The last part of our road trip through beautiful Vancouver Island: from Salt Spring Island, via a very scenic route, to Victoria.
We could have chosen to leave Salt Spring Island on the east side via Fulford Harbour, but we would then have arrived in Victoria way too early for the check-in into our hotel (only at 4 pm). Furthermore, it would have been the same stretch of road as we would have to take on our way back to mainland BC.
We woke up early to prevent waiting in long lines for the ferry back to Vancouver Island. Therefore, we took the 9.35 am ferry in Vesuvius instead of the 10.50 am one and had plenty of time for an impromptu scenic route. But first, brunch at Tim Hortons. Timmy’s is an institution in Canada, which we had been sort of avoiding in the previous weeks, but we gave in to the kids. To us, it was a mash-up of a McDonalds, Starbucks, and Dunkin’ Donuts (which may explain the kid’s enthusiasm and overall popularity), and it wasn’t all that bad. Furthermore, they have to be commended for already serving Beyond Meat “Burgers” and “Sausage Patties” as part of their regular menu.
Our 220km/135 mile scenic route took us through the southeastern interior of Vancouver Island, via Lake Cowichan to Port Renfrew. Then we headed east on the Juan de Fuca highway along the coast, and after a lunch stop in Sooke, we arrived in Victoria.
There were three signs at the exit for Port Renfrew at Mesachie Lake:
- Next gas station 82km
- No cell reception for next 53km
- Watch out for Wildlife for next 60km
The road was indeed precisely between these two places; no other villages on this road, just a few turns to remote farms. You don’t want your car to break down there, but there was much more traffic than we had expected, so a helping hand would soon be available if you did. It was a beautiful route through unspoiled nature that we cruised through at around 60 km per hour.
Lake Fairy (Pacific Marine Rd, just north of Port Renfrew), is worth a quick stop as a bonsai tree grows on a rock in the middle of the lake.
The sign of the cell reception was incorrect; it was only about 10 kilometers before Sooke (thus a total of 110km) that the bars on our phones filled up again. Unfortunately, we had connected to a telecom provider from the US, which is 20 kilometers away on the other side of the Salish Sea… Also, only in the suburbs of Sooke, the “promised” wildlife showed itself, although I was responsible for one roadkill.
“Lunch” was in Sooke at one of the local breweries, Sooke Brewing Company (2057 Otter Point Rd). Great beer and view of the brewing room, but no real food options here. The bag of Crystal Meth, err… Malt, made me understand why that Canadian beer is so damn addictive!
We also visited nearby Sheringham Distillery (252 – 6731 W Coast Rd). Their Vodka, Aquavit, and White Spirits are excellent, but we were mainly there to check out their Seaside Gin, which took the 2019 World’s Best Contemporary Gin Award. This category means that the gin is not predominantly favored with the classic botanicals like juniper. Other flavors such as citrus, spice, and floral notes are more prominent here than in a Classic Gin. This Seaside gin is indeed relatively citrussy, but due to the added local winged kelp, it also has a slight saline flavor. Amazing stuff! Their Kazuki Gin is infused with cherry blossoms petals, yuzu peel, and green tea Flowers from Westholme Tea Farm in Cowichan Valley was delicious too and therefore also found its way into our suitcases back home.
When we arrived at our hotel on the outskirts of Victoria’s Chinatown, we took a short exploratory walk in the neighborhood.
Because we were quite hungry and the kids were in the mood for pasta, we attempted to get into one of Victoria’s busiest and highest rated restaurants, II Terrazzo (555 Johnson St). It opened at 5 pm, and even 15 minutes prior, we were already waiting in line outside. Fortunately, they still had a table free for those without reservations, but when we finished eating, the large restaurant was entirely packed.
We had the Fungi Arrosto (Portabella mushroom in a focaccia crumb and herb crust, baked with garlic butter, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts, and Parmigiano. Sliced and tossed with baby spinach, crispy capers, and balsamic vinaigrette) and Aglio Arrosto e Cambozola (Fire roasted garlic bulb served with freshly baked rosemary flatbread and a wedge of cambozola cheese). The kids had Zuppa di Pomodoro (Vine-ripened tomato soup with basil pesto and Bocconcini cheese) as starters. We were also happy to find the Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc in their wine “book” which had more than 1000 entries.
