Fully exploring British Columbia’s Vancouver Island takes longer than a weekend. But you can discover the adventurous spirit, rugged landscape and natural beauty of this 12,000-square mile island by visiting just a slice of it. Fly direct from San Francisco to Victoria (the capital) in just over two hours. From the Saanich Peninsula (north of Victoria where the airport is located) west to Sooke Harbor and back to Victoria on the southern tip, the island is full of fun, delicious food and drink, and friendly people.
The first night, we chose the eco-friendly Sooke Harbour House (1528 Whiffen Spit Lane, Sooke, 800-889-9688, www.sookeharbourhouse.com), nestled on the island’s west coast less than an hour from Victoria. This luxury beachfront inn boasts spacious rooms with wood-burning fireplaces, misting showers and soaking tubs — all with private balconies and views of the Juan de Fuca Strait and Olympic Mountains. Local artisan works are plentiful throughout the property and represent the best of the region with masks, carvings, paintings and more. The staff provides the ultimate in service (including rain suits and boots for inclement weather). Unwind and watch the wildlife at your doorstep — deer, bald eagles, sea lion, whales, and hummingbirds.
The next night, we stayed at the magnificent Fairmont Empress Hotel (721 Government Street, Victoria, 866-540-4429, www.fairmont.com/empress). This stately property, with its 1900s-style architecture, is an imposing site in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Most rooms have a view of the action on the waterfront. Some of the guestrooms retain the old charm and original details while others have been updated after a multimillion-dollar renovation. Either way, comfort and service are topnotch. With its prime location, the Fairmont Empress is the perfect location from which to discover Victoria.
Vancouver Island is a year-round playground. On the Saanich Peninsula, find rich agricultural land full of independent wine, spirits and fruits and vegetables producers. Visit the stunning Butchart Gardens (800 Venvenuto, Victoria, 866-652-4422, www.butchartgardens.com). These internationally recognized gardens date from 1904 in an abandoned limestone quarry on the estate of Jennie Butchart. Take pleasure in the flowering plants, manicured grounds and scenic vistas.
From here, drive past redwoods and Douglas firs (and free-range chicken eggs for sale) to Victoria Spirits (6170 Old West Saanich Road, Victoria, 250-544-8217, www.victoriaspirits.com), the first artisan gin distillery in British Columbia. A gregarious extended family runs the business and makes their small-batch, full-bodied gin in a wood-fired copper pot still. Also look for their Hemp vodka and soon-to-be-released whiskey.
Once you hit the coastline (either in Sooke Harbour or Victoria), water sports abound: sea kayaking, boating and windsurfing. Or take an exciting zip line ride at Adrena LINE Zipline Adventure (5128C Sooke Road, Sooke, 866-947-9145, www.adrenalinezip.com). Zip your way down through the forest — from up to 150 feet off the ground to an exhilarating 1,000 feet — over more than 100 acres on eight scenic lines and two suspension bridges.
If you feel safer on the ground, head to East Sooke Regional Park (www.eastsookepark.com). Whether you follow the rocky coast, cross the rugged hills or head into the rainforest, you’re guaranteed beautiful sightings of the Olympic Mountains and Juan de Fuca Strait, secluded coves and a fantastic hike.
The British settled Fort Victoria in 1843. Since then Victoria has become a cosmopolitan city with a small-town feel. It’s the “fittest” city in Canada and one of the most walkable. Create your own route or follow one of the tours that provide glimpses of Victoria’s history, neighborhoods and stunning views. Or jump on a bike and pedal through the regional parks.
Learn about the rich history of British Columbia as you wander through the Royal British Columbia Museum (675 Belleville Street, Victoria, 888-447-7977, www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca). The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (1040 Moss Street, Victoria, 250-384-8171, www.aggv.ca) houses a huge collection of Japanese, Canadian and contemporary art.
Victoria celebrates its 150th anniversary this year with many exciting activities.
