Canadians love Victoria’s balmy winters

Going south to escape the winter is, paradoxically, as Canadian as West Coast sunsets, Rocky Mountains, Prairies, Anne of Green Gables and maple syrup.

The destinations are familiar — Arizona, Mexico, Florida — places where the sun shines and the living is easy, not to mention frost free.

But now there’s a new destination on the winter escape map — Victoria. Savvy snowbirds discovered the City of Gardens years ago. But in the last 10 years, Victoria has boomed as retirees opt to stay north of the 49th parallel and migrate to the mild West Coast winter for a long-term stay.

Snowbirds flock here
Rita Roy-Wilson, owner of Ramada Huntington Hotel and Suites was one of the first innkeepers to realize the potential of the seniors’ market. She began booking winter guests for a month or two at a time back in the 1970s.

“There was a slight decline in the 80s,” says Roy-Wilson, “when Canadian snowbirds were heading south of the border due to the favourable currency exchange.”

But the situation changed, she says, as health care, personal safety and exchange rate concerns became more important to tirees looking for a winter escape.

Snowbirds in Victoria from December to March — mostly from the Prairies and Ontario — can expect lots of attention in the form of free entertainment, social opportunities and service.

Lots of activities
Organized socials, teas, card and game nights, movie nights, and excursions around Victoria and up-island are all part of hotel offerings.

The Ramada Huntington Hotel and Suites will even organize your grocery shopping and make sure the fridge is stocked when you arrive.

The Royal Scot Suite Hotel offers optional overnight bus tours to Vancouver Island’s west coast for winter storm watching.

Good walking country
Edith and Ralph Starks had a bit of an inside track when they selected Victoria six years ago as their winter getaway from Prince Albert, Sask. Assigned to the weather forecasting section in Victoria during her stint in the air force in the ’40s, Edith knew what to expect when she and her husband chose Victoria for their annual escape.

“I love to walk,” says Edith, “especially down by the ocean. I go everyday.” They’re regulars at the Ramada Huntington and book their accommodation for the upcoming year before they leave.

Next page: Enjoys early spring

Enjoys early spring
Gord McLennan of Winnipeg adds a familiar refrain: “ We love the climate.”

The retired railroad engineer and his wife, Audrey, have been coming to Victoria since 1981. “ Our grandkids come over for the weekends from Vancouver, so it’s great.”

Gord enjoys the March golfing weather.

 “The idea is get a jump on spring in March here and then return to Winnipeg’s spring season in April,” says Gord.

Jean and Les Gooderham of Wiarton, Ont., have been coming to the West Coast since they retired in 1988. They say Victoria gives them the best of both worlds. They like the intimate size of the city, yet they can enjoy big-city amenities.

“We love to walk, eat in good restaurants and go to concerts,” says Jean. They also appreciate not having to pay an exchange rate.

Where to stay
March is the busiest month for long-stay guests wintering in Victoria. There are four main options in terms of location and type of accommodation:

  • The downtown inner harbour area
  • The upper Douglas Street area
  • The Gorge Waterway
  • Bed-and-breakfasts catering to long stays.

In addition, you may be able to arrange a short-term apartment rental or house-sitting in any number of locations throughout the city.

Go outside of Victoria and up Vancouver Island for plenty of other options. Generally, the rates in the downtown area, with many new facilities, are the highest.

The Gorge Waterway rates somewhat lower.

In just about all cases, the primary accommodation of choice is a small suite or studio with kitchen facilities.

Lower-priced units may be one room with a kitchenette. Higher-end units have a separate bedroom and maybe a small dining room.

Inner Harbour:
This prime location immediately adjacent to Victoria Harbour offers many water views and is only a few minutes from the seaside and downtown shopping.

Upper Douglas Street:  
Several motor hotels have medium-priced self-contained suites.

Gorge Waterway:  
Victoria Harbour is fed by the Gorge Waterway, a tidal canal that runs up into the northwestern section of Victoria.

This is the old motel village area that has been largely transformed into an apartment and condominium residential area. A number of motor hotels have refurbished suites. These include outside access and plenty of parking.

This is a popular area easily accessible to the downtown area by bus or car.

Bed and breakfasts: 
Victoria has dozens of B & Bs to serve the millions of visitors that come to the city annually.

Several cater to winter visitors with light housekeeping facilities. Many are located in residential neighbourhoods within a short walking distance to the sea, particularly those in the Fairfield and James Bay areas.

Next page: What to pay


What to pay
The cost of accommodation will vary widely, depending on location, size, studio versus separate bedroom.

Expect to pay anywhere from $900 to $3,000 a month. On average, $1,500 to $2,000 a month will get you a fully contained suite.

Expect cleaning and laundry service everywhere. An important service to seniors is the fact that many hotel staff have CPR and other first aid training and are ready to respond to medical emergencies with on-location oxygen.

Wheelchair accessibility is also common.

What to pack
As a temperate (sub-Mediterranean) climate region, the range of temperatures in Victoria is much lower than many parts of the country. This moderate difference in temperature range is largely the result of Victoria’s closeness to the Pacific Ocean.

Rain is common in the winter but there’s very little snow in the immediate Victoria area.

During winter months, winter boots and heavy coats are not usually necessary. That said, winter can bring exciting southeast gales.

Pack windbreakers, extra sweaters and fleece jackets. Raingear and umbrellas are mandatory.

Activities to do
Come prepared to enjoy walking, hiking, cycling, golf, sailing, kayaking, boating, whale watching and touring—fishing, too, without cutting a hole in the ice.

Without exaggeration, Victoria is easily one of the world’s great walking cities. In contrast with the rest of Canada, Victoria in the depths of winter is deep green.

And toward the end of February, say farewell winter and welcome spring with the Annual Flower Count, where residents and visitors report the number of blossoms they’ve counted.

Where to walk
One of the great pleasures for locals and visitors alike is walking along the ocean.

  • The Dallas Road Walk is surely one of the most scenic, with a view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the spectacular snow-covered Olympic Mountains of Washington State, and sea air that is guaranteed to make you feel like a kid again
  • Willows Beach and Cattle Point are on the east side of the city
  • Galloping Goose Trail for walking and cycling goes into the west and northern areas
  • The West Shore Walk travels from the downtown area around the Inner Harbour
  • Popular Beacon Hill Park, with its serene ambiance, rising topography and majestic views is an equally popular favourite.

If you’re looking for 20 C+ temperatures, sand between your toes and a pink umbrella in your drink, Victoria may not be for you.

But if you want an escape from winter, a walk along the ocean, the smell of the sea and incredible views—all in a perpetual garden setting—Victoria is the place to be when the snow flies.