On the Trail of Glorious Gardens: Cycling to Victoria

By Rick & Chris Millikan

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Touted as Canada’s Bicycle and Garden Capital, we’re inspired to pedal to Victoria, this time researching her famed and lesser-known gardens. BC Ferries supports this robust venture, charging us just $8 round trip for our two bicycles. Boarding immediately as cyclists, we find choice seats for the scenic trip across Georgia Strait to Vancouver Island.

At Swartz Bay, we begin cycling well-signed Lochside Trail. Built on an old railroad bed, this well-graded trail alternates from roadway to pathway, smoothly zigzagging through Sidney’s neighbourhoods and along panoramic shorelines where whimsical driftwood sculptures wave us onward into Saanich.

Morphing into a gravelled trail, Lochside parallels Pat Bay Highway passing a collection of heritage farm machinery and beelines as a quiet country road through newly planted farmlands. At a “chicken crossing” sign, we stop to visit portly pink pigs eagerly rooting out meals. Our journey continues under arcades of alders exuding cheery birdsongs and woodsy fragrances.

Reaching the midway point above Cordova Bay at Mattick’s Farm, we munch fresh cheese scones and savour hearty soup on a shady picnic table. Re-energized, we soon cross Blenkinsop Lake’s long wooden trestle, pausing to admire local farmer Roy Hawes’ life-sized bronze statue. Though passing trailside interpretive boards, we do stop and gaze at the unexpected haystack Sphinx at Galey Farm.

Entering Victoria’s suburbs, we travel another trestle over Swan Lake and begin passing through tunnels under major thoroughfares. After 33 scenic kilometres, Lochside ends at the Galloping Goose trail, which heads northward to Sooke or southward, our route downtown. Bridging the busy Island Highway, we bypass commercial hubbub, cross through parklands, span the spectacular Gorge waterway and proceed to Johnson Street Bridge to glimpse Victoria’s iconic Inner Harbour.

Entering our distinguished capital, a passion for gardening becomes increasingly evident. Riotous flowers adorn boulevards and storefronts. Hanging baskets, wooden tubs, classy ceramic urns, window boxes and yards overflow with rainbow colours.

Grinding up Fort Street onto Rockland Avenue, we arrive just in time for tea in Villa Marco Polo’s well-groomed, classic Italian garden. Our green-thumbed innkeeper comments, “Every February, Victoria announces its billion plus flower count to snowbound Canadians. In July, you’ll find gazillions!”

Sauntering through the nearby gates of Government House, we admire thousands of glorious pink and white blossoms in the Victorian Rose Garden. Former Lieutenant-Governor Lam created this splendid area and recruited over 250 volunteers to tend the extensive public gardens.

An earlier lieutenant-governor donned wellingtons to clear and plant Pearkes Peak. Ornamental shrubs and evergreens thrive on these three rocky islands surrounded by plush lawns. Northward, a tiered fountain stands amid the Sunken Rose Garden’s sweet-scented contemporary and heritage blooms. In the adjacent Herb Garden, a carved Salish orca supports a sundial. And seaward, winsome wildflowers flourish among a preserved Garry oak forest.

Returning past Robert Dunsmuir’s regal Craigdarroch Castle, we notice garden areas being re-established, reminding us of a prior exploration at son James’ Hatley Castle. This suburban Colwood estate boasts nine traditional “garden rooms,” including meticulous Japanese, Italian and Rose gardens as well as a restored century-old greenhouse, wildlife sanctuary encircling a saltwater lagoon and 15 kilometres of urban forest trails.

Following a three-course gourmet breakfast the next morning, we stroll down into Beacon Hill Park. Established in 1882, Scottish landscaper John Blair planted over 2,000 trees and shrubs, some now rare and endangered. Today’s visitors putt its greens, feed dabbling ducks, watch peacocks strut, ride horse-drawn carriages clip-clopping under broad oak canopies and, like us, enjoy multitudes of flowers.

