Victoria, British Columbia
A shining jewel perched on the tip of Vancouver Island
Rich in culture, steeped in history, and vibrant with a raw, natural beauty, Victoria, British Columbia, on Vancouver Island is a travel destination sought out by thousands of visitors from around the globe each year. From so-called beaches to lush gardens to sparkling waterways and more, Victoria has much to offer.
Travelers arrive in Victoria from the mainland by ferry, cruise ship, seaplane, or airplane. At the heart of Victoria lies her expansive Inner Harbour where a 360-degree view unfurls all around: elegant vessels moored at docks bob on the water, horse-drawn carriages line the avenues, double-decker British style buses await passengers. The neo-baroque Parliament Buildings and the iconic Empress Hotel, now designated a historical site, both lie in compliment of one another with their flower embellished lawns.
Named the Garden City, Victoria presents a feast for the senses, all highly photogenic. Tall totem poles, museums, arts & crafts displays, and galleries abound. Beyond the harbour, Victoria offers to the discerning traveler many hidden gems.
Ride along the waterfront and view the majestic Olympic Mountains across the strait, pass a haunted beach-front different, delve into historical neighborhoods lined with well preserved Victorian homes. Walk alongside a shimmering lake, or hike beneath towering firs along an emerald fern trail. Victoria’s diverse and lush nature is present everywhere you go, be it countryside or city center.
Victoria thrives as a modern city yet retains its First Nation heritage and fascinating gold rush history. Cycling, kayaking, and whale watching are among the many activities enjoyed for the greater part of the year. For those looking for luxury, five-star hotels such as the Fairmont Empress offer relaxing spa treatments. Whether your tastes lean toward enjoying nature or a more indulgent pursuit, Victoria, BC, has something to offer everyone.
Take a fun-filled side trip
If you’ve traveled to Victoria, BC, you may have flown over or sailed past the Gulf Islands. The largest and closet to Vancouver Island is Salt Spring Island, reached by way of a 30-minute ferry ride and well worth a visit. You’ll arrive in Ganges, a quaint town that dates back to the 1800s. Cut deeply by fjords that dip between high forested mountains and grassy valleys, Salt Spring Island is home to a distinctive community of artists such as famous wildlife painter Robert Bateman. Sheep farms and wine vineyards dot the countryside, awakening the photographer inside and touching the soul.
Come and enjoy the unique city of Victoria and Salt Spring Island. Take a tour with us to discover the diversity of Vancouver Island’s tall trees, pristine gardens, and magnificent wildlife and views.
History of Victoria
How the city came to be British Columbia’s capital
Many streets, regions, and waterways around Victoria, BC and Vancouver Island retain the names of the early explorers who first made their presence known along British Columbia’s coastline. The earliest of these sailed under the Spanish Crown and evidence suggests that the explorer Juan de Fuca might have reached the passage between Washington state and Vancouver Island as far back as the 1590s. The strait was later named Juan de Fuca by another explorer, Charles Barkley.
The first documented voyage along the coast of British Columbia was completed by Juan Fransisco de la Bodega y Quadra of Spain in 1775, reasserting claim for the Spanish Crown. However, the Spanish failed to settle on the land and abandoned their claim to the British after several naval confrontations.
When Captain James Cook of the British Royal Navy came ashore at Nootka in 1778, he and his crew traded metal objects such as knives, nails, tin cans and pewter plates for artifacts and sea otter pelts with the First Nation people of the region, bringing them great profit and leading to a large influx of traders to the coast of British Columbia. In 1843, the Fort of Victoria, named after the young Queen of England, was established at the tip of Vancouver Island as the Hudson’s Bay Company’s trading post. The Hudson’s Bay Company is today the oldest corporation in North America.
Two former British colonies, the Colony of Vancouver and Vancouver Island, joined together to form what is now British Columbia. In 1849 Britain made Vancouver Island a Crown Colony wherein the united colonies incorporated into the Canadian Confederation, and in 1871 Fort Victoria was named as its capital city.
Expeditions and Explorations of Canada’s West Coast
All expeditions held the same objective, to discover new land for the Crown and to find fame and riches such as the pelts of sea otters (which led to their near extinction but are now coming back). The Spanish schooners, called goletas, carried Spanish explorers such as Alcalá Galiano and Caetano Valdés. The British set sail with the Royal Navy Ships of George Vancouver. Both groups were intent upon charting the mainland shoreline, and both sailed around the entire island and met to collaborate during the voyage and at Nootka Sound, using one another’s findings and giving differing names to various places.
From the Spaniards came the names of many of British Columbia’s islands such as Gabriola, Samuel, Valdes, Galiano, Marurelle, Sonora, and Quadra, so-called the Discovery Islands and all retaining lush forests and marine activity, as well as many modern day artist communities. George Vancouver’s charting provided many names along the continental shore. As a form of respect to his Spanish counterpart, he named what is now Vancouver Island as Quadra and Vancouver’s Island, although “Quadra” was later rejected by the Admiralty and the Hudson’s Bay Company settlement.
