VICTORIA – If there is one thing British Columbia has lots of, it’s nature. It is little wonder that as a testament to the province’s natural beauty that car licence plates are proudly emblazoned with the catchy moniker “Beautiful British Columbia.” Just shy of a million square kilometers, British Columbia is truly vast, but Vancouver Island offers a great and accessible foray into the region and the south of the island with Victoria as its gateway is a perfect way to start.
The capital of British Columbia, Victoria has a decidedly English feel. Elegant colonial buildings, leafy roads, and manicured parks all help to put the ‘British’ into British Columbia. Despite being a cosmopolitan and at times bohemian urban centre, there’s plenty of fauna and flora brimming at the edges. A good place to start is the spectacular Inner Harbour in front of the imposing and regal Empress Hotel.
Locals certainly value the rich biodiversity that inhabits their island waters but are rather blasé about seeing whales. After all, when you have around 14,000 bobbing around the North Pacific waters, they are something of a fixture. But coming from the rolling south downs of Sussex, I was pretty thrilled at the chance to see a few marine giants.
The harbour has numerous organised tours on offer, but I chose Prince of Whales Whale Watching. Catchy name aside, the ticket office and pick up point is located right next to the tourist information office which makes it ideal if you are in downtown Victoria. Just make sure to be there 30 minutes before the scheduled departure time.
They offer a variety of tours throughout the year and for the truly adventurous the small open air 12 passenger Zodiac boats zip in and out at great speed. But if you are prone to sea sickness and don’t fancy bouncing on the crest of the waves or donning a full waterproof safety suit, then larger vessels are also available. I opted for the Ocean Magic II, which proved to be a comfortable and exhilarating ride.
The departure out of the harbour is a truly stunning start to the adventure. After about 15 minutes of navigating the gentle waters you are out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Prince of Whales promises that if you don’t see a whale you can go on another tour free of charge. The number of whales in the waters is certainly on their side, but all the tours operate a whale spotting network so all the vessels are in on the act.
Despite having grown up with lots of BBC nature programs, nothing quite matches the sheer thrill of seeing a humpback whale breaching the surface of the sea. The tours are strictly monitored to make sure they don’t get too close, for the wellbeing of the whales, but at about 100 meters, it is close enough to appreciate the majesty of these wild giants of the deep.
Humpbacks are the largest whale to frequent Vancouver Island waters. Over the course of the warmer months, they spend most of their time feeding on tiny crustaceans which consist mostly of krill but also plankton and small fish. After somepretty extensive dining in the rich coastal waters they then spend the winter months heading off to Hawaii with a few veering to Mexico where they breed and rest.
All in all, I managed to see eight humpback whales, though I didn’t get to see any killer whales, gray or minke whales; but I certainly didn’t feel disappointed. After a good hour of whale watching the Ocean Magic II hugged in close to the coast passing by Race Rocks and the resident seals and sea lions were happily basking in the sun. At CAD 130 a person from March to November, it is value for money for an informative and incredibly well organised chance to experience Vancouver Island’s marine wildlife.
VICTORIA – Located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is blessed with rich waters with the Pacific Ocean and various waterways and inlets. For those who love seafood, there is much to savour. Best of all, the produce on offer, often having been caught that morning, is certainly fresh! Being on an idyllic harbour only serves to round off the dining experience both with stunning views and the chance for a post meal walk.
At the far end of the Inner Harbour is Fisherman’s Wharf. In its heyday, it was the epicentre of the city’s fishing fleet, and despite having morphed into a tourist destination, it has done so tastefully. Juxtaposed with rather expensive private sailing vessels and unique floating homes are a number of excellent restaurants. Not surprisingly, the main focus is seafood.
The Fish Store
Located right in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf, the Fish Store floats on its own pontoon. If it has an edge over other eateries in the city, it’s that it is licensed to purchase fish and shellfish directly from the fishermen and process on the spot. As such, you are assured of the freshest catch in town.
The main jetty and walkways have plenty of seating areas, and the recent addition of a floating seating area next to the store is a relaxing place to enjoy a meal. The focus is on good food, simply prepared. The open counter concept is rather akin to a fishmonger, so you can see exactly what they have. Once you place your order and have paid, you receive an order alert device which will buzz and light on when your food is ready to collect.
