Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy the city from countless angles, by land and by sea — Photo courtesy of Destination Greater Victoria
A return to beloved Vancouver Island feels even sweeter after a couple years away – and yet more special for those who hadn't made it to this enchanted slice of western Canada before the pandemic shifted all of our worlds. With border restrictions finally eased, it's a breeze to once again visit Victoria, the welcoming British Columbia capital that's surrounded by the stunning Salish Sea (the Juan de Fuca Strait, Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia).
Although visitors can easily arrive from Vancouver by air or by sea, the FRS Clipper proves the most convenient mode to travel from the U.S. without a car. Hop on a sleek, high-speed catamaran in Seattle for a relaxing cruise straight to the heart of Victoria. This is the only service transporting passengers between the two cities' downtown docks.
Where to stay
Magnolia Hotel & Spa offers boutique luxury, with warm personal touches, in a prime downtown location — Photo courtesy of Magnolia Hotel & Spa
The Magnolia Hotel & Spa proves a central and welcoming HQ from which to explore Victoria, which resides on the unceded traditional territory of the Lekwungen Peoples. Located a couple blocks from the Parliament Buildings and one from the Inner Harbour, where seaplanes buzz, buskers serenade and seagulls swirl, the hotel features a cozy lobby and welcoming rooms and suites showcasing warm and subtle hues, dark wood, soothing art, corner fireplaces and relaxing tubs.
Traditional turndown service makes guests feel cared for in a non-invasive way, while breakfasts downstairs in The Courtney Room (think crab and aged cheddar omelets, grain bowls and fried chicken with waffles) prove the perfect way to fuel up for a day of explorations. Dinner in this elegant yet unpretentious space means local delicacies including fresh-shucked oysters, foraged-and-farmed salads, charcoal-grilled steelhead trout and Fraser Valley duck breast, perhaps accompanied by a smoky cocktail or standout vintage from B.C.'s Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country.
The Courtney Room inside Magnolia Hotel & Spa spotlights local fare in an elegant, light-filled space — Photo courtesy of Dasha Armstrong
Be sure to stop at the front desk to pick up Magnolia's Curated Trails maps. These detailed itineraries are grouped into themes ranging from farther-flung finds (the Saanich Peninsula Flavour Trail and Cowichan Flavour Trail) to downtown treasures like the Beautiful Boutiques Trail or Victoria Brewery Trail. Stops are recommended at cordial newcomer Herald Street Brew Works, where grabbing a bar stool offers theater seating to the beer-making process, and Whistle Buoy Brewing Company, whose dog-friendly patio in Market Square is a dreamy spot in which to mingle with locals on a leisurely, sun-kissed afternoon.
Here's what you need to do on a visit to Vancouver and Victoria
Here's what you need to do on a visit to Vancouver and Victoria
Just on the other side of the Clipper terminal, there's Inn at Laurel Point, a 200-room hotel at the mouth of the bustling harbor that has a fascinating history, has been carbon neutral since 2009 and unveiled its beautiful new lobby in January 2021.
Start the day with balcony coffee, watching the waterways thrum to life with playful otters, ducklings, kayakers, floatplanes, ferries and stirring residents of neighboring houseboat communities, too. From your elevated perch, enjoy "inn-room" breakfast options like an eggs benny, porridge made with Canadian steel cut oats or a build-your-own omelet creation with parmesan home fries and toast.
The Inn at Laurel Point offers prime balconies from which to watch the city bustle to life — Photo courtesy of Inn at Laurel Point/Destination Greater Victoria
Downstairs Aura Waterfront Restaurant + Patio combines soothing Inner Harbour views with globally-inspired small plates, many of which showcase seasonal goods, from kale to raspberries, delivered directly from the chef's own garden. (His wife happens to be a wildflower farmer, too.) Try the grilled asparagus; halibut ceviche with coconut, cilantro, lime and taro chips; crispy pork belly with fried peanut and bacon crumble, chicory and carrot-truffle mouse; or the seared sockeye salmon with fennel, orange salad and smoked trout roe.
Not-to-be-missed nearby activities include an afternoon experience at the Pendray Inn and Tea House, inside a Victorian-era manor, where you can enjoy flaky scones, savory finger sandwiches and sweet treats alongside exotic teas, served in delicate dishware. Towers of vegan goodies are available if you specify ahead of time, too.
Aura Waterfront Restaurant + Patio allows diners to relish seasonal delicacies plus views of Victoria's Inner Harbour — Photo courtesy of Inn at Laurel Point/Destination Greater Victoria
When it comes to outdoor adventures, the options here seem limitless. In Victoria itself, there are tried-and-true favorites like strolling along serene Dallas Road or wandering Beacon Hill Park, a verdant city gem that's home to the world's tallest story pole (measuring 127 feet and 7 inches).
