Seeing Meghan and Harry in their recent royal rift tell-all with Oprah Winfrey reminds me that not that long ago, they were my neighbours.
In their quest for “a more peaceful life” Duke and Duchess of Sussex came to the Saanich Peninsula just north of British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria. They found a temporary home with baby Archie in a toney ocean-view rented villa about 25 km from my door. They even spent Christmas 2019 there.
The British Columbia effect
The royal couple have since moved to Montecito in Santa Barbara. It’s worth noting the rugged northern California coast is has a certain resemblance to the west coast of Vancouver Island. Perhaps Meghan and Harry were drawn there in part because they were seduced by the British Columbia effect.
That’s what provincial tourism marketer Destination BC calls the stress-busting, west-coast alignment of tall trees, wild nature and laid-back vibe.
Stepping back from senior royal duties in late 2019 led to a small taste of what Islanders have always known: Vancouver Island is a vast space of hidden gems and beloved getaways with amazing views along east and west Island coasts.
Where Victoria once relied on its oh-so-British heritage and twee tearooms as a tourism selling point, the vibrant city now draws visitors with a robust restaurant scene that focuses on locally sourced cuisine, craft brewing and distilling, outdoor activities galore, rich Indigenous culture and the best weather in Canada.
B.C. is good for the soul
From forest bathing, to spotting whales, stepping back B.C. style can be very good for the soul.
As Vancouver Island has its Sussex moment, here are some suggestions for ways Harry and Meghan can expand their Island view and dig deeper into that B.C. effect. It may even inspire your plans once it’s safe to travel again. Check British Columbia and Canada government websites for COVID travel restrictions and updates.
Endless beach at Parksville-Qualicum Beach
This one’s for baby Archie. About a two-hour drive from Victoria, the long stretches of sand are a kid’s dream. At Parksville’s Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, walk out nearly a kilometer on the packed sand into the Strait of Georgia at low tide. It’s a perfect spot for curious youngsters to peer into tidal pools for shells, clams and tiny sea creatures. Follow up with a visit to Morningstar Farm to meet the animals and pick up a litre of grass-fed, whole milk from Canada’s first coin-operated milk-on-tap dispenser. Archie will also love the always-hungry goats grazing on the grass-covered roof at The Old Country Market at Coombs, about 10 minutes away.
Go wild at Port Renfrew
Want beauty and seclusion? Known as the Tall Trees Capital of Canada, Port Renfrew on Port San Juan is at the end of the road on the west side of Vancouver Island, about two hours from Victoria. Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages front a private rock beach at San Juan Bay, with cozy propane firepits for evening snuggling. The Renfrew Pub at the end of the dock has local craft beers and excellent B.C. seafood chowder. Summer whale watching tours with Orca Spirit leave from the resort. Explore tidal pools filled with colourful marine life at low tide in nearby Botanical Beach in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. The trees here are the superstars, including the giants in an old-growth stand called Avatar Grove.
Whales, whales, whales
There are several whale-watching tour companies based around Victoria to spot plenty of marine life, including black-and-white orcas, gray, humpback and minke whales in their natural habitats. Sea lions, seals and porpoises can also be seen on these tours. Tourism Victoria has information and links to tour providers but Harry and Meghan might have a soft spot for Prince of Whales.
Tea time: The Fairmont Empress Hotel vs. Abkhazi Garden
A Victoria tradition since 1908, the upscale tea service in the Lobby Lounge of The Fairmont Empress Hotel across from Victoria’s Inner Harbour includes savouries and pastries made with locally sourced ingredients, teas and the option to splash out on a glass of Champagne. Tea comes with a royal love story at Abkhazi Garden, a hidden gem in a residential Victoria neighbourhood. Shanghai-born Peggy Pemberton-Carter and exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi met in Paris in 1922. Separated by the Second World War, they reunited in 1946, married and settled in Victoria, turning the acre around their home into a lush garden that reflected their travels. It became known as “the garden that love built.” Their former home is now a tea house, where you can have afternoon tea overlooking the garden.
Canada’s only estate-grown tea
Westholme Tea Farm is Canada’s only tea plantation, about two hours from Victoria in the lush Cowichan Valley near Duncan. In the cozy tea room, sip from tea ware by ceramic artist Margit Nellemann, who runs Westholme with her husband, Victor Vesely. He grows and blends the teas and leads tours of the farm. “It’s a perfect place for Royals, or former Royals,” says Vesely. Visitors can walk among the 800 bushes in the tea terraces, then choose from a sizable menu of teas to sip or buy, including Westholme’s estate-grown green tea. New this year is estate-grown Heron’s Wing, a black tea Vesley describes as a rich, deep and earthy English-style tea with hints of Chinese tea and a uniquely Canadian flavour. Sounds like the perfect sip for a pair of former Royals.
Take a hike
Harry and Meghan hit the trails at Horth Hill Regional Park to enjoy views of the Gulf Islands and along the treed Saanich Peninsula, home to wineries and rolling farmland. A Victoria couple say Meghan snapped their photo when they failed at their selfie attempts. Meghan was spotted taking baby Archie and the couple’s dogs for a walk there.
A world’s-end vibe, rocky trails, beach walks, hikes along Pacific Rim National Park and views of the never-still wild surf make Pacific coast gem Tofino the ultimate spot for seclusion seekers like Harry and Meghan. An inspired and creative, hyper-local food scene heavy on foraged delicacies sets Tofino and sister community Ucluelet apart. Cuddle up at the Wickaninnish Inn in winter for some serious storm watching on sandy Chesterman Beach. But Meghan, a self-described “California girl” might prefer to ride the surf over watching. Surf Sister Surf School in Tofino has an all-women squad of instructors to give the Duchess a refresher. Harry can join her for a two-person private lesson for $269. “For people who get really stoked,” there’s an option to add a second class, says instructor Liz Coull. Students can expect to be able to stand up on the board and surf a shallow wave with their first lesson, she says. Classes run year-round, depending on weather.
Royal watchers say it’s always gin o’clock at Buckingham Palace. The Windsors seem to have a generations-long fondness for the botanically flavoured spirit. Same goes on Vancouver Island, where craft distillers are making their mark (they’re also open for tours and tastings). Victoria Distillers in Sidney makes deep-blue gin Empress 1908 in collaboration with the Fairmont Empress Hotel. Dried butterfly pea flowers give the gin its colour, turning cocktails pale mauve when the gin is mixed with something acidic, like tonic. Ampersand Distilling Co. in Duncan draws raves for its signature Ampersand Gin. Sheringham Distillery in Sooke won world’s best contemporary gin for its Seaside Gin, made from natural botanicals and local winged kelp. Its Kazuki Gin includes green tea leaves and flowers from Westholme Tea Farm. New Bright Light Alt-Gin Lumette is alcohol-free.
Get to the Point No Point
The drive along the southwest coast of Vancouver Island on Highway 14 to Sooke is a gorgeous ocean-side route. About an hour from Victoria, Harry and Meghan could find the seclusion and nature they crave at Point No Point Resort. There are binoculars on each table in the dining room so guests can look for whales, eagles and otters over lunch or dinner. Get the code for the locked gate from the desk and take one of the forested paths down to a private beach and watch the surf or explore tidal pools at low tide. There are 25 cozy cabins for rent overlooking the beach with ocean-view hot tubs. With no phones and no WiFi, this is a place to get away from it all. Employee Rebecca Stauffer says the four-bedroom Bridge House is isolated and has “incredible ocean views.” Sounds ideal for a Duke and Duchess retreat.