Traditionalists can opt for the fish and chips, with the difference that the fish includes not just staples like halibut and cod, but also wild sockeye salmon and river sturgeon. Coming from the UK, I have had my fair share of fish and chips so decided to start with the 3 way salmon chowder. A rather luxurious ‘soup’, with both fresh salmon fillets and smoked salmon, it is especially thick from the addition of onion, potato and corn.
The candied salmon which was sprinkled on the top was a new experience but the combination of the sweet and fishy worked rather well. There are numerous cup sizes but frankly I think the smaller ones are more than enough. It is more of a rich stew than a soup.
Perhaps with an eye on culinary creativity, the Fish Store has all sorts of ways of serving its fare from fish tacos to rice wraps and the pithily named ‘fishwiches’. As much as I was intrigued by the latter, I have always had a soft spot for mussels, so I opted for the Cortes mussels in garlic butter. Northern France this was not, but these mussels would win hands down. Plump, steamed to perfection, and with well seasoned stock, they were sublime.
The focaccia bread which accompanies it is just what you need to mop up the last remaining juices. Staying on the bivalve theme, I ordered two dozen oysters. As a youngster, the idea of eating fresh oysters didn’t appeal in the slightest until I went to Whitstable in Kent, England; tried one and was hooked. Ordinarily, twenty four oysters would be an indulgence, but from 4 to 5pm they offer a ‘buck a shuck’ so it’s incredibly priced. There are lots of sauces to accompany them, and the zesty lemon and pickled red onion mignonettes were my favourites.
If there is a downside, this is probably not a place for families or children, unless they have particularly developed palettes. While Victoria is a safe place, it is not crime free, if you count the seagulls that swoop down to steal your meal. I lost a few exceptional oysters that way but put feelings of loss to one side given the audacity of their moves. And while not a crime, not having an alcohol licence does mean being able to sip a chilled sauvignon blanc or chardonnay with your oysters is prohibited.
Five minutes’ walk from the Fish Store is the Steamship Grill & Bar. Situated right on the harbour just in front of the opulent parliamentary Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the Steamship Grill & bar is in an equally wondrous architectural masterpiece. The cavernous space of the restaurant is perfect for large groups where chatter and laughter is the order of the day, but perhaps not so conducive to intimate dining experiences, unless you are sat on the outside terrace. Having booked a table for eight people, we were sat quickly and promptly.
The menu is not surprisingly heavily skewed towards seafood, though there are concessions to meat-eaters with burgers and various ‘surf and turf’ options. For vegetarians, the menu is somewhat limited. I started with a very satisfying whiskey crab soup which was garnished with chives and crème fraiche. With appetisers at around $15, I shared the crab cakes and coconut prawns with a friend. The crab cakes were of a reasonable size though I wasn’t a great fan of the cauliflower puree which accompanied it, and the coconut prawns worked very well and the mango sauce provided just the right level of sweetness to offset the prawns.
While others opted for steaks and some pastas, I gave the blackened pacific snapper a go. A delicate fish, it was wasn’t overcooked and remained firm and the salsa verde added just the right amount of piquant flavour. With main courses at around $35, this can be a potentially expensive meal, especially with a bottle of wine, though the wine list is comprehensive and does have some reasonably priced local wines.Despite other reviews noting patchy service, the meal went smoothly with all the courses coming out in a timely manner, and various requests seemed to be met with suitable savoir faire.
The bathrooms are located on the second floor, which does prove to be a little bit of a trek, though it does afford an opportunity to see some of this historic building. By the time we had finished the restaurant was packed out, so it certainly has a loyal following, but underlined the need to make a reservation in advance and perhaps indicate where you want to sit.
The tables near the windows do provide some wonderful vistas and the terrace is ideal for dinner for two, with those tables in the middle of the restaurant being well suited to large groups. The desserts include a lot of cheesecakes, ice cream and various chocolate based confections, but being suitably full, I decided to forgo them in preference for a restorative latte.
470 Belleville St, Victoria, BC V8E 1W9
+1 (778) 433-6736
Harbour House Restaurant
The landscape of most cities’ culinary scenes are often awash with restaurant chains and fast food outlets. Finding a truly old school restaurant can be a challenge, but Victoria has one such treasure in the form of Harbour House Restaurant. Nestled on a side street (Oswego Street), it has been in operation for over 30 years which makes it one of the oldest in the city.
