Hidden Paradise: The Inside Guide to Southern Vancouver Island’s Secret Gardens

Credit: Scott McDonald

For us, summer on Vancouver Island means two things: tons of beautiful blooms in mesmerizing colors, and the excuse to spend as much time outside as possible basking in the sun’s glorious golden rays. Luckily, Vancouver Island is home to an incredible network of gardens, almost hidden in plain sight. The type of gardens that will leave you in awe of their incredible beauty and diversity of style, design features, flowers and foliage.

But don’t just take our word for it. We caught up with Vancouver Island local and garden expert Scott McDonald, Digital Content Manager at Gardens British Columbia, for his recommendations on where to get your garden fix.

Victoria, BC Overnight Getaways

1. Abkhazi Garden

Tucked away behind a hornbeam hedge, Abkhazi Garden is a sweet romantic spot, within a 15-muinute walk from downtown Victoria. The small, but enchanting one-acre grounds started in 1946 as a labor of love by Prince and Princess Abkhazi. These two star-crossed lovers were separated in World War II, but happily were reunited and married after the war.

Magnificent twisted oaks and azaleas are one of the many highlights of the Abkhazi Gardens. Credit: Scott McDonald
Magnificent twisted oaks and azaleas are one of the many highlights of the Abkhazi Gardens. Credit: Scott McDonald

McDonald states, “Abkhazi is one of my favorite gardens because the Abkhazis didn’t rework the landscape to suit them. They left the glacier kissed rock outcrops on the property as they were and incorporated local plants, such as the endangered Garry oak. The grounds are absolutely stunning and give you a glimpse of what can be done in a natural setting.”

Colorful clusters of blooms hang from 100-year-old rhododendrons, carpets of alpine flowers flow around rock, offering a sense of permanence and tranquility. McDonald adds, “You can sit in the garden in the middle of Victoria and feel like you are all alone. It is the best hidden gem Victoria has, bar none.”

Sip on a warm cup of tea as you stare out on the stunning Abkhazi Gardens. Credit: Scott McDonald
Sip on a warm cup of tea as you stare out on the stunning Abkhazi Gardens. Credit: Scott McDonald

A little insider tip: The Abkhazi Gardens are also to home to a cozy tea house, which, according to McDonald, serves up one of the most delicious afternoon teas in Victoria.

How to get there:

2. Japanese Garden – Esquimalt Gorge Park

Step through the eye-catching, formal wooden gate into the gently rolling terrain of the gorgeous Japanese Garden in Esquimalt Gorge Park, and feel all your concerns and worries slip away in matter of minutes. With the babbling sounds of the stream and gliding movements of the koi in their pond, this hidden oasis gives off a peaceful and serene vibe.

Benches scattered around the scenic Japanese Garden offer up the perfect place for a picnic. Credit: Scott McDonald
Benches scattered around the scenic Japanese Garden offer up the perfect place for a picnic. Credit: Scott McDonald

Designed in 1907 by Isaburo Kishida (who also helped create the Japanese gardens at The Butchart Gardens and the Gardens at Hatley Castle), the garden is the oldest Japanese Garden in North America and a mere five-minute bus ride from Victoria. McDonald suggests, “Visit the gardens in the evening for a simple walk through. Because you are on the Gorge Waterway, you are beneath the din of the city, making the gardens the perfect locale for a romantic stroll.”

Find your inner bliss by a serene pond surrounded by flowers. Credit: Scott McDonald
Find your inner bliss by a serene pond surrounded by flowers. Credit: Scott McDonald

How to get there:

3. Gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific (HCP)

Green thumbs rejoice! Drive just 30 minutes out of the city, Up Island for the perfect twofer, a chance to experience not one, but TWO glorious gardens. Explore the world-famous The Butchart Gardens and tip-toe through the 55-acres of floral splendor before continuing your horticultural adventure with a 10-minute trip south to visit one of the region’s best-kept secrets, the Gardens at the Horticulture Centre of the Pacific (HCP).

An array of vibrant succulents and flowers add a shot of color the grounds at HCP. Credit: Gardens BC
An array of vibrant succulents and flowers add a shot of color the grounds at HCP. Credit: Gardens BC

Designated one of the “Canada 150 Garden Experiences” and named “Garden of the Year in North America” in March 2017 by the Canadian Garden Council, the Gardens at HCP are truly a gardener’s garden. Wander through the 9-acres of demonstration gardens and soak in the distinct beauty of each area, from the swoon-worthy array of dramatic blooms in the lily garden to the lusciously-scented plants in the herb garden.

