Travel Diaries – Vancouver Island

After a few days in Vancouver, Bailey, Simon and I were off to Vancouver Island. We decided to go the public transport route and in the end I was glad we did because everything worked like clockwork and we saved a packet!

We went by train, bus, ferry, then another bus and all up it took about four hours and cost less than $30CAD each. Everything connected almost perfectly, with just enough time between each leg to get comfortably to the next form of transport, get tickets, board and get going. We did not feel rushed and were not worried at any time that we would miss the next leg.

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We arrived in Victoria in the early afternoon and picked up our rental car. We had decided that we would like to have a bit of a look around in the centre before making our way to our AirBnB a bit further out of town. On asking about the nearest parking, the guy at Avis said we could leave the car where it was until we were ready to leave. Thanks Avis!

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The first thing we came to that sparked our interest was the Victoria Bug Zoo. Sure this might really be a children’s attraction, but we found it surprisingly interesting. One of the guys working there, Tyler, was absolutely fantastic and talking to the kids about the bugs while still giving enough real information for the adults.

We learnt about grasshoppers that dissolve their prey, bugs that play dead and scorpions that turn bright blue when a black light shines on them! We were also able to hold onto a few of the bugs, including one of my favourites, a tarantula, who happened to have the lovely name Aurora!

Check out this scorpion. It turns bright blue when a black light is shined on it.
Holding a tarantula at the Bug Zoo. She was very soft to touch.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the centre of Victoria, getting our bearings and admiring the harbour and the majestic buildings. This truely is a lovely town and is so pretty at this time of year with the bright blue skies and colourful flowers everywhere. Victoria Harbour is abuzz with activity. There are market stalls and buskers and lots of visitors. The little Victoria ferries dart back and forth amongst the myriad of other boats and planes. The harbour is home to the busiest international sea plane airport in the world with hundreds of flights taking off or landing each day.

We enjoyed a pretty decent coffee right across the road from the harbour at Milano Victoria before deciding it was time to grab the car and head out of the city to the AirBnB we were going to call home for the next four days.

We were up bright and early the next morning to get into town for breakfast. Brunch is a big thing here in Victoria, especially on Sunday mornings, so we were hoping to get in before it got too busy. Even though we arrived at the popular Jam Cafe before 9am, there was already a fair lineup. We had timed it well though, because everyone from the 8am sitting (they open then!) was just finishing their meals, so in about 15-20 minutes we were seated inside.

The cafe does all sorts of meals from bacon and eggs to waffles and pancakes. I chose to have Smashed Avocado Eggs Benedict. There is an option of a half serve, and I was so glad I went with that when I saw the huge plates of food arriving on neighbouring tables. Both Bailey and Simon got full serves, and it was a struggle to eat everything on their plates, so be warned, the meals are huge. Delicious though, and with friendly staff and efficient service, I can see why Jam Cafe is considered one of the best in town.

Smashed avo at Jam Cafe

After eating we weaved our way through the streets of Chinatown. It was still a little early and not everything was open, but the upside to this meant that not everything was crowded either! We window-shopped our way along Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada (at times only about a metre wide) that was originally an illegal gambling area. On the ground floor were the legitimate shops, but upstairs the popular Chinese game of Fan Tan was played for money. Now it’s a home to small artisan shops and tiny cafes.

Fan Tan Alley in Victoria’s Chinatown
Just one of the quirky stores in Fan Tan Alley

As we were walking back to Victoria Harbour we could hear classical music being played over loud speakers. We were unsure what it was for, until we got closer to the water and could see some of the little ferries moving around in time with the music. We really only caught the end of it unfortunately, but did hear the announcement that it was “Ferry Ballet”, and that it would be on again both days on the next weekend. I presume it is only on during the summer months, but if you happen to be in town on a weekend, look out for it around late morning as you are walking past.

