Vancouver Island. Living like a local tourist for 2 weeks!
Victoria Downtown is where we booked our Air BnB. Our friends arrived: "Oh my God! Why did you book a such a dodgy crackhead area!?" (We had no issues with our local crackheads... they were quite friendly). On reflection, the area was not the prettiest, but our Air BnB was amazing: great price, lovely and modern decor, 2 bedroom, 2 bathroom, all the modern amenities we needed, a safe entrance and in a great location to access the local bar and shopping scene. We were a short stroll from the main street of bars and restaurants, a short taxi ride from Beacon Hill Park and easy walking distance to the harbour.
Our time in Victoria was filled with phenomenal food options, amazing bars and pretty landscapes.
We wanted to make the most of our time and so we hired our friends as tour guides.
(Friends and former colleagues meet for a fun first night)
Night one consisted of heading out as a group (5 of us who had met working at the same school in Beijing). We headed to The Local. This bar serves awesome food, superb shafts and has a great atmosphere. This place ended up as our local- heading there every other day. Post salads, nachos and shafts, came a night out dancing at Dukes; a country music bar where we got introduced to Hey Y'alls (vodka iced tea).
(Decor and food at The Local)
The next day we were taken on the perfect hangover cure walk around the bay just beyond Beacon Hill Park. The views were spectacular. We spent an afternoon wandering the coastal paths and catching up on the each other's gossip. A stop by the Beacon Hill Diner for poutine, burgers and slushies was a must. An impromptu decision to head to Gonzales Bay for sundowners was made with ease. A day in and we were already sold on Canadian life! We visited Gonzales Bay a few times during our stay. It is a great little beach to laze on.
( R: Gonzales Bay)
Beacon Hill Park is a must visit. It has stunning grounds with a mixture of ponds, farm area, wildflower meadow areas and forestry. It is truly beautiful. Again, a great hangover cure for one too many shafts or pickle-backs! You can spend hours wandering the grounds or head into the farm area to see some peacocks, baby goats and llamas. Beacon Hill Park is located just outside Victoria town centre- it is walkable. We stayed around a 10 minute walk from the main high street. Beacon Hill Park is a solid 30 minute walk... it is on top of a hill. We chose to taxi there but walk back (downhill).
(Beautiful Beacon Hill Park)
The next few days after this were spent exploring Downtown Victoria. Between shopping and sightseeing we would squeeze in a brunch, lunch, cocktails or a coffee stop. The food scene in Victoria is incredible! Everything is so natural. There were so many healthy options to choose from, not just on menus but in choice of places to eat- restaurants and take out options. We tried to balance healthy choices with not so healthy choices (such as cakes or cocktails).
One of my favourite spots was 10 Acres. They hosted a delicious and fresh menu with local and sustainable produce. Whenever you view the menu, you struggle to decide as everything is too delicious. I loved that you could mix and match the menu items- e.g. half grilled cheese with half a caesar salad instead of fries.
(L: 10 Acres Grilled Cheese and Caesar Salad; R: Frose at Cactus Club)
Another honourable mention is Cactus Club. We stumbled upon this place when we were looking for somewhere to sit with a glass of wine. When we saw "frose" (frozen rose wine) advertised, we just knew this was our kind of place. Ended up drinking a few frose's and ordering some salted edamame and poke bowls. Again, incredibly fresh produce, flavourful food and great service.
The harbour area is awesome. Very tourist centred with no end of souvenir stores. We stumbled across some great photo opportunities around the harbour such as topiary orca's, giant moose cuddly toys and incredible onesies! Alongside this, were some great ice cream parlours.
(L/M: Moosing around; R: It's a whale!)
Our friend, whisked us away to a hidden beach one evening to watch the sunset. It was an arresting moment watching the sunset over the mountains beside the water. It truly was bewitching. Sat in awed silence, drinking our gin in a tin, taking in a moment that cannot be replicated anywhere else. We stopped in a pub on the way back to the AirBnB for dirty fries and a cream soda. Highly recommend watching a Victoria sunset...
