Winter Escape to Victoria

One of the perks of being a student is having so much dedicated time off; the downfall is not having an income. I knew I needed to capitalize on my last winter break. In order to stay somewhat close by, we decided to return to British Columbia and tossed around the idea of Vancouver Island. We thought it might be nice to vacation farther west, where the typical December weather is cold and rainy rather than dry with snow. We chose Victoria, which promised festivity and a mix of both indoor and outdoor activities and extended our stay two more days with a stop in Sooke, where we could fit in some coastal winter hiking.

I suppose we should have known this winter was going to be different when the temperatures plummeted well below average, and we received our first significant snowfall in Boise in November. Yet, up until the week before our trip, Victoria’s forecast predicted rain with only a chance of light snow. I researched and picked several trail options in and around Sooke, and we packed for cold, wet weather.

We left Boise under a bright, clear sky and began the first leg of our voyage. We planned to stop in Ellensburg, Washington – a 6ish hour drive – so we were in no hurry. We stopped in Baker City for coffee and in Pendleton to peruse the Pendleton Woolen Mills store. It felt like we drove through multiple seasons; we left sunny blue skies and entered dense, cold fog, then the frozen Palouse where every inch of the land was lined with hoar frost. We had hoped to explore Ellensburg a bit, but it was nearly dark by the time we arrived, and the temperature hovered in the low teens. We had dinner at a small, dimly lit restaurant called Julep, where we indulged in delicious southern fare and then retreated to the warmth of our hotel room for the night.

In the morning, we left at 8:00 to ensure we had enough time to cross the border and arrive at the ferry terminal in Tsawwassen. We crossed Snoqualmie Pass in fog and descended to rain but arrived at the border with plenty of time to spare. It was a fairly quick crossing – although Zach was grilled about firearm ownership! – and we killed some time in Tsawwassen (stopping at the first Tim Horton’s of the trip!) before driving to the ferry terminal for our 3:00 departure. By the time we arrived in Swartz Bay, it was dark.

Our view before it grew dark
At Whistle Buoy

We drove to our Airbnb to unpack and stretch out a bit before venturing out to a brewery. Victoria was decked out in Christmas lights, and the crisp air inspired us to take a short walk around town. We walked down to the Inner Harbor, stopping to admire the festooned sailboats, before continuing to the Parliament Building, lit up like a giant gingerbread house.

Inner Harbor Slideshow

Day 1

The next morning we intended to begin the day with a nice walk along the coast. Our Airbnb was in a spacious basement apartment just 3 houses down from Dallas Road, which winds along the seashore. However, it was raining fairly steadily, and Truman was uninterested in remaining outside long. We abandoned the idea and went to nearby Moka House for breakfast and coffee. While we sat inside, the rain turned to snow, setting the stage for the day.

Our first stop of the day was Craigdarroch Castle. Intended to be the home of coal magnate Robert Dunsmuir and his family, the home was completed in 1890 after his death. His wife, Joan, three daughters, and two grandchildren lived in the home briefly. Joan died in 1908, and since then, the Castle has held various occupants. It was used as a military hospital during WWI, home to Victoria College through 1946, filled with drop ceilings to serve as school board offices, and later as a music conservatory. It became a historic museum in 1969 through quite a bit of effort from passionate conservationists.

Craigdarroch Castle Slideshow

Today, the home has been partially restored to its Dunsmuir condition, and it was festively decorated for a Victorian Christmas on the first floor. However, I appreciated the effort not to restore every single square inch of the home but rather to show how Joan Dunsmuir’s bathroom was converted into a line of toilets and sinks for the military hospital or a spare room with photographs of the school board offices. Often historical homes are painstakingly recreating a previous world, but I enjoyed the focus on Craigdarroch Castle’s many reincarnations while still getting to enjoy the exquisite woodwork and the stained-glass windows.

Government House grounds

We left Craigdarroch Castle for the nearby Governor General’s residence – Government House – to walk the public grounds. It had stopped raining and snowing, so we trekked around the grand home, admiring the views of the ocean beyond. From there, we visited the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria to escape the wet chill outside. It was a relatively small gallery but with four exhibitions displaying First Nations and Asian-Canadian artists. I enjoyed the variety on display, too, with mixed media, visual arts, and wearable art included among more traditional mediums. In their garden, the gallery has a reconstructed Shinto shrine that was brought from Japan and reassembled.