Sitting on Quadra Park, it is a minute’s walk from the harbour and horse drawn carriages ply their trade outside. While other restaurants have succumbed to modern or minimalist make overs, the Harbour House Restaurant retains a charming if somewhat retro feel. Light wood paneling, paisley carpeting, pastel coloured walls, napkins and table clothes (think peach, avocado and lemon) all make for a slightly 1980s look.
That said, it is charming, warm and welcoming and feels like the sort of place your parents would take you to for special occasions, and now that you are grown up, you truly appreciate. Having spotted seating outside, the moment we arrived we asked to be sat at the small balcony area. Small enough for a couple of tables, we had the area to ourselves and were able to enjoy the last rays of the summer sunshine and watch the world go by.
As a rather ‘grown up’ restaurant, the menu has a few classics such as lobster bisque, escargots and Chateaubriand. And for those who prefer meat to fish, the ‘from the grill’ section has a comprehensive selection. However, given its close proximity to the harbour, it is the fish and seafood that stands out.
I started with the lobster bisque, which was not as creamy as others I have had, but I liked it for being so and it was well seasoned and had plenty of flavour. The mussels in white wine was perfect. Good sized mussels with a slightly tart wine sauce which offset the natural sweetness of the shallots and mussels. The main course of filet of sole was simple but elegant, and I ordered some mixed buttered vegetables to go with it.
The only downside to being outside was that there being no licence for alcohol, I had to forgo a glass but the ambiance and light of dusk more than made up for it. So far, all the food was competent, fresh, and well flavoured but not fine dining in the modern sense. This is not an experimental or boundary pushing establishment. The chocolate mousse was velvety and rich, and rounded off the meal perfectly.
In keeping with its positioning, the menu is on the more expensive side. Starters are typically around $15, with main courses ranging from $20-$40. The things that will add up quickly are the side servings, beverages, coffees and desserts. Having said that, for a romantic dinner, soaking up the local atmosphere and experiencing classic dining, this is a winner.
VICTORIA – Being an island and a big one at that, Vancouver Island has over twenty five thousand kilometers of coastline to explore. From rugged trails, jaw dropping cliffs to sandy beaches, it offers every possible vista to enjoy the Pacific Ocean and various inlets and straits that form the myriad of smaller islands that surround it. For visitors to Victoria, there are two that are worth the drive. For something nearer to downtown, Willows Beach is about 15 minutes by car from the harbour. While there are taxis in Victoria, they are few and far between and having your own vehicle is really the best way to explore the area.
Willows Beach is immensely popular in the summer months. All very genteel, it has a rather English feel about it as people take leisurely strolls, set up windbreakers or make sandcastles. Driving to it, you will pass through the affluent Oak Bay area, known for its popular tree-lined namesake avenue, filled with smart boutiques and art galleries, fancy delis, and lively cafes. The prestigious Uplands neighbourhood is the ‘Beverly Hills’ of Vancouver Island with its leafy streetscape dotted with multi million dollar mansions and high end cars to match.
The day I was there mid summer, it was particularly busy. Most seemed to be families and locals enjoying the sunshine, and there are plenty of parking spaces on the beachfront and on the side streets. It is not an especially wide beach but is long enough for a good 30 – 40 minutes stroll, and the sand is fine and dotted with drift wood which makes for handy seating to take in the views. The length of the beach and the fact it’s on a bay affords a stunning panorama that includes Oak Bay Marina, Discovery Island, and Mount Baker with its snow capped peak which looms in the far distance.
A rather hot day, I took some solitude in the large grassy park aptly named Willows Park. This was greatly enhanced with an exceptional ice cream from the quaint Kiwanis Willows Beach Tea Room. Overlooking the beach, this is an institution in Victoria and offers light snacks and refreshments, and offers a full cooked breakfast for the bargain of 10 dollars. Frankly, it wouldn’t look out of place in any British seaside town.
If you are feeling a little more adventurous, then a 45 minute drive out of downtown Victoria will bring you to the beach at Aylard Farm in East Sooke Regional Park. There are a couple of possible routes but I chose to take Craigflower Road which passes through the leafy suburbia of Esquimalt and View Royal. On the way, look out for the Craigflower Manor & Schoolhouse. Erected in the 1850s and originally part of the Craigflower Farm settlement, it’s a charming example of early agricultural architecture. The drive through Sooke Road in Colwood isn’t especially attractive so best to continue on to Metchosin Road.
