The first time I visited Victoria—the capital of British Columbia and the civilized heart of big, wild Vancouver Island (it’s nearly as long, top to bottom, as Ireland and still largely undeveloped)—I came in search of orcas, bald eagles and black bears. But one evening after watching the sun set over the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Washington’s snowcapped Olympic Mountains (no Canadian city gazes more lovingly on the United States), my girlfriend and I took a drive into an upscale residential neighborhood called Oak Bay and found ourselves in the middle of a golf course. The holes ran along the water’s edge and zigzagged back and forth across a rocky point. I knew a round of golf wasn’t in the cards that trip, but as we drove back to our beach house to cook the Dungeness crabs we’d caught that afternoon, I privately swore I’d come back with my sticks.
Five years later, I’m pressed to the railing of a ferry that’s weaving through the Gulf Islands between Tsawwassen, twenty miles south of Vancouver, and Swartz Bay, twenty miles north of Victoria. Vancouver Island can be reached via a short connecting flight from Seattle or Vancouver to Victoria International Airport, but it’s far more romantic to arrive by sea and follow in the wake of the English explorers who mapped this area for the Crown. Besides, I’m feeling a soft spot for the British; we have them to thank for the course my girlfriend and I stumbled upon, Victoria Golf Club (which, though private, allows for reciprocal play). Opened in 1893, it’s the second-oldest North American course still on its original site.
The ferry docks, and I roll onward, driving thirty minutes south to spend the night at the Villa Marco Polo Inn. An Italian Renaissance–style estate just down the road from the golf club, it has lovely gardens, rooms furnished in period decor, and, surprisingly, a well-appointed spa. Yet it’s the breakfast, prepared by proprietress Eliza Livingston, that guests may well remember most. On my first morning, she made shirred tarragon eggs in crepe cups and ginger-pear pancakes with orange-blossom syrup.
I play Victoria Golf Club that day (it happens to be Masters Sunday) with seven colorful members who have nicknames such as Dink, Coop and Mousetrap and handicaps that average in the low single digits. They’re so friendly that I feel like a member myself. We play eighteen, watch the Masters over a long lunch and then play eighteen more, cold beers in hand. Victoria has an eight-hole stretch (three through ten) that has earned the course a self-styled reputation as Canada’s Pebble Beach; it even has its own version of Pebble’s famous seventh: the 115-yard par-three eighth, which can require as much as a four-iron when the wind kicks up.
For dinner, I head to a wine bar around the corner from the Marco Polo called Stage, where I dig into a succulent surf and turf of seared albacore in truffle oil and brine-cured brisket. So even the dining here is a match for Monterey.
The next morning it’s off to Royal Colwood Golf Club, on the opposite side of Victoria. If Victoria Golf Club is the town’s Pebble Beach, then Royal Colwood is its Winged Foot, or something a little more intimate, like Old Oaks. The club was designed in 1913 by A. V. Macan, a Victoria member and BC amateur champion who grew up in Ireland. It is almost eerie how much Colwood feels like a classic New York–area Tillinghast: the stands of hardwoods defining open interior spaces, the strategic bunkering, the long dogleg par fours, even the encroachment of a suburban neighborhood on the course’s perimeter. Only number sixteen, which rambles through the remains of a grove of giant Douglas firs, says Pacific Northwest.
Though perfectly pleased with the Marco Polo, for a new experience I check into the Fairmont Empress Hotel, a regal stone structure that lords over downtown Victoria’s waterfront, diagonally across from the British Columbia Parliament Buildings. Seaplanes, ferries and tour boats come and go, and artists and performers line the Inner Harbor. This is the place to catch a whale-watching cruise or spend an afternoon strolling and popping into inviting shops and pubs. Just be sure to leave room for the curry buffet in the Empress’s Bengal Lounge, a kind of East India trophy room, decorated with tiger skins and elephant statues, that was once filled with wealthy colonial merchants puffing on cigars and toasting the queen.
I drive a half hour the next morning to tee it up at the Jack Nicklaus–designed Mountain Course at Bear Mountain Golf and Country Club. In ways that most mountain layouts go wrong, this one succeeds: It uses its steep slopes wisely, so you’ll never feel like a goat kicking a stone off a cliff. Nicklaus incorporated the property’s one massive elevation change brilliantly, perching the green at the uphill par-five fourteenth on a lofty saddle from which you can see the city, the strait and the Olympics. A companion course, the Valley, is slated to open its first nine holes in August, with the second nine to follow next spring.
If, like me, you manage to tear yourself away from golf for an afternoon, visit the Butchart Gardens, a fifty-five-acre National Historic Site. Especially beautiful are the sunken garden, built into a former limestone quarry, and the Japanese garden, which overlooks reflective Brentwood Bay.
For dinner that evening, it’s Cafe Brio, Victoria’s finest restaurant. Chef Laurie Munn takes great care in following his food from source to plate, using only local ingredients, such as wild rockfish and halibut and organic Alberta beef. The one-pound rib eye is as tender as a filet.
I begin to head back north the next day, stopping one hour up the coast at an idyllic inlet called Maple Bay. Etched into the hillside is the footprint of an ambitious new resort community, the Cliffs over Maple Bay, which as its centerpiece will have a Greg Norman course (it’s scheduled to open in the fall of 2009). The holes are routed along switchbacks that descend from the top of the hill to the bottom, followed by a strong two-hole finish that recaptures all of that lost elevation in one scorecard-bruising climb. No matter how good the course turns out to be, what will be most striking about the Cliffs over Maple Bay is the view, a panorama of the distant skyline of Vancouver, the massive coastal mountains on the mainland and the smooth volcanic cone of Mount Baker looming over my last destination: Salt Spring Island.
The island is reached via a short ferry ride from Crofton, twenty minutes north of Maple Bay. Salt Spring is the largest and most famous of the Gulf Islands, thanks to its lamb and oysters and the independent way of life that its residents maintain. In addition to the hundreds of artists who make their home on the island (visit the Blue Horse Folk Art Gallery, among others), there are two wineries, two cheese makers, several organic farms and an environmentally friendly nine-hole course, Blackburn Meadows Golf Club. It seems safe to say that if the rest of the world sank into the sea tomorrow, the folks on Salt Spring Island would be just fine. I, for one, am looking for an excuse to stay forever at the Hastings House, an English-style country inn and gourmet restaurant that sits on twenty-two acres overlooking the sailboat-dotted Ganges Harbour.
But, alas, for the rest of us life goes on, and the ferry back to Vancouver arrives promptly at Long Harbour. The cars file solemnly aboard, and, with a mournful blast of the ship’s horn, we set sail for the mainland.