15 Great Hikes to try on Southern Vancouver Island

Happy 2021! Although we are in a new year and vaccinations are underway, the coronavirus isn’t showing signs of going away anytime soon. With this in mind, it’s time to continue exploring local. For me this means enjoying the various hiking options around Victoria on southern Vancouver Island. If you’re planning a visit in the future, I recommend incorporating a few of these hikes into your itinerary!

Matheson Lake Regional Park
Located in the quiet region of Metchosin, Matheson Lake is circled by an undulating scenic loop trail, from which you can connect to other parks and trails, including the Galloping Goose bike trail. It’s a nice option for a peaceful after-work hike in the summer months, and a good swim spot too. On the way home, you can enjoy either a hearty meal or a tasty treat at the locally owned My Chosen Café. 

A lake surrounded by trees

Pickles’ Bluff Loop
Located in John Dean Provincial Park in North Saanich, this hike leads to great views of the Saanich Peninsula and surrounding ocean. It’s not uncommon to see eagles flying overhead as you sit on the ledge admiring the view in front of you.

Joceyln Hill via Caleb Pike
On a sunny summer morning, get up early for this hike in the Highlands. Fairly challenging at points, the trail offers some awesome view points overlooking Finlayson Arm and the Saanich Inlet. If you feel like a really long hike, you can follow the trail all the way over to the north side of Gowlland Todd Provincial Park. Doing this will take you to our next spot.

McKenzie Bight
Accessed either via the Timerbman Trail coming from Jocelyn Hill loop or from a wider trail starting at the north end of Gowlland Todd Provincial Park, McKenzie Bight is a surprise gem at the bottom of the forest. This picturesque ocean inlet is a great option for a swim and if you’re lucky, you may even spot some sea otters. In the winter months, a fog hangs over the distant evergreens, evoking classic Vancouver Island vibes. There are two trails you can take on your way back up; the Cascade Trail to the right of the bridge is a real thigh-burner, but in the winter season you will pass the pretty Cascade Falls.

Ocean with snowy hills in the background

Mt. Tzouhalem
A short drive east of the town of Duncan, this hike offers some great views of the sprawling Cowichan Valley. The hike involves an uphill climb before winding through forest to the famous white cross lookout point. This area also has several dirt bike trails, so don’t be surprised if you see a bike whizzing through the trees!

Mt. Wells Regional Park
Located past Langford, the fairly challenging hike up Mt. Wells takes you to a mossy rock outcrop that overlooks the Sooke Hills, Victoria, the Juan de Fuca Strait, and snow-capped mountains of Washington State. A good workout with great views as a reward. This park is also a popular bouldering spot. 

Snow-capped mountains behind fir trees

East Sooke Regional Park
Located just before the town of Sooke, this park is home to several trails of varying difficulty and length. The coastal trail is a popular option for dog-owners and endurance-walkers. If you’re looking for a more accessible trail or don’t feel like walking far, the easy walk to Iron Mine Bay takes you to a scenic beach with clear ocean water.

Elk/Beaver Lake Regional Park
The 10k flat loop around Elk Lake is a lovely outing for walkers or runners, especially during the autumn months when the fall colours are in full bloom. Accessible via public transit, this lake is home to Victoria City Rowing Club, and is also popular with windsurfers and water-skiers. Horseback riders tend to enjoy the trails around Beaver Lake.

Tree hanging over a lake on a sunny day

Mt. Douglas
Mt. Doug (as it’s more commonly known) is appreciated by many for its easy access from downtown Victoria. Various trails will take you to a viewpoint with stunning 360 views over the city, ocean, and surrounding Gulf Islands. Accessibility-wise, there is also the option to drive up to the top. A great place to watch a sunset, go for a run, or catch up with friends.

Mt. Finlayson
One of the most challenging hikes in the area, Mt. Fin as it’s known by locals has 360 views of hills swathed in evergreens. The steep trail starts in Goldstream Provincial Park, a short drive from downtown Victoria. If visiting in October, you can loosen your stiff legs after the hike with a leisurely stroll to the riverside to watch the yearly salmon run.

A rocky outcrop overlooking green hills

Mt. Work Regional Park
Adjacent to Gowland Todd Provincial Park, the steep hike from this park leads you to views over the Saanich Inlet. On a summer’s day, you can finish your hike by driving back down the road for a refreshing dip in Durrance Lake, and then follow it with a sandwich made fresh in front of your eyes at the Red Barn Market. 

Mystic Beach
Located along the Juan de Fuca Trail, this long beach awaits you after a 2k hike through tranquil forest. The trail is well-signed, however it is not wheelchair-accessible like some of the paths that lead to other beaches across this section of the coast. Mystic Beach is popular for its waterfall and rope swing, but it’s the vast collection of mussels covering the rocks that catches my eye whenever I go. 

Sandcut Beach
For a shorter and more accessible beach hike, consider Sandcut Beach which is located just on from French Beach Provincial Park. Depending on recent weather, a waterfall may flow onto the pebble beach. On the way home, consider stopping at the locally owned Shirley Delicious for a warm brew and tasty snack, or stop in Sooke town for a hearty meal and delicious slice of pie at Mom’s Café.

Sooke Potholes Regional Park
Enjoy exploring the rustic trail that leads up the river with its clear water and inviting pools. Expect to see varied wildlife (maybe even bears!) and people jumping off the cliffs. The turn off for this park is just before you reach the town of Sooke.

potholes

Gonzales Hill Regional Park
I include this one last because it really is the ideal option if you want to stretch your legs and see a nice view, but don’t feel like venturing far. Located off Fairfield Road and just up from Gonzales Bay, a short steep walk (or drive) up a side road will take you to the distinctive observatory, from where there are wonderful views of the neighbourhood, distant hills, and Juan de Fuca Strait. Although another great sunset spot, it’s equally enjoyable to watch moody skies brew over the ocean.

From beach scenes to mountain views, southern Vancouver Island offers so many great hiking options, and there are still many more I have yet to experience. Making a wishlist of places or trails to explore in your region can be a handy way to keep motivated and upbeat during this strange time. Which other hikes would you recommend in this area?

 

A Brit’s Guide to Living in British Columbia, Canada

As a former colony of the United Kingdom and a current member of the Commonwealth, you might think that Canada and the province of British Columbia specifically is very similar to the UK in its culture and bureaucratic systems. Well, think again. If you’re planning to move to Canada’s western province, below is a large compilation of some of the main differences I’ve discovered as a Brit living in British Columbia.

Stawamus Chief in Squamish, BC

Driving

You probably all know that in Canada, you drive on the right side of the road. It makes sense to have the same system as the neighbouring USA, since a lot of trade between the countries is delivered via road. In terms of speed and distance, the metric system of kilometres is used, which differs from both the UK and USA.

Getting a driver’s license as a new driver is also a different process. Upon turning 17, people in the UK are eligible to get their provisional license, which allows them to drive on the road with a supervisor with L plates attached to the vehicle. Most drivers will learn the basics from a family member, before taking driving lessons from a qualified instructor. After a learner has passed the theory test, the instructor will ultimately determine when they are ready to take the road test. This will typically be after 40 hours of lessons.

