|Spring time at Butchart Gardens. Photo: Ariel Ogilvie|
With a lush landscape, climatic regime and cultural climate that all embrace horticultural wealth, it’s no surprise Vancouver Island is one of the garden capitals of the world. We have ample water, lots and lots of clean air and summer sun, long days that promote growth, a mild temperature regime that enables great diversity—and room to grow. The Island horticultural regime is often compared to that in Southern England—Devon, say—and both regions share many things, from specific plants to garden designs.
Our most famous garden, of course, is the Butchart Gardens, a vast layout a half hour north of Victoria that’s often ranked among the top three gardens on earth, along with London’s Kew Garden and the immense grounds at Versailles. Butchart is the newest of those three, and the only one of private inception. Jennie Butchart’s campaign 110 years ago to turn her husband’s former quarry into a place of beauty has succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams; today 1 million people a year visit the 55-acre complex along the shores of Saanich Inlet.
There they find both the expected—tidy massed color banks of annual flowers, backed by graceful flowering shrubs and trees, winding paths threading across the green-swarded rolling landscape—plus wholly unexpected treats such as a Mediterranean Garden and a fireworks-show venue in which thousands of appreciative visitors marvel at sophisticated shows on summer nights.
While the Island landscape is intrinsically garden-friendly—Butchart enjoys 215 frost-free days a year--it still takes a lot of human nurture to shape nature into such memorable displays. Butchart employs 50 full-time gardeners to tend its grounds, with part-time workers supplementing the horticultural staff in season. It is thus among the most carefully tended such places anywhere—the sort of garden of which it may accurately be said there is not a leaf out of place.
- Amid Beacon Hill Park’s 200 acres in Victoria lie several ponds with extensive water-lily plantings, reminiscent of those made famous by Claude Monet.
- Nearby, Victoria’s Government House (royal residence when members of the House of Windsor are visiting) features traditional manor grounds, including extensive formal rose gardens.
- St. Ann’s Academy, whose grounds lie just a few blocks from the Inner Harbour in Victoria, is noted for extensive beds of perennial flowers—the decorative backbone of almost any garden. Delphiniums to daphnes, the gardens are alight in color nearly year-round.
- Abkhazi Gardens, in Victoria’s Fairfield neighborhood, is a labour of love by a pair of aristocratic war refugees who artfully blended decorative plantings such as azaleas with the native Garry oak ecosystem. Paths skirt rock outcrops beneath sturdy oaks that long predate human habitation here.
- Sooke Harbour House, the famed inn and culinary shrine along the coast west of Victoria, devotes its grounds to one of the most extensive collections of edible plants in Canada—such as 230 herbs. The vegetable beds provide much of the produce brought to table each evening in the inn’s restaurant.
- Labyrinths are an ancient European meditative feature that may range from painted designs to circles of stone to towering hedges. In our Cowichan Valley—the “Warm Land”—the Valley Labyrinth winds among lavender beds, providing a scented accompaniment to the experience.
- Hazelwood Herb Farm in Ladysmith is devoted to the many fragrant plants whose scent and savour are so essential to many of the world’s cuisines. Hundreds of plants are on hand to see and sample.
- Kitty Coleman Woodland Gardens in Courtenay is a splendid example of a less rigorous approach to horticulture. This arboretum consists of 24 acres of forest, largely native, interspersed with rhododendrons (3,000 of these), a stone labyrinth and water features such as ponds and fountains. Bark paths lead the visitor through the serene scene.
- Tofino Botanical Gardens celebrates its temperate rainforest location by exhibiting hundreds of rainforest plants from around the world. Visitors wandering its woodland paths may come upon rare 10-foot-tall lilies tucked in beneath hemlocks and spruces. A kitchen garden illustrates the surprising array of edibles that can be grown in this extreme climate—lettuce, yes, but also artichokes and rosemary.
Despite the high-intensity human effort required by many of these horticultural attractions, gentle hands shepherd the environment at Island gardens. Butchart has an extensive sustainability program, with comprehensive recycling that ranges from cardboard to fireworks props, food-waste composting, drip irrigation, low-flow water fixtures , even a vinegar-based cleaning regime. Tofino Botanical Gardens offers sustainability education programs.
Our Island boasts so many wonderful, worthy gardens that there is a travel trail enthusiasts may follow to find many of the best, from Victoria to Tofino to Sayward. It would take days to visit them all (a worthy project), but the maps and descriptions at the trail’s website will help travelers plan an itinerary to suit their interests and schedules; please visit www.vancouverislandgardentrail.com.
Along with all the formal gardens, show gardens, gardens evincing this or that human initiative, let’s not forget those nature has grown for us. All we need do is step out thoughtfully onto, say, the Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet, where wind-shaped pines and spruce match any formal bonsai with their artful, compact forms. Stroll down the gravel path to San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Park, and arching branches of moss-draped spruces, cedars and hemlocks form a memorably photogenic arboretum. And perhaps no greater work of nature’s horticultural art exists than the famous “Hanging Garden Cedar” at the end of the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island, in Clayoquot Sound northeast of Tofino.
