Scent-sational Victoria

Vancouver Island's city of gardens

by Phyllis Crook

While the rest of the country is still in the clutch of winter, Victoria is counting its blooms. The “City of Gardens” enjoys the mildest climate in Canada and some of the most beautiful gardens in the country. No need to go very far from the downtown core, as parking is easily available all throughout the Inner Harbour area.

Recreational vessels and small cruise ships can moor in the centre of this famous heritage city, just steps from its historic streets and distinctive architecture. During the summer months, the harbour is the focus of festivals, shows and music. A palette of vibrant flowers frames the sweeping lawns and delicate blossoms drip from cherry and apple trees. A thousand scents of summer fill the air.

The 200-acre Beacon Hill Park is an easy stroll from the harbour and downtown Victoria. Delicate pink heather and lavender blooms drape over rock gardens and the manicured lawns are only interrupted by stone bridges arching over ponds. Perched in the towering Douglas firs on the west end of the park, a pair of bald eagles make their home. On summer weekends, the spirit of the park is heightened by the beat of concert music filtering from the bandshell. Don’t be surprised to be joined by roaming peacocks showing off their blue-green plumage. At the petting farm, the kids are up close and personal with the animals, and in August the market square is a flurry of activities, with face painting, giant puppets and awesome kids’ activities.

The most prominent landmark in Victoria is at the cornerstone of the Inner Harbour. The famous Fairmont Empress Hotel is designated a National Historic Site of Canada. It has hosted kings, queens and movie stars for over 100 years. My favourite thing at the Empress is the traditional high tea held in the west lounge of the hotel. Combine petite sandwiches, tasty pastries and tea selections with a dash of grand piano notes and this English tradition comes alive. The large, regal windows have a view of the stately British Columbia legislative buildings, where visitors can join a free public tour or explore the building on their own.

Sharing British Columbia's history and culture, the Royal B.C. Museum is a combined provincial museum and archives facility. Millions of visitors have explored and experienced the natural history of British Columbia through these exhibits. Dinosaur skulls and ancient fossils line the wall and large-as- life Woolly the Woolly Mammoth has a permanent home here in the Natural History Gallery.

While strolling back through the past 200 years, wander the streets of Old Town or explore a replica of the stern section of Captain Vancouver’s ship, the HMS Discovery. May will bring a four-month summer exhibition of dinosaurs, and in June the Royal B.C. Museum celebrates the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Sit down, hang on and get ready for a wild ride. Victoria’s six-storey-high IMAX screen is an exciting way to see the wonders of land, sea and the future. There is truly something for everyone.

Experience the old-English essence of downtown Victoria either in a romantic horse-drawn carriage or by simply walking. Antique Row on Fort Street is lined with shops and cafés with weather-worn red bricks and creaky wooden floors that hold secrets of days gone by. Victoria seems to have a love affair with all things British and has carefully preserved Victorian and Edwardian-era buildings. Tucked within many of these walls are English woollens, bone china, Scottish tartans and Irish lace, and a nice cup of tea is never far away.

A couple of blocks from Fort Street, the stone lions at the Gates of Harmonious Interest welcome visitors to a six-block stretch of the best-preserved and second-oldest Chinatown in the country. It isn’t all that large, but is filled with outdoor markets, stores and restaurants. In the heart of Chinatown, the unique five-foot-wide Fan Tan Alley is tucked within the bricked walls of what used to be gambling houses, opium dens and brothels. Now lined with cozy little shops, this narrowest street in Canada is is a burst of colourful signs and doors edged in vibrant blues, yellows and reds.

It is worth the trip to take the 23-kilometre drive north of Victoria to the National Historic Site of Canada called Butchart Gardens. Welcome to 55 acres of floral wonderment, whether you’re here to see the cherry blossoms of spring, the vibrant hues of summer flora, the russets of fall or the evergreens of winter.

Some things never change. The sights and sounds of Victoria mingle with the heritage of the old and the vibrant pulse of the new. This southern tip of Vancouver Island enjoys year-round lush foliage and the City of Gardens remains the bloomingest city in Canada.

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