We walked back along Victoria Harbour, and continued around the other side past the beautiful Parliament Building. I soon saw signs pointing to Fisherman’s Wharf, another kilometre or so along the harbour front area. I remembered coming across mention of it in my research, so thought we would go and have a look. I’m not sure if I had ever read anything about Fisherman’s Wharf other than the fact it was an attraction, so I wasn’t sure what to expect – was it a fish market?

In fact it’s a whole area of what are called “float houses” (not house boats, I got that wrong in my last post – they don’t have engines). These are all brightly coloured and indispersed with eateries and souvenir shops. There are also some B&Bs here for accommodation too.

Vancouver Island
The colourful Fishermens Wharf

This is one of the stops of the cute little Victoria Harbour ferries, so if you prefer, you can visit via water rather than walk the whole way there like we did.

We continued to follow the peninsula around and came to the Ogden Point Breakwater. The breakwater is about 800m long sticking out into the sea to provide protection for the cruise ship terminal. It’s a nice walk out, and we were fascinated by the strange looking seaweed floating in the water that looked like long bits of thick rope with a ball on the end. We later learned it is called Bull Kelp, and at this time of year can grow up to two feet in one day!

We were surprised to see quite a few scuba divers emerging from the water along the breakwater. I’m not sure if this is a location for scuba diving classes, or that it is actually a good location to scuba dive in general (I’ve never done it!).

The Ogden Point Breakwater is a decent walk just by itself

As we arrived at the end of the breakwater a cruise ship was coming in to berth. While that wouldn’t normally be very exciting in itself (I live close to the cruise terminal in Adelaide and see the ships coming in almost every day in summer) what was interesting was that this looked a lot like the ship we would be getting on in a few days. As it got closer, we could make out that it was the same line, and this was the “Amsterdam” one of the four ships in the same class as the one we will be on. Even though they are “small” ships of less that 1400 passengers, this one looked pretty big to me when it got up close!

Not quite our cruise ship, but it is pretty much the same. This is the Amsterdam

We continued our walk around the peninsular until we reached the Beacon Hill Park. We enjoyed walking through the park, and took a few minutes to rest while trying to plan the rest of the afternoon. Our options were either the Butchart Gardens or the Royal BC Museum. I’m not sure if it was because we were already in a garden, or because the museum was almost across the road and the Butchart Gardens were miles away, but the choice ended up being the museum.

The Royal BC (British Columbia) Museum is a little on the expensive side for a museum at $26.95CAD for a single adult admission. It’s also possible to buy 2 day passes or combine with an IMAX movie pass too for better value. With so many of the big museums in the world being free, I was surprised this one wasn’t.

Part of the amazing Maya exhibit. I loved these pyramids of light they had set up to display items on.
This is not real, these are stuffed animals in the museum.
There is a full historical gold rush town set up in the museum

But I have to say – it is actually worth every cent! This would definitely be a contender for the best museum I have ever been to (and there have been quite a few!). Not only was the information fantastic, but the way the displays are set up is amazing too.

During our visit, the temporary exhibition was about the Maya people and it was so well done. There were also large areas on the natural history of the BC area, the First Nations people and the local European settlement history. 

We had about 2.5 hours to be able to spend looking around, and we used all of it. We probably would have spent at least another hour there if we could. I totally recommend this museum if you are in Victoria.

It was now time to do one of our bucket list things – high tea at the Empress Hotel. This required a certain dress code, so we had to tidy ourselves up, put on some heels and generally look much more respectable. I had actually brought heels with me from Australia just for this outing. Imagine then my…outrage? surprise? disappointment?…when the first table I see is filled with people in casual clothes and trainers! I suppose they didn’t go against the dress code which forbids, tank tops, flip flops and shorts, but still, trainers and jeans do not fit in to the request to “dress for the occasion” in my books!

The impressive Fairmont Empress Hotel. It’s a luxury 5 star hotel with a price tag to match. Call in for a drink to enjoy the majesty.

