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The beautiful city of Victoria is a big favourite of photographers with its picturesque wharf, charming downtown, wide range of parks and outstanding beaches. What isn’t as well known, however, is that there are also two exceptional castles in Victoria BC (which is why we somehow felt that old royalty cliche was appropriate for a title). Both castles have fascinating histories, one has some notable pop culture fame and, of course, both are pretty impressive to look at.
Hatley Castle: The Best of the Two Castles in Victoria
Situated on a lush green hill overlooking the fabulous Esquimalt Lagoon, the Juan de Fuca Strait and the Olympic Mountains of Washington, Hatley Castle is one of the most magnificent buildings in British Columbia.
Hatley Castle History
Completed in 1908, Hatley Castle was the brainchild of coal baron James Dunsmuir, formerly the Premier of British Columbia and, at the time the castle was built, Lieutenant Governor of the province. Considered the richest man in British Columbia, Dunsmuir apparently told local architect, Samuel Maclure, that “money doesn’t matter, just build what I want”. Happy to oblige, Maclure used all local stone to design the elegant exterior, then spared no expense inside, featuring teak floors, oak and rosewood panelled rooms, a baronial fireplace and custom light fixtures.
When it was all said and done, the castle cost over $1 million dollars to build, which is the equivalent of roughly $23 million today. Needless to say, the Dunsmuir family moved in as soon as the castle was completed. While James died in 1920, his wife, Laura, and daughter, Eleanor, remained in the castle until they both died within 6 months of each other in 1937 and 1938. After three years in the hands of a caretaker, the government purchased the castle for just $75,000 ($1.3 million today) and converted it to a Naval Training Establishment then, not long after, an Officer Training Establishment. In 1995, Royal Roads Military College was shut down, replaced by Royal Roads University, with Hatley Castle as its administrative centre, which remains its main function today. The inside is only open to the public via guided tour but anyone can explore the grounds for free.
Hatley Castle Museum
There is a small museum in the basement of the castle that is open daily from 10:15 am to 3 pm. The entrance is located off the rear driveway next to the garden alongside public washrooms and a gift shop. The museum features a diverse array of artifacts spanning from the property’s time as a Coastal Salish Indian burial site to its current incarnation as part of the Royal Roads University campus. There is no entrance fee but tips are appreciated and guided tours are available for a fee.
Hatley Castle Gardens
There are three separate gardens surrounding Hatley Castle, which many people consider the highlights of their visit. The public is free to roam throughout each of the unique Italian, Japanese and Rose gardens, as well as the path surrounding the photogenic pond, where ducks, turtles and herons are commonly spotted. There are also many Canadian geese that frequent the grounds and three bright peacocks that can usually be found surrounded by amateur photographers.
General access through the Garden Booth is only allowed between 12 and 4 pm and, for obvious reasons, dogs aren’t allowed in the gardens.
Hatley Castle Hikes
Of course, no grand castle would be complete without being surrounded by way too much land (the traditional buffer between the rich and their subjects), so it’s no surprise that the Hatley Castle grounds include over 560 acres of gorgeous old-growth forest. The enormous Douglas fir, cedar, Sitka spruce, arbutus and hemlock also feature several kilometres of well-maintained walking trails to enjoy.
On the east side of the castle, just across the road, Charlie’s Trail leads down the hill along a pretty little creek full of small waterfalls. Toward the bottom you can follow a connecting trail further east for some of the very best views of Esquimalt Lagoon.
On the far west side of the castle, the Hatley park has more nice trails leading up to some pleasant residential areas. The trail along Bee Creek leads to the “Magna Carta tree”, which is estimated to be 800 years old and is over 2 metres across.
Hatley Castle in TV and Film
Perfectly fitting the classic idea of an oceanfront mansion, Hatley Castle has starred in a long list of movies and TV shows over the years. It served as the School for Gifted Youngsters (i.e. mutants) in the X-Men movies, and was mocked for it in Deadpool (we almost recreated this scene for a photo but then a family came along and I was too embarrassed to lie down on the steps). It has been Luthor Mansion in Smallville, the family mansion in Fierce People and the Queen Mansion in Arrow. It also appeared in Descendants, The Boy, The Killing and, like every aging star, eventually made its reality TV debut in UnREAL (fictionally, but reality shows are a slippery slope).
How to Get to Hatley Castle
Follow the Trans-Canada (#1) to the Colwood turnoff (#1A) and follow that southwest for 3.5 kilometres until you see the sign for Royal Roads University on your left (along with the castle looming in the background).
Craigdarroch Castle: The Second-Best Castle in Victoria BC
Stately and graceful, extraordinary Craigdarroch Castle occupies a commanding location overlooking the city of Victoria. It is considered a classic example of Victorian architecture, the two names only related in the vague way that practically everything was named after the queen in those days. It is known for its expensive granite walls, magnificent stained-glass windows, intricate woodwork, imported tile and precious antiques. It boasts 39 rooms and covers over 25,000 square feet. It is worth climbing the 87 steps to the top of the grand oak staircase to the Tower where you can enjoy one of the best views in all of Victoria. It was originally surrounded by a 28-acre garden estate but that has long since been turned into residential properties.