In British Columbia, it is less common for new drivers to take formal lessons from an instructor. Before doing any driving, they must acquire their learner’s license by passing a knowledge test and vision test. This can be done on or after their 16th birthday. After a year of practice with an eligible supervisor (someone 25 or older with a Class 5 license), they can then take their first road test. Passing this gives them their Class 7 or “N” license. Certain restrictions come with this. N plates (which stand for “novice”) must be displayed on the vehicle, and they can only carry one passenger at a time (with the exception of immediate family members), unless one of the passengers is 25+ and has a full license.  After two years of safe driving with no tickets or prohibitions, they can take another road test. Passing this would give them their full Class 5 license.

Note that if you move to BC with a clean UK licence, you can switch it over to a Class 5 for free within 90 days, without having to take a road test.

When it comes to actual driving, there are some interesting differences. The ‘turn-right-on-red’ rule means drivers can make a right turn when the walking man light is on for pedestrians, so long as no pedestrians are crossing at the time. I personally don’t like this rule because of the risks it can pose to pedestrians if a driver shoots around the corner due to not seeing the pedestrian or simply not caring.

Another difference is 4-way stops. When drivers approach this type of junction, they must all come to a halt, even if the roads appear clear. The vehicle that arrives first is entitled to proceed first, and so on. If two vehicles arrive at the same time, the driver on the right has right of way. I find that when two cars from opposite directions arrive at the same time and want to turn instead of going straight, a silent interaction between drivers takes place through gestures. It goes something like this: “Oh, after you.”…”No no, you first.”…”No, please, I insist.” …”Are you sure?”… “Oh, quite sure!” ….”Okay, thank you! And sorry.”

With regards to insurance, UK insurance companies insure the driver. In BC, the vehicle is insured. This means you are more likely to see friends lending their cars to each other in BC. BC’s government-owned insurance corporation now requests that a second driver be listed on the policy if they will be using the vehicle on a regular basis.

Drinking

Each province in Canada sets its own regulations for determining legal drinking ages. In British Columbia, it’s 19. Bear this in mind if you’re visiting from the UK aged 18; you won’t be able to buy alcohol or go to clubs. Skip over a province to Alberta however and you would be fine.

Although the province of Ontario is now allowing beer to be sold in some supermarkets, in most cases alcohol can only be purchased in provincially owned or private liquor stores, or from a brewery. Anyone who looks under 30 can expect to be asked to show ID.

While there are a few differences between the countries in terms of the laws that apply to people operating a vehicle, the rule regarding drinking is one Brits should be aware of. Last summer, I was in the backseat of a car with friends driving back from a camping weekend in Hope. I asked my boyfriend to open the cooler and get me a Radler drink. He looked at me in confusion and asked why. “Because it’s hot and I’d like a refreshing drink,” I replied with an innocent shrug. I then learned that in BC, passengers are prohibited from consuming alcohol in a vehicle. The idea is that they might distract or influence the driver. No refreshing lager for me.

Banking

I quickly noticed that Visa debit cards can be used for fewer transactions in Canada than they can in the UK. I never had a credit card in England, but for the aforementioned reason I got one when I moved to BC. My chequing account (what we in the UK would call a “current account”) has a monthly fee based on how many transactions I make. It gets waived if I maintain a certain balance. My UK account doesn’t charge such fees. Something to consider if you plan to set up a Canadian bank account.

Salt Spring Island, BC

Education

In the UK, the word “school” is typically associated with primary school (elementary) and secondary school (high school). If we do A-Levels (from age 16-18) or a vocational diploma, we say we’re going to “college” or “sixth form”. If we do a degree, we tell people that we go to “university” (or “uni”). In Canada, the term “school” is used for all levels of education. I first learned this in Toronto airport several years ago, when an elderly couple queuing for check-in behind me started chatting. “Are you heading back to school?” the man asked. “To university,” I said, to indicate my age. “So, back to school?” he replied with a cheeky smile.

Indeed, it’s very common to hear someone in their thirties say “I’m going back to school.” This is because the higher (or “post-secondary”) education system of both countries is very different. In the UK, we essentially choose our major by the time we apply to university aged 17 or 18. For example, I chose to study a Bachelor of Arts in History. Such a degree is automatically considered an honours degree, meaning students must submit a dissertation (or “thesis” as North Americans call it) in their final year. Unless they are studying Medicine or another vocational profession, students must complete their undergraduate degree in three years. They have to take a certain number of courses per semester, and will automatically graduate after those three years. Anyone who requests to suspend their studies and take a semester off due to personal reasons will likely have to re-take that year. A Master’s degree is completed in one year.

Students in Canada apply to university in or after their final year of high school. Instead of applying to major in a specific subject, they can choose a general direct entry program, such as Humanities, Engineering, or Science. In their first year, they have the option of taking a few different courses from within the program and a few electives from outside it, before then deciding the subject within that program they wish to major in. Although there are differences in universities across Canada, students in BC can typically choose the number of courses they take per semester, and have more flexibility in the years they take to graduate. Most people I know here graduated after five years. Some may take six years or longer. This is because the university system allows students to take off semesters, either to work or travel. Classes can also be taken in the summer term from May to September, unlike in the UK.

There are also more structured programs available within Canadian institutions to support students with finding paid co-ops (or “internships” as we’d call them in the UK). Students must pay to be involved in this program, but it’s a useful resource I wish I’d had at my university. Some programs, such as a business program, require students to complete a minimum number of co-ops in order to graduate. If a student wishes to graduate with honours, they must apply for the program. One would typically do this if he/she intended to apply for grad school, as writing a thesis could strengthen an application. In order to graduate with a degree, students must apply and provide proof they have met the minimum criteria. It’s common for a Master degree to be completed in two years.

Taking all the above into consideration, it means that a student in BC might not finish their undergrad degree until aged 25 or older, whereas in the UK the standard age of graduates is 21 or 22. I think there are pros and cons to both systems. People with a British education will have specialized more in one subject area, and will typically have a head start in the professional workforce. However, Canadian students are likely to have less tuition debt, have had more chances to gain paid experience and try out different roles while studying, and also have more time to actually enjoy their studies. In comparison, strict timelines for completing courses and graduating sometimes made me feel I hadn’t had a chance to properly explore and understand a course I was taking.

While there are options for people in the UK older than 18/19 to enrol in university degrees, it is still a less common practice; most will attend university from their late teens to early twenties. It seems to be a more culturally accepted thing in Canada for people to either start their first post-secondary program or take a second program in their mid-twenties and above. Some people might complete an undergraduate arts degree and then later take a post-degree diploma to specialize in a specific area, such as HR. Others might work right after they finish high school, and then enrol in a post-secondary program a few years later when they have saved up to pay the tuition fees. And others might be in their early thirties but go back to school because they want to change their career.