Later, a political dispute arose between the Spanish Empire and the Kingdom of Great Britain. A series of events erupted when the Spanish seized British commercial ships engaged in fur trade in an area which Spain had claimed ownership, after which the superior British navy threatened war, winning a dispute of ownership to territorial rights. The ensuing years brought a surrender of trade and territorial rights by the Spanish to the British, opening the expansion of their Pacific mercantile interests.
The Gold Rush in Victoria and Vancouver Island
British Columbia played host to two big gold rushes, one in 1858 on the Fraser River, and the other in 1862 in the Cariboo District. Both attracted tens of thousands of men and even a few women who sailed north from San Francisco to land in Esquimalt Harbour on Vancouver Island, close to Fort Victoria. These gold prospectors made their way first to Fort Victoria to obtain a valid mining license which permitted them to prospect for gold.
As in 1858 Fort Victoria was a small place with no more than 500 immigrant families living there as employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the sudden, almost overnight onset of the prospectors grew this population to over 20,000. Fort Victoria became overridden with campsites as the gold seekers waited for their licenses and purchased the mining and survival supplies they would need for their trek up the mighty Fraser River on mainland British Columbia in search of gold. The chaotic atmosphere in Fort Victoria must have equaled the scene of 36 years later, when licenses were issued in Victoria for the Klondike gold rush of the Yukon.
People came from all over the world, some traveling from Scotland, England, Germany and even from China. Most came from San Francisco after the California gold rush ended. As there were no roads linking the Fraser River or the Cariboo District, they arrived by ship to Fort Victoria and then later to the mainland to pursue their fortunes. At Fort Victoria, many shopkeepers who provided the gold prospectors with their provisions became wealthy themselves. Store Street in Victoria, BC, is one of the first streets of shops that supplied the thousands of gold miners who descended upon the region.
Nowadays Victoria hosts over 3.5 million overnight visitors per year. 500,000 of these are day visitors who arrive on cruise ships, ferries and by air in order to experience its natural beauty as well as its fascinating heritage and culture, whereby they discover some of the most interesting historical sites in Canada.
The Oldest China Town in Canada
Victoria, BC has the oldest China Town in Canada and is the oldest in North America after San Francisco. A massive influx of Chinese gold prospectors arrived from China in 1858 after the discovery of gold up the Fraser River. They were driven to seek their fortunes away from their homeland which was riddled by war, famine, and drought. They also came from San Francisco when the California gold rush died out.
Initially, a collection of crude wooden huts, China Town in Fort Victoria gained a dark reputation because of opium factories, gambling dens, and brothels. This social condition is much attributed to the miners’ inability to bring their families from China, and it became mostly a community of men. More Chinese men appeared to work on the construction of Canada’s railways.
Chinatown grew steadily over the years until its peak in 1911 when it occupied an area of approximately six city blocks at the north end of downtown Victoria. A branch of the Benevolent Association was founded in Victoria in 1918. The Shon Yee Association was established to provide a social venue, recreation, and support for members who endured misfortune and hardship.
Today Victoria’s China Town has evolved into a thriving neighborhood of businesses, theatres, schools, churches, temples and a hospital. In the 1980s China Town was revitalized with the building of “The Gate of Harmonious Interests” on Fisgard and Government Street. It is now a popular area for tourists and artists alike.
First Nation People of Vancouver Island
Honor and heritage kept alive
As mentioned previously, Victoria, BC, and Vancouver Island have retained the names of the early explorers as well as those of the existing First Nation peoples of prior eras. Before the arrival of the European navigators in the late 1700s, the entire coastal region of mainland British Columbia and of Vancouver Island was occupied by communities of the Coast Salish people, including the Songhees and the Esquimalt.
These diverse aboriginal coastal dwellers were highly familiar with each and every detail of Vancouver Island’s intricate coastline and were acutely aware of territorial and property rights. They gave names to the geographical features both natural and cultural that concerned them and now in present times continue to honor their ancestors.
A strong sense of community and heritage remains, with a host of distinct local languages, dances, carvings, impressive Totem Poles and heritage houses keeping alive the spirit and culture of their aboriginal beginnings. Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia are a testament to this illustrious past, with names in the city of Victoria, BC, such as Songhees (Songhees trail), Esquimalt and Saanich (both attributed to municipalities) derived from the local language groups of Coast Salishan, Kwakwala and Nuu-chah-nulth. Most recently the Strait of Georgia is now named the Salish Sea.
What is now known as the City of Victoria, BC, had long since been a gathering place for the First Nation Peoples of Vancouver Island and from throughout the Pacific Northwest for celebrations and trading. This changed with the advent of the European settlement of Fort Victoria that established the Pacific headquarters for the Hudson’s Bay Company.
As written by Pat Kramer, “Totem Poles” —
“First Nation people today are not trapped in the past; they are not living in 1750 or 1850 or 1950. And although they have endured great hardship, they did not perish. Today they are alive and well. They are part of an animated tradition with strong roots in the past. Those of the present are reshaping their lives for the benefit of future generations. While respecting the past, the present generation carries on, always adapting, always innovating, and always improving their way. This is the way all vibrant societies thrive.”