Craigdarroch Castle History
Commissioned by Robert Dunsmuir, father of James, Craigdarroch Castle actually predates Hatley by almost 20 years (completed in 1890). A Scottish immigrant who got rich on Vancouver Island coal, it is estimated Robert spent close to $500,000 on this glorious baronial mansion (roughly $14 million in today’s dollars). It is sometimes referred to as a “bonanza castle” – extravagant mansions built by newly rich entrepreneurs of the industrial age. Unfortunately for Robert, he didn’t even live to see it finished, dying in 1889.
Causing great controversy at the time, his sons James and Alex were left out of his will (as were his 8 daughters, although they are rarely named and no one seemed concerned about their snub). His wife, Joan, received everything and remained in the castle until she died in 1908 (famously suing her Premier son at one point along the way).
After she died, the castle and estate were sold to land speculator Griffith Hughes for just $38,000 (less than a million dollars today, representing a pretty tidy loss). Hughes then subdivided the estate and raffled off the castle to drum up interest in the parcels of land. Alas, the winner, Solomon Cameron, would own it for less than a decade before going bankrupt and losing the now heavily mortgaged property to the bank.
From that time on, Craigdarroch Castle has served as a military college, Victoria College, Victoria Schoolboard Office and the Victoria Conservatory of Music until being converted into today’s incarnation of a historical museum in 1979. The former grounds are now part of the city’s affluent Rockland neighbourhood.
Craigdarroch Castle Tours
Today the castle is run by a non-profit committed to its ongoing restoration. All visitors are provided with a tour in a choice of 10 different languages (or English). The tours last about an hour and must be reserved in advance. Although the tours are self-guided, staff is available to answer questions.
The castle is open only Friday to Sunday from 10:30 am to 4 pm. Tours can be reserved for 10:30 / 11:30 / 1:30 / 2:30.
Admission (including tour):
5 and under: free
How to Get to Craigdarroch Castle
Located at 1050 Joan Crescent in Victoria, Craigdarroch Castle is just 20 minutes walk or a few minutes drive from downtown Victoria. Parking is fairly limited. Buses routes 11 and 14 stop on Fort Street at Joan Crescent, very close to the castle.
Cary Castle: A Castle No Longer
Yes, I know I said that Victoria had two castles, and now here I am bringing up a third. Well, that’s because Victoria used to have 3 castles, a very long time ago, but not anymore.
Cary Castle was built in 1859, then in 1865 it was purchased to be used as the residence of the Governor of Vancouver Island. It enjoyed three good decades or so as a celebrity residence before being destroyed by fire in 1899. The castle itself was never rebuilt but was replaced by the Government House, which is a National Historic Site and home of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.
However, the original gardens can still be visited, offering tremendous views over the city. You can also stop for lunch, tea and pastries at the Tea House in Butterworth Cottage and visit the Costume Museum in the Carriage House.
How to Get to the Government House
Just three blocks from Craigdarroch Castle, it is a brisk walk or short drive from downtown and there is plenty of free parking on site. You can also take buses 11 or 14 to the Fort Street / Joan Crescent stop and walk down from there.
Other Places to Visit in and Around Victoria
Once you are finished visiting the castles in Victoria British Columbia there is a long list of other places to add to your list. Directly in front of Hatley Castle, you’ll find Esquimalt Lagoon, a scenic bird sanctuary and popular walking beach. Fort Rodd Hill and Fisgard Lighthouse ($8 per person for both, or free with a Discovery Pass) are just up the road, and a second important estuary, Witty’s Lagoon, is only about a 10-minute drive west from Esquimalt. Along with yet more birds, it also features picturesque Sitting Lady Falls, spectacular Tower Point, lots of harbour seals and is popular with skimboarders.
In Goldstream Provincial Park you can visit the unbelievable Niagara Falls, just a 10-minute walk from the recreation area parking lot. A little farther up a second trail is the Goldstream Trestle, another impressive structure, although keep in mind there are no safety railings on this one.
Mount Work Regional Park offers great mountain biking, two exceptional viewpoints and three different lakes that are popular for fishing and swimming.
The Sooke Potholes are a series of interesting rapids, pools and small waterfalls on the Sooke River. They are actually at their most scenic in the summer when the river is lower because in the rainy season the water gets up so high that the “potholes” actually disappear. Nearby Mary Vine Creek waterfall, on the other hand, is at its roaring, frothing best after a big rain.
There are a lot of scenic hiking trails in East Sooke Park, with the East Sooke Coast Trail, in particular, considered by many (including us) to be one of the best day hikes in British Columbia.
Beaches Along the Coast
If you have enough time to explore more of the amazing southern coast of the Vancouver Island, there is a long string of terrific beaches west of Sooke. Family-friendly French Beach has a great picnic and play area, while quiet Sandcut Beach is known for its adorable little beach waterfall. Jordan River is a hardcore surfing spot but there is also a decent beach at low tide. Farther along you can check out beautiful China Beach or tackle the rugged 4 km hike to visit a much larger beach waterfall at Mystic Beach. Surfer favourite Sombrio Beach features a spectacular hidden waterfall and next to Port Renfrew you will find the superb tide pools of Botanical Beach.
Castles in Victoria Summary
Relatively young as far as nations go, Canada does not have the large number of decades-old castles, forts and mansions you often find in other parts of the world. Which is why having even two impressive and intact castles is fairly noteworthy, and just another of the many reasons Victoria is such an intriguing west coast destination.
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