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria – Shinto Shrine

We returned to our Airbnb, and I attempted to take Truman for a walk along the coast. It was cold and windy, and while he humored me, he did not enjoy it. The sky had cleared, so I dragged Zach out instead. We parked at Beacon Hill Park to admire the 2nd tallest free-standing totem pole. From there, we walked along the coastal path to Finlayson Point, admiring the rugged beach and moody evening sky. We decided to get dinner at a Korean place nearby – Thunderbird – where we had excellent fried chicken, and then drove to the University of Victoria, where Zach had arranged to meet their trumpet professor during a fiddle concert. Unfortunately, we did not have enough cash for the admission fee, and with no ATM in sight, we were forced to abandon that plan and return to our Airbnb to cozy up with Truman and Netflix.

Tiny Zach stands at the base

Day 2

I was glad we had taken advantage of the nicer evening because Monday was cold and windy, with light snow falling most of the day. We started our day with a tour of the Parliament Building. It was very interesting and full of helpful context about British Columbia’s history and politics. It didn’t hurt that the majority of the tour group was from the U.S., and we all needed help understanding their parliamentary system. The building was decorated for Christmas, too, with a giant tree sitting in the middle of the rotunda.

Queen Elizabeth II Golden Jubilee window
Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee window

When we left, the snow had increased, and the temperature had dropped, freezing the fountain. We walked across the road to the Fairmont Empress to explore its elegant first floor, then on to another nearby hotel to check out a gingerbread showcase. The gingerbread showcase was a fundraising event for the local Habitat for Humanity and featured 24 intricately decorated gingerbread houses. We were very impressed with the level of detail and creativity! My favorite was inspired by New Zealand and featured kiwi birds on a beach with a tree made of dried kiwi fruit.

Gingerbread Showcase Slideshow

Feeling festive, we left to walk toward Chinatown, stopping first for coffee and lunch at Fol Epi Bakery. It was the perfect spot to warm up while inhaling the comforting yeasty scents of freshly-baked bread and pastry. Somewhat ready to brave the chill, we emerged back on the street to complete our trek to Chinatown. Victoria’s Chinatown is Canada’s oldest and most intact Chinese neighborhood boasting a beautiful gate and historic storefronts. It was first settled in 1858 and, due to Victoria’s position as an important port, had the largest concentration of Chinese Canadians in the country. We walked down the two main streets and the popular Fan Tan Alley, popping into a record store before heading back downtown. We had time to stop in Cowichan Trading and Munro’s Books to pick up some souvenirs before returning to our Airbnb for a rest.

Fan Tan Alley

Our big plan for the evening was a reservation at Butchart Gardens for their Magic of Christmas display. We wanted to squeeze in one more brewery visit, so we drove over to Driftwood Brewery to eat dinner and pregame. The forecast called for increasing snow into the evening and overnight, so we were prepared for a slow drive up to the gardens and then back to Victoria. At the time, estimates had the snowfall totaling around six inches, but as the night wore on, those estimates continued to grow.

Zach at Driftwood Brewing

Butchart Gardens was magical. 30 minutes north of downtown Victoria, we arrived in softly-falling snow at a glowing botanical garden that could have been the set for a Christmas movie. The snow had settled on the Christmas lights, lending a soft glow to each of the displays. We quickly realized that the display had a 12 Days of Christmas theme, and it was fun to try to recall which scene would be next. (Our ability to recall the song was poor.) Having no prior knowledge of the garden or its setup, we were awed by each new discovery – the sunken garden, the carousel, the leaping frogs – everything felt fresh and wonderous. Maybe it was the combination of a chill beer buzz and the falling snow, but I left completely enchanted. I even left with an ornament of the Rose Carousel!

The Sunken Garden

Day 3

When we returned to our Airbnb, we were prepared for a late start the next morning. We had even requested an extension to our check-out time to account for the snowfall. However, we woke up to MUCH MORE than six inches. Close to a foot and a half had fallen overnight, bringing Victoria and its surroundings to a halt. We hung around as long as we could at our Airbnb, then packed up to begin the journey to Sooke, our next destination. After digging out our car, we managed to make it to Dallas Road, which was better cleared of snow, and then navigate to a nearby gas station since our gauge was on empty. We accomplished that task and set off for downtown, thinking we could get a coffee and breakfast somewhere. However, none of the streets were clear, and the parking looked hellish. We eventually made it to Fol Epi’s second location, where we were better able to park. We heard on the radio that many places were understaffed, closing early, or not opening at all due to the snowfall. I suppose we were lucky it happened the day we planned to leave town. We bid adieu to Victoria and went west toward Sooke.

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