The system for tuition fees also differs between the countries. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are home and international tuition fees. Currently in the UK, home tuition fees for an undergraduate degree are around 9000 GBP per year. (Scottish students studying in Scotland don’t have to pay!) These fees are general and not based on the degree you are studying. This means that as a History student with only 8 hours of contact with teachers per week, I paid the same as someone studying Mechanical Engineering who had more contact hours. In Canada, however, tuition fees are based on the program you take. Someone in the Humanities program will pay less for tuition than someone in Business or Engineering.

Mt. Finlayson on Vancouver Island, BC

Healthcare

Each province in Canada has its own publicly funded health insurance plan. In British Columbia it’s called the Medical Services Plan (MSP). It used to be the case that recipients were charged premiums, with employers often offering to pay the costs. In January 2020, the fees were scrapped. However, eligible residents must still enrol for the plan in order to receive free or subsidized medical assistance. Enrolled residents must get a Services Card with their photo and Personal Health Number, to prove their eligibility to access these services. This card can also be used as a form of government-issued ID for accessing other services, like opening a bank account. If you’re not registered for MSP, you must pay out of pocket for any medical assistance.

One thing to note if moving to BC from the UK is that, regardless of having MSP coverage, some medical-related services in BC incur fees that would not apply in the UK. For example, if someone in BC calls 911 and is taken to a hospital by ground or air ambulance, they will be billed $80. If an ambulance is requested and then declined, they will receive a bill for $50…so making a prank call would be even more stupid. In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) is funded by tax payers and there are fewer charged services. Say a Brit suddenly develops chest pains and calls 999 for an ambulance to take them to A&E (or “ER”), they won’t pay a penny.

For this reason, I’ve always found it funny when I hear Canadians commend the country’s “free healthcare system”. For sure, the system is much more generous than that of its southern neighbour, but not as generous as the UK. Again, there are pros and cons to both systems. The NHS has strained resources and as a result, some are calling for patients to start paying for certain services. To avoid burdening the Canadian healthcare system, anyone coming to Canada on a working holiday visa is required to show proof that they have purchased medical insurance.

Something for Brits to take note of is the differences with dentistry. In the UK it’s part of the NHS, but in Canada it falls under the category of extended health. This means it’s not covered by the provincial medical services plan. For this reason, having a job that includes benefits is ideal, as these will be used to cover most of the costs of each dental visit. However, even with benefits, it’s typically still slightly cheaper to go the dentist in the UK.

In the UK, the dentist pretty much does everything, and the dental assistant helps with paperwork and equipment prep. In Canada there is a dental hygienist who does the initial assessment, x-rays and cleaning, and then the dentist will do an exam and any necessary surgery. Oh, and Canadians say “hy-gen-ist”, not “hy-geen-ist”. Weird…

Marijuana

The growth, sale and use of marijuana for recreational purposes became legalized in Canada in 2018. Any cannabis shops or pharmacies must be licensed and follow certain regulations. Consumers are allowed to grow up to four plants in their house. Of course, Canadians were smoking weed for a long time before it became legal. Marijuana shops are now a normal sight, and it’s not unusual to catch a whiff of weed while walking down a street. Over the past decade, use of marijuana for medical purposes has also become more common in Canada. CBD and THC (chemicals within the plant) have been used to relieve muscle spasms and treat conditions including MS and PTSD.

Sombrio Beach, Vancouver Island

Tipping

While tipping bartenders or servers (aka what the UK would call “waiters/waitresses”) is not required in Canada, it basically feels like it is. A minimum tip of 15% is pretty much expected. Even if you go to a deli (also a more commonly used word in Canada, I’ve noticed) and simply order a sandwich, the option to tip will come up when you pay by card. In such cases, I don’t bother. Why would I if all the person has done is pick up a pre-made, pre-wrapped sandwich from the counter and hand it to me??

I was reminded just how different this custom is from the UK and Europe in general when my parents visited a couple of summers ago. My dad, never one afraid to be honest and express himself, asked our server how much she’d like for a tip. “That’s up to you,” she said politely while I put my head in my hands. As if thinking a negotiation was required, he asked her, “How about 10%?”. At this point I ran away to the ice cream counter. Of course, UK restaurants will now typically add a service charge to the bill in order to get around the cultural reluctance to tip.

On that note, Canadians also ask for the “bill”, and not the “check” like some people assume.

Sports

In the UK, girls in secondary school will often play hockey on grass or turf. In Canada, hockey means “ice” hockey. The less popular UK game would be referred to as “field hockey”. I still struggle not to say “ice hockey” in full, and it always seems to make people smile. If you’re watching a baseball game, prepare to hear lots of people shouting “good hustle” to players. It basically means “good effort”.

Holidays

In England and Wales, there are eight bank holidays: New Year’s Day, Good Friday, Easter Monday, the two in May, one in August, Christmas Day, and Boxing Day. In Canada, public holidays are called “statutory holidays”, five of which are nationwide. The remaining holidays are determined by province. In BC there are ten holidays: New Year’s Day, Family Day (February), Good Friday, Victoria Day (May), Canada Day (July), Civic Day (August), Labour Day (September), Thanksgiving (October), Remembrance Day (November), and Christmas Day. I appreciate the even distribution!

Language 

Now we come to my favourite part. As a native English speaker in a country where English is one of the official languages, I expected I’d be pretty well understood by Canadians. Not the case.

The main issue I have is the enunciation of R’s. In England we don’t emphasize them. “Water” is “wawtuh”. “Work” is “wuuuk”. “Art” is “aaat”, and so forth. I once ordered a turkey sandwich from a deli and it took five attempts for the person to understand me. As a result, I’ve found that adapting my accent at certain times in the workplace has been necessary, particularly when speaking with people over the phone.

There are also differences in full pronunciation of words. Some common words I say that incite giggles among my peers are “yoghurt”, “vitamin”, “basil”, “tomato”, “oregano”, and “aluminium”. Meanwhile, I find the way some Canadians say “bagel”, “route”, “thorough” and “details” very odd.

Another issue is different words being to describe the same noun. Here is a non-exhaustive list of examples:
“Jumper” = “sweater”
“Trousers” = “pants”
“Trainers” = “runners” or “sneakers”
“Wellies” =”rubber boots”
“Biscuit” =”cookie”
“Handbag” =”purse”
“Purse” =”wallet”
“Cinema” =”theatre”
“Boot” =”trunk”
“Bonnet” =”hood”
“Nappy” = “diaper”
“Soother” = “dummy”
“Aubergine” =”eggplant”
“Courgette” = “zucchini”
“Rocket” = “arugula”
“Spring onion” = “scallion”

And if you say “brolly”, most will have no idea what you’re talking about. Who knew there would be such a language barrier?!

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If you’re planning to move to British Columbia for a while, I hope this article is useful resource to help you prepare yourself for the political and cultural differences you can expect to find!

13 Reasons Why I Moved to Victoria, Canada

Canada Day is quickly approaching, and now that I’m a permanent resident it feels even more fitting to celebrate the qualities that make this country so loved. Why did I decide to move specifically to Victoria on Vancouver Island? Victoria has many great qualities, but below are 13 of the main reasons it has stolen my heart.

