A cool breeze blows through the group assembled in Bastion Square, but it's more than the wind that makes them shiver. "Victoria is believed to be the most haunted city in British Columbia," says John Adams, historian and tour guide for Ghostly Walks. He points to the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, once the city's courthouse, and notes that "the hanging judge" Matthew Baillie Begbie presided over many trials here. Apparently, he's reticent to leave his post. "Some people hear a gavel hitting a bench, and merchandise occasionally floats around the gift shop," Adams tells the slightly spooked crowd. Afterward, if they're brave enough, they can head inside the museum for haunted tours, slated for October 21-23 and 28-30.
Ghost hunting is a popular pastime in the weeks before Halloween. While visitors may opt to search for spirits on Government Street in Old Town or in Chinatown's Fan Tan Alley, they'll likely feel more secure when accompanied by a guide like Adams. His 90-minute Ghostly Walks comb the haunted alleys and courtyards of the city's downtown core during September and October, as part of the Ghosts of Victoria Festival.
And more spine-tingling adventures are on tap. Ghost Bus Tours, offered by the Old Cemeteries Society from October 22-28, take the unflinching on a two-hour coach ride through Victoria's spookiest neighbourhoods. Spirits are likely to enjoy the spotlight during tours of Hatley Castle on October 29 and 30. One member of the family of former owners of the castle, James Dunsmuir Jr., may rise out of the lake in the Japanese Garden. Serene in the warm glow of rich reds, yellows and oranges, the foliage adds atmosphere to the eerie tales of the tour leaders.
Though ghosts may roam freely throughout the year, fall is a great time to search for them in the provincial capital. More relaxed and slightly cooler, the season is ideal for enjoying Victoria's bounty. The city's lofty deciduous trees are ablaze with the fiery colours of autumn, contrasting with the constancy of the evergreens. Indian summer often courses through September and early October, providing the perfect backdrop to a wealth of activities.
Fall fun isn't just confined to the city centre and close environs. It also moves north into the Cowichan Valley. Recognized for the quality of their output, wineries abound in the region, located about 45 minutes from Victoria. Locally-grown produce and meat products, complemented by fine wines, will be featured at the 1st Annual Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival, running from September 30 to October 2. Each winery is scheduled to offer unique activities and tastings. Most are free or require a nominal fee. Original music and art will set the mood and round out the festivities.
Got a passion for mushrooms? Don your hiking boots and rain gear and join the Great Fall Mushroom Hunt, departing from the Aerie Resort every Saturday from September 10 until October 22. Up to 15 people will be driven to mushroom-growing areas near the hotel. They'll trek through the forest with expert forager, Benedictine monk Brother Michael, who will point out and pick edible delicacies including chanterelles, lobsters and morels. Then it's back to the hotel, where the harvest is incorporated into a three-course lunch.
Later in the month on October 23, Victoria wineries and local foods are in focus during the Saanich Peninsula Harvest Tour. Accompanied by a chef and a culinary specialist, guests will embark on a wine and produce tasting tour and cooking demonstration, culminating in a four-course gourmet dinner prepared with ingredients harvested during the tour. Chef Simon Manvell of Dock 503 and Kathy McAree of Travel with Taste Tours will pick up participants and return them, happy and well-fed, to their starting point.
Now that you're full, you may be ready to explore the mysterious salmon spawning ritual, a highlight of fall in Victoria. At Goldstream Provincial Park, just 20 minutes from downtown Victoria, one of nature's most dramatic events unfolds amid the rainforest mist. Between October and December, thousands of salmon struggle from the ocean to the Goldstream River to spawn, in the spot where their lives began. Visitors can walk along the banks of the river to view the fish while they battle exhaustion to reach their goal. To learn the full story, check in at the Nature House.
Those wanting a close encounter as these hardy creatures rush to spawn can "Snorkel with the Salmon" with Paradise Found Adventure Tours. Located in Campbell River, 265 kilometres (165 miles) north of Victoria, the company leads participants through shallow pools and slow running water in the Campbell River to witness the migration and spawning habits of Coho, Steelhead, Chum, Chinook and Pink salmon. Real adventure enthusiasts will delight in the opportunity to run the rapids on a second plunge into the river.
After all that, you may be ready for another attempt at tracking down ghosts in the heart of historic Victoria.
Ghostly Walks (250) 384-6698; discoverthepast.com
Maritime Museum of British Columbia (250) 385-4222; mmbc.bc.ca
Ghost Bus Tours (250) 953-2033
Hatley Park 1-866-241-0674; hatleypark.ca
Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival 1-888-303-3337; wine.cowichan.net
The Aerie Resort 1-800-518-1933; aerie.bc.ca
Dock 503 (250) 656-0828
Travel With Taste Tours (250) 385-1527; travelwithtaste.com
Paradise Found Adventure Tours 1-800-897-2872; paradisefound.bc.ca
written by Maureen Licata
photos by Phil Ives