If you did want to break up the journey, which would be about 20 minutes from Victoria, then a slight detour nearby Fort Rodd Hill and the Fisgard Lighthouse is worth a visit. I decided to do both, and am glad I did. Fort Rodd Hill is a 19th-century coastal artillery fort which juts out on a small spit of land overlooking the Salish Sea. If you are a naval or military buff then you will be in your element. A National Historic Site of Canada since 1958, there are plenty of canons, gun placements and bunkers to roam over and through, with guided and audio tours if you really want to know more. However, it was the rugged and dramatic coastline that took my breath away. The day I was there, about a dozen deer had decided it was the perfect place to graze which added to the whole experience.
After a good brisk walk, I headed down to the Fisgard Lighthouse which perches on the rocks in front of the fort. With the Olympic Mountains in Washington State in the far background, this was not only one of the most beautiful places I had been to but offered spectacular photo opportunities. There are plenty of rocks to clamber over, but do so with care. A couple of seals had also decided it was perfect for sunbathing but quickly slipped away when they had been rumbled. The gleaming white and red topped lighthouse and its red bricked building is the oldest on Canada’s west coast and still in operation. For all the natural beauty here, it’s a busy shipping lane and the lighthouse still serves its purpose to remind those of the perils of the sea.
The dangers, isolation and desolation of maritime and lighthouse life are charmingly rendered over two floors of the red brick house.
After an hour and half of wind in my hair, I continued my drive onto Aylard Farm beach. After leaving Colwood, the drive weaves its way through the rural communities and agricultural lands of Metchosin. The roads amble their way through lush landscapes and there are plenty of places to stop off to buy local farm produce or even to rent bees! Needing a jolt of caffeine, I quickly stopped off at the My Chosen Cafe which is at the heart of Metchosin. It became immediately obvious this is a dining destination. The car park was packed on a weekday afternoon, and it was easy to see why. With its rustic setting, extensive menu, fabulous cakes and a convivial atmosphere, this had a loyal following. While I only grabbed a latte, I put this down on my list as ‘must come back’.
Heading out of Metchosin, you take the scenic Rocky Point Road and East Sooke Road. With its twists and turns you skirt the coastline, dip through verdant valleys and pass by dense woodlands. While you can’t visit, you will pass the Canadian Forces Ammunition Depot at Rocky Point which is one of four ammunition depots strategically located across Canada and probably the most picturesque. A few minutes further I had a quick pit stop at Spirit Bay.
Billing itself as “an authentic seaside village on the south coast of Vancouver Island”, Spirit Bay is a new environmentally sustainable development which hugs the coastline of this idyllic bay with its many rocky bays, headlands and little beaches. A forward thinking project, it is a shining example of the development of Beecher Bay (Sci’anew) First Nationland. With its bespoke wood-framed houses in a kaleidoscope of colours, it reminded me of a fishing village in Sweden or Iceland. There is still much to build but it will no doubt become a thriving community on the West Coast. Given its waterfront positioning, it proved an amusing diversion with plenty of seals lolloping around and seemingly oblivious to my presence on the dock. The pair of juvenile raccoons trying and failing to get into the waste bins raised a smile before they scurried off in defeat.
Pushing on, and a further 10 minute drive, I finally reached the beach at Aylard Farm which is open from sunrise to sunset. There are ample parking facilities and it’s only a short 5 minute walk across the open fields to a dirt track which leads to the beach. It is quite simply an oasis of calm, with spectacular views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Olympic Mountains. Most people who were there had made the most of the large driftwood as cosy places to settle down and relax. One young boy was engrossed in the rock pools hunting for crabs and another was busying himself building a sandcastle.
For those wishing for more strenuous activities, the beach and coastline is popular for watersports and scuba diving. While that’s not my forte, I did decide to check out some of the numerous trails that are on offer. Experienced ramblers can take the entire coast trail, which according to the website, can take about 8 hours to complete one-way. Dramatic scenery, and some challenging terrain make this a popular trek but one for which you need to be prepared. I decided on somethng more genteel and took the less intimidating walk from Aylard Farm beach to Becher Bay.
Only 300 meters one way, it was easy underfoot with the gravel trail and gentle slopes. Despite being the ‘easy option’, it still afforded great views of the ocean and the coastal habitat. The end of the trail provided a lovely picnic area from which I spent half an hour soaking up the views.