1. Landscape

As I walk home from work along Fort St, a quick glance down a side street will often reveal views of Washington State’s towering Olympic mountains, snow glistening on their jagged peaks. Head towards their direction and you will eventually come to witness the vast Pacific Ocean stretching before you. When I lived in London, my social life seemed to revolve around going for food and drinks, but here a walk along the coast with friends will satisfy your social and physical needs, with no money-spending required.

Go inland and you are immersed in a sea of dense forest with tranquil lakes hiding here and there among the hemlock and Western red cedar trees. The landscape on the Island is so natural and unspoiled, and it never gets tiring to see. If you like photography, you will be in heaven here!

Brentwood Bay

2. Weather

Victoria has a moderate climate with winter temperatures usually remaining above negative. Compare that with -30 degrees Celsius in many of the other provinces and you can understand why so many people choose to move to the West Coast! Snowfall in the city is minimal, and when we do receive a mere couple of inches, the collective panic that erupts is quite amusing.

Summers are mild with temperatures rarely going over 30 degrees, allowing for sun-kissed comfort rather than sweltering torture (especially for someone fair like myself!). The lack of humidity and mosquitoes is also greatly welcomed!

If you’re into ocean sports, you will benefit from clear waters for diving and great wind speeds for sailing and kiteboarding.

Rain is less common here than in Vancouver, but even in the rain the surroundings are beautiful. Most places look dismal under grey skies, but Vancouver Island isn’t one of those places. Drifting fog over a bed of water dispersing slowly against a backdrop of evergreen trees is a trademark of the Pacific North West.

Sailing outside Cadboro Bay

3. Hiking

Drive 30 minutes outside of downtown Victoria and you are entering hikers’ paradise.  A variety of hiking options are available, depending on how far you are willing to drive to get there and how far/steep you want to walk. Mt. Doug is accessible by bus from downtown Victoria and offers 360-degree views over Greater Victoria and the surrounding Gulf Islands of the USA.  My favourite places to explore include John Dean Provincial Park in North Saanich, Mt. Work in Gowland Todd Provincial Park in the Highlands, Mt. Finlayson in Goldstream Provincial Park, Mt. Wells in the Langford area, and Matheson Lake in Metchosin. There’s nothing like a great hike to recharge your batteries and keep you smiling!

Mt. Finlayson

4. Lake Days

While England has the Lake District in the north and Hampstead Ponds in London, summer swims in lakes were never really a big thing when I was growing up.  Over here, you haven’t experienced summer if you haven’t had a lake day. Surrounded by forestry, Victoria’s surrounding lakes have authentic rustic settings that give off strong ‘Dirty Dancing’ vibes. (Because we’ve all at some point day-dreamed about re-enacting that scene!)

For a fun day out, you can pack a picnic and take a drive to Sooke to explore the potholes. More daring types can often be seen jumping from the rocks into the clear pools of water. Those searching for a quiet spot should head further upstream. Durrance Lake is a relaxing place to cool off after a hike in Gowland Todd Park, while Thetis Lake is a great option for chilling with friends, floaties and dogs. An hour’s drive up island, the Cowichan River is renowned by tubing lovers. If you’re bringing booze to any of these locations, please be respectful and take your cans away with you.

5. Wildlife

During a hike, you can expect to see bald eagles, turkey vultures and other birds of prey roaming over the trees with silent authority. Pickle’s Bluff in John Dean Provincial Park is a particularly great spot to witness a flying show.

Black bear sightings are also common as you head further inland, though the closest most people will get to one is from almost stepping in their berry-studded poop! Making regular gentle noise on the trail is typically enough to keep them away. Victoria also recently made headlines when a young cougar was spotted in the Gorge area. Thankfully, I am yet to come across one!

Between October and November, Goldstream Provincial Park is home to an annual salmon run that sees thousands of Chum salmon selflessly battle upstream from the Pacific Ocean and give up their lives to spawn. Watch closely and you can see the female digging her nest with surprising strength. You can’t help but admire these fish as they battle resiliently upstream against the current only, after after all that effort, to sacrifice themselves for the sake of making some babies. But at least it gives the other wildlife a meal!

Otters and seals are some of my favourite wildlife to see on the water, but if you’re looking for something bigger, you’re in the right place. Orca whales call this stretch of Pacific Ocean home, and it’s common to see a pod of them appear during a journey with BC Ferries over the Salish Sea to the Mainland or Gulf Islands. No matter how many times you might have seen them, the sense of awe never fades as you watch these beautiful animals rise up majestically from the water.

Humpback whales are another mammal that I’ve been fortunate to see by boat. Whale-watching trips operate out of Victoria, but as a firm believer in supporting local businesses, I tend to go with Sidney Whale Watching. The guides are knowledgeable and friendly, and they show respect for the whales’ well-being by adhering to regulations for viewing distances. I wish the same could be said for the private American charter boats.

6. Beaches

“I’m going to the beach” used to be something I’d say during an annual holiday in the Mediterranean. Now it’s something I say on a weekly basis. Why would I go drink in a rowdy pub on a Friday night after a busy week at work when I could instead soak up an opportunity for a quieter unwinding?

Within Victoria, Gonzales Bay is an excellent choice if you’re looking for an evening of sand, serenity and sunsets with a book or a guitar. Slightly bigger, Willows Beach in Oak Bay is a favourite for dog-owners and dog-stalkers-that-wish-they-were-dog-owners. A good place for seal sightings, it’s also a great place for a first date (speaking from experience!). On the eastern corner of the peninsula, there are many other quiet little coves to discover during a romantic evening walk.

If you are looking for rugged West Coast inspiration, the pebbled beaches en route to Port Renfrew will deliver. Perfect for a weekend of camping, there are a few options to choose from. Sandcut Beach and Sombrio Beach are two of my favourites. It’s easy to spend a couple of hours on these beaches appreciating the waterfalls, collecting driftwood or pebble souvenirs, looking in tide pools for small sea life, playing with seaweed (aka chasing your friend with it), and admiring the sheer number of clams and mussels. The odd surfer might be spotted braving the waves too.

Willows Beach

7. Road Trips

Whether you’re heading to Tofino for the weekend, taking a day trip to Port Renfrew, or making the long trip to Port Hardy, a road trip on Vancouver Island allows the above elements to be combined into one memorable adventure. The Island may seem small, but whether you are going solo or with friends, there is so much to discover and explore! Stopping in a few small towns such as Cowichan Bay is a great way to get a taste of the Island’s history and discover local art or trades.

Another bonus of road-tripping from Victoria is that the main highway is much quieter than the motorways of England, allowing for a more enjoyable driving experience.

Cowichan Bay

8. Food

Every road trip needs a great picnic, and Victoria is spoiled with places to stock up on snacks. Most importantly, it supports a variety of local restaurants, cafes and delis, meaning there’s no need to visit the big corporations like Starbucks or Tim Hortons.

Red Barn Market makes fresh sandwiches to order using local meat and vegetables, and offers generous servings at the ice cream counter. For this (latter) reason, the location on West Saanich Road has become a must-stop for me after a hike in Gowland Todd Park.  If you’re on a road trip to Port Renfrew, a great place to stop for coffee and sandwiches is Shirley Delicious. I’m pretty sure the South African barista has been on ecstasy every time I’ve gone..but he’s got great customer service!

