming visitors since 1882. At about 200 acres, it sports a well maintained walking trail system that wends its way thru green fields, picnic areas, sightseeing benches, birding ponds, floral gardens, and fountains.
Just a bit further from the harbor is Victoria’s Chinatown (chinatown.library.uvic.ca). This enclave is the second-oldest in North America (following only San Francisco’s). Originally home to the many Chinese who travelled seasonally to the interior gold regions, coastal salmon canneries, and logging camps, today it is a maze of alleyways and courtyards filled with decades old architecture, eclectic shopping and a wide variety of entertainment options.
One entrance is thru the Gate of Harmonious Interest. Its stone lions and bells keep away evil spirts, while its dragons, phoenix and other symbols bring positive energy. The two inscriptions ‘To work together with one heart’ and ‘to help each other achieve harmony’ reflect the need to strive for harmonious relations between all people.
And while here, don’t miss Fan Tan Alley, named after a popular 1940s gambling game. At its narrowest point it is a mere 35” wide before expanding enough for tiny shops hawking trinkets, treasures, and mod fashions.
If shopping is your thing, you will not be disappointed. Check out Market Square (www.marketsquare.ca) housed in 1800s brick-and-beam buildings surrounding an expansive courtyard. Home to local boutiques offering one-of-a-kind merchandise and tasty food options, the courtyard offers performances almost every summer day.
Or what about Bastion Square (www.bastionsquare.ca) where the ceremonial entry arch welcomes you to the original site of old Fort Victoria. Here you’ll find all manner of eateries and pubs and—during the summer—an unparalleled artisan market.
Then there is Trounce Alley. Named after early pioneer Thomas Trounce the alley has authentic gaslights more than 125 years old and one-of-a kind shoe, handbag and local arts and crafts. One store, W&J Wilson Clothiers, has been operating since 1862, the year the city was incorporated. Oh, and an edible aside: two of our favorite restaurants are found here. The Tapa Bar and Pagliacci’s Italian Restaurant (www.pagliaccis.ca).
No trip to Victoria would be complete without a visit to the area’s #1 attraction, the Butchart Gardens (www.butchartgardens.com). This is the one time that you’ll need something besides your feet to get you there, as the Gardens are about a 30 minute drive away from the city.
While there are several methods to get you there, we highly recommend the red double decker buses. Not only do these get you to the Gardens in unique style, along the way the driver provides commentary, trivia, and fun facts. Upon arrival you are dropped off right at the main entrance (and are picked up there after your visit for the return trip.)
The 55-acre gardens started life as a limestone quarry. Robert Pim Butchart and his wife, Jennie, came here in 1904 to manufacture cement, which requires limestone. Their home – named “Benvenuto (which means ‘welcome’ in Italian)—was built nearby, and Jeannie, an avid gardener, began developing extensive gardens around the house.
When the limestone quarry was exhausted in 1909, Jennie set about turning the open pit into a sunken garden. She had top soil brought in by horse and cart; an enormous undertaking. Jeannie herself was often lowered via a bosun’s chair down the sides of the pit in order to tuck in various plants and flowers, as evidenced by photographs from the period!
The spectacular Sunken Garden was completed in 1921, and joined the Japanese Garden and the Italian Garden. In 1929 the Rose Garden was completed, and in 1936 400 flowering Japanese cherry trees were added. Ownership of The Gardens remains within the Butchart family, and today more than a million people a year visit. By all means, you need to be included in that number!
You might think that by now we’ve exhausted all that Victoria and Vancouver Island have to offer. Au contraire! Did we mention the seaplane tours? Whale watching? Eco boating? The Pacific Rim National Park Reserve? Or Craigdarroch Castle? What about Fisgard Lighthouse? We’ve barely scratched the surface.
I guess the only remedy is to make another trip – and soon. Want to join us?