Victoria, British Columbia is pretty damn close to Seattle--near the southern tip of Vancouver Island, at the mouth of Puget South--and thus was our last stop. We docked at 6 p.m. Friday night and had to be back on board by 11:30 p.m. because we were sailing at midnight, for a 7 a.m. arrival in Seattle. It's an odd time to arrive someplace and many tourist attractions were closed, but one that was open was Butchart Gardens, which my mother was all gaga to see. I tend to like fancy gardens and botanical museums myself, so I wasn't at all disappointed when she bought me and everyone else in our family a ticket to the place.
She insisted it was a world famous garden, and the fact that I had somehow managed never to hear of it seemed to little reason to contradict her. Getting there involved a 40-minute bus ride with an annoyingly chatty bus driver, but it was worth it. In fact, Butchart Gardens are amazing.
I can tell you now that while their website isn't all that impressive, the gardens themselves are. I don't feel equal to the task of trying to express how stunningly gorgeous this place is, and I'm also not going to paste in a photo, because none of them capture the place, either. (Also I'm too lazy, and if you really want to look at photos, you can visit the website.) It's not like some wild natural wonder--the Grand Canyon, for instance--because it's a carefully cultivated setting, an attempt to reclaim and beautify something human beings made ugly (in this case, an exhausted limestone quarry). It's the most beautiful human-made place I've ever been, and I've been lots of places, visited lots of palaces and fine houses with fancy grounds. None of them compare to this.
The place is aptly named Butchart Gardens, since it is not one garden but many. The excavated limestone quarry is now the site of an overwhelmingly beautiful sunken garden complete with a pond and fancy fountains, as well as a strange little mound (inferior limestone they didn't bother to excavate) in the center with a staircase you can climb for a spectacular view. There's a Japanese garden. There's a rose garden. There's a pretty house and a breathtaking view of Saanich Inlet. Then there are the plants themselves: really lovely specimens of flowers and shrubs and trees both exotic and common. I saw the coolest iris: white in the middle and pale lavender on the edges.
One thing that enhanced our visit was the weather: clear, calm and warm enough that you didn't need a jacket unless you were in the shade. Still, I have three regrets about my visit to the gardens: 1) we went late enough in the season that the bulbs were done blooming (I love tulips and the like); 2) we went early enough in the season that the roses hadn't really begun blooming; and 3) we only stayed two and a half hours. I would have been happy to wander that place all day.
The gardens began over 100 years ago as a project of Jenny Butchart, who from everything I've heard was a truly remarkable woman--unfortunately I haven't been able to find a decent bio of her on the web. The history of the place is cool, but what's coolest is the place itself. You should go. You should very, very definitely go to Butchart Gardens. I quite hope I manage to go back. Soon.