A Queenly Christmas in British Columbia
For a Holiday Season with Brittanic Majesty, Head for Victoria
The capital city of British Columbia is a fascinating—some might say, eccentric—mix. The oldest city in the Pacific Northwest sits at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, within sight of America’s Olympic Peninsula and at a historic crossroads of trans-Pacific trade and Indigenous culture. And yet, the city often feels like a detached slice of England. The distinctive charm of the place stands out in a special way when the Christmas spell is cast.
The road to Victoria is scenic any way you choose to arrive on the island. You can wind along the coastal route on the Olympic Peninsula to Port Angeles and take the Coho Ferry to the center of Victoria’s bustling Inner Harbour while you watch float planes land beside you. Or you could take the BC Ferries from south of Vancouver, BC, and pick from any of the sailings through the ruggedly beautiful, sometimes misty, Gulf Islands. You might spy an orca racing beside you or resident porpoises. Island time takes hold, and you start to relax. When you arrive north of Sidney, the drive takes you down through the peninsula, past rolling farms and ocean views to make your way south to the capital.
Once here, you can find the Christmas spirit through a variety of experiences and as early as November.
Festival of Trees
If your favorite part of Christmas is decorating the Christmas tree, head to the Bay Centre for the Festival of the Trees from mid-November to the beginning of January. Through the years, trees have been dressed up as snowmen, decorated with teddy bears, or dolphins and starfish to reflect our coast. They have been found covered in sparkly crystals, Grinch-themed, sporty with baseballs and tennis balls, or wrapped with roads and decorated with toy cars. You never know what you will find each year. Grab some hot chocolate, do some Christmas shopping, wander through rows of Christmas trees, and vote for your favorite.
The Santa Claus Parade
Christmas begins early here on the West Coast. The Peninsula Co-op’s Santa Claus Parade kicks off the festivities on the last Saturday of November. Despite being one of the largest nighttime parades in Canada, it still retains a small-town feel, highlighting local businesses and collecting donations for local causes. Bring warm blankets or camping chairs to watch this annual Victoria tradition, featuring decorated trucks and illuminated floats, ending with a float with Santa Claus. Starting at Government and Belleville Street near the Parliament Buildings, it continues down the middle of downtown. You can follow Santa and Mrs. Claus to the Victoria Public Market for free photos (donations optional) and to shop for holiday gifts.
A brisk walk around the Inner Harbour, watching the float planes, and going to Fisherman’s Wharf is not complete without a stop at the Hotel Grand Pacific. At the end of November and continuing until the beginning of January, you’ll find the lobby filled with gingerbread houses. A Habitat for Humanity fundraiser, this gingerbread showcase inspires baker artists and sculptors of all ages with a theme, and every year they amaze us with their gingerbread house feats.
Carriage Christmas Tours
Step back into Christmas Past when you climb into a horse-drawn carriage, one of the most romantic ways to experience a city. You have your pick of carriages from two carriage companies. With Tally-Ho tours, there may be no snow, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be sleigh rides. Your sleigh will have garlands and soft lights, and the bells will jingle along with the Christmas carols as you see the Christmas lights of Victoria. Or you take their Country Caroling tour through the village of Saanichton, a route to some of the best holiday light displays in Greater Victoria. For another unforgettable experience, hitch a ride with Victoria Carriages, whose gentle giants wear Santa hats and reindeer antlers. As your “reindeer” clip-clop past the Christmas lights around the Harbour and the best-lit homes in the area, your guide tells you the story of Christmas, Victoria-style, with tales of Christmases past.
Centennial Square: Lights of Wonder
After you wander through the oldest Chinatown in Canada and walk through Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest commercial street in North America, make sure you finish up across the street at Centennial Square and see the midcentury fountain surrounding a trio of mosaic monoliths created by Jack Wilkinson. During the last half of December, the square becomes a holiday wonderland with themed light exhibits, interactive light tunnels, and a 40-foot festive tree. There is live entertainment and warm food to eat. Depending on the day, you may catch a musical concert, dancing by the Songhees First Nation, lion dances, or silent discos.
A Winter Dream with the Harbour Ferries
By day, the little green boats with Canadian and BC flags offer a scenic way to travel around the Inner Harbour with an added dose of history. With stops in front of the Empress, to the float homes at Fisherman’s Wharf, to Vic West, and the waterfront Salish Seaside RV Haven, they provide an easy connection so you can travel by foot. These little pickle boats are capable of so much more than just a water taxi. In the summer, they have been known to dance and perform a water ballet in the Inner Harbour. In the winter, when the sun sets, the ferries take passengers on a Winter Dream tour. On the ferry, you see a side of Victoria that is not visible from shore. In the winter, that view is transformed with some 3D lighting magic and sound-reactive lighting installations in a moving light show that immerses you into a child’s dreamy winter dream.
The Magic of Christmas Lights Display in the Butchart Gardens
Over a hundred years ago, Jennie Butchart turned this old rock quarry into a breathtaking 55-acre garden, and it has since been designated a National Historic Site of Canada. Her family still owns and operates it. The beauty of Butchart Gardens changes through the year, but during the Christmas season, the Gardens undergoes its most magical transformation.
For the month of December, Butchart Gardens becomes a night garden, only open evenings from 3-9 p.m. The flowers are replaced by boughs of greenery and thousands of Christmas lights. Walking through feels like the stars fell on the trees, and you are walking in a different world. When you arrive, you’ll hear the traditional carollers or festive brass band to get you in the Christmas spirit, and the music follows you as you explore.
See if you can find the 12 days of Christmas on your stroll. You will chuckle at the calling birds and be surprised by the leaping lords. Come before sunset to watch the gardens transform as night falls.