One of my absolute favourite places for a post-hike treat is My Chosen Cafe in Metchosin. Tasty pizzas are made on site, and while you wait you can pet the adorable goats and donkeys nearby. Make sure you leave room for dessert, as its Sugar Shack really is the place where candy-filled dreams come true. Delicious and REAL milkshakes, mouth-watering fudge, and a variety of baked cookies, cakes and pastries await you. I personally love the Caramel Pecan Brownie and cry a little inside whenever it’s sold out.

While I don’t drink coffee, my penchant for tea has grown since moving to Victoria, thanks to the number of independent coffee shops around that create a cozy ambiance. Wild Coffee on Yates St, Bubby Rose’s Bakery on Cook St, Demitasse Cafe in Oak Bay, and Moka House on Fort St are nice places to catch up over a brew. And because there are so many coffeehouses around, I’m yet to discover more of them!

Then we have the bakeries. The window of Crust Bakery on Fort St is forever enticing drooling passers-by with its unique selection of pastries and tarts. A couple of doors down you have the Dutch Bakery with a variety of sweet treats on offer. If you like marzipan, the Dollar Rolls are delicious! Patisserie Daniel on Cook St has mouth-watering cinnamon buns and makes fantastic cakes for special occasions. Pure Vanilla Cafe and Bakery on Cadboro Bay Road tends to attract Oak Bay’s more affluent residents, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying its selection of breads, muffins and special cakes. Empire Doughnuts is fortunately (and unfortunately for my waistline) located one block from my office, and tends to be my go-to when the menstrual hormones are raging.

Summer in Victoria isn’t complete if there haven’t been several occasions when you’ve gone straight from work on a Friday to Cold Comfort. Located on North Park St, its ice cream sandwiches with their unexpectedly ideal flavour combinations are a wonderful end-of-the-week treat. My favourite flavours include Citrus and Coriander, London Fog, Raspberry Rose, and Hoyne Dark Matter (I don’t drink the beer…unless it’s in ice cream). On Fridays they pair up with Empire Doughnuts…uh oh!

9. Fitness

I love Victoria for its many scenic paths and trails. When I went on runs in London, the sounds of traffic, the air quality and the crowds of people I had to get through before reaching the park often left me frustrated. Here those irritants don’t exist. My favourite running route takes me along a beach, through a leafy creek area, and along a quiet road with gorgeous houses to distract me from the distance.

Whether walking through the pretty neighbourhoods of Fernwood or Oak Bay, running along Beacon Hill Park’s chip trail and grassy routes, or cycling a coastal route from Cordova Bay to downtown, you are bound to find something that keeps your mind happy and your body healthy.

For indoor fitness, Victoria has a huge array of gyms to choose from. I train at at Studio 4 Athletics on Yates St, where there are great options for personal training, individual workouts, and group classes. Victoria is also full of yoga lovers; in three minutes of walking around downtown, you can guarantee to see at least two people carrying a yoga mat.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is Canada’s beloved outdoor clothing and equipment store. It’s like a toy store for adults. Located on Johnson St, the store also organizes running/cycling meet-ups, clinics and races. Before a series of niggles influenced me to hang up my running shoes for a while, I went to the Tuesday run meet-ups and found them to be good fun and a great way to socialize while keeping fit. They also inspired me to get back into racing!

Racing at Elk Lake

10. Second-Hand Shops

On the subject of cycling, I bought my second-hand road bike for $600 from UsedVictoria.com. This website is awesome for buying used items, from cars to couches. It’s also how I’ve found many of my room-shares/roommates.

The thrift stores are also a real highlight of Victoria for me. Some people might turn their noses up at the idea of wearing clothing previously owned by someone else, but I personally think it’s awesome! Bagging a deal while helping the environment…what’s bad about that? Some of my favourite work blouses, jeans and summer dresses have come from Value Village or the Salvation Army. The Patch on Yates St is also amazing for vintage dresses. If you plan to go in there only buying one dress, good luck.

These thrift stores are also great for buying furniture and art, whether you are looking for an extra bookcase or some antique ornaments. I’m a big fan of landscape canvasses and paintings, and could spend a good hour browsing through them.

As someone who enjoys reading, I love visiting Russel Books on Fort St just to browse their huge collection of new and second-hand books. Whether you are looking for historical fiction or horticultural guidance, you’re bound to find a cover that catches your interest. It’s a perfect place to kill time if you’re waiting to meet up with a friend!

11. Events

Victoria holds a range of events throughout the year that emphasize the idea of supporting local businesses and fostering a multicultural population.

My favourite event to attend is the Oak Bay Night Market, which runs on every second Wednesday of the month from June to September. With live music, food trucks, and local vendors selling original crafts and baked goods, this market has a real community feel. It feels more personal and welcoming than any of the events I attended in London. It also seems to attract all the local “hot dads”…and their even hotter wives.

Annual events like Canada Day, Car-Free Day, Oak Bay Tea Party, Pride Parade, and the Symphony Splash are naturally a little busier, but they all highlight Victoria’s friendly and diverse… (cue next point)…

12. Culture

“You folks in this town are very friendly, tank you,” spoke an Irish man recently when I offered him some help after noticing he and his wife starting perplexedly at a map. It’s become a habit of mine to proactively approach people when they look lost. I ultimately do it as a way of paying back the help others have given me here.

People visiting from Vancouver or other big cities might mock Victoria for the fact that it still accepts change for buses. I however like the fact that Victoria is a little “behind the times”. It makes it cute and endearing. It’s also a welcome change from London to have a friendly bus driver who says hello and advises tourists when they should get off. Likewise, it’s nice to hear passengers thanking the bus driver when they get off. Further, it’s refreshing when you can speak freely with a fellow passenger without feeling the alarmed eyes of others on you assuming you’re a psychopath. (Yes, that was another dig at London.) In fact, striking up conversation with a woman who used to take the same bus as me in the morning is how I made one of my friends here! I also love the fact that when I’m walking to work, I often see the same smiley old man pushing his trolley who gives me a wave and comments on the weather.

When it comes to my friendships here, I definitely fit the mould of “quality over quantity”. But that’s fine with me, because the friends I have made are some of the most open-minded, easy-going, down-to-earth, adventurous, and generous people I’ve met.

13. Proximity

Even when you live in such a beautiful city, you sometimes need a change of scene. Luckily, Victoria is conveniently located. A 40-minute bus ride takes you to the sleepy town of Sidney, where you can spend a few relaxing hours browsing bookshops, reading in a cafe, and walking along the pier.

Take the bus further to Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal, and you have your gateway to a mini vacation on the Gulf Islands. If you’re craving some time in a big city (or a trip to IKEA), you can take the 90-minute journey to Tsawwassen and head up to Vancouver from there.

From Victoria, there are daily ferries to both Seattle and Port Angeles, with the latter being your pit stop en route to Olympic National Park.

