When people think of Canada, images of snow-covered mountains and winter sports come to mind.
But along Canada’s Pacific Coast, just west of the metropolitan city of Vancouver, lies the city of Victoria on Vancouver Island, an amazing hidden gem that Canadians flock to, but Americans haven’t quite discovered yet. And why not?
That’s a good question, as Victoria is just a 30-minute ferry ride from Port Angeles, Wash., situated on the Northwestern area of the state. Residents of Seattle also have ferry options, with the trip taking just under two hours, passing beautiful wooded islands and doubling as a whale-watching adventure. Better yet, there are ferries that travel from Vancouver to Victoria as well, providing a great excuse to spend a week with our neighbors to the north. Really, what’s not to like?
One could argue that the cold weather might be a deterrent to most people who don’t live in the area, but that’s not exactly the case. “There’s never really a bad time to come,” says Cathy Ray. She’s the manager of travel media relations for Tourism Victoria, and has lived there for several years. “We get a quarter of the rain of both Vancouver and Seattle, and the climate is really pleasant year-round.”
But there’s a lot of snow, right? This is Canada that we’re talking about. “No, we’ve had a few freak snowstorms over the past little bit, but that usually equates to about a foot and disappears quite quickly,” Ray explains. “We don’t go below zero [degrees Celsius] really here; generally in the winter it’s about 5 [degrees Celsius]. Not really ever that cold.”
Ultimately, that means there could be snow in the winter, but not enough to make visitors from the South have to put on giant warmup suits that make them look like the Michelin Man. It also makes the area a haven for Olympic athletes, because of the mostly perfect climate year-round.
Maybe the reason Americans don’t visit the country is the reputation that Victoria — where most people start off their tour of the island — is known for being the home of retirees and touristy thrift shops. Thing is, that’s not entirely true. Yes, many of Canada’s elder statesmen and women used to flock to Victoria because of the great weather and equally great health benefits. But today, the younger crowd has moved in as well, with younger families moving into the area as well. The result is an island full of people who run the gamut of different ages, but are financially well off.
Because of the type of people who live on the island, the resulting homes are quite amazing. Since Vancouver Island includes a mountain range in the middle, there are many places in the area with tremendous views of the ocean. And since it’s a vacation destination, many homes are designed as partial rentals with multiple kitchens and tons of bedrooms. Plus, they’re affordably priced, which even at today’s exchange rates are still good buys.
As far as activities go, visitors who stay by the harbor get the full tourist treatment with access to amazing hotels, posh bars and lots of shopping. This is the old part of Victoria, and where guests see the famous older buildings that make the city so iconic. Truly, these are sights to see, if even only for a day. The Parliament building is one of the more striking monuments, and sits right next to the harbor in all of its splendor. Like a perfect bookend, the Empress Hotel sits right at the entryway to the harbor, and is the first thing many people see as they arrive. This is where the British influence on the city is most obvious, and they even celebrate high tea daily.
Get outside of the city though, and that’s where the outdoor adventures begin. Enjoy hiking, mountain biking and more just outside the city limits, as well as kayaking both in and out of the harbor area — also fun for the thrill-seekers. Another big attraction is Butchart Gardens, a National Historic Site that spans 55 acres in Brentwood Bay, about 20 minutes away from the harbor. It’s a lot of walking, but it’s beautiful to look at, no matter what your scene is.
Victoria isn’t the most well-known city in Canada, but it’s a hidden gem that everyone should get out and see. And to make it even more fun, fly into Seattle and take a ferry to enjoy the sights along the way for an added bonus. It may not hold the allure of Vancouver or Toronto, but it’s definitely worth the trip.