On a crisp spring morning, PK Stowers finds a lush corner of Vancouver Island

The trick, I am told, is to get to Butchart Gardens just before they open and be one of the first through the gates. That way you avoid the heat of the day and the worst of the crowds. Also the grounds are looking their best, having been cleaned thoroughly the evening before.

As recommendation go, I find this to be a good one. As I approach the turnstiles, I can see only a few people walking around and just one coach of tourists pulling up in the carpark. The day is beautiful and clear and after a quick walk around the visitor centre I meet my host for the day, the appropriately named Daphne Gardner.

She is one of the managers at the gardens and clearly loves her work. Although she must have shown thousands around the 22ha site, her enthusiasm and appreciation for what has been created here is infectious.

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Butchart gardens, Vancouver Island. Photo / Kyle Pearce
Butchart gardens, Vancouver Island. Photo / Kyle Pearce

"Jennie Butchart really got everything started in the early 1900s," says Gardner. "Before that this place was a limestone quarry run by her husband Robert, but once it became exhausted she begged him to let her turn it into a garden. He was reluctant at first but in 1909 gave in — she began the transformation."

The quarry became the sunken garden, one of the most famous features of a site that now attracts more than 1 million visitors a year. It is the first area we come to and looks amazing — even considering that it has been worked on and developed for more than 100 years. A large rock mound overlooks a deep quarry lake and at the far end is the Ross Fountain, whose water spouts 21m high by day and night.

The plants are a mixture of Canadian natives and rare, exotic shrubs and trees — often collected by the Butcharts during their world travels. Robert and Jennie died many decades ago, but the gardens have remained in their family and are currently owned and run by their great-granddaughter.

Next we look around the children's pavilion with its magnificent carousel, which features hand-carved wooden animals.

As we walk around the estate I am impressed to see that every corner is not filled with an ice-cream stand or souvenir display. Sure there is a gift shop and dining area by the main gate, but popular tourist attractions the world over seem to take every possible opportunity to sell you things. Here the focus is on the gardens and the estate is all the better for it. It is also spotlessly clean.

In peak season, Butchart Gardens employs several hundred gardeners to develop and maintain the popular attraction. Photo / Rick Graham
In peak season, Butchart Gardens employs several hundred gardeners to develop and maintain the popular attraction. Photo / Rick Graham

As we approach the rose garden I notice for the first time that different types of plants are labelled.

"We keep plant labels off the rest of the garden to keep it looking more harmonious, but for roses it is different," says Gardner.

"There is much more interest in the types on display and where they come from. Some of the varieties here are very old indeed and date back to the mid-1800s."

After the roses we make our way into my favourite section of the estate, the Japanese garden. Here the more formal pathway structure makes way for myriad smaller pathways working their way around small pools, ornamental bridges and water features. The Japanese garden is bordered to the north by Butchart Cove, a small harbour inlet where tourist boats and whale-watching tours drop off passengers for a few hours before heading back to sea.

As we make our way back up to main gates through the picturesque Italian gardens, I ask Gardner her favourite time of year at the gardens and receive a surprising reply.

"During December we have thousands of lights illuminating the garden to celebrate Christmas and to walk around in the early evening — it just feels so magical."

There are many kilometres of electrical cabling buried throughout the estate and each year designers add new features and illuminated displays. A large ice-skating rink for patrons is also added in front of the main visitor centre.

The Butchart Gardens has been designated as a National Historic Site of Canada. Photo / P.K. Stowers
The Butchart Gardens has been designated as a National Historic Site of Canada. Photo / P.K. Stowers

"We have people who come every December so it's always good to try to give people something new to marvel at. I mean, in the middle of winter there are nowhere near the amount of blooms and colour we have right now, but its such a beautiful time of year nonetheless."

And if you want to see the illuminations on Christmas Day, you are more than welcome to as Butchart Gardens is open every day.

"During summer we can have up to 300 people working here on most days, either in the gardens or helping the visitors. And every Saturday evening during summer there is a live music and a fireworks display."

As we make our way back to visitor centre I congratulate Gardner on the tasteful way the gardens seemed to have developed over the years. It's a beautiful set-up and new features are slowly being added even now, but carefully and with lots of planning. The Butchart Gardens have been here for more than 100 years and it seems no one has any desire to tarnish such a grand legacy.

CHECKLIST
Getting there: Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Vancouver.

The Butchart Gardens are located at Brentwood Bay, a 40-minute drive north of Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island.

Details: During summer the garden is open from 9am to 10pm. From December 1 to January 6 it is open from 9am to 9pm. Entry costs are also seasonal and varies from $20 in winter through to $35 in peak season. Allow at least two hours to view the estate including the gift shop and dining rooms.