Dallas Road

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If you’re a foodie who loves spending your free time outdoors exploring nature or getting active, Victoria really does have it all. Please feel free to add your questions about or tourist recommendations for Victoria below!

Relations & Realizations: An Expat’s Summer in Canada

It’s been ten months since I left England for Vancouver Island, Canada. Summer with its droughts and wildfires has now passed, and I still have no desire to return back to London. Not only do I have a permanent job doing something I love, but my time in Victoria has opened my eyes to a lifestyle I was missing before when I lived in London.

In the first house I lived in upon moving to Victoria, I’d wake up for work in the morning and open the blinds to see a deer just hanging out in my front yard. He became known as ‘Stanley’. On the walk to the bus stop I would pass runners and dog-walkers who would smile and let me pet their pooch. I would recognize people on the bus who were open to the concept of smiling and engaging in brief conversation. I admired and participated in the culture of saying “thank you” to the driver upon exiting the bus. I established that my favourite driver was a former pilot called Dan who provided weather updates, scenic commentary and probably even birthday shout-outs if requested.

I learned through my interviewing of various people at work that a lot of Canadians can’t decipher between an English and Australian/Kiwi accent. I made friends with a Persian family who started a new restaurant a few steps away from my office, to the extent that they wave at me whenever I pass by and look in.

I learned (and soon forgot) the rules of softball and that “good hustle” and “you got this” are a quintessential feature of Canadian vocabulary.  I experienced how wonderful it is to spend evenings after work on the beach, in a park or doing exercise, and not in a setting that requires consumption of alcohol. I learned of various locally owned bakeries and cafes that made such a refreshing change from the large corporate chains such as Starbucks, Pret and Costa Coffee that can be seen on every street in London. I realized just how fame-obsessed and media-mobbed life in London was in comparison to the easy-going, outdoor-loving West Coast lifestyle.  I also learned that I’m addicted to thrift stores.

With regards to self-esteem, I stopped wearing mascara in late April after suddenly feeling more comfortable in my skin and realizing I no longer cared about looking younger or less attractive with my naturally fair features. And at the end of the summer, I went to an open mic night at a small pub up island attended by a handful of locals, and ended up singing Neil Young ‘Harvest Moon’ with a bunch of old boys playing guitars.

The kindness of Vancouver Islanders in comparison to Londoners really came to light during a bus journey on a Saturday in June, when I happened to be suffering from severe cramps. Shortly after boarding a bus crowded with passengers on a sweltering hot day, my head started spinning and everything suddenly started to go black. I closed my eyes in defeat as if to say, “Take me angels, I’m ready.” Next thing I knew, there was the sound of a man’s voice and someone’s hands supporting my shoulders. I opened my eyes to see a few strangers peering down at me uncertainly, with one of them casually holding my raised legs by the ankles. A lady placed a damp flannel on my forehead and asked me a series of questions, one of them being: “Are you on your period?” Once she had kindly confirmed to everyone on board that I was indeed enjoying the shedding of my womb, she decided that my apparently ghostly white face warranted calling an ambulance, even though I had had vasovagal episodes like this before and was pretty confident all was fine.

The lady continued to ask me a series of questions, including: “Where are your parents?” I told her they were in England. “They’re not here with you?” – “No, they’re in England. I’m from England.” – “Oh…what are you doing out here without them?” – “I’m living here, I work here. I’m 25.” – “Oh! Well what’s their number?” – “They’re in England, there’s no point. They’re asleep right now.” Suddenly I had one of those stirring moments of realization I’ll occasionally get where I remember where I am and how far away I am from home.

Once it was established that I was not a minor and had other emergency contacts in the area that could be called, things seemed to relax a little. While the bus waited on the side of the highway, those passengers that had opted to stay near me naturally got talking, asking where everyone was heading to. The poor man tasked with holding my slightly prickly legs mentioned that he was heading to the airport. Like a lady in labour feeling an unexpected surge of willpower, I shot bolt upright and gasped in horror, “You’re heading to the airport?!” The man laughed and said, “Oh I’m not catching a flight; there’s an old bomber on display I want to see.” Heart rate slowly restoring to normal, I allowed my weary self to rest back down on the seat. The paramedics arrived and as they escorted me off the bus for a quick chat-and-release, I smiled a sheepish apology at the few passengers on the back looking rather miffed that their journey had been disrupted by the menstrual cycle. The lady who had taken charge later texted to ask how I was feeling. To my grateful response she replied, “Don’t thank me, just pay it forwards.”

So I did.

A few weeks later I was reading at the beach minutes from my house when a little girl ran over to her mum to inform her that reckless Sally had taken a tumble at the playground and cut her toe open. “Oh God oh God,” gabbled the mum like an alarmed chicken, “Is she okay? Is it broken? Is there blood? You know I can’t handle blood, Lucy!”

And so Lucy ran back to assess the extent of damage further before returning with a report. “Oh God oh God,” began the chicken-momma again. “Why would she do this to me? Does she need an ambulance?”

At this point the lady spotted me observing the situation with a mixture of amusement and bewilderment, and decided to reiterate to me that she was bad with blood. “I can go help her if you’d like?” I offered. Without hesitation, the woman replied, “Oh would you? That’d be great.” She handed me a band aid sized for a large gash on the leg which I swiftly replaced with a smaller sized one coincidentally found in my bag. Little Sally sat calmly on a bench and rolled her eyes at me as if acknowledging her mother’s batty ways. I cleaned up and covered the 1-inch cut on the top of her toe and then her mum approached, only to shrink back at the sight of a slightly-bloodied wet wipe. “Thank you so much! I just can’t deal with blood when it’s on my kids; with anything else it’s fine, but not my kids.”

I decided not to ask what she would do if her child was in a life or death situation, but did insist she shouldn’t need to take her daughter to the doctor.

All in all it was a great summer, and the best thing was that I got to show my life here (and some humpbacks!) to my mum when she came out to visit for a week.

The worst thing about the summer was the part where my boyfriend and I decided to call time on our 3-year relationship at the end of it.

No relationship is perfect – there will always be struggles, and for a while you will rightfully try to work through them. Then comes the time when you have that highly needed yet highly unsettling moment of realization that someone you have loved and cared about for a long time just isn’t right for you anymore and vice versa.  Your personalities, interests and goals no longer align, and you no longer recognize them as the person you felt an instant attraction for upon meeting. No matter how much you try to compromise and persevere, you cannot find the sense of content you are looking for, and it’s time to concede defeat.  But it’s terrifying to leave the comfort of something that has always seemed so simple, natural and ideal in so many ways. As an expat far from home, questions of, “Why am I really here? Do I actually want to be here?” arose in my mind. The future seemed unclear and scary.

Then I thought long and hard about all the big things I had experienced in Canada since December, like new friendships and a fulfilling job. I then thought about all the little things I had experienced just this summer – the friendly interactions, pleasant sights and snippets of conversation – that made being here so much more appealing than returning to London and England. Why would I give up all these things I’m lucky to have in my life? Why would I return to a place and a lifestyle that doesn’t make me feel as happy? More than ever, I knew that I wanted to remain in Canada.