We had 3 different mains. The Melanzane al Forno (Fresh pasta folded over breaded eggplant, roasted mushrooms, garlic confit, asiago, and gruyere cheeses, baked in a tomato basil cream sauce, topped with spinach). A Fusilli con Sugo di Manzo (Fusilli pasta in a slow-cooked Bolognese meat sauce, baked with mozzarella, spinach, and fresh basil) as well a the Canneloni di Maiale (Fresh pasta filled with pulled pork and mozzarella, baked with savoy cabbage and smoked bacon cream, topped with a balsamic granny smith apple compote). We obviously had leftovers (approximately half of all the main courses), but for dessert, the kids still managed to gobble up a Crème Brûlée and a Panna Cotta… Delicious food, rustic plating, and as you can see, the use of garlic was not shunned. The leftovers were wafting every time we opened the fridge in our hotel room…
Our amiable waiter pointed out that in the evening, the 30th Symphony Splash would take place. The Victoria Symphony Orchestra gave an open-air concert on a pontoon in the harbor between the Empress Hotel and the British Columbia Parliament Building. Very well attended, and the final 1812 Overture of Tchaikovsky was accompanied by a festive firework display (instead of with real artillery guns).
It is clear that the end of the holiday is approaching as the call of the kids for more sleep and fewer activities is getting louder by the day ;-). Yesterday, we partly met their demands and let them sleep in. Consequently, they did have to stand in line for brunch at Jam Café (542 Herald St), which already had phenomenal lines in Vancouver earlier this holiday due to their no reservation policy.
It was a public holiday, British Columbia Day, so that didn’t help, but when we entered the line, people told us that the waiting time was about 30 minutes for a 2-person table: “not bad at all for Jam Café…”. Fifty-five minutes later, we were seated in the restaurant and had worked up quite the appetite.
The kids went for The Waffle Board (1 Belgian waffle topped with cinnamon caramelized apples and fruit salad) and Maggie’s S’Mores Pancakes, which was a massive triple stack with the expected layers of chocolate, graham crackers, and roasted marshmallows. Chantal had The Veggie Bowl (Crumbled biscuit, hash browns, peppers, tomatoes, mushrooms, corn salsa, spinach, mushroom gravy, cheddar and two sunnyside up eggs). I had the Jam Blackstone Benny’s (two poached eggs on an English muffin with hollandaise, hashbrowns, house sugar-cured bacon, roasted Roma tomatoes topped with Parmesan cheese) together with a side of Avocado Toast. Their reputation is understandable; the quality of the food is top-notch, and the portions are large enough to eat all day (which we did – together with the doggy bag from Il Terrazzo the day before). The Pimm’s Cup (Pimm’s #1, Ginger Beer, Lemon Juice, Chai, and Cucumber) is also a lovely summer cocktail!
Then, we strolled to the Royal BC Museum (675 Belleville St), where there was an exhibition about the Mayans that the kids wanted to see. Incredible to see how advanced they were in the times of our Middle Ages and how their culture was destroyed by the Spanish conquistadors in no time (their glyph language was again deciphered only 30 years ago!).
All in all, a must-visit museum as their regular natural history collection is outstanding as well. Outside the museum, you will find the Dutch Carillon. We saw it mentioned on the map, and it evoked unintended associations with a Dutch barrel organ (oh, the horror!). It turned out to be a beautifully designed bell tower that The Netherlands gifted to the citizens of British Columbia because of Canada’s Confederation Centennial in 1967.
That night we went whale watching. The choice of the boat was leading for Chantal as open zodiacs speedboats and having to wear full-body protective gear are not her thing. Therefore, we booked with Eagle Wing Whale & Wildlife Tours as they also have a sturdy catamaran specifically designed from whale watching. We had selected the sunset tour, and departure was from the Fisherman’s wharf at Erie St. The houseboats there are nice and colorful!
As there was thick fog south of Victoria earlier that day, none of the whale watching operators had spotted orcas. The weather had cleared up, but without previous sighting data, it would make no sense to go sailing around a stretch of sea of 100 km2 sea on the off-chance of spotting some orcas. Consequently, the plan was to head north to see if there were any humpback whales around. If people still had to go to Vancouver, they could be dropped off immediately, the crew joked …
Then full speed ahead and sailing at 30 kilometers per hour and choppy waves, the first stretch from the Victoria harbor to Oak Bay was a bumpy ride. Otherwise – also in combination with the Dramamine taken as a precaution – the remainder of the trip via the Haro Strait could even be called very comfortable.
Because of the whaling, the humpbacks were decimated almost entirely in the waters around Vancouver and Seattle 20 years ago. The first whale that came back then to feed there was Big Momma, and the population has since returned to around 400 specimens. Instead of a “facebook”, they have a “tailbook” to be able to identify all the whales. Big Momma showed herself, along with her regular travel buddy Heather, after returning to this area after month and a half of absence. Lucky us! With the sun dropping in the Salish sea, amidst Ferries and various Southern Gulf and San Juan Islands, it was again an unforgettable experience.
Our last morning in Victoria consisted of sleeping in again, and we had early lunch at one of the five outlets of The Village Restaurant. Brunch restaurants and breweries are the two things to bring you riches here in British Columbia! Their Chinatown outlet (1609 Store St) was, of course, the most convenient location as it was just around the corner from our hotel. And we didn’t have to stand in a line for a table. 🙌
Chantal had the Bagel & Lox (smoked salmon, cream cheese, red onion and capers on multigrain toasted mount royal bagel. I had the Drop 3 (Montreal smoked meat, back bacon, turkey sausages, roasted tomatoes, three poached eggs, roasted potatoes, toast & preserves. The kids had Hood Cakes (mixed berry Pancakes), and a Healthy Start (fresh fruit & toast with strip bacon and preserves).