This single, massive, 2,000-year-old Western red-cedar has dozens of smaller plants growing on it and within its 18-meter girth, a living nurse tree sculpted by the master gardeners of sun and rain, soil and seed. For all the formal designs of human horticulturists, this one tree is as artful, luxuriant and memorable as any we may find, reminding us that gardens are simply a manifestation of life itself.
|Old Town Chemainus. This older part of Chemainus has many interesting old buildings.|
Very few small communities have spread an idea as widely and wonderfully as has Chemainus. This peaceful village of 3,900 people rests on a rise just above a small cove along Stuart Channel—a lovely enough locale for any town. Small islands in the Salish Sea lie a few miles offshore, the Coast Range rises in the distance, and the Vancouver Island Range behind fends off Pacific storms, yielding a mild climate and verdant agricultural surroundings. Sparkling waters, green woods and blue skies frame the scene.
But Chemainus, like many such communities, underwent an identity crisis decades ago when recession and a decline in local resource industries such as timber production and mining brought hard times. Armed with a government revitalization grant and a plan by visionary mayor Graham Bruce, Chemainus set about a massive public art project—adorning buildings throughout town with painted murals depicting local history.
The project began in 1991, and the town soon began gaining notice. A public mural project as economic redevelopment? Scenes of First Nations life, pioneer settlement and early timber harvest, local figures and events began to rise on exterior walls in the city center. Visitors began arriving, soon after, drawn both by the art and the local can-do spirit. The town’s fame spread; an annual festival was begun; and the idea was taken by some visitors back to their local communities.
Today, there are at least a dozen “mural towns” across the globe, from North America to New Zealand. And Chemainus is famed around the world as the town where the idea began—“The Little Town that Did,” as it calls itself. If that were all the town was noted for it would be plenty.
But there’s much more here than public art. A famous theatre company, Chemainus Theatre Festival, draws crowds for top-notch productions that run almost year-round, ranging from popular musicals such as The Buddy Holly Story and Les Misérables to holiday entertainments such as Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Carol.
Chemainus visitors enjoy a wide selection of small inns and B&Bs; cozy cafés line the downtown streets; and biking, hiking, sailing and beachcombing lend themselves to the fresh air and fine weather. Ice cream parlours are a popular local attraction for visitors and residents alike. The town is also the ferry terminal for sailings to serene little Thetis Island, one of the lesser-known Gulf Islands and a place where visitors may be welcomed at a community potluck as if they were neighbors.
Now the town has added a new wrinkle to its public art, inaugurating a campaign to honor Island native daughter Emily Carr in public art. Carr--who worked hard throughout her life to achieve recognition for her art—would be pleased to lend her legacy to a town with such verve.
|Kayakers in Theipval Channel encounter a sounding Humpback Whale.|
Kayaks are marvelous seagoing conveyances for which we owe thanks to the world’s indigenous Arctic peoples, who used them in circumstances most modern recreation adherents can barely imagine. Today, the world of kayaking is roughly divided in two—hard-core paddlers who use rugged, highly maneuverable sea-going craft to explore remote, often challenging waters. The rest of us enjoy peaceful paddling in quiet waters. And Vancouver Island has plenty of territory for both.
In the first case, wilderness ocean trekkers consider Barkley Sound, south of Ucluelet, one of the world’s premier sea kayak destinations. Here lie literally hundreds of islands, islets, skerries, passages and coves in which voyagers may leave civilization almost totally behind. White sand beaches, turquoise waters, weather-tossed spruces leaning out from rocky points—the surroundings in this famous ocean wilderness are breathtaking; and the clean air, sparkling water and peaceful atmosphere incomparable. Adventurers generally depart from Ucluelet; much of the area is within Pacific Rim National Park’s Broken Group Islands unit, and permits must be obtained.
The back reaches of Clayoquot Sound, northeast of Tofino, also offer miles of wilderness paddling, as do even more remote waters such as Nootka Sound and the Brooks Peninsula. All these are for expert wilderness paddlers only.
Day-trip paddlers can set off into equally scenic, lovely waters at hundreds of places on both sides of the Island, ranging from the surprisingly peaceful urban inlet in Victoria, the Gorge, to harbours in Nanaimo, Cowichan Bay, Courtenay and Campbell River. Farther north, in Johnstone Strait, outside Port McNeill, kayakers commonly paddle with orcas going by, and lucky visitors may see these magnificent animals using shoreline rocks to rub their thick hides.
The beautiful Gulf Islands north of Victoria hold hundreds of paddling venues, ranging from quiet coves to lovely channels between islands. One very popular excursion departs Ganges Harbour, on Salt Spring Island, for a short journey across to Russell Island, a tiny islet on which Hawaiian settlers homesteaded around the turn of the 20th Century. The peaceful house, now preserved as a historic treasure, looks out over the lovely waters and salt air in which so many paddlers have found it easy to enjoy the deep breaths we so often lack in modern life.
Oystercatchers guard nests on small skerries, porpoises splash in the distance, harbour seals poke their heads up to watch the passing boats, and eagles and gulls cry overhead. The sensory experience afforded by kayaking around our Island—for a couple hours or a couple weeks—is the apex of outdoor recreation. You might even enjoy a touch or two of salt spray; trust us, it washes stress right away.
For more information about Ocean Kayaking in the Vancouver Island Region visit http://www.vancouverislandoutdoor.com/on-the-water/kayaking/
Places to Ocean Kayak in the Vancouver Island Region
- Broken Group Islands
- Broughton Archipelago and Johnstone Strait
- Discovery Islands
- Gulf Islands
- Victoria Inner Harbour
- Nanaimo Harbour - Newcastle/Protection Islands
- Kyuquot Sound
- Comox Harbour
- Hanson Island
|Kayaks pulled ashore Hand Island, Broken Island Group, Barkley Sound|
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