I started making a list of goals for when I would become single. One of them, of course, involved going back to running – that old faithful ally of mine through which I’d met many of my closest friends at university, and experienced so many memorable feelings of elation that outweighed any frustration. I missed what it felt like to run fast alongside others and feel that pre-race surge of adrenaline fueled by a competitive spirit. I tried two running groups. The first didn’t do much for me running-wise, but it gave me a hilarious new friend I held onto even if I no longer attended the group. The second meet I tried gave me exactly what I had been looking for; it got me enjoying running again. I signed up for my first race in over two years for late September, and regardless of the fact that I ended up being the first lady home in my race, I enjoyed the whole experience immensely.

Another goal included making more use of my free time to travel. It had been over a year since I’d completed a solo trip. After passing my work probation I booked a few days off for the beginning of September. It was time to leave the Island and return to the place where I first fell in love with Canada: the Rockies.

After the gross mixed-dorm experience my sister and I had in Whistler in October 2015, I vowed to avoid hostels for future trips. Unfortunately on this occasion I’d left my flight-booking a little late to organize an affordable airbnb. Instead I had a terrible sleep in a hostel in Calgary, that city of skyscrapers plonked smack bang in the middle of flat nothingness; a place, nevertheless, that was more aesthetically pleasing than I expected. I woke myself up during my Greyhound bus journey to Banff by banging my head on the window, only to recognize the prestigious mountains rising up in the distance, albeit this time with a faint cloak of smoke hovering over that had drifted up from the forest fires in Washington State.

Banff was flooded with tourists out for Labour Day long weekend. At one point during my battle through the crowds, I realized I’d passed a girl I went to school with ten years ago. There was now a McDonalds on the main tourist strip which made me cry a little inside. Banff was even more commercialized and tacky than six years earlier. I hiked Tunnel Mountain and lamented the fact that few people reciprocated my “hi” or even had the common sense to make space on the trail for my approach, too busy they were in their Lulelemon leggings taking selfies and choosing their Instagram filter. But the main thing for me was that I was somewhere different, alone, and enjoying being alone.

The next morning I sat at the same spot on the Bow River where I’d perched six years ago as a less confident and more naive 19 year old. I thought about all that has happened in the past six years – travelling, moving to London, completing my degree, commencing a long-term (and mostly long-distance) relationship, starting a job that developed into a career field, moving to Canada, and returning to single-hood again. I felt a sense of pride remembering all that I’ve experienced, learned and accomplished in that time, and suddenly the world felt like a map in my pocket, with me in control of my life route and excited for what lay ahead in my chosen path.

Exploring my Backyard: A Weekend in Sooke

Since I was 19, I’ve had a personal “rule” that I should visit a new country every year. Adhering to this was easy when I lived in Europe, but now I’m living in a country only fractionally smaller in square kilometres than that entire continent, not so much. However I’ve come to appreciate that you don’t have to go abroad to find something new and inspiring. I ask myself which is better – to get a vague idea of several countries, or to truly get to know one?

To celebrate my 25th birthday, I spent a long weekend in Sooke, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Although only 38 kilometres from Victoria where I currently live, it’s not necessarily a place one would consider going to for just a short visit. And yet it’s a place where you are suddenly exposed to swathes of tranquil forests, an abundance of pleasant hikes and a bounty of intriguing wildlife. It’s a place that proves you don’t have to go far to find beauty and adventure.

En route, my friend and I stopped at Walmart in uptown Victoria to buy some bedding. It was a hot day and as I tested the side of my face against five different pillows all with marginal variations in style,  the white-walled, air-conditioned environment of the huge store suddenly made me begin to feel restless. Victoria is a cleaner and quieter city than most, but there are people and cars and buildings nonetheless. Having grown up in the rural countryside, I need shots of rugged nature from time to time to rejuvenate myself. It was time to see more green.

On entering Sooke River Campground we stopped by the reception where a large lady sat in a rocking chair on the deck, peering over her newspaper with a suspicious frown. She resembled one of those GI Jane-types you probably wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. We had booked one of the three rustic cabins…and rustic was a very accurate description. However we seemed to get the better deal as based on the number of Canada geese around, it would have been difficult to find a piece of ground to pitch a tent on that wasn’t speckled with poop. I haven’t been in a campground since 2014 and just being amongst tents and campers got me excited, stirring memories of  childhood holidays and the smell of barbecues and refreshing feel of morning dew on bare feet.

A lovely place for a relaxed evening stroll is Whiffin Spit, just down from Sooke town. The south side looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State and the north faces Sooke Basin. With the latter, it’s just unfortunate that the ugliest hotel you’ve ever seen was built on the water. Its huge white frame stands out in gaudy contrast to the green surroundings. The architect seems to have gone for a European look but a rustic brown would have done nicely.

For breakfast the next morning after a cozy night’s sleep in our cabin, we stopped at The Little Vienna Bakery which had friendly staff and an authentic Austrian decor. We ordered a tasty cinnamon schnecke and a filling breakfast bun to share. The cafe seemed to be a fond favourite with the elderly local population who would sit with their coffee and cakes reading the newspaper.

Then it was north towards the Sooke Potholes, where you can either stick to a gravel path that follows the river or take a wilder route closer to the water’s edge. We chose the latter, clambering over rocks, ducking under branches and darting over gaps in the rock over the water to cross to the other side. Other hikers would peer at us sitting on the other side of the river with expressions of awe, as if thinking, “How did they get there?” I noticed how when crossing over to the other side of the river via gaps in the rock, I would hesitate upon seeing a fast section of the current swooshing below me. Even if I had fallen in, there are many calm pool sections of the river where I, a pretty strong swimmer, would have been able to stop myself going further downstream. I feel like I’ve become more cautious in the past year or so, more likely to reconsider the sensibleness of doing certain physical activities instead of just going for it without worrying so much.

Instead I seem to be developing interests in more static things, such as bird watching. (Is this what happens when you reach a quarter century?!) We observed the routine of a bluish grey bird that would zoom over the water and through the gaps in the rock, only to return to her nest around a minute later to feed her chicks. Then we spotted two birds, with the dad presumably the one perching on a stone in the water as if scanning the area for safety. It brought back childhood memories of when a blackbird once made a nest in my family’s garden wall. Everyday when I got home from school I would eagerly peep through the cracks to see how things were progressing. I remember the devastation and guilt I felt when one day I saw the eggs had been abandoned.

As we left this section of the park and headed southwards, a couple on the side of the road ahead waved us down awkwardly. “Hey! We’re not hitchhiking, it’s just our car’s parked back that way,” the man said, pointing in the direction we’d come from, “and we spotted a bear and her cub on the side of the road.”

“Oh!” we replied in surprise. How typical that we had been too busy talking about something to notice two bears casually strolling nearby. We invited the couple inside our car and drove them back to the parking area, peering into the bushes in hope that we’d see the animals. No sign.

