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Explore Victoria by pedal, foot or paddle to get a taste of local life

If you want to really stop and enjoy the galleries and tea shops, a hike is the way to go. Victoria for Travel story view-from-walbran-park.jpg

Kat Tancock/The Globe and Mail

Victoria is known for its many popular attractions: the photogenic Inner Harbour, the Robert Bateman Centre, the Royal British Columbia Museum, the famed Empress Hotel, the restaurants and shopping.

But as lovely as it is, Victoria residents don't spend every Sunday afternoon having tea at the Empress. They're too busy living up to their title as Canada's fittest city, exploring the spectacular natural setting – and the great food and drink – in their backyard.

Navigating B.C.'s capital by pedal, foot or paddle is not only the fit way to go, it's also the best way to get a taste of local life, and to discover less-touristy neighbourhoods. After hitting the downtown must-sees, I did just that and, even as a former resident, I found pockets of the city I hadn't seen before.

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Ready for your own DIY adventure triathlon? The three "stages" can be spread across your visit or, if you're feeling energetic, done in a single day.

Stage 1: Ride a bike

Victoria is a cyclist's friend: 11 per cent of residents bike to work, and 4 per cent of all trips in the city are made on two wheels, thanks in part to its year-round mild climate (with much less rain than Vancouver). Visiting cyclists may be surprised by the respectful, well-mannered way in which cars and bicycles share the roads.

To join the fun, stop in at the Pedaler, whose main outlet is one block east of the Inner Harbour. If you're feeling independent, simply rent a bike. All rentals come with a map, lock, helmet (mandatory in B.C.) and tips on where to go. Or take a guided half-day or full-day tour, with themes including coffee, beer, spirits, historical landmarks and family-friendly sights.

I tried the food-oriented, four-hour "Eat, drink, pedal" tour, an eight-kilometre loop that took us into the Fernwood neighbourhood and back via downtown. Food samples were generous, including delights such as pizza from Zambri's, small-batch ice cream sandwiches from Cold Comfort (try the cherry-rosemary ice cream between thin sheets of dacquoise), and a flight of Vancouver Island beer and cider from a downtown pub, The Guild.

Stage 2: Take a hike

Victoria is a prime spot for runners, and I spent an enjoyable sunny morning jogging along the oceanfront trail on Dallas Road, ending up on a quiet, rocky beach reached via a steep staircase.

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But if you want to really stop and enjoy the roses – and the galleries and tea shops – a walk is the way to go. So I donned sunglasses and Birkenstocks and headed for an exploratory hike from downtown to the southeastern community of Oak Bay, via Cook Street Village and Fairfield, two popular neighbourhoods.

My route took me through Beacon Hill Park, home to a native Garry oak meadow and a petting zoo complete with adorable baby pygmy goats, to afternoon tea at the gorgeous Abkhazi Garden – a one-acre, formerly private property that's now protected from development by a local land trust (and feels like a secret garden) – and along Beach Drive, where you'll find some of the city's prime real estate and the stunning oceanside Victoria Golf Club.

The highlight was a visit to hilltop Walbran Park. Although it's accessible by car via Denison Road, the best way to get there is to take the narrow staircase from King George Terrace, around the corner from Sunny Lane (it's easy to miss, so look for the sign). Climb the steep steps, cross the road, then clamber up on the rocks to get to the lookout tower. This is the highest point on this part of the coast, offering 360-degree views of the city, the Sooke hills in the distance and, across the border, Washington's Olympic Mountains.

Stage 3: Explore by kayak

I learned to kayak during a short stint as a member of the University of Victoria's kayaking club, during which I learned that white water isn't my drink of choice; I'm much happier paddling when flipping is only a remote possibility, not a sure thing. Happily, that's the case with tours by Ocean River Adventures, which also offers rentals of kayaks, canoes, standup paddle boards and related gear.

While tour options include downtown and the Inner Harbour, I continued my neighbourhood theme with a sunset paddle in the Oak Bay Islands Ecological Reserve. Trips depart from the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, where I met my guide, Lee. We headed out on the water from the dock in search of scenic views and wildlife.

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It was a beautiful summer Saturday evening and aside from a couple of canoeists looking for a good fishing spot, and a single yacht, we had the bay to ourselves. Paddling through unusually calm water (low winds, helpful tides) under a clear sky, we were able to see Washington's Mount Baker in the distance, more than 100 km away.

We pushed through a field of cable-like bull kelp, ripping off a frond for a taste, circled tiny islands dotted with sea birds and got close to a pack of curious harbour seals who kept popping up nearby. As the sun fell and the sky turned pink, we turned toward shore and I paused to breathe deeply and take it all in. "This is why I live here," Lee, an Ontario native, said with a big smile. "Why would I want to be anywhere else?"

The writer travelled with the assistance of Destination B.C. and Hotel Grand Pacific, neither of which reviewed or approved this article.

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