Photo: 2009fotofriends/Shutterstock

Vancouver Island Is the Freshest Place for Fall Leaf Peeping

Vancouver Outdoor Insider Guides
by Shauna Farnell Sep 23, 2019

When it comes to autumn outdoor destinations, New England usually sits at the top of everyone’s list. While the changing foliage of the Pacific Northwest might not match the leaf-peeping color spectrum of North America’s East Coast, Victoria, British Columbia, warrants a gander. Here, countless cycling routes and trails shrouded in canopies of softly falling leaves couple with the world-class restaurants, wineries, and breweries to make this summer-famous region of BC a must-visit in the fall. Autumn around Victoria is rich for all five of your senses — just don’t forget your rain jacket. Leaf peeping season here is just getting started and will run through mid-November. Here’s how to do it right, which of course includes a colorful cocktail and plate of food after a long day in the woods.

Getting settled in Victoria

Photo: Debbie Ann Powell/Shutterstock

Whether you’re flying in or taking the ferry over from Vancouver, once you arrive into greater Victoria your apple orchard fix can instantly be satiated at Sea Cider. Situated about five minutes from the airport, this cider house farm is home to more than 1,300 trees and about 60 varieties of apples producing at least 15 brews on tap. The seasonal Witch’s Broom is not to be missed — like a spicy apple pie in a chilled glass, paired with housemade tapenade or a steaming savory pie, all enjoyed while taking in water views of the Haro Strait beyond the orchard. There’s no better way to arrive anywhere, whether you’re here for the views or the libations.

As far as where to stay, basing yourself in the center of Victoria provides easy access to the foodie scene, as well as the trails and roads leading to the best leaf peeping. The spacious suites at the Parkside Hotel & Spa feature large patios outside of the suites with views of the wharf and festively lit parliament building. Plus, there are state-of-the-art, full-sized kitchens. The Parkside lies within easy walking distance of every downtown hot spot and offers a daily s’mores happy hour on its Rooftop Garden, indoor pool and hot tub, free movie showings in the in-house theater, and a beautiful indoor pond housing enormous coy fish.

Cycling is the most efficient way to take in the colors.

Like much of British Columbia, Uber and Lyft have not yet arrived in Victoria, but the best way to reach Sea Cider and other outskirt destinations is by bicycle on the region’s extensive rail trail system. Cyclists reign supreme in this part of the world, and these wide paths — including Lochside Trail stretching from downtown to the Swartz Bay Ferry Terminal and the Galloping Goose spanning from downtown to the waterfall paradise of Sooke Potholes — are protected from vehicular traffic and lined with blackberry bushes, towering trees, and granite and basalt rock slabs.

Situated in Victoria’s industrial chic Market Square, North 48 Bicycles rents comfortable touring bikes, as well as sleek skinny tire machines. The shop offers tours to colorful, little-known destinations you’d probably never find on your own, which can lead to unique views of the island’s changing colors. However, the rail trails are easy to navigate — clearly marked from start to finish.

Be sure to check out the gardens at The Horticultural Centre of the Pacific, about a 40-minute pedal from downtown. Bursting with a riot of color all year, they take on a flame-like brilliance in autumn and are also home to the delicious Charlotte and the Quail, which, along with downtown sister restaurant Nourish, offers homegrown breakfast and lunch fare using herbs, veggies, and fruit grown on site. Another easy autumn pedal is to Hatley Castle and the Royal Roads University campus (filming location of the X-Men movies). Both can be seen across Esquimalt Lagoon, a bird sanctuary and mystical beach strewn with driftwood piled like massive matchsticks and bizarre but beautiful pop-up sculptures by local artist Paul Lewis.

But the hiking is pretty nice too.

Photo: P Sahota/Shutterstock

Speaking of wildlife, Hike Victoria guide Mark Vukobrat has spotted killer and humpback whales splashing in Finlayson Arm, the sublime fjord winding below the lofty ridgeline of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park. This is a rugged park featuring a number of trails that are spectacular with color in the fall, though not the type you’d expect. While the forests of Vancouver Island do house the occasional maple tree with blazing red leaves, the fall landscape here glows mostly with hues of brilliant yellows and lime greens, with the exception of the Arbutus and Manzanita trees. Both turn red in late summer, not in their leaves but in their trunks, which look almost as if they were deliberately painted. These and countless other botanic species abound in Gowlland Tod, which is worth exploring with Hike Victoria as Vukobrat not only knows the best approaches and wildlife spotting areas but is also a professional photographer whose custom images you will want to enlarge and frame.

Photo: JeniFoto/Shutterstock

Butchart Gardens in the town of Brentwood Bay is among the most popular places to see fall colors, which you can walk through in the course of an afternoon. Goldstream Park is another of Greater Victoria’s not-to-miss autumn outdoor spots. You’ll reach a waterfall after a short, Goonies-esque ramble through a dark tunnel. You can also walk across the abandoned railroad trestle, which will test your sense of vertigo. This time of year, the park offers unrivaled viewing of the annual salmon run. Hell-bent on reaching their upstream spawning destination, thousands of tattered salmon can be seen leaping out of the water amid the enormous Douglas fir trees of this old-growth rainforest throughout October and early November.

Photo: 2009fotofriends/Shutterstock

Mt. Douglas towers above the coastline a few minutes north of the city with short but lung-busting trails to the top, their moss-covered pines and lush clusters of ferns giving way to rock slabs that sometimes require four limbs to climb and descend. There’s also a paved road that’s great for cycling in the morning before cars are permitted. The summit offers sweeping views of downtown and the San Juan Islands. Also, one of Victoria’s most colorful outdoor escapes is situated smack in the middle of the city. Beacon Hill is a 200-acre park comprised of native wildflowers, grasslands, and majestic willows reflected in duck- and turtle-filled ponds, plus the world’s tallest totem pole measuring 127 feet.

Victoria does colors on the plate as well as it does them outdoors.

Of course, salmon is a star menu item at most local haunts, and Victoria is unquestionably a foodie city regardless of when you visit. However, all matter of fresh ingredients abound during the fall harvest. Dinner standouts include Saveur, a cozy French venue housed in a converted boot factory with wine and small plate pairings that will enliven every vacuole of your palate, and Little Jumbo, a place not afraid to integrate creative elements like freshly smoked carrots into their cocktail menu. Also, 10 Acres sources as many ingredients as possible from its very own farm and, in spite of its fine-dining status, serves mountainous portions of comfort dishes like pork chops and fish and chips.

Autumn is also arguably the most popular season for brunch, at which Victoria restaurants excel. Top farm-to-table brunch joints include the aforementioned Nourish Kitchen; the classy Courtney Room, where you can always count on a lip-smacking fresh fruit compote accompanying the cookie crumb-topped French toast; The Village, with its buzzy new Chinatown location and unique chef menu changing every weekend depending on what’s fresh. For your bread fix, head to the Fol Epi/Agrius bakery, where the flour-y aromas alone make your head spin.

Local breweries and vineyards also unload fresh cornucopias for fall. Averill Creek’s unique Harvest Moon event pairs each of its varietals with inspired bites from neighboring farms, and scrumptious seasonal suds include the Blackberry sour at Whistle Buoy and the Sweet Potato Harvest Ale at Four Mile Brewing.

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