Nestled among the Gulf Islands on the western shores of British Columbia lies Vancouver Island, home to some of the most scenic vistas and drives in Canada. What better place to enjoy panoramic ocean views, world-class gardens, forests, and majestic mountains than seated behind the wheel of one of these classics: a ’60 C1, a ’62 fuelie, a ’63 split-window, an ’87 C4, an ’03 Z06, and an ’05 C6 convertible? Before we start our engines, bear in mind that this tour includes a retired police sergeant, so we’ll have to behave—or at least try.
Beginning in Victoria, explore on foot the city’s bustling Inner Harbour with its pricey yachts, seaplanes, causeway buskers, and the famed Empress Hotel—an Edwardian-style chateau where high tea is aptly served in Victorian elegance. But be forewarned: Tea at the Empress, with its tasty delights on silver-tiered servers, draws hundreds daily and requires reservations a week in advance. A stay at the Empress—whispered to be connected to Saudi royalty—is considered the province of the elite.
In the Inner Harbour, sample cuisine al fresco, watching crowds gather ’round your ride. This is the “City of Gardens,” the country’s best-kept secret. Signature flower baskets grace lampposts of nearly every park and neighborhood. Year-round fair weather and blossoming flowers make this island perfect for top-down touring, sight-seeing, and collecting classic cars.
Just minutes from the Harbour is Ogden Point, located south of downtown Victoria. Its towering cruise ships contrast sharply with the expansive ocean vistas, surrounding islands, and mountains—which are stunning by helicopter, seaplane, or aboard a whaling boat. If you want a cappuccino-dessert break, Ogden Point Café provides panoramic ocean views. (While the restaurant proper hasn’t earned rave reviews, the coffee and cake will suffice while taking in the seascape.)
This region was recently renamed the Salish Sea to honor the traditional territories of Canada’s First Nations indigenous peoples. As you stroll along the causeway, note the hand-painted Aboriginal images, featuring a variety of land and sea creatures common to the West Coast. Traditionally, these markings symbolize family unity, honesty, generosity, and respect.
Another hidden treasure worthy of your time is Fisherman’s Wharf—not exactly San Francisco, but a working harbor amongst an eclectic village of gingerbread floating homes. Small crab and prawn fleets haul in their catch daily, and you can feed the spoiled seals directly from the wharf. Be sure to make them perform for their supper! Or satisfy your own taste buds with fresh seafood right off the boats.
Anxious to get here? Bring your favorite ride aboard the M.V Coho, the 90-minute vehicle ferry that links Port Angeles, Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula, with downtown Victoria. Drive directly off the ferry at the Inner Harbour, which is where our tour begins amidst horse-drawn carriages and double-decker buses. Add a stream of classic Corvettes to the milieu, and you’re bound to get looks. Folks, start your engines.
Leaving downtown, drive north up Government Street, past Chinatown’s crimson-red “Gate of Harmonious Interest,” with its Yin Yang theme of the Golden Dragon and Red Phoenix. Chinatown, founded in 1858, spans about six blocks. Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, was once home to opium dens, gambling houses, and brothels, but it now plays host to a variety of eclectic shops and a thriving marketplace. With this convoy of Corvettes at our command, let’s throttle ahead into the countryside. Take Douglas Street, titled after the town’s founder, north to Highway 1 and up the winding Malahat mountain pass, named for some of the province’s first inhabitants, the Malahat First Nation.
The Malahat climb begins at Goldstream Provincial Park on Hwy 1 and becomes a famously steep route over the 1,155-foot summit to Mill Bay, where we’ll catch a small passenger ferry. The Malahat is the only major route linking Greater Victoria to the rest of Vancouver Island. Completed in 1911, this stretch of road is notorious for its sharp, abrupt curves and winding descent—definitely not the place to open it up and listen to the exhaust. Police patrol this route regularly, as the scenic vistas can distract drivers from monitoring the road’s many quick twists and turns. Up ahead we’ll relax our grip on the wheel and turn off at the second lookout. Binoculars and cameras are a must. If you want your car in the picture, be prepared for crowd control: the Corvettes’ curves gathered as much attention from sightseers as did the mountain seascapes.
