Now that international travel is inching back to 2019 levels, it’s far too easy to overlook destinations closer to home. A quick weekend getaway to Victoria offers all the escape of an overseas trip—with no jet lag.
The city’s compact and relatively flat downtown core feels tailor-made for walking and cycling, and many Victoria hotels have bicycles for guests to borrow. Spend a leisurely afternoon strolling around the waterfront or cycling through Beacon Hill Park. To venture farther afield, hop on a bus, call a taxi, or use Uber—the ride-hailing service finally became available in Victoria last month.
Havn opened its doors last month, and this floating hydrotherapy centre has everything needed for seaside serenity. Constructed on a revamped 1943 ship moored in the Inner Harbour, the spa features outdoor hot tubs and cold pools, along with saunas and lush green spaces for chilling. The view of seaplanes and ferries is unparalleled.
Other downtown spots to indulge in relaxation include Willow Stream Spa, which offers soothing massages and facials, and Ritual Nordic Spa, with its Finnish sauna, steam room, cold-plunge pool, and ice-cold bucket shower.
Royal BC Museum
Hundreds of thousands of visitors come to the Royal BC Museum each year to explore exhibits such as Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia (to January 14, 2024) and Sue: The T. rex Experience (to January 7, 2024). Central to Dinosaurs of BC (to January 7, 2024) is the reconstruction of a Ferrisaurus sustutensis. Nicknamed Buster, this dinosaur from the Sustut River basin is unique to British Columbia, and it was first identified by the museum’s paleontology team. Next year the exhibit will tour the province.
The Butchart Gardens
In 1904, Jennie Butchart began transforming the former limestone quarry in her backyard into a lush garden. The Butchart Gardens are now visited by over a million people each year, who meander through the Sunken, Rose, Japanese, Italian, and Mediterranean gardens. After all these years the place is still a family business, owned by Robin-Lee Clarke, Butchart’s great-granddaughter.
Bring a picnic lunch, ride on the carousel, challenge an opponent on a giant outdoor chessboard, indulge in afternoon tea in The Dining Room (served in the original Butchart family residence), and stop for gelato in the Italian Garden. Well-behaved dogs are welcome as long as they stay on a leash. Special summertime events (to September 2, 2023) include live entertainment Wednesday to Saturday evenings and fireworks on Saturday nights.
Right on the waterfront in Sidney, about a half-hour drive from downtown, Victoria Distillers handcrafts small batches of gin, vodka, and brandy. Visit the tasting room to try the spirits on offer.
Most popular is the company’s Empress 1908 Indigo Gin that combines traditional botanicals with a few unusual ingredients: a signature blend of black tea from the Fairmont Empress, and butterfly pea blossom, which gives an earthy flavour and the distinctive indigo hue. Depending on what mix is added to the gin, the indigo changes to lavender, pink, or fuchsia.
Afternoon tea at the Empress doesn’t disappoint. Dainty cucumber sandwiches, raisin scones, and pecan tarts are fit for royalty, especially when accompanied by some of the 21 teas on offer at the Lobby Lounge. In the evening, the lounge transforms into Sunset Sips. Sweets and savouries—stuffed Yorkshire puddings, warm cheddar biscuits, salmon tartine—can be paired with cheeky tea-based cocktails such as Lady Whistledown, Mad Hatter, and The Spare & The Actress. The tea-based libations are served in teapots, while the food comes on a classic three-tiered tea stand. And Mother Nature can always be counted upon for stunning sunset backdrops.
More Victoria Activities
Spot orcas and humpbacks with Prince of Whales or Eagle Wing Tours. Enjoy breathtaking views from the Malahat Skywalk. See what the good life looked like in the 1890s at Craigdarroch Castle. Tour the Parliament Buildings, home to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Browse for the latest bestsellers or quirky indie gems at Munro’s Books, Russell Books, and Bolen Books.
Special events for summer 2023 include the Victoria Flamenco Festival (July 22 to 29), Symphony in the Summer Festival (July 27 to August 5), Music by the Sea (August 1 to 5), Wonderment (August 4 to 7), Free-B Film Festival (August 11 to 26), and Harbour Blues ’N Roots Festival (August 25 to 27).
Vancouver and Whistler diners have long relied on Toptable Group stalwarts such as CinCin and Araxi, and now the epicurean excellence has extended to Victoria with last month’s opening of Marilena. Housed in a LEED Platinum building, the restaurant focuses on seafood and sushi. Kristian Eligh (formerly of Hawksworth Restaurant) is at the helm as executive chef, while Clark Park (previously of Miku) runs the Japanese raw bar.
Local fare abounds all throughout the city. Q at the Empress spotlights regional cuisine on the menu and bold portraits of Queen Victoria on the walls. Newcomer Fathom serves West Coast dishes against a backdrop of Inner Harbour views. Ugly Duckling Dining and Provisions, another new spot, adds Chinese touches to Vancouver Island ingredients and a nose-to-tail ethos, resulting in a whimsical take on fine dining. The Empress’s summertime Lunch on the Lawn series creates stress-free Sunday picnics, complete with blankets, baskets of treats, and waterfront vistas. Off the Eaten Track offers tasty walking tours.
To enjoy the most conveniently located—not to mention elegantly appointed—accommodations in the city, stay at the 115-year-old Fairmont Empress in the heart of downtown. The castle-like hotel, which faces the Inner Harbour, has long been a favourite of celebrities such as Katharine Hepburn, Barbra Streisand, John Travolta, and Bob Hope (who liked to use the carpet outside suite 330 as his personal putting green).
To up the pampering, book a Fairmont Gold room. Perks of the hotel-within-a-hotel Fairmont Gold experience include private check-in (one floor up from the main lobby), concierge service, and access to the newly renovated lounge, which serves a changing array of complimentary beverages and nibbles all day long, from hot breakfasts to canapés to sweet and savoury snacks. Inside, the lounge has plenty of comfy seating and tucked-away library nooks, while outside, an expansive terrace looks out over the ocean.
Travelling to Victoria
For transportation from Vancouver to Victoria that doubles as a flightseeing tour, book with Harbour Air. The seaplane trip takes just 35 minutes downtown to downtown, affording stunning views along the way: islands, mountains, and even the occasional orca or humpback whale. (Harbour Air has been working toward going electric for a while, but it will still be a few years before the company starts offering commercial e-plane flights.) Other popular ways to cross the Strait of Georgia include on a helicopter with Helijet or a passenger ferry with BC Ferries.
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