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Pacific Northwest travelblog: Exploring beautiful British Columbia

The view along the docks of Cowichan Bay seaside village. (Photo by Berry Tramel)
The view along the docks of Cowichan Bay seaside village. (Photo by Berry Tramel)

The license plates in Victoria read “Beautiful British Columbia.”

They’ve got that right. On Sunday, our first full day in B.C., we decided to trek north and see a little of the province. And it was fabulous. Stunning lakes and bays. Stately trees on mountains. Villages set against such backdrops. Beautiful indeed.

From the Marriott, we walked two blocks to Avis, rented a Toyota Corolla and set out for Cowichan Bay.

Last year in Victoria, we drove west, to the remote fishing village of Port Renfrew, which might as well be stuck in 1951. This year, we drove north and found that Vancouver Island indeed has people north of Victoria.

Remember, Vancouver – the metropolis of 2.4 million in British Columbia – is not on Vancouver Island. Victoria is the hub of Vancouver Island and B.C.’s capital city.

Our trip up the Trans-Canada Highway hugged many of the bays of the Salish Sea, and the views were stunning. Some of the mountain climbs were impressive, too, though at the peak I think it’s only about 1,200 feet above sea level. But when you go 6,000 or 8,000 feet up in Colorado, you’re not looking down at the sea. In British Columbia, you are.

The Cowichan Valley is a region consisting of Duncan, a town of about 5,000, and a variety of smaller towns. Including Cowichan Seaside Village.

Cowichan sits hard by the bay, with a vibrant marina, lively docks and a one-side-of-the-street commercial district, backing up to the water. We strolled along the quaint village, found a few shops that Trish the Dish liked, and even listened to some gal on the dock playing a great cello.

We stopped for a cinnamon roll at a grain bakery and shared a good two-piece cod plate at a food shack. Everyone up here seems to know how to fry fish and what kind of fish to fry.

It was fun, but most of the docks were private, making it hard to get too close to the water.

We drove through Duncan, which seemed like a nice town, about the size of Marlow only within a stone’s throw of Pacific Ocean water.

And we found a lovely farmer’s market/grocery store, sitting on a bluff in a new barn. We saw a similar operation in Pennsylvania’s Amish Country. Farm to market produce, but with other grocery items. All with big doors open and a nice breeze floating through. It made you wish your house was two miles away so you could buy up a bunch of stuff and go cook a big dinner.

On the way out of Victoria, we veered off to tour Hatley Castle, one of Victoria’s two castles, both built by the same family. Last year, we toured Craigdarroch Castle, built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir from 1887-90, sits in the middle of Victoria. We enjoyed touring it.

Dunsmuir’s son, James, built Hatley Castle in the early 1900s outside of town, with a great view of the bay. We went last year and toured its magnificent gardens, but the castle was closed that day for graduation, since it now is home Royal Roads University.

Sunday, we got our tour and were a little disappointed. Only the ground floor is open to tourists; the four rooms we saw were really cool, including a billiard room straight out of “Clue” that includes the over-sized pool table that weighs 2,600 pounds.

But the castle is four stories tall and we would have liked to have seen more. The castle now is the administration offices for the university, and most likely, the castle has been modernized into routines offices and we would have been disappointed anyway.

Robert Dunsmuir died before Craigdarroch was completed, and James Dunsmuir had a poor relationship with his mother, so Hatley Castle was a product of family wars. He wanted a bigger, better castle and probably had it.

But after James Dunsmuir died in 1920, and his widow died in 1937, the estate struggled financially, and the Canadian government bought it in 1940 as a naval training base, and it soon became the Royal Naval College. In 1994, the government closed the military college and the grounds became Royal Roads University, with help from the province of British Columbia.

Along the way to Hatley, we passed the pristine Victoria Lawn Bowling Club. Lawn Bowling is a sport in which the objective is to roll balls so they stop as close as possible to the target, a white ball called a jack. The sport is usually played on grass as smooth as a golfing green. Very Victorian, very European. Exactly what you’d expect in Victoria.

In suburban Langford, we passed by Westhills Stadium, home to Victoria’s new Canadian Premier League soccer team. It looked like a really contemporary minor-league stadium in America would look, seating 6,000 and sporting all kinds of amenities. A rugby team and a football team also play in Langford.

Even in Duncan stood the Cowichan Lake Sports Arena, which hosted the short track speed skating for the Vancouver Olympics.

We drove back to Victoria, dropped off our rental car and then strolled a little of downtown. We stopped in at Out of Ireland, the magnificent store with all kinds of Irish fashions, all incredibly expensive and all worth it. I bought a coat last year. This year, I refrained and tried to talk the Dish into getting something, but she never found exactly what she wanted. But the week is still young. I’ll return to Out of Ireland.

For dinner, we went to Pagliacci’s, a tiny and popping Italian place we discovered last year. Alas, it wasn’t quite as good this year. The line is usually out the door, but we got in fairly quickly. But when we were seated, in a table by the front window, the hostess informed us that a live band would be playing in about an hour, and she might have to move us, because the band set up where we were.

Why Pagliacci’s needs a band is beyond the me. The place was about 25 feet wide, maybe 60 feet long. Couldn’t have been much more than 120 customers at any one time, all crammed together chatting and loving their Italian food. Last thing that placed needed was a live band.

Our service was slow, but we finished – the Dish had a good not great lasagna; I had a good not great seafood pasta – in time to make way for the band. But the couple sitting next to us had just started eating, and the server wanted to move them. It was madness, I’m telling you.

We stopped in a chocolate store so the Dish could get a couple of pieces of dark chocolate to top off the evening, and we discovered the currency exchange place from Saturday night had given us a $2 Euro. So I had three separate currencies in my pocket. I’m becoming a man of international means.

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Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›