In its largest rose garden, a city gardener advises us on deadheading, pruning and fertilizing, before directing us toward further floral displays. After admiring beds of brilliantly blooming perennials, a shady path leads us alongside native plants and shrubs to Goodacre Lake and up into the nearby alpine rock garden.

The current Lieutenant-Governor Steven Point hosts summer programs on Government House’s front lawn, so we return for an evening of Coast Salish dance and bluegrass music.

Leaving our elegant inn the next day, we take an easy ride through neighbourhoods of Tudor-style homes to another heritage B&B. The owner grins as she introduces her colourful, yet undisciplined garden as an herbaceous border. On her recommended stroll around Oak Bay Village, we discover Windsor Park Rose Garden, a floral haven established in 1937 by Ada Beaven, who donated over 500 roses.

Inside its wrought iron gates and manicured hedge, we sniff our way ‘round perusing labels, studying the sundial and resting on a shaded stone bench. At the next corner, we inhale fragrances of a new scent garden. Then looping past village pubs, tearooms and picturesque shoreline, we locate another garden endowed by Ada, featuring 1.4 acres of native plants.

Cycling the next day into Uplands, we investigate Oak Bay’s claim as Canada’s Palm Tree Capital, counting many of the reported 2,669 windmill palms. On our return, we locate lovely Lokier Garden. Within its fence thrives another effusive collection of wondrous flowers thanks to Thomas Lokier’s lifetime of contributions.

Then riding westward, we find “the garden that love built.” In 1920’s Paris, Peggy Pemberton-Carter and exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi met and fell in love. After tragedy and wartime separation, they married in 1946 and turned a rugged hillside into the exquisite Abkhazi Garden. From their original summerhouse, we view the passionate results of their 40 years together. Lush landscapes swirl around ornamental evergreens, huge century-old rhododendrons and towering Garry oaks. Coppery Japanese maples and weeping conifers tumble down rock-faces toward reflection pools; alpine flora blossom in rocky niches.

On our last day, we pedal back downtown to catch a bus to Butchart Gardens. With bikes secured on the front rack and gear stowed onboard, we travel through outlying neighbourhoods to its entrance where a magnificent display celebrates its first century. Like many of Victoria’s venerated gardens, this world-renowned attraction is a designated National Historic Site.

Beginning with ton-after-ton of topsoil delivered by horse-cart from a nearby farm, Jenny Butchart transformed the unsightly quarry supplying limestone for her husband’s cement plant into this world-famous garden, sometimes even dangling from a boatswain’s chair tucking ivy into high rocky crevices. Jenny’s family continues her vision, sharing their glorious results throughout the year.

Open since 1904, the sunken gardens still titillate the senses. Pathways loop around stately trees, ponds and flowerbeds brimming with dizzying colour: feathery pink spirea, fleshy begonias, trumpeting petunias, vibrant impatiens and graceful purple, white and blue delphiniums. Its antique fountain fires silvery sprays above the spring-fed pond.

Above, a long border of dahlias sprouting rainbows of gigantic flower heads leads to other spectacles. The sweetly perfumed Rose Gardens flaunt 250 flamboyant varieties labelled with intriguing and amusing names. A shady pathway descends the hillside to the peaceful Japanese Garden, winding through vermilion Torii gates past stone statuary and over graceful bridges to restful alcoves. Nearby, the Italian Garden offers formal blossomed arrays, classic sculpture - and refreshing gelatos. Lastly, the new Mediterranean Garden dazzles us with showy succulents and other water-wise plants, including little portulacas and numerous palms.

Hopping a final bus to Swartz Bay, we rest our legs aboard the ferry and sail homeward inspired to improve our own herbaceous borders.


When You Go:

BC Ferries: www.bcferries.com
Oak Bay Tourism: www.oakbaytourism.com
Abkhazi Garden: www.conservancy.bc.ca/abkhazi
Butchart Gardens: www.butchartgardens.com

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