Anyway, once I got over that, high tea was lovely. It was all the fanciness that is wanted when paying a whole pile of money for a cup of tea and a few bite sized pieces of food! Okay, I am being a little flippant there, but it truely was a fantastic experience and we really enjoyed the 90 minutes we spent being pampered. And who would have thought those few bites of food would fill us up and we would struggle to eat them? Seriously, get dressed up and do this at least once in your life, it’s such an indulgence and so much fun.

We left the beautiful Empress Hotel and went back to our car – mostly so Bailey and I could switch shoes back to something flat for walking around. We felt so full from all of the food that we just sat for a while as the sun was beginning to set just to recover. Eventually the sun slipped below the horizon and the lights on all the buildings started to come on. We went for yet another walk around the Victoria Harbour area to enjoy the atmosphere and the lights. Make a point to do this on your Victoria visit, it’s just as pretty all lit up at night.

Make sure you get a photo with the Canada sign on the waterfront

We were back at Victoria Harbour bright and early the following morning, this time to jump on a boat and go and do some whale watching. The weather was absolutely perfect, blue skies, no wind and a lovely 20 degrees. We were lucky enough to spend some time watching a humpback whale surfacing between feeds. He did the whole vertical tail thing but I missed getting it on film. We also saw multiple types of sea lions and seals, but unfortunately the orcas and sea otters were hiding from us.

Click here for information and to book the Whale Watching tour we did

The famous hump coming out of the water
And there’s our whale, spouting off again
Sea lions enjoying the sunshine
Two of the local seals swimming near our boat

We arrived back into Victoria about 1pm, just in time for lunch. We had decided to have fish and chips at Red Fish Blue Fish, a container food venue right on the wharf. As always there was a big lineup waiting, and thanks to the helpful marks on the ground next to the line we knew we had a bit over half and hour of waiting. The food smelled delicious though and we had no issue waiting. Between the three of us we tried three different local fish – halibut, cod and salmon. The halibut was our favourite!

The line up at Red Fish Blue Fish. You can see white writing on the ground that tells you how much longer it is to wait.
But it’s worth the wait for these – it was delicious

After we ate we dropped in to our AirBnB and changed into our hiking gear. Next stop was the Goldstream Provincial Park were we were going to visit Niagara Falls! I know, you are thinking I am on the wrong side of the country, these are not THOSE Niagara Falls, but a more modest version. The hike to the falls was mostly over a properly constructed path, but the last short section was more difficult. We veered off the path through an old water tunnel that took us under the highway then made our way along a creek bed for a short distance until we came across the waterfall. The falls are just one small stream of water, just under 50m of height. It’s a pretty spot though, and we were there mostly alone, so this is a good place to escape the crowds. Bailey liked it so much she decided to stay and enjoy it for a while.

Not quite as impressive as those other falls on the other side of the country

Simon and I continued on to the Niagara Trestle. We had to back track to just before the tunnel. When we saw the path we almost changed our minds. The first 15 metres or so is tricky, it’s almost straight uphill and a slippery, sandy trail. After that the whole walk is still mostly uphill, but it’s not quite so steep. It’s only a couple of kilometres return trip though, so not so long.

The trestle itself is an old rail bridge built over a deep canyon. It’s not really made for visitors, and has signs everywhere saying how dangerous it is. There were probably about ten people on the bridge at the time we arrived, so clearly everyone ignores the signs. We walked out along the bridge, but even though neither of us is scared of heights, walking over railways sleepers with gaps of about ten centimetres between them was unsettling. While there was no way to fall through the gaps, I was worried I would drop my phone – I was having that sort of trip!

No handrails here – and it’s illegal to walk onto it.
Standing on the Niagara Trestle looking down is not for the faint of heart

Our last day on Vancouver Island was road trip day. The plan was to drive towards Nanaimo and Coombs and see how far we got before we turned for home. Nanaimo is only about 100km from where we were staying, but we knew we would be stopping at a few places along the way.

We started a bit later than I would have liked, but I guess that’s going to happen when I am a morning person but my travelling companions are not!

