VICTORIA – You can paddle it, pedal it or hike it.
Any way you choose, you won’t find a better city for human-powered explorations than the capital of British Columbia. It’s scenic, with a striking waterfront and filled with grand historic buildings.
And on the beaches and in the mountains nearby, you’ll find stunning views and few people, rare for a major city.
I spent two days traveling Victoria on foot, by wheel and on the water and saw only a fraction of what this friendly city has to offer. Afterward, I headed north for more Vancouver Island adventures – mountain biking and caving.
It made for an excellent tour of southern and eastern Vancouver Island, seen through its beautiful outdoors.
On a gorgeous summer morning, I met Emma Troost at Ocean River Sports in Victoria’s Inner Harbour for a stand-up paddling tour.
It’s a fantastic way to see the waterfront. We paddled through the Gorge waterway past some of the most beautiful houses in the city, and then found ourselves at one of B.C.’s natural wonders – Tillicum Narrows, a reversing tidal waterfall.
The rapids drop as much as 4 feet as the ocean rushes in and out. When we arrived, it was furiously flowing toward us in a tidal ebb, feeling more like a river than the ocean.
We continued our tour back to the busy Inner Harbour, watching as float planes, water taxis and even a Canadian naval vessel cruised around us as Troost pointed out the sights: Parliament, the Empress Hotel and the houseboats of scenic Fisherman’s Wharf.
Victoria’s water quality is steadily improving in recent years as industry cleans up its act, Troost said. We saw lots of eelgrass on our tour, a sign of a healthy ecosystem, and even a few hardy Canadians swimming.
It was a great introduction – and time to start exploring on two wheels.
Cycling the capital
For a city of 90,000 people, Victoria has an amazing network of bike lanes and pathways. The city’s automobile traffic can be challenging and slow, while bicycles feel comparatively faster and more convenient.
The Galloping Goose Trail is one of the best in the city, traveling from downtown 37 miles to the town of Sooke. I saw a steady stream of cyclists using it as a commuting path. Another great route is the Lochside Trail, traveling 18 miles north all the way to the ferry landings in Sidney and Swartz Bay.
Bikes can also deliver you to Victoria’s most beautiful parks. On the top of the list should be Beacon Hill Park on the south end of the city, with paths that stretch along the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
I also rode around the city’s neighborhoods and came across an honest-to-goodness castle, Craigdarroch, built by a Scottish coal baron. He died before it was completed in 1890, but the beautiful castle and gardens remain today as one of Victoria’s top attractions.
Victoria is compact, so it’s easy to explore if you choose to walk. One of the best routes takes in the Breakwater, just outside the city’s Inner Harbour, and travels east along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, offering exceptional views and beach stops along the way.
At Vancouver Island’s southern tip, Clover Point Park, strong winds whip through the Strait, making it an excellent place to spot kite surfers.
“The hike at Gowlland Tod is not particularly difficult and you get amazing views,” said Mark Vukobrat, who guides visitors with his company, Hikevictoria.com.
Surprisingly, most Americans who join Vukobrat don’t come from Washington state.
“The vast majority are coming from Texas for some reason,” he said. Go figure.
You’ll find wilder, more challenging trails nearby to the west.
The Juan de Fuca Trail travels 29 miles along the island’s rugged coastline, starting at China Beach. The area can see big waves, and is a favorite with surfers.
And if you have the energy for a backpacking trip, the famed West Coast Trail starts near Port Renfrew, taking hikers 47 miles on wilderness beaches all the way to Barkley Sound on Vancouver Island’s West Coast.
Up the island
After two days exploring Victoria, I headed north on the island’s eastern shore for other explorations – one above ground, the other underground.
Vancouver Island, created by a tectonic uplift in the Earth’s crust, is filled with a vast network of 1,600 limestone caves, and more are being discovered all the time. I explored Horne Lake Caves Provincial Park near Parksville on a guided tour that took me nearly 300 feet underground.
We climbed down into Riverbend Cave to check out its vast calcite formations, ducked and squirmed through narrow passages into chilly caverns.
Then it was time to hit the trails for mountain biking. I joined Martin Ready of Island Mountain Rides, through the forests near Cumberland, B.C., in view of the coastal mountains and impressive Comox Glacier.
“We have the best trails on the island right here,” Ready said. We took flowy beginner and intermediate trails along the Puntledge River, ending at gorgeous Nymph Falls Nature Park.
It was an action-packed tour of Victoria and Vancouver Island – confirming one thing: I can’t wait to get back.
John Nelson is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to the Going Mobile column on Fridays.
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