In winter, the Japanese gardens offer a serene stroll with colorful bridges, bronze wildlife statues and water features.
By Alison Gardner, Editor of Travel with a Challenge
Images courtesy of The Butchart Gardens, except where noted
When traveling almost anywhere in the world, you just have to say that you come from Victoria, Canada and the conversation quickly turns to The Butchart Gardens. Right up there with the Canadian Rockies and Niagara Falls as landmarks of the country, Butcharts (as we Victorians affectionately call it) has attracted multi-millions of visitors from virtually every corner of the planet. They come to marvel at this miracle of reclamation – from bleak limestone quarry and industrial cement factory at the turn of the 20th century to one of the world’s most famous and inspiring gardens.
My husband grew up on the edge of this stunningly-landscaped 55-acre property. For him six decades ago, it was just there, a tempting year round playground whether you and your friends slithered undetected through a hole in the tall, dense hedges or you strolled with much less challenge through the official entrance with a visiting relative from England or Australia.
A rare snowfall adds sparkle and magic to light displays.
I, on the other hand, was introduced to the gardens with suitable adult reverence for this ecological miracle. I first arrived with two young children who needed to race unrestrained along miles of pathways and an elderly Welsh Corgi who trotted on stubby legs in a more dignified manner. Particularly when the seething summer crowds took their leave, we reclaimed Butchart Gardens as “our” family domain thanks to the management’s practice at the time of giving local residents an annual pass after paying the first entry for the year.
The winter season always seemed most intriguing to me because, being Canadian, I had no expectation that a winter garden should look good, never mind fabulous. Yet along every path, around every lake and pool, and trailing over every precipice there were surprises, special plantings and thoughtful design, perhaps more intimate with the muted colour schemes of a largely dormant season. You had to pay attention. Then from December to early January each year, the “Christmas Time” illumination flashed into a dazzling color scheme creatively conjured as from an artist’s palate.
Conceived in 1987 as a way of keeping the large employee family of Butchart Gardens working during the normally slow winter season, the Christmas Time festivities now generate the second largest attendance after the peak summer period. For many around Victoria and Vancouver’s Lower Mainland, it has become a tradition to gather with friends and family, strolling through the gardens to check out this year’s original light designs and new displays.
Many stop to share a meal in the seasonally-decorated elegant formal dining room or in the spacious cafeteria-style Blue Poppy Restaurant whose broad-pillared spaces brim with hundreds of poinsettia plants of every shade imaginable. Hardly surprising, The Dining Room Restaurant’s traditional Christmas dinner with all the trimmings is sold out months in advance.
Brass quartets and choirs offer seasonal music that captures the Christmas spirit. Alison Gardner
Preparations for the “Christmas Time” theme festivities begin in September with a 16-member decoration crew who then start to create the actual displays in early October. Once in place, a lighting crew of eight people keep the light spectacular glowing every evening. Thanks to their diligence and that of other staff members who are also constantly on the lookout, visitors will be hard pressed to find a single dead bulb in the remarkable galaxy of color and light.
Former Butchart family mansion and current home of the gourmet Dining Room Restaurant.
The elegant Dining Room Restaurant overlooks winter light displays in two directions.
With almost non-stop entertainment both indoors and in the gardens, musical sing-a-longs, and participation activities for younger children, this is the ideal place to kick off the season. Now that my children have grown and flown, I find just as much pleasure sharing the festivities with elderly members of my large family. Serious Christmas shopping beckons at the Seed and Gift Store, a large well-designed space that is a feast for the eyes. Seasonal products, custom-made decorations and creatively-packaged preserves and other specialty food items make popular gifts.
Formerly a deeply scarred limestone quarry, the sunken gardens today offer a stunning Christmas light display.
The only outdoor skating rink on Vancouver Island became a seasonal addition in 2005.
Still very much a family business despite its megastar status, Butchart Gardens has had only four leaders in 103 years. When visionary garden founder, Jenny Butchart, and her entrepreneurial husband, Robert, gave the property to their grandson, Ian Ross, as a 21st birthday present in 1939, surely she could not have imagined what a legacy of all-season beauty that gift would become. Or perhaps she did….
Particularly when I am there in winter, singing carols among the lights and decorations of the cobbled court outside what used to be the Butchart family mansion, I can almost see and hear Jenny, well known for her boundless energy and generous spirit, welcoming thousands of people a year to her home and garden. Even in those early decades, she personally served up plates of homemade goodies and refreshments. Today, close to one million people visit the gardens each year to enjoy Jenny’s labor of love.
The Butchart Gardens, www.butchartgardens.com, are open every day of the year, including all holidays, from 9 a.m. [from 1 p.m. on Christmas Day]. Closing time depends on the season. Christmas Time lights and festivities run from December 1 to January 6.
Entry prices are reduced during late fall and winter months except during the 5-week Christmas Time season when there is full price day and evening admission [until 9 or 10 pm].
In 2005, an artificial ice outdoor skating rink became a popular addition to the Christmas display. With music and lights, and skates for rent, visitors are amazed to discover an old fashioned rink open to the skies and stars, a very unusual sight on Vancouver Island. In 2006, the gardens were named a National Historic Site of Canada.
Whether it’s a rainy day that calls for a little indoor diversion or just a case of traveler’s sore feet, IMAX Victoria Theatre is the perfect prescription for all ages. Presenting a variety of award-winning educational documentaries or a current first-run movie, the theatre’s six-storey-high screen and wrap-around sound system will leave you dazzled! Located on Victoria’s Inner Harbour next to the acclaimed Royal BC Museum. www.imaxvictoria.com
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.