After leaving Victoria heading north there are quite a few view points where drivers can just pull into a parking area next to the highway. They provide some stunning views over the Saanich Inlet. We stopped at the Split Rock Lookout and got some great views across the sea to the airport and surrounding towns. It was yet another stunning morning with blue skies and no wind. Just perfect! I normally bring rain, so clearly I am hidden here from the weather gods.

We came to the town of Duncan in the Cowichan Valley and were really tempted to do some wine tasting, since this is an up-coming area for wine. I saw signs advertising fourteen different wineries to visit on the local wine trail. With more driving to come, and not wanting to risk drinking and driving, we decided to visit the Pacific Northwest Raptor Centre instead.

A Bald Eagle watching carefully for his next meal
An owl from the Northwest Raptor Centre

It was an interesting way to spend an hour, looking at all the raptors and then watching a free flight show. They even had some kookaburras there, and everyone was trying to get them to laugh – they didn’t!

Then it was on to Chemainus, which is well known for the dozens of murals adorning the walls of buildings all around town. We spent a good hour or two walking around the town checking out the murals. I have seen other mural towns around the world but it is really well done here. The murals take you all over town and there are a good portion of businesses such as cafes, local crafts etc to also interest visitors. I read somewhere that the second hand store here in Chemainus is so popular with visitors that it earns thousands of dollars for the local charities. And yes, we couldn’t help ourselves and popped in for a quick browse through the store, picking up a book to read.

Street art can be found all over the town of Chemainus
Some of the artwork depicts historical events of Chemainus

I really liked it in Chemainus, and think this would be a great place to stop for a night if you were looking for somewhere around this area.

We grabbed a very late lunch, and the most important thing of this road trip, Nanaimo bars, from the Hearthstone Artisan Bakery in Nanaimo. We just had to get Nanaimo bars in Nanaimo, and this was a place I had found recommended in a lot of the lists of the best place to get them. I was kind of expecting a cafe, but it really is just a bakery with a counter. There is no where to sit down and eat while you are there.

Nanaimo cake (or bars) are sweet and delicious. One is enough.

We found a nice grassy area on the marina in Nanaimo to sit and eat our lunch while enjoying the view. Apart from the food, I didn’t find a lot to interest me in Nanaimo, so right ofter lunch we moved on.  Oh, and yes, the Nanaimo bars were delicious.

We drove on to the town of Coombs were we stopped for a quick look at the “Goats on the Roof!” Yes, there is a store in town that has covered it’s roof in vegetation (perhaps for insulation?) and then put some goats up there too. Originally it was probably to keep the grass under control, but it’s clearly become a tourist attraction and lots of people stop to see it and buy things from the shops there.

They’re nearly impossible to photograph, but these goats are on top of the roof of a shop

Next stop was at a picnic spot on the banks of Cameron Lake to stretch our legs and admire the views.  I was surprised at the amount of people enjoying the small beaches and swimming or doing other water sports. I thought the water would be freezing cold, but when I went over and stuck my fingers in, it was surprisingly warm, even though it was only 20 degrees. This part of Vancouver Island is so beautiful, exactly what I imagine when I think of Canada!

The bright blue colour of Cameron Lake

Our last stop was Cathedral Grove, a stand of very old trees. The largest Douglas fir is huge! It is around 800 years old. It’s 76m tall and 9m round! Cathedral Grove is located on both sides of a highway in MacMillian Provincial Park, with short walks through the forest on a purpose made path and boardwalk available on each side. There was also a lot of information about life in the forest and things such as a recent storm that blew over many tress and the ecosystem created by these fallen trees.

Walking through Cathedral Grove
Looking up through the trees at Cathedral Grove
The oldest tree in Cathedral Grove totally dwarfs me

By now it was around five o’clock, and time for the two hour drive back to our AirBnB. Very early the next morning we started the journey back to Vancouver, the end to our Vancouver Island adventures. It was so nice to also have a drama free return journey, where everything ran on schedule and there were no hidden surprises. I love Canada!

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