VICTORIA, British Columbia — Victoria retains its compact, easygoing nature, with major sights clustered around downtown’s Inner Harbour. But I decided to explore the edges of the city — or at least as far as I could leisurely go on foot, bike and a shiny-red rented motor scooter.
It’s an ideal city to visit car-free. From Seattle, visitors can zip to Victoria on the high-speed Clipper passenger-only ferries or the even faster Kenmore Air float planes. Dozens of hotels are within a 10-minute walk of both companies’ Inner Harbour terminals.
By all means sightsee around the Inner Harbour. Indulge in calories, and Victoria’s English heritage, with afternoon tea at stately Fairmont Empress Hotel. Enjoy displays on British Columbia’s natural and native history at the Royal B.C. Museum. See the politicians and ornate architecture of the 19th-century Parliament Buildings. Then do like the locals do and escape the tourist throngs for a walk or bike ride.
Make a beeline, on foot or two wheels, for Greater Victoria’s alluring seashore that stretches for miles along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Or pedal along dozens of miles of rails turned trails. Among my favorite places to walk and bike:
The place: Stroll into the sunset atop this 2,500-foot-long breakwater that juts into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Walkers can go all the way to a small lighthouse at the end of the concrete and granite breakwater, built in 1916 to protect shipping berths.
Gaze at the snow-tipped Olympic Mountains rising majestically across the 25-mile-wide strait, and sailboats, ferries and freighters gliding past. At your feet the side of the breakwater is decorated with “Unity Wall” murals by First Nations artists to celebrate local native history.
To get to Ogden Point, walk past the cozy century-old homes of the James Bay neighborhood behind the Parliament Buildings. Or walk around the Inner Harbour past the Laurel Point Inn. Stay as close to the water as you can, on a mix of waterfront pathways and sidewalks, and you’ll come to Ogden Point.
Refuel: Ogden Point Cafe, at the breakwater’s entrance, offers coffee, light meals and big views from indoor and outdoor tables. http://members.shaw.ca/ope/index.htm
Visitor’s tip: Hold tight to small children or keep them in strollers. It’s a steep drop-off from the breakwater, wide enough for four people to walk abreast but with no handrails. No bikes allowed.
More info: www.ogdenpoint.org
The place: Victoria’s gem of a park has a wave-pounded rocky coast on the Strait of Juan de Fuca and an English-style interior with manicured lawns, flower gardens, a cricket pitch and children’s petting zoo.
Walk or bike the park’s peaceful roadways and paths that wind among its 185 acres on the edge of downtown. (The park begins about a quarter-mile from the Parliament Buildings on the Inner Harbour.)
Refuel: Take a picnic or eat at one of the many restaurants near the Inner Harbour.
Visitor’s tip: Enjoy the park’s interior, but don’t miss its seashore pedestrian path on a bluff above (with trails down to) pocket coves. Another perfect place for strolls at sunset or any time of day.
More info: www.victoria.ca (search for Beacon Hill Park).
The place: Hop on your bike or motor scooter and go for a scenic spin along the seashore on a 7.5-mile route (one way) from the Inner Harbour through Beacon Hill Park and east to Cattle Point.
The well-signposted Seaside Touring Route, which follows Dallas and Beach roads among others, winds past sandy beaches, small parks and viewpoints, and lovingly tended homes with envy-inducing ocean views. It’s mostly level with a few short hill climbs, including up to the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, an old favorite that’s being completely rebuilt as a luxury hotel and condos. It’s lovely to bike, with easygoing traffic, or you can putter along on a motor scooter, leaning gently into the curves and the sea breeze.
Refuel: Picnic spots abound at beaches. Or get a burger or snack at the Kiwanis Willows Beach Tea Room, a no-frills cafe with a million-dollar beachfront setting at Oak Bay’s Willows Park. For more upscale and better meals, detour into the village-like Oak Bay area; find restaurants, coffee shops and pubs clustered along Oak Bay Avenue.
Visitor’s tip: The Seaside Touring Route goes for miles beyond Cattle Point. I explored that stretch on a rented scooter, grateful to motor rather than bike to the 700-foot summit of Mount Douglas Park (www.saanich.ca) in adjoining Saanich, with its sweeping views of southern Vancouver Island and Washington’s Cascades and Olympics.
More info: Greater Victoria Cycling Coalition for bike routes and group rides, www.gvcc.bc.ca/
Oak Bay dining, parks: www.oakbaytourism.com
The place: The perfect ending point for a scenic and easygoing seaside bike ride from the Inner Harbour. At Cattle Point, pillows of rock slope into the sea. Sprawl on the sun-warmed slabs and pick out the landmarks, from Washington’s Mount Baker and Olympics to San Juan Island, surprisingly nearby.
Cattle Point takes its name from its 19th-century past as a transfer point for livestock. Ships would edge close to shore and drop off cattle for a short swim and walk. The sprawling Uplands Park and luxurious houses occupy what was once farmland.
Refuel: Picnic. Or simply rehydrate at Cattle Point.
Visitor’s tip: A stairway near Cattle Point drops down to Willows Beach. You can carry a bike up or down the shortcut.
More info: www.oakbaytourism.com
The place: This 34-mile trail stretches from central Victoria west to the seafront community of Sooke. Cycle, walk or jog along what was once a railway line (roughly the first quarter of the trail, starting from Victoria, is paved).
To get to its start, cross the Johnson Street Bridge from Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Turn right at the end of the bridge on a paved path and follow Harbour Road (and other cyclists) for about 1/3 mile to the start of the trail. The first few miles make a fun, easygoing ride, including over the almost 1,000-foot-long wooden Selkirk Trestle bridge.
Refuel: Eat before or after in downtown Victoria. It’s where you’ll eat best.
Visitor’s tip: The Galloping Goose trail (named after an ungainly little 1920s passenger train that served the route) intersects with the Lochside biking trail, also a former railway line.
The 18-mile Lochside goes north from Victoria to Sidney and Swartz Bay which include, respectively, the Washington State Ferries terminal (from Anacortes) and BC Ferries’ terminal. Ardent bicyclists can ride onto the ferries and bike traffic-free into Victoria.
Info: For maps of the Galloping Goose (and Lochside), see www.crd.bc.ca/parks/galloping-goose/
IF YOU GO:
Washington State Ferries sails from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C., near Victoria. $6 bike surcharge in summer ($4 in the off-peak season). www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/
Black Ball Ferry Line sails the MV Coho from Port Angeles to Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Bike surcharge $6.50. www.cohoferry.com
BC Ferries sails from Tsawwassen, south of Vancouver, B.C., to Swartz Bay near Victoria. $2 bike surcharge. www.bcferries.com
Kenmore Air flies seaplanes to Victoria from Seattle and Kenmore, www.kenmoreair.com. Watch for Web specials to bring down the price.
For more accommodations and tourist information contact Tourism Victoria: www.tourismvictoria.com