Spend a memorable morning connecting with First Nations community members through Songhees Tours, enjoyed on foot or by canoe. During these enriching explorations, cultural guides lead you to some of their people's most significant historical sites, weaving in wonder-filled tales and sacred stories along the way. And for a special finale? Savor traditionally inspired snacks like fried bannock from the Songhees waterside food truck.
Within the "cycling capital of Canada," it only makes sense to also hop on a guided tour with The Pedaler Cycling Tours and Rentals. Experience the city's distinctive neighborhoods from a new vantage point, via easily-accessed bike lanes, as you learn quirky fun facts and insider secrets.
Or, if the weather's not cooperating, choose to spend some hours inside the Ritual Nordic Spa, rotating between the Finnish sauna, steam room, cold plunge pool, salt lounge, outdoor patios, rinse station and Nordic bucket shower. (To truly pamper yourself, book a private session here.)
Don't miss the magical, new Malahat SkyWalk, with a spiral wooden ramp that offers some of the region's best panorama views — Photo courtesy of Hamish Hamilton
Those without a rental car should prioritize taking a shuttle or taxi out to The Butchart Gardens, a Zen-filled National Historic Site with more than a million plants from 900-plus varieties. Then there's the Malahat SkyWalk, an elevated tree walk that leads visitors through a magic-tinged madrone forest, with driftwood artwork by Tanya Bub tucked among the branches en route.
Climb the wooden structure's gently sloped spiral ramp, accessible to strollers and wheelchairs as well, that culminates with a breathtaking lookout point situated 820 feet above sea level. Drink in views of Finlayson Arm, Saanich Peninsula, Mount Baker and the distant Coast Mountains before making your way down – via the ramp or a twisty slide that can revive just about any visitor's childlike spirit.
Where to eat
Culinary options in Victoria delight, whether you try an old-school downtown establishment like Nautical Nellie's Steak & Seafood House, known for its tomahawk steaks, regional seafood treasures (try the scallop ceviche and seafood tagliatelle) and Wine Spectator award-winning beverage list. Or consider newer hot spots like Boom + Batten, a hip hangout from which to gaze at supersized yachts while indulging in oysters, seafood towers and beautiful dishes like island-raised Parry Bay lamb.
Eva Schnitzelhaus, a recent addition to the downtown scene, brings delectable German-inspired fare to a delightful dining room; menu items can be adapted for gluten-free and vegetarian diners, thanks to thoughtful variations like eggplant schnitzel.
Eva Schnitzelhaus is a new eatery serving German-inspired fare in a fun, casual manner — Photo courtesy of Lillie Louise Photography
Between the Inner Harbour and Chinatown, The Mint is tucked below street level, proving a friendly space for conversing among Tibetan momos and tasty mains from butter chicken curry to "Ginger Cilantro Sticky Rice," featuring marinated tofu and coconut peanut sauce. Tip: Check out the venue's schedule for upcoming nights dedicated to comedy, music and courageous open-mic talents.
And in the charming Fernwood neighborhood, dinner at stage wine bar is an experience not to be overlooked. In an enchanting room boasting an intimate, European feel, choose shareable plates and tantalizing cocktails from a succinct, mix-and-match menu that shows off sardines, olives, cheeses, meats and local fish, too.
In the rolling Cowichan Valley, Merridale is a cidery, distillery, eatery and tasting room rolled into one — Photo courtesy of Merridale Cidery & Distillery
On its bucolic 20-acre orchard, the family-owned operation at Merridale Cidery & Distillery in Cobble Hill focuses on traditional methods and practices – with some modern spins. Popular ciders range from their Cowichan Dry to the Merri Berri, a refreshing blend of local apples fermented slowly, then blended with B.C. blackcurrant, cherry and raspberry juices.
The venue also produces its own spirits, including a rum that's made using B.C. honey, then is fermented, distilled twice in their small-batch copper still and aged in oak barrels. On a dappled patio, perhaps accompanied by live music, enjoy a farm-fresh spread of salads, charcuterie boards, burgers, pizzas and savory pies.
In Duncan, enjoy wine tasting from the scenic balcony of Blue Grouse Estate Winery, an operation that proudly maintains a sustainability-centric focus that allows the team to feel like true "stewards of the land."
Blue Grouse Estate Winery welcomes visitors to its sleek space, at one of the oldest vineyards on Vancouver Island — Photo courtesy of Blue Grouse Estate Winery
One last trek
On your last afternoon in town, before boarding the Clipper home, you may decide to push out onto the water with the help of the friendly folks at Victoria Kayak, in operation since 1996. Maybe you join a guided tour, or perhaps you choose a self-led paddle through the quieter tributaries of downtown Victoria, the quaint capital city that's graciously welcomed you back to relish all her charms – old and new.
As you glide under a series of bridges, your strokes falling into meditative rhythm, you might just find a presence you haven't been able to capture for quite some time. As you marvel at graceful herons mid-flight and playfully debate with your travel companion as to which waterside dock you'd most love to call home, your spirit feels reignited – and you remember, gratefully, that this is the best gift travel has to offer.