by Crai S. Bower
John Small, one of my regular golf partners, shocked me when he declared he was planning to put away his clubs for a few months. An avid skier, the Redondo Beach native basically lives at Crystal Mountain in the Cascades during the season. I love to ski, too, but give up golf, a four-season sport in the Pacific Northwest? C’mon, John, you can do better.
I do grow weary of repeatedly stepping onto the first tee in a downpour, deluge or, insert your saturated noun of choice here.
However, to borrow a favorite skiing term, bluebird days do exist, and before you start scanning airfares to Scottsdale, Maui, or San Diego, a drier climate is closer than you think.
Enter the fabled “Olympic Mountain Rain Shadow,” the broad bumbershoot that extends from the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula to parts of Vancouver, Whidbey and San Juan Islands.
Of course, there’s no guarantee rain won’t occasionally spook you from the rain shadow, but statistics don’t lie. Seattle receives an average of 35.86 inches of rain annually, Victoria 23.95 inches, Oak Harbor 20 inches, and Sequim is practically desert-like at 16.51 inches. (Speaking of arid clime expectations, my golf trip to Tucson last February was spoiled by wind, rain, and cold!)
To be honest, I don’t need a reason to visit Victoria on any day of the year. Once known as “Little London,” with tearooms, pubs, and, yes, double-decker buses, the capital of British Columbia has undergone a cultural and culinary transformation that outshines any city in the region. No longer simply Canada’s “Florida,” a folksy retirement hub for Canucks escaping the frigid east coast, what Victoria does share with FLA is a plethora of outstanding golf courses.
Bear Mountain Golf Resort possesses two golf courses designed by Jack Nicklaus, the only Canadian resort that can make this claim. The Mountain Course soars to 1,100 feet in altitude, where the peak displays one of the premier signature holes in North America. Originally designated as the 19th “betting hole,” the short par-3 14th floats above Victoria and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. If climbing the exhaustive, pock-filled 523-yard par-5 13th doesn’t take your breath away, standing on the tee of the 14th surely will.
As much as the Mountain Course dazzles, defies, and downright frustrates an average player like myself, the Valley Course is preferred over winter. The lower elevation equals less morning frost and warmer temperatures. I played the Mountain Course with Instagram and TikTok personality Mac Boucher who told me, in between hitting shots I couldn’t believe were possible, that he prefers the Valley Course.
“The Mountain Course serves as a better backdrop,” says Boucher, who recently shot a front nine 30 playing “alternate” shots – as in alternating between left- and right-handed clubs. “That said, I think the Valley Course is one of the best layouts in Canada.”
It is also a fairer test for the mid-handicap player, with more forgiving fairways, measured bunkering, and inviting greens. Forest golf is never easy, however. Trees, creeks, and lakes here swallow wayward drives and approaches. Add the foreboding granite outcroppings that jut into the undulating fairways like the tentacles of a Giant Pacific Octopus, and you’ll quickly see why the “easier” course is anything but.
Granite defines Olympic View Golf Club to such a degree that you have to squeeze through one corset-tight passage to discover the fairway on the other side. There also aren’t many public courses that can boast a hole that served back-to-back bogeys to one Eldrick “Tiger” Woods, but the 107-yard 16th owns those bragging rights. Yet it isn’t just stumping the greatest player of all time that gives Olympic View country club level-cred. The course maintenance is impeccable, as is the menu at Table Nineteen.
With the exception of Gold Mountain’s Olympic Course in Bremerton, Wash., I can’t think of another track that epitomizes Pacific Northwest sylvan golf more than Olympic View. As if to emphasize my point, a Cooper’s hawk, an arboreal specialist, emerged from a cedar grove and flew down the fifth fairway.
Full disclosure: The rains arrived on the middle day of my recent visit. Fortunately, Highland Pacific Golf was designed to drain excess water better than any layout on Vancouver Island. The course’s Highland and Pacific nines offer an open layout that is more parkland than forest. Highland Pacific feels like a welcome reprieve after negotiating tight fairways, severe elevation changes, and the heavily contoured greens elsewhere.
Victoria presents another key alternative to many winter golf destinations: plenty to do when not chasing birdies. (My partner, Patti, also took her first lesson at Olympic View. The course is mellow enough that she joined me and played a few holes, too.) We explored the Royal B.C. Museum, the finest natural history institution in our region. We jumped on e-bikes for a food tour with The Pedaler Cycling Tours, pausing for outstanding burritos and, what else, IPAs at Boomtown Victoria and pizza slices in the always trendy Fernwood at Fernwood Pizza Company.
It would be a shame to visit Victoria and not stay on the Inner Harbour, especially when taking the Victoria Clipper, a two-plus hour voyage from Seattle. I rolled my clunky golf bag from the dock to Hotel Grand Pacific in five minutes.
There are also more ways to get to Victoria than to any island in North America. I love the Clipper for convenience and comfort. The B.C. Ferries out of the Tsawwassen terminal offer a great choice if you’re driving. Kenmore Air flies directly from Lake Union to the Inner Harbour (make sure to check luggage weight limits) and Alaska flies to Victoria Airport.
Finally, if you’re up for a little “Rain Shadow Odyssey,” start with a round at The Cedars at Dungeness outside of Sequim, then catch the afternoon M.V. Coho ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria to complete your sojourn.
Nor do you have to cross the border to bask in the rain shadow, though you may require a ferry crossing. The Whidbey Island Golf Club in Oak Harbor is a wide open track with a couple of fun carries over Loers Pond. The San Juan Island Golf & Tennis Club offers a very affordable nine holes, or 18 from the second set of tees.
I love sending iPhone screenshots of my weather app in winter depicting 10 days of relentless rain to my friends in California and elsewhere. My meteorological masochism is often followed by a weather app scroll through my regular golf destinations like Maui, Scottsdale and San Diego. After my late autumn travels to Vancouver Island, I now check the Victoria weather, too.
Crai S. Bower writes scores of adventure travel articles a year for over 25 publications, including golf stories for American Way, Hearst Media and Journey magazine, among others. He appears regularly on the American Forces Network as a travel commentator. Visit his site at FlowingStreamMedia.net.