A Provincial Park, a Native Village & a Few Wineries

A short drive north from Victoria along the Island Highway takes you to the spots discussed below. The drive -- along the ocean, up over the Malahat mountains, and then through the beautiful Cowichan Valley -- can be completed in one leisurely day.

Goldstream Provincial Park -- This quiet little valley overflowed with prospectors during the 1860s gold-rush days. Trails take you past abandoned mine shafts and tunnels, as well as 600-year-old stands of towering Douglas fir, lodgepole pine, red cedar, indigenous yew, and arbutus trees. The Gold Mine Trail leads to Niagara Creek and the abandoned mine that was operated by Lt. Peter Leech, a royal engineer who discovered gold in the creek in 1858. The Goldstream Trail leads to the salmon spawning areas. (You might also catch sight of mink and river otters racing along this path.)

For general information on Goldstream Provincial Park and all other provincial parks on the South Island, contact BC Parks at tel. 250/391-2300 or check www.bcparks.ca. Throughout the year, Goldstream Park's Freeman King Visitor Centre (tel. 250/478-9414) offers guided walks, talks, displays, and programs geared toward kids but interesting for adults, too. Open daily 9am to 4:30pm. Take Highway 1 about 30 minutes north of Victoria. Note:BC government cutbacks have significantly reduced the number of events and services in most provincial parks. There is a C$3 day-use parking fee at Goldstream.

Three species of salmon (chum, chinook, and steelhead) make annual salmon runs up the Goldstream River during October, November, December, and February. You can easily observe this natural wonder along the riverbanks. Contact the park's visitor center for details.

Quw'utsun' Cultural & Conference Centre -- The main reason for visiting the town of Duncan is to see the Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre (200 Cowichan Way; tel. 877/746-8119 or 250/746-8119; www.quwutsun.ca). Created by the Cowichan People, the center brings First Nations culture to visitors in a way that's commercially successful yet still respectful of native traditions.

Longhouses along the crystal-clear Cowichan River give you an idea of the lodgings and ceremonial structures built by the aboriginal tribes who have lived in the area for thousands of years. Totem poles placed throughout the grounds represent traditional stories and legends. Master and apprentice carvers create poles, masks, and feasting bowls in workshops open to the public; the traditional Cowichan art of knitting sweaters is also demonstrated. Original tools, clothing, and pictures are on display and a film presents an oral history of the Cowichan culture. A large gift shop in the complex sells native-made carvings, crafts, jewelry, clothing, silk-screen prints, and other items. You can enjoy authentic native foods (salmon, oysters, and venison) at the River Walk Café. The center, gift shops, and River Walk Café are open June through September, Monday through Saturday, 10am to 4pm. Admission is C$13 adults, C$10 seniors and children 13 to 18, and C$8 children 5 to 12.

The Duncan-Cowichan Visitor Info Centre is at 381 Trans-Canada Hwy., Duncan (tel. 888/303-3337). During July and August, it's open daily from 9am to 6pm; September through June, hours are Monday through Saturday 9am to 3pm.

The Cowichan Valley Wineries -- The vintners of gorgeous agricultural Cowichan Valley have gained a solid reputation for producing fine wines. Several of the wineries offer 1-hour tours -- a great introduction for novices. They usually include a tasting of the vintner's art, as well as a chance to purchase bottles or cases of your favorites. (A great gift idea because you will not find any of these wines outside British Columbia.)

Cherry Point Vineyards (840 Cherry Point Rd., Cowichan; tel. 250/743-1272; www.cherrypointvineyards.com), looks like a slice of California's Napa Valley. The wine-tasting room and gift shop are open year round, daily from 10am to 5pm. From May through September, you can have lunch at the on-site bistro (main courses about C$15). Blue Grouse Estate Winery (4365 Blue Grouse Rd., Duncan; tel. 250/743-3834; www.bluegrousevineyards.com) is a smaller winery that began as a hobby. April through September, it's open for tastings and on-site purchases Wednesday through Sunday (Oct–Dec Wed–Sat, Jan–Mar Sat only) 11am to 5pm. Merridale Ciderworks, located just south of Cowichan Bay at 1230 Merridale Rd. (tel. 250/743-4293; www.merridalecider.com), is worth a stop to taste their artisan ciders or for lunch at their bistro. Be sure to stroll the orchard (especially in Apr when blossoms are in their full glory), and watch for wood nymphs and fairies along the way. Open daily 10:30am to 4:30pm; bistro is Wednesday through Sunday, noon to 3pm.

Cowichan Bay (off Hwy. 1, south of Duncan) is a pleasant half-hour drive from the wine country. Just southeast of Duncan, Cowichan Bay is a pretty little seaside town with a view of the ocean and a few attractions such as a glass-blowing studio and the acclaimed gallery of First Nations artist Arthur Vickers (his brother Roy Vickers has a gallery in Tofino). The Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre (1761 Cowichan Bay Rd., Cowichan Bay; tel. 250/746-4955; www.classicboats.org) is a unique museum where boats are displayed in special pods seen from atop an old, picturesque pier that stretches out into the bay. It's open daily 9am to dusk; admission is by donation.

Star Gazing

One of the best places to view Victoria is from the top of Observatory Hill in the municipality of Saanich. Until 2013, it was also the best place in the city to view the stars. This is where you’ll find the century-old Dominion Astrophysical Observatory, a National Historic Site of Canada that was up until the 1960s one of the most important astrophysical research centers in the world. When the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada built the observatory between 1914 and 1918, its 72-inch aperture telescope was designed to be the largest in the world. Over the following decades many crucial discoveries were made here. Even after it was eclipsed by bigger and better observatories, its public interpretive center was a popular and informative attraction, especially for school kids. Then, in 2013, the federal government closed down the public facility, apparently for economic reasons. There are petitions to reopen it, and plans to hold some public events here during the summer months. Meanwhile, you can still watch the stars from the top of the hill. They’re just a little farther out of reach. Observatory Hill and the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory are at 5071 West Saanich Rd., tel. 250/363-0001; www.victoria.rasc.ca/observing/observatory.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.