The Butchart Gardens

Over a million people visit The Butchart Gardens near Victoria BC every year. Four of those are my wife and I who make two visits annually: spring or summer and, our favorite, a winter visit in the Christmas season.

Since the summer months offer a dazzling array of colourful floral displays, concerts, fireworks and evening lights why should a winter visit appeal so much? Let’s take a look at what the Butchart Gardens offers year-round for visitors to Vancouver Island: what they call the 5 Seasons.

Massed tulips herald spring at the Gardens as Victoria’s mild climate does its work. A million bedding plants from their greenhouses come to life. It’s as if nature is smiling again.

Sooo much to see and do. Each themed garden is bursting with colour. Enjoy evening concerts followed by the summer illuminations. Saturday Fireworks sharpen the senses and afternoon high tea soothes them.

Autumnal colours are best appreciated in the Japanese gardens in Victoria. The Japanese maples here are the centrepieces, in yellows, oranges, reds and browns.

The gardens rest a little and quiet descends; a peaceful time to visit. Then there’s the Spring Prelude Indoor Garden and the Historical Display in the Benvenuto house.

The Magic of Christmas is that 5th season, a winter wonderland where millions of lights take the place of the flowers. The Twelve Days of Christmas displays take us through the gardens in December and early January.

There are many other gardens of Victoria to explore but if you want to be dazzled year-round the Butchart Gardens will be sure to delight.

The Gardens at HCP

The Gardens at HCP is not the most appealing of names but don’t let impressions fool you. “HCP” is the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific which sounds even worse unless you are an avid gardener. Its former name of Glendale Gardens is preferable in my view but whats in a name? as Shakespeare pondered… they are a peaceful charming place to visit. Here you can wander through nine acres just north of Victoria, away from the crowds, among 10,000 varieties of plants in over 30 themed gardens.

These gardens often overlooked as people flock to its big brother neighbour on the Saanich Peninsula, The Butchart Gardens. One of many gardens in Victoria open to the public, I appreciate its relaxed, low-key approach (you have to ask to pay the admission fee!). It is unquestionably worth visiting just to enjoy the Takata Gardens: Japanese gardens surrounding a stream which flows past the new Bonsai Garden down to a Zen Garden.

Special events at The Gardens at HCP include Arts and Music in the Gardens held on a mid-August weekend each year with 40 Vancouver Island artists scattered around the many themed gardens. These sections present Mediterranean plants, herbs, heathers, rhododendrons and hostas, lilies, winter, succulents, grasses, fuschias, and more. Special events apart, its a quiet place to wander through at leisure.

Christmas in Victoria

Christmas in Victoria offers highlights and low-lights to fill your visit here on mild southern Vancouver Island. Its a time to enjoy traditions from the past, sometimes with a modern twist.

Warm, cosy feelings are assured when you walk through the Butchart Gardens marvelling at the lights of their Magic of Christmas. Magic indeed! Look for the Twelve Days of Christmas displays and then go ice skating on the outdoor rink followed by hot chocolate.

Craigdarroch Castle’s traditional Christmas and New Year celebrations have a Scottish touch. The glittering elegance of their seasonal decorations are magnificent. Its sister, Hatley Castle, has special events too.

Wandering round Victoria’s Inner Harbour by day or night has a distinctive holiday feel during December. Many of the moored boats are decorated after the Santa Parade and the red, green and white lights of the Parliament Buildings sparkle across the water. Wander through the Empress Hotels Festival of Trees among about 70 Christmas trees decorated by local organisations with donations supporting children’s charities. Walking further to another hotel, the Inn at Laurel Point, brings you to Victorias Gingerbread Showcase with remarkable baked creations, again in support of charity (Habitat for Humanity).

Music is an integral part of our celebrations. Try your hand (voice) at joining in the Hallelujah Chorus at the annual Sing-Along Messiah at the Alix Goolden Hall. Enjoy popular classics with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra. Carollers stroll through downtown Victoria which is illuminated delightfully.

Then there are Victoria’s many craft fairs. Some are juried with artisans creating fine crafts, such as the Dickens Fair at James Bay Community Hall or the Out of Hand Artisan Fair at the fascinating Crystal Garden.

These are just some of the highlights of Christmas in Victoria so do check with your B&B hosts or with Tourism Victoria Info Centre for further information.

Japanese Gardens in Victoria

There are three delightful Japanese gardens in Victoria which we thoroughly recommend to our B&B guests. Victoria gardens numbered by the dozen in the Japanese style but a curving bridge, stone lantern and some bamboo are mere incidentals to Japanese garden design. So here is a summary of three open to the public which were designed by professional Japanese garden designers. Each is quite different from the others.

The Japanese Garden at the Butchart Gardens

Isaburo Kishid was commissioned by Jennie Butchart in 1906 to built a Japanese Garden on the slope down to Tod Creek. Entering through a red lacquered torii gate meandering paths take you past descending streams, crossing stone or wooden bridges in a tranquil, though sometimes crowded, setting. It is easy to miss parts so take a different route back after you reach the inlet. I particularly enjoy strolling through these Japanese gardens on summer evenings when it is illuminated most romantically.

Takata Garden at HCP

The Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, formerly Glendale Gardens, is just 15 minutes south of the Butchart Gardens but never crowded. It’s rather delightful that you have to walk into the office to ask to pay the entry fee! There are about thirty themed areas containing over 10,000 varieties of plants, many with name signs. A favourite is the Takata Garden flanking a stream down to the Zen Garden. On one side is a section with Canada’s largest collection of bonsai trees.