Nevertheless, it became our de facto duty to warn others of the sighting. When we spotted the men we’d seen earlier bathing in the river walking along the road in the direction of the bear, we wound down our windows and told them to jump in. We would stop oncoming cars to pass on the information, and tell others stood in parking lots. “Oh wow!” “Where were they?” “Were they big?” began a series of questions. It was like being the geek in school who suddenly becomes super popular once he claims to have seen a famous actor in the street. You could say we became quite proud of our services, even though we hadn’t actually seen the bear ourselves. It was easy to imagine a game of Chinese Whispers ensuing, with us by the end having concocted some wild story about how we had to fight off a ginormous bear that pounced on our car and grabbed one of us by the arm, dragging us out of the smashed window…

Further down stream, a gang of four elderly cyclists were taking a dip at the serene beach section. It was lovely to see a range of ages at the potholes, whether it was families with young kids, elderly hiking groups, or even young adults like our friend we spotted showing some visiting pals around.

For lunch we ate in town at Mom’s Cafe, an American-style diner with blue leather booths, black and white tiles and female-only servers. I was torn between the Hawaiian burger and fish and chips, but ended up going for the former. A minute later, a server walked out with a plate of fish and chips and I instantly regretted my decision.

“More water, honey?” I was asked while eating by our server who looked a few years younger than me. Servers over here seem to like using these pet words, but I personally find them quite irritating. Minutes later, the same server approached the table in front of us and asked cheerily, “How are you ladies doing here?” only for her face to drop in horror when the mother replied curtly: “This is my son.” Ouch. To the server’s defence, any 8 year old kid with long hair in a ponytail is going to be easily mistaken for a female.

I’d had my eye on the dessert counter since we arrived, and ordered a slice of the chocolate cream pie. “Two forks?” asked the server, occasionally glancing over warily at the table in front. My friend shrugged a half-hearted response, holding his stomach like a woman in late pregnancy while I sat up excitedly in anticipation. Back came a huge slice of rich chocolatey goodness smothered with whipped cream. Buddy conceded defeat after two bites and thereafter watched me in bewilderment with a small hint of both admiration and disgust as I proceeded to clear the plate. I definitely have a second stomach for these things.

When we went up to pay, our server was still in a state over her incident with ponytail-boy’s mum. I told her to keep the change.

Driving along Sooke’s winding coastline is a real treat, offering breathtaking views of the Pacific Ocean and Washington State’s Olympic Mountain range. It’s beautifully rugged and untouched, and made the plastic, suffocating atmosphere of Walmart feel almost like something imagined. The provincial parks in Sooke are perfectly maintained too; there are pit toilets and useful information boards, but otherwise the nature is undisturbed by commercial projects. We pulled into French Beach Provincial Park and the big lunch finally hit me. I dropped off in the car, mouth open and all. I can never usually nap in the afternoons. Sooke was becoming more and more impressive.

On French Beach I discovered my unknown appreciation for rocks. “There’s… so many, all…so different….so…pretty,” I gasped to myself in awe as I began forming a pile that would later become the source of a stressful decision about which ones to keep and which to leave behind.

We drove on towards China Beach, and on the way pulled over to admire another view. Suddenly something in the water caught my attention. I realized it was a seal, powering through the waves with a slow yet defiant bobbing action that resembled the Loch Ness Monster. It was the longest seal I’d ever seen. It stopped in the shallows and we walked down onto the rocks to get a closer look. The seal had attracted the attention of others, as a man followed suit with his dog by his side, phone out to take a photo. ‘What a cute dog,’ I thought, looking at the golden spaniel fondly. Then it started barking and darted towards the water where the seal bathed.

“Hudson, come back! Hudson!” the dog’s owner started yelling. But the dog ignored him, splashing through the waves with barks of naive curiosity.

“That seal is going to destroy that dog,” my friend remarked matter-of-factly. We could only watch helplessly as the dog rushed towards the seal, its owner shouting madly. Then the dog suddenly looked back at its owner as if having had second thoughts and began to return to shore. We breathed out in relief.

Seconds later, it bounded back towards the water.

“Hudson!” shouted the owner desperately. His friend joined him and threw rocks in the dog’s direction, but he wasn’t interested, persevering through buffeting waves to get close to the seal, which was beginning to kick up a splash in panic. I held my breath and prepared to block my eyes as the dog got within 10 feet of the seal, only to once again retreat. The owners turned back and the dog trotted beside them, grinning at them with his tongue hanging out as if to say, “Chill guys, I was just playing with you.”

The Canadian version of ‘Fenton’ in Richmond Park sprang to mind.

We carried on to China Beach, where most of the park’s signs seemed to warn of recent cougar sightings. Despite the bear sighting that was not sighted by us earlier in the day, I’ve been advised a few times that it’s actually cougars that residents of Vancouver Island have to worry about. (And not just the human kind.) Bears are supposedly more reactive in their aggression, only attacking if they feel severely threatened, whereas cougars will apparently just go for you no matter what, leaping down unexpectedly from trees, pouncing from behind etc. And yet when you’re walking along a pretty trail, it’s surprisingly easy to forget about a blood-thirsty predator lurking in the bushes.

At least, it was that evening on China Beach, which was empty apart from two surfers braving the coastal chill. On the Sunday morning we headed to East Sooke and stopped in Roche Cove to hike to Matheson Lake. The trail starts on the famous Galloping Goose bike trail and then descends into forest. Strange noises began to enter my ears. Was it a bird calling…or something else, something bigger? The crack of a twig would send my head swinging to the side in suspicious alarm. The sounds seemed to increase in loudness and frequency. I heard footsteps, they sounded like an animal…coming closer.

Suddenly a brown spaniel bounded over a little hill towards us. He carried a thick piece of branch in his mouth with his head and tail held high in an expression of stubbornness equivalent to a toddler adamant they are going to drag their cot all the way into their new room instead of moving into a “big girl’s” bed. His owner followed suit, rolling her eyes. We watched fondly as the dog struggled to fit through a narrow gap between two trees, all the while never once considering abandoning his new find.

This trail had many ankle-twisting forks, which led on to an interesting debate about many times I’d have to stop and rest if my friend got injured and needed piggy-backing to the car. Later we drove on to the quieter western edge of the park, where there were several plots of land for sale to build houses on. I observed through green eyes the dreamy views anyone building a house here would have. If only my generation could look forward to affording such a piece of property…

Our final hike was an easy 30-minute stroll from Pike Point to Iron Mine Bay. Sweet birdsong accompanied our final few steps down to the small pebble beach, where dogs we had passed by on the road earlier fetched sticks from the water. Glistening blue water stretched out before us all the way to the snow-capped Olympic peaks. I felt truly blessed to have views like this pretty much on the doorstep of a provincial capital city.

I had been spoiled by the weather in Sooke and came away smitten with the stunning coastline I’d witnessed. I returned home to my apartment in Victoria to learn of the terror attacks in London, and suddenly felt a sense of guilt for having spent a peaceful weekend exploring quiet trails and gorgeous beaches while friends and relatives of mine were potentially getting caught up in the horrific events. London and my old life there felt so far away and yet this news hit really close to home too.

No matter how big and busy your city, having a few days away in quiet, nature-filled surroundings will make you feel rested, recharged and even more appreciative of the variety of life that exists on our planet.