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.
text James Tulley