“I found one!” my daughter yells, holding up something so tiny, I can’t even see it when I squint and shield my eyes from the midday sun. She runs over to my perch, a giant driftwood log, and uncurls her fingers. “Look at this, Mom.”
In her palm rests a nugget of green sea glass, worn perfectly smooth and round by the crashing waves at Fonyo Beach, just south of Beacon Hill Park in Victoria, B.C. After that first discovery, the kids are unstoppable, digging through the pebbly sand and training their eyes to find brown, orange, red, white and even blue bits of polished and frosted glass that resemble uncut jewels.
Here, removed from the bustle of the capital city’s inner harbour and its tidy lawns and tended gardens, we’ve stumbled upon a place that still feels wild—slick rocks just offshore cache shore crabs and sea anemones, and a jumble of sun-bleached logs abut the cliff escarpment behind us, hinting at the ferocity of the waves that have pummeled and shaped our growing collection of colourful gems. It’s a snapshot of what Victoria must have been like before it officially became a city in 1862 and began its transformation into an orderly and civilized metropolis complete with high tea and sculptured clusters of hydrangeas.
We’ve veered slightly off the tame path taken by families when they visit Victoria. Instead of visiting the usual suspects, we head to the lesser-known Bug Zoo — a place teeming with creepy-crawlies — where we touch millipedes, hold tarantulas and observe live scorpions. Rather than admire the manicured pathways and ponds at Beacon Hill Park, we seek out the wilder sections, where rock formations that look like they’ve been plucked from the Serengeti beckon as climbing walls.
And, in addition to marveling at the blooming perfection that is Butchart Gardens, we climb aboard its summer boat tour that takes us into Tod Inlet to see the rugged beauty of adjacent Gowlland Tod Provincial Park. Our guide points out the dramatic, fjord-like drop off from the steep, forested mountains to the placid sea, where harbour seals frolic and jellies float just below the surface of the sea-foam green water.
My kids, ages 8 and 11, lead the charge, of course. Children, ever resistant to parental attempts at civilization, help us bust loose from the typical tourist itinerary to discover the wild places that keep Victoria rough around its edges.
It has been years since we’ve been to Victoria—and it’s our first trip to Vancouver Island with children—so, in addition to breaking new ground, my husband and I are eager to visit some favourite stops. We feed the seals at Fisherman’s Wharf and whiz about the harbour in a water taxi. I take my daughter, a budding naturalist, on a Prince of Whales tour to watch magnificent orcas in their ocean environment.
And we make the pilgrimage to Spinnaker’s, Canada’s first brewpub, a quick stroll along the Westsong Walkway from the Delta Ocean Pointe Resort, our kid-friendly base. Back before kids this was a straightforward walk; with them it becomes an adventure. They immediately spot the totem pole at Songhees Point and commence climbing on the surrounding boulders. We learn the city was built on traditional territory of the Lekwugen People, ancestors of the Esquimalt and Songhees nations, and we imagine what the natural harbour would have looked like without sea planes landing, or the parliament building lit up across the water like a scene from a Victorian postcard.
The following day, a visit to Thetis Lake Regional Park, a recreation area just outside of town popular among locals, provides a glimpse of the city’s natural geography before streets and buildings and parks. We hike the trail that circles the lake, shaded by giant cedars, towering Douglas Firs and the unusual arbutus trees, which are Canada’s only broad-leaf evergreen with red, peeling bark. It’s the type of untended, startlingly green forest, complete with mossy rocks, found all over Vancouver Island. The path winds past stony outcrops that serve as diving boards for cliff jumpers. We’re not quite that wild, however, and keep our feet firmly on the ground.
Later, at Goldstream Provincial Park, another gem close to the city (famous for its fall salmon run), we walk through coastal rainforest, munching on wild blackberries along the way, and then ascend a steep trail past a waterfall to an abandoned railway trestle above Niagara Creek Canyon. The bridge is wide enough for two sets of train tracks, but there are no railings, lending it an element of risk. My eldest, ever the daredevil, trots out to the centre of the trestle, where a small observation platform shows an impressive view of the forested valley below.
My son, desperate to follow, hurries after her, but stops short when he glimpses the void between each railway tie. I grip his hand and we venture out over the abyss together. As a family, we love to walk on the wild side, but I’m happy at least one child will still let me rein him in.
It’s like that with Victoria, too—you can, quite literally, go out on a limb in its woodlands and wetlands, but the prospect of baby goats in your lap at the Beacon Hill Children’s Farm, or the promise of crisp fish and chips munched on Fisherman’s Wharf, lures you back to civilization every time.
Editor’s note: Our writer was supported by our partners in tourism, including Tourism Victoria and Tourism Vancouver Island. This story was not reviewed or edited by our partners before publication. For other Toque & Canoe posts written by Lisa Kadane check out Romancing the Snow: Island Lake Lodge a powder hound’s paradise, Lavande, chocolat et vin. Mon dieu! Indulging the senses in Quebec and Hiking Heiko’s Trail: From the “back of beyond” to civilization, just in time for happy hour.
Founded by two Canucks on the loose in a big country, Toque & Canoe is a blog about Canadian travel culture.