Hatley Castle Japanese Gardens

The extensive grounds of Hatley Castle are now used principally as Royal Roads University but the castle and lovely gardens are open to the public. Please do not be put off by the inadequate Hatley Castle website. 100 years ago one hundred gardeners were employed by the Dunsmuir family to create the Italian, Rose and Japanese gardens on the 565 acre estate. The Japanese Garden is centred upon a lake, with distant views of the snow-capped Olympic Peninsula.

The first two Japanese Gardens in Victoria could easily be visited in a day, perhaps combined with Butterfly Gardens and a winery or two. A tour of Hatley Castle, further west, fits in well with a visit to Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse followed by a drive along the west coast to Sooke.

Visiting Victoria in the Spring

Visiting Victoria in the Spring makes good sense after the mild winters we usually experience on southern Vancouver Island BC. Avoid the crowds, stay at low season rates at Victoria B&Bs and enjoy the new life all around as Spring bursts into life.

Spring in Victoria is epitomised by displays of flowers. In February 2016 local residents counted 26 billion (!) flowers at the annual Flower Count. (Victoria likes to remind snow-bound Canada of its good fortune.) So where better to start than at The Butchart Gardens? Visit before 31st March to see their Spring Prelude indoor garden within a week they transform their Blue Poppy Restaurant into this delightful garden oasis. See their Spring displays of daffodils and massed tulips.

There are many more gardens to enjoy as March daffodils turn to April tulips and then the May rhododendrons and cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Other festivals, special events, displays and concerts range from the Victoria Film Festival in early February to the Swiftsure Yacht races in late May.

Victoria is located on the small Saanich Peninsula surrounded by the rugged natural parks, with lakes and ocean beaches. So, weather permitting, you can set out on foot or by car, or rent bicycles or kayaks and explore. There’s scope for taking it easy or having a tough adventure: your choice.

If it is wet then consider indoor options like the Royal BC Museum, Saanich Commonwealth Place with a superb pool, Butterfly Gardens, Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, tours of Craigdarroch Castle or the BC Legislative Buildings,  select a venue for afternoon tea or just browse through interesting shops.

Your bed and breakfast hosts will be pleased to provide further information when you are visiting Victoria in the Spring.

The Magic of Christmas

The Magic of Christmas is a highlight for many of us in the Victoria area as well as those visiting southern Vancouver Island in December and early January. It is my very favourite time at The Butchart Gardens when my wife and I take a friend or two to wander around the familiar yet magical gardens.

It is not really gardens that we’ve come to see but the Butchart Gardens winter lights, tens of thousands of them. They transform 50 acres into a winter wonderland (and that’s not hype) at Benvenuto, the Butcharts family home.

Younger children will be entranced by the miniature train scene and most ages will enjoy skating on the outdoor ice rink. Then children of all ages will not want to miss a ride on the Rose Carousel.  And that’s before you set off to explore the gardens. The highlight is always the Sunken Garden, with the Rose Garden, Star Pond, Italian Garden and many other delights along the way including the Twelve Days of Christmas displays. My favourite is the eight maids a-milking.

The Magic of Christmas is open at The Butchart Gardens from the beginning of December until 6th January each winter. Should your visit coincide with one of Victoria’s rare snowfalls this is even more magical.

Blues Bayou Café

You might think the name of Blue’s Bayou Café is a reference to a genre of Louisiana music. Blue is actually the name of chef and owner Blue Benoit who operates Blues Bayou Cafe together with his partner Lorill Fraser. Together, they’ve imported authentic Cajun/Creole cuisine at its very best – right down to the ragin’ Cajun alligator sausage – to the Victoria restaurant mix.

And when we say ‘Victoria’, we actually mean a scenic little hideaway at a marina in Brentwood Bay, about 25 minutes from downtown Victoria but about four minutes from the Butchart Gardens. In fact, it’s so close to the gardens, on a summer Saturday evening, you can enjoy superb dining on Blue’s harbour-side outdoor deck and take in the Butchart Gardens fireworks display.

The restaurant’s genesis lay in a 1997 trip the Calgary couple made to New Orleans. The Cajun cooking inspired them so much that, after a move to Victoria, they established Blue’s Bayou Café. Since then, the two have been back to New Orleans many times with a mission to collect ideas and funky, wild bayou decor to adorn the restaurant walls. The marine character of the immediate area – a salt-water marina is next door – only adds to the ambiance.

Since Blue is the chef, the quality of what goes on the plate is always paramount. Victoria’s local daily newspaper has given Blue’s Bayou a four-star rating. Joining the alligator sausage on the appetizer menu is ‘Voodoo dippin’ cauldron’, Creole Queen crab cakes and ‘French Quarter’ fried green tomatoes. Of course, no Cajun menu is complete without Jambalaya, but other dishes with a creole character include seafood cannelloni, horse-radish encrusted fish, bayou chicken, ‘Southern Comfort’ loin of lamb and ‘Blackened Voodoo’ beef tenderloin. Po’boys are on the lunch menu, along with a superb ‘Big Easy’ shrimp melt, and gator gumbo.

If you’re headed to Butchart Gardens, Blues Bayou Cafe is a tasty stop before or after your gardens visit.