In the far distance, below the lookout, the Mill Bay ferry arrives and departs like a water spider. This is our next stop.
The route is sometimes advertised by B.C. Ferries as, “The Island’s Most Beautiful Shortcut,” as it provides an alternative to the mountainous Malahat Highway into Victoria. The route is unique as well, as it’s the oldest operating ferry trip on the coast. The ferry is also the slowest in the fleet, but one hardly notices during the scenic 20-minute trip across the inlet.
As we descend down the open highway, the temptation to pull through the gears is irresistible. My mirror captures a flash of bright yellow sweeping the curves behind me, as the C5 Z06 locks onto my tail. Echoing in my mind are the words of its pilot, police sergeant Doug Oakley, who says, “I love a high-speed chase. Not on the streets, but on the ’strip where it belongs.” Thanks, Doug. Easing off, our convoy gracefully glides into the ferry terminal.
The quaint Mill Bay Ferry operates on a cash-only basis—no credit cards. The weekend of our arrival coincides with the retirement of the present ship after 55 years of service. We are greeted onboard by VIPs and a camera crew while hundreds gather on the far shore to welcome the ferry’s final voyage. Jim Sloan, owner of the ’60 Corvette, appreciated the poignant moment. “This is a fitting end to an era. These Corvettes have been on the road about the same length of time this vessel has been in service. What a way to celebrate on a sunny day!”
Regrouping, we depart Mill Bay cruising east to Highway 17, called Pat Bay Highway by locals. Our destination is north to the town of Sidney, a relaxed seaside community 10 minutes away. Known as Sidney-by-the-Sea, this town is home to unique clothing shops, art galleries, cafés, bookstores, and restaurants. The main street leads to a charming marina peppered with masts and sails, the state-of-the-art Ocean Discovery Centre, and a seawalk. You’ll want to stretch your legs here. It gives tourists a chance to admire your ride while you drink in the awesome ocean views of Mount Baker—the most heavily glaciated volcano in Washington State.
Just north of Sidney at Swartz Bay, more ferries take tourists and drivers to the surrounding Gulf Islands or Vancouver on the mainland. The Washington State Ferry departs Sidney carrying passengers and cars to Anacortes, 80 miles north of Seattle, another scenic tour south from the U.S. port to Highway 20, over Deception Pass Bridge to Whidby Island. Along this route, numerous quaint towns dot the shores of Puget Sound and attract a steady stream of visitors from B.C. and surrounding states. This is a popular driver’s destination.
No visit to Victoria would be complete without stopping at world-renowned Butchart Gardens, just 15 minutes south of Sidney, with its stunning array of blossoms and meandering flora. Pathways lead through fragrant rose gardens, fountains, and the peaceful Japanese and Italian gardens, with their multiple themes and floral displays from across the globe.
Summer nights feature fireworks and musical entertainment in the open air. It’s hard to imagine that this paradise arose from an exhausted lime pit in 1904. The owner’s enterprising wife, Jennie Butchart, had a magical vision: haul tons of topsoil by horse and cart for the floor of the quarry, then, using the Butchart family’s international travels as inspiration, procure gardens and lighting displays from around the world. Today, Butchart Gardens attracts a million visitors per year.
Pulling away from the gardens, slalom south along winding West Saanich Road back to Victoria and the Inner Harbour. If it happens to be Saturday night around 6 p.m., veer into the open-air event at Francelli’s near Royal Oak Shopping Centre, where all summer long classic car lovers appreciate the passion that goes into owning a sports car, hot rod, or other timeless classic. Join the impromptu gathering and share stories with the like-minded, and be prepared to make new friends. As dusk settles in, join their tour to the Inner Harbour and Ogden Point, where the cruise ships dock, and passengers gather high on the decks of these behemoths to ogle the procession of classic cars snaking through the Harbour in the setting sun.
After the day’s scenic drive through the south Island, look to your next adventure. Beautiful British Columbia has lots to offer the motoring enthusiast, and your discovery has just begun. Whistler Mountain, anyone?
Corvettes on the Tour
Garry Foster (www.encomm.ca) is a freelance writer and photographer with a passion for fine automobiles. He lives in Victoria, B.C.