(Beautiful Sunset at a hidden beach)
The day after, we wandered over to Chinatown and the famous Fan Tan Alley. Chinatown is nothing like actual China, but it was a great treasure trove of boutiques, juice bars and bubble tea bars. It was great to visit an area with a long history. Also, we found a great place to get our tarot read! She was amazingly accurate. Post tarot reading, we stopped at a swanky hotel bar for a wine and a gin, where we met Michael- a resident millionaire... A 5pm start to discuss readings ended up in us heading home from a different bar, that served Prosecco on tap, at around 2 am! So much for a quiet evening! Michael was a total hoot. Was really great to met him in such strange circumstances.
(Fun in Fan Tan Alley)
(L: Bubble Tea House; R: Chinese School in Chinatown)
Sundays are apparently Blackout Days! We visited Blackout which sells Bucket cocktails- combine these with friends and drinking games- lethal! Tasty, delicious but there's so much of it! I ordered snacks during this point as my stomach could not cope on alcohol alone- I'm not 21 anymore!! The cocktails, food and music in an outdoor beer garden was essentially the making of a really fun night.
Brunch is always needed after a great night out. Jam cafe is really popular and worth the wait. We arrived with a queue of people out the door- we happily took a table at the bar as it would be a shorter wait time. It has an extensive menu of brunch favourites such as pancakes and chicken and waffles. I ordered the eggs veggie bowl with biscuits and gravy. It was delicious and filling. Service was fab and it had a great atmosphere.
(L: Menu decisions over an iced latte; R: Decision made at Jam Cafe)
A huge excursion for us was the sunset whale watching. OMG. Never did I think we would actually see whales. We managed to spot a pod of orcas feeding. It was a truly incredible experience. However, the journey on a tiny boat, which we thought we were going to fall out of, was terrifying. We were able to laugh after the experience. Heading out into open waters during daylight, was fine- a few times we felt a little scared- but nothing major. However, the experience coming back to land was a different story- as the sun set further behind the mountains, the waves became deeper troughs and higher peaks. The amount of water covering us increased by the second. No hood was secure enough to help our hair. My gosh was I happy to have been wearing waterproof mascara!! We stopped in a restaurant on the pier for some snacks and a hand dryer to dry our hair. Overall- we had a whale of a time; a brilliant experience and would 100% do it again- even with the scary waves! We used Orca Spirit Adventures, who were brilliant. We were provided with fetching orange waterproofs and lockers for our belongings. I recommend waterproof mascara, a hair tie, secure pocket for any belongings that are not waterproof.
(L: Our boat; M: An Orca "whale hello there!" ; R: Sunset en route back to land)
Another great excursion is the WINE TOUR!! We took a tour around Cowichan Valley visiting both small, family run vineyards as well as more established wine producers. The scenery heading to the vineyards was outstandingly picturesque.
Our favourite was our first stop: VS Wines (Venturi Schulze). Their sparkling Rose is to die for as is their dessert wine to go with cheese- we brought bottles back to China with us. Unsworth Wines (Apparently on People's choice as Royal Worthy) was a lovely and pretty stop. Their Allegro is rather tasty and we bought a bottle to take to our friend's home for dinner! We were disappointed in Blue Grouse- although their land and tasting room is beautiful. We stopped at Merridale for cider tasting and lunch. Again, really beautiful orchard, tasty food and one or two scrumptious ciders (we preferred the "old world" flight).
(L: Views on the way to vineyards; R: A bottle of Royal worthy wine)
(L: Menu at VS wines; M/R: At Blue Grouse)
A trip to Butchart Gardens is a must when in Victoria. Towards the end of our trip, as a group we headed there mid morning to spend the next few hours wandering aimlessly through the themed botanical gardens... also a cheeky stop on the carousel!! The gardens were heavenly. As we were with a local, we were shown all the best Instagrammable spots! We chose to wear matching monochromatic outfits to stand out against the surrounding green and brightly coloured flowers... and being still slightly intoxicated thought we looked super cool!
(L: On entrance matching a chess board; M: In the main garden; R: In the Japanese garden)
It is definitely somewhere I want to revisit; with Tofino and Nanaimo on my hit list!
Copyright Lauren Toner 2020