Colorful blooms lead the way to one of the garden's tranquil ponds. Credit: Gardens BC
Colorful blooms lead the way to one of the garden’s tranquil ponds. Credit: Gardens BC

McDonald mentions, “Be sure to pay a visit to the unique Bonsai Garden. With more than 60 bonsai trees on display, it is the only outdoor Bonsai garden in Western Canada and the second largest in all of Canada.” An excellent place to spend a sunny afternoon, the quiet gravel paths and diverse collection of sculptured trees offer a little slice of Zen.

Catch some sweet tunes during Victoria's beautiful summer evening in the garden. Credit: Gardens BC
Catch some sweet tunes during Victoria’s beautiful summer evening in the garden. Credit: Gardens BC

Bonus points for swinging by on the last Wednesday of each month in the summer and staying into the evening to enjoy a picnic in the park and a fabulous concert

How to get there:

4. Finnerty Gardens

Find botanical bliss at the Finnerty Gardens on the University of Victoria grounds. A scenic sanctuary on the edge of campus, these gardens are relatively unknown and are the perfect spot to see extensive collections of spectacular flowers. McDonald states “The protected nature of these gardens paired with Victoria’s relatively warm climate make these gardens the first to flower each year. If you want spectacular blooms, this is the place to go.”

Wander down one of the many quiet trails in the lush Finnerty Gardens. Credit: Scott McDonald
Wander down one of the many quiet trails in the lush Finnerty Gardens. Credit: Scott McDonald

Grab a map and spend an hour or two wandering through the lush, jungle-like 2.6-hectare gardens. You’ll stroll past more trees and shrubs than you can count (there are more than 4,000 in case you are curious) and 35 flowerbeds bursting with a jaw-dropping assortment of perennials.

Brilliant blooms fill a massive rhododendron bush. Credit: Scott McDonald
Brilliant blooms fill a massive rhododendron bush. Credit: Scott McDonald

However, the pièce de résistance is the garden’s massive assortment of more than 1,500 rhododendron and azalea plants of all shapes and sizes. One of the largest collections of rhododendrons in the Pacific Northwest, including 200 species of rhododendrons in a kaleidoscope of colors. This IS rhody heaven!

How to get there:

5. Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary

Plopped in the middle of the city, but remaining hidden as the location sits above the downtown core, the Swan Lake Christmas Hill Nature Sanctuary is a haven away from the bustle of the city. Catch a bus to Saanich (about 10 minutes north of downtown) for a scenic stroll around this lake-turned-conservation park to catch sight of orchids, lilies, Garry oak and cattails.

The long stretch of boardwalk surrounding Swan Lake is perfect for an afternoon bike ride or stroll. Credit: Blake Handley
The long stretch of boardwalk surrounding Swan Lake is perfect for an afternoon stroll. Credit: Blake Handley

As you follow the trail that encircles the lake (it takes about an hour to complete the full circuit), take time to stop and grab a seat on one of the many benches along the way. Sit back, watch and listen as you soak in the sights of the stunning marshland.

A beautiful swallowtail butterfly lights on a plant nearby Swan Lake. Credit: Blake Handley
A beautiful swallowtail butterfly lights on a plant nearby Swan Lake. Credit: Blake Handley

Keep an eye out (you may want to bring a pair of binoculars) for woodland creatures. Muskrat, river otter and mink as well as a wide variety of birds from yellow warblers to red-winged blackbirds to red-tailed hawks all call the region home. If you love wildlife, this is the perfect place for photo ops.  

How to get there:

When it comes to getting out and exploring Vancouver Island’s secret gardens, you certainly aren’t strapped for choices. A gardener’s paradise, the countless number of vibrant gardens provide an easy outlet for you to escape the city and spend a magical day amid breathtaking blooms.

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2 Comments

  1. Is there a ferry to Victoria (The Butchart Gardens) from Roche Harbor, San Juan Islands? If not, is there another way?

    • Hi Ann,

      Great question. There isn’t a ferry from Roche Harbor to Victoria, but there is a Washington State ferry that departs from Friday Harbor to Sidney, BC (you can check out their schedule on their website here: http://www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries/), which is about 15 minutes from The Butchart Gardens – you’ll need to hop on a bus or pick up a rental car. Another option would be to ride on our San Juan Clipper to Seattle and then ride to Victoria, BC on the Victoria Clipper. Please let me know if you have any questions or there is anything else I can help with.

      Thanks,

      Brenna

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