We did some shopping and sightseeing. As our oldest needed a new backpack for school, we went to the MEC, the outdoor store of Canada. From the shop window, you can already see that Canadians are very outdoorsy types, but the range of gear they have in their store is astonishing! I also picked up a funny shirt with “Eh is for Adventure” on it. We had luck with the weather, so the kids wanted ice cream at Perverted Ice Cream (604 Humboldt St). The concept is rather gimmicky with “risque” slogans and names of their cones ice creams and black cones that seemingly were created for Instagram alone. Consequently, long lines and many ice creams already melting before the perfect shot was taken… The product itself nothing special and, therefore, overpriced. Needless to say, we have left the “Perverted in Victoria” t-shirt on the racks…
In the afternoon, we took the car to drive to Beacon Hill Park, in the south of Victoria for the Mile Zero Monument (18 Douglas St), marking the start of Highway 1, the 7821 km long Trans-Canada highway. I suspect they smuggled a little bit by marking the ferry line between Nanaimo and Vancouver as a highway so they could add the extra kilometers of Vancouver Island…
The park also has the World’s Tallest Free-Standing Totem Pole in the world; 60m high and therefore good for a stiff neck from looking up…
If you are in Victoria, the 30-minute drive to The Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay (800 Benvenuto Ave) is a must-see attraction. I will let the pictures do the talking.
We were back from The Butchart Gardens around 4.30 pm, and the kids were more excited about gaming than visiting a brewery for a small snack and drink. Therefore, we dumped them in the hotel, so Chantal and I could have a “romantic” pub crawl… Victoria’s brewery density is absurd. Within a 500m radius of our hotel/brewery/brewpub Swans, there are eight other breweries: Spinnakers Brewpub, Vancouver Island Brewing, Phillips Brewing & Malting, Hoyne Brewing Company, Driftwood Brewery, Moon Under Water Brewery & Pub, Île Sauvage Brewing Co. and Whistle Buoy Brewing Company. The selection was the most practical one: the two nearest breweries. The tasting at Whistle Buoy was nice, and they have a beautiful venue on Market Square’s lower courtyard, but some of their beers lacked a bit of a punch and were flat. We understood that they had opened just a couple of weeks prior, so we’d chalked that one up to start-up issues.
We had been done our best at trying to get our hands on as many different local beers as possible, but with a total of 42 craft beers on tap. Our bartender of Swans managed to surprise us. Their “arrivals board” is brilliant!
First of all, he was a fellow-Dutchman (“I am from Noordwijk, so in that case, we can continue in Dutch.”). Secondly, he had been in Victoria for just eight months but unknowingly had already managed to build up a strong Canadian accent when speaking Dutch 🤪. Lastly, we each ordered a flight of 4 tasters with mainly those of Swans (very nice!) but along the way got to sample several other local beers that we hadn’t come across yet. We also got a taster of their own Negroni, which they pre-mix and then age on oak barrels that previously had Porter beer in it. A delightfully rich and smoky combination!
It was a good practice of that evening because we had already reserved for a late dinner at Cafe Mexico (1425 Store St). Hello, more cocktails !!! 😂 Chantal had the ineffable Rosa Barbujeante (Altos Plata Tequila, Montenegro Amaro, Watermelon Mint Syrup, Lime Juice, and Prosecco) and I had a Rodilla de las Abejas (Bergamot Infused Papalote Blanco Tequila, Honey Syrup, Lemon Juice, Lavender Foam). The latter looks a bit creepy in the photo but was very tasty and invoked memories of The Buchart Gardens. The kids had some Agua Fresca mocktails.
Foodwise, we had Queso Fundido (A creamy cheese dip with chorizo, refried beans, poblano peppers, and caramelized onions) and Street Corn (Charred corn off the cob with mixed peppers, cotija cheese, caramelized onions and garlic serrano, topped with Cricket salt) as a side dish. The kids ordered Quesadillas; one Carne Asada (Skirt steak, onions, poblano, and red pepper, served with guacamole and salsa morita), and one Chicken Asada (Chargrilled chicken, roasted corn, black bean, red pepper, and onion, served with chipotle crema and guacamole).
We had chosen Chimichangas as our mains, a vegetarian one for Chantal (A crispy flour tortilla filled with nopales, oyster mushrooms, poblano peppers, roasted corn and red onion, pico de gallo and Mexican rice, topped with salsa Morita, guacamole, and Jack cheese.) I had a Barbacoa one, which had braised beef short ribs as the basis. It became clear immediately that we’d be having leftovers for breakfast. Great hangover food though…