"Water, wheels and walks" is the theme of this weekend itinerary for paddlers, bikers and hikers on the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
Sometimes, when you’ve been to a place a few times, it’s good to try something different.
I make regular trips to Victoria, which always include some kind of outdoor recreation (gotta burn off those bakery calories somehow). On my most recent visit, I decided to expand my horizon — literally — by venturing outside town.
That was how I found myself atop a cliff above a fjord that slices into Vancouver Island, looking south across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Peninsula’s snow-capped peaks.
I was in good company. A group of four rambunctious women — friends who met in high school, live all over the United States and now travel regularly together — were entertaining me and our tour guide, Mark Vukobrat of Hike Victoria.
At the southern tip of a mountainous green island, Victoria is just close enough to all kinds of recreation that you can do almost anything with a little information. And late spring, before the crowds of summer arrive but after winter recedes, is one of my favorite times to go.
I planned a recent long weekend with an outdoorsy theme: water, wheels and walks.
The water came first, with a half-day kayaking tour of Victoria Harbour. My guide from Victoria Kayak, Kip, was happy to go at my pace, and we had a lovely conversation that started with our surroundings and ranged into everyday life.
The sheltered harbor made for relaxing paddling, and threatening rain never materialized (thank you, Olympic Peninsula rain shadow!). We saw young seals, quite a few native seabirds, and a most adorable otter that looked at us with bright eyes full of curiosity.
We didn’t encounter whales on this venture, though they sometimes swim near the harbor. I saw plenty of orcas on another recent visit, when I took the Songhees Nation Cultural Tour with Eagle Wing Tours. That tour combines wildlife watching with stories and history of the indigenous Songhees people, who have long lived around what is now Victoria.
One nice thing about Victoria is how accessible tours and recreational rentals are. Most boat tours, whether self-powered or motorized, leave from the busy harbor promenade in front of the magnificent (and newly restored) Fairmont Empress Hotel.
Renting a bicycle in town is easy, too. Last fall, Victoria got Canada’s first station-free bike-share program, U-bicycle — a testament to how popular cycling is here. The fact that it took me a while to notice the lime-green bikes all over town may show how accustomed I am to living in a city literally littered with bikes. Or it could demonstrate how dedicated Victoria residents are to keeping their city neat, because almost every bike I saw was propped carefully against one of the city’s many public bike racks.
Once I was paying attention, I noticed that many of the bikes had helmets attached. U-bicycle encourages riders to wear its loaner helmets, but not all the bikes I saw had them.
I’ve previously rented a bicycle on a per-day basis from Cycle BC, a couple blocks from the harbor, for free-form explorations. For this trip, I wanted to try one of The Pedaler’s guided tours (the company also offers self-guided tours and bike rentals). The Pedaler is based in a Victorian building near the hotel where I stayed, the Inn at Laurel Point, on the harbor’s south edge. Since food is a big part of any trip to Victoria, their “Eat.Drink.Pedal” tour seemed appropriate.
The leisurely four-hour tour includes both a knowledgeable guide and tastings at local eateries offering everything from pizza to ice cream (food is covered with the cost of the tour). If that sounds like a lot of riding, consider this: you’re stopping often for sustenance. And for an extra cost, you can upgrade to an e-bike for electrical assistance.
I don’t often do guided hikes — how hard can it be to walk up a hill? — but one with Hike Victoria demonstrated an organized tour’s potential value, especially for a solo traveler without a car (I’d come to Victoria on the Victoria Clipper passenger ferry).
Guide Mark Vukobrat drove us the half-hour to the trailhead, told us about the local flora, fauna and indigenous peoples, and pointed out landmarks on the horizon. He also gave us tips on how to navigate steeper sections using hiking poles he provided. And my fellow travelers were so friendly and game that I felt I’d made four instant friends.
We hiked for about 4.5 miles in Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, where the Gowlland Range looms above the Saanich Inlet northwest of Victoria.
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“Can you smell it? Can you smell the forest?” Vukobrat said, encouraging us to inhale deeply as we headed uphill.
“I liked how green it was. So many kinds of green,” marveled one of the women as we piled back into Vukobrat’s minivan for the drive back to our lodgings. It’s easy for us Northwesterners to forget how special our landscape is until we see it afresh through someone else’s eyes. But that’s the beauty of travel, even if you’ve been there before.
If you go
Tourism Victoria: comprehensive information about travel to Victoria: https://www.tourismvictoria.com
The passenger-only Victoria Clipper runs between Seattle and Victoria: https://www.clippervacations.com
Black Ball’s Coho ferry accommodates cars on its Port Angeles-Victoria route: https://www.cohoferry.com
Victoria Kayak does tours and rents kayaks: https://victoriakayak.com
Hike Victoria offers various tour options: http://www.hikevictoria.com
Using U-bicycle requires a phone app and account: https://www.ubike.cn/en
The Pedaler leads a variety of bike tours and also rents bikes and e-bikes: http://thepedaler.ca