As you tour the farms, wineries and distilleries, buy locally. The honor system is in place at roadside stands. Artisans sell their original pieces in the small town of Sooke and the Sooke Country Market (www.sooke.org; click on shopping) is the spot for local produce and crafts.
In downtown Victoria indulge at Rogers’ Chocolates (913 Government Street, 250-881-8771, www.rogerschocolates.com) or buy a house-made sausage at Choux Choux Charcuterie (830 Fort Street, 250-382-7572, www.chouxchoux.ca) to eat as you walk along. Lower Johnson Street features more than 40 locally owned businesses, including the latest in fashion, cosmetics and restaurants. Chinatown is a mix of traditional Asian markets and contemporary stores. Wander down Fan Tan Alley, Canada’s narrowest street and check out the shops that line the tiny way. You’ll also find a downtown public market throughout the year (www.victoriapublicmarket.com).
It’s hard to go wrong when eating on Vancouver Island. At the Sooke Harbour House Restaurant enjoy fabulous dinners in the candlelit dining room and sumptuous breakfasts in the privacy of your room. The menu changes daily so whatever the fishermen catch, the farmers grow, and the chef picks from the kitchen gardens, you’ll find it on your plate. The extensive wine list boasts nearly 700 British Columbia selections. For dinner we started with the halibut and Mable Grey geranium broth with seared scallop, stinging nettle and mascarpone ravioli, and butternut squash puréed with chervil and nasturtium. We finished with the smoked Otter Point rabbit leg served with brandied rabbit liver mousse, spiced chickpea and potato roesti, pickled purple cabbage, and roasted carrots with a yellow plum and meat stock reduction.
At the Point-no-Point Resort (10829 West Coast Road, Shirley, 250-646-2020, www.pointnopoint.com), about 30 minutes west of Sooke, relax with a leisurely lunch overlooking the Juan de Fuca Strait and the mountains. Spy on the birds and other wildlife (binoculars are on every table). The creamy house-made seafood chowder with scallops, whitefish, salmon, shrimp, and clams was some of the best we’ve had. And the steamed clams and mussels with roasted tomato, chorizo, chipotle, and orange with a British Columbia Merlot were perfect.
For a cozy, area favorite, try Markus’ Wharfside Restaurant (1831 Maple Avenue, Sooke, 250-642-3596, www.markuswharfsiderestaurant.com). Chef Markus infuses the local ingredients (many from his own garden) with his European training to produce spectacular dishes. Seared scallops with double-smoked bacon, orange reduction and marinated beets was an amazing starter as was the grilled lamb sirloin with peppered balsamic glaze and pan-seared polenta for the main course. Don’t miss the decadent panna cotta with caramel sauce.
The Fairmont Empress has interesting places to eat and drink. We chose the plush surroundings of the Tea Lobby to celebrate Victoria’s afternoon tradition. We sipped specialty tea, nibbled on savory and sweet treats and watched the Inner Harbour activity. Later that night, we had a brandy at the hotel’s richly appointed Bengal Lounge.
One of Victoria’s hottest spots is Café Brio (944 Fort Street, Victoria, 866-270-5461, www.cafe-brio.com). Dinner is lively and delicious. Everything on the ever-changing menu is made from scratch and served in half and full orders. The pâtés and salumi are great openers before caramelized onion and gorgonzola ravioli and pan roasted halibut with sautéed spinach, potato gnocchi and red wine butter sauce. Pair each course with a favorite British Columbia wine and you’re set for a memorable evening.
On the way to the airport the next morning, we grabbed beautiful cappuccinos and warm baked goods from Habit (552 Pandora Avenue, Victoria, 250-294-1127, www.habitcoffee.com).
Tourism Victoria: www.tourismvictoria.com
Capital District Regional Parks: www.crd.bc.ca
Sooke Travel & Tourism: www.sookeharbour.com; www.sooke.org
Saanich Peninsula: www.vancouverisland.com
Farm Information: www.islandfarmfresh.com
Wine Islands Vintners Association: www.wineislands.ca