VICTORIA, British Columbia My vacation itineraries are usually determined by the fact that I am a lone woman traveling with three guys: my husband and two sons. If I want their company, then cooking classes, spas and quilt shows are out.
But every now and then, the fellows throw me a bone. A day spent on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, was one of those gifts. I had afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, then toured Abkhazi Garden and the Butchart Gardens, two places I'd read about and had always wanted to see. It wasn't Mother's Day, but it felt like it was.
The day began with a ferry ride. We rose early for the two-hour drive from Seattle to the Canadian border, followed by a 20-minute drive to the BC Ferries terminal in Tsawwassen, on the mainland. From there we took a scenic 90-minute cruise to Vancouver Island. I had never seen this region before, and the landscape reminded me of coastal Maine: blue sky, rippling waves, sea birds circling, a lone sailboat, a lighthouse, tall evergreens lining the shore.
Vancouver Island is not to be confused with Vancouver, the biggest city in British Columbia and host for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. With more than 2 million people in its greater metropolitan area, the city of Vancouver is a booming, futuristic place, with a downtown full of gleaming skyscrapers and nattily dressed young professionals chatting urgently on their cell phones.
In contrast, Vancouver Island, at least to the casual visitor, feels like a giant step back in time, to a quaint era of leisurely afternoons spent sipping tea and admiring roses.
Victoria, the biggest city on Vancouver Island and the provincial capital of British Columbia, has a population of fewer than 80,000. It was settled in 1843 and named for England's reigning queen. Mild weather, charming streetscapes, the picturesque Inner Harbour, Pacific coastline and blooming gardens attract more than 3.5 million visitors annually. Much of the distinctive architecture dates to the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The Fairmont Empress Hotel is among those historic buildings, celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. Reservations for tea are recommended, but not knowing what time I'd arrive from the ferry, I took a chance as a walk-in, and felt lucky to get a table.
My menfolk declined to join me, opting instead for a movie at the National Geographic IMAX Theatre in the Royal BC Museum, conveniently located across from the hotel. That was OK by me. If you are the type of person who likes afternoon tea, then you know how nice it is to leave your mundane life for an hour in order to enjoy a civilized, alternate existence where someone with lovely manners serves exquisite morsels on a beautifully set table. I was happy to have tea alone and focus on my feast, rather than on the distractions of dining with my family.
A three-tiered tray appeared, with finger sandwiches on the bottom; scones, cream and jam in the middle, and cookies and pastries on top. My tea was served in a blue-and-white pattern of Royal Doulton china; my seat was a cozy spot by an ivy-trimmed window looking out at the Inner Harbour. The menu included a few surprises too, such as a green-tea cream puff, a salmon roll and a ginger-carrot sandwich.
Stuffed and feeling like a spoiled princess, I rejoined my family and we set off for Abkhazi Garden, two miles away. The romantic story of the garden is what inspired my visit: Nicholas Abkhazi was an exiled prince who spent part of World War II in a German internment camp; his wife Marjorie Pemberton-Carter was interned in a war camp in Shanghai. They met in Paris in the 1920s, lost contact during the war, and met again in 1946. They had no children but devoted themselves to the garden.
Now owned by The Land Conservancy of British Columbia, Abkhazi Garden is a jewel box of a green space, both perfectly landscaped and naturally wild, with scenic views, rustic paths lined with rocks and trees, and woodland gardens. The walkways wind past rhododendrons, ferns and hostas; depending on the season, you might spot lilies of the valley, primroses or bleeding hearts. The garden comprises a mere acre and a half, and can be toured in a half-hour, but it feels like a whole little world unto itself.
Our final destination was The Butchart Gardens, 14 miles from Victoria. Butchart was established in 1904 by Jennie Butchart as a way to beautify an abandoned limestone quarry owned by her industrialist husband. The property is a huge 55 acres and there's hardly a corner that isn't brilliantly and formally landscaped. It's the Las Vegas of botanical gardens, complete with dancing fountains, and makes other gardens look like amateur backyards.
Every step, vista and path reveals another panorama of color and design. The property includes a sunken garden, rose garden, Japanese garden, Italian garden and Mediterranean garden. There are showy dahlias and zinnias, a sea of roses, hanging baskets, flowering vines, topiary and majestic trees, tall foxgloves, and calla lilies so perfect you can't believe they're real.
A child drawing the landscape with markers could not make the colors more vivid. Visitors are handed a brochure that lists so many varieties of flowers it looks more like a gardening catalog than a guide to the place.
It was so much grander and more beautiful than we expected that even my children kept saying "Wow!" over and over. They ran ahead from flowerbed to flowerbed, impatient to see it all, calling back to me, "Come smell this one, Mommy," and "Make sure you see this, you're going to love it!"
It was a great way to end Mom's big day out, knowing that my boys enjoyed it too.