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Canada's Buchart Gardens: dazzling, spectacular

This island's dazzling colorful Buchart Gardens are the kind of place you'd like to bring a lawn chair, a lemonade, and a Bach recording, and take up permanent residence.

There is virtually no debate among those who have visited these gardens as to the worth of the trip. Many will tell you they would gladly travel hundreds of miles from almost anywhere to see anything half so spectacular. Some garden connoisseurs say they much prefer Canada's Buchart to Delaware's Longwood or London's Kew Gardens.

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Any debate among visitors is more apt to be over the best time for the trip. The choice is ample. Since the climate is temperate, with a warm, dry summer and cool, wet Mediterranean winter, the gardens are open on a year-round basis from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. At least one Victoria resident insists that the best time of all to come is the first day after a new wet snow to see how beautifully it clings to the tree branches.

But if you ask Tony Gibbs, who leads Gray Line Tours here on a daily basis, he will tell you that there is no time quite like the early spring, in late March and early April, before all the tourists arrive and when the dogwood, daffodils, tulips, and flowering cherry and plum have just sprung into bloom.

Seasons aside, some visitors prefer night at the gardens to day. Thanks to four miles of underground wiring laid 25 years ago, thousands of tiny colored bulbs light up Buchart's flowers and foundations each evening. For those who hunger for more than a silent show of beauty, the gardens also offer a nightly summer variety show at twilight and fireworks with music after dark on Saturdays and Sundays.

This 35-acre site, which includes five major gardens, had its start as a hobby more than 75 years ago. Robert Buchart had a cement business near this property, where he and his wife, Jennie, lived. He had removed the limestone from a quarry on the grounds and the less-than-handsome remains bothered his wife's sensibilities, to the point that she began to plant a few sweet peas and roses there. That garden grew to become the "Sunken Garden," which many regard as Buchart's top treasure.

Word has it that Mrs. Buchart was eased over the side of the remaining granite cliffs in a chair, the better to plant ivy and Virginia creeper between the cracks.

Visitors today look down on the garden 50 feet below, walk down some steps into it, and leave for the next garden by an uphill sloping cement sidewalk without having to climb stairs again. They walk past Lombardy poplars planted 60 years ago, Japanese maples that vary according to the season from lime green to deep red, and, if it happens to be spring, borders of tuberous begonias and poppies in every imaginable color. The English Rose Garden, usually blooming by mid- June, has 160 varieties. In addition to wandering through the Japanese Garden, with it bridges and lily ponds, visitors may look out on it and the inlet behind it from the comfort of a chair, if they decide to take a meal in the main dining room of the house. The Greenhouse, the other main restaurant, looks out on a less spectacular begonia bower, but it features hanging plants, and more than one guest has enjoyed an occasional falling flower petal in his soup.

How you get to the Buchart Gardens really depends on what you want to see and when. The site is a mere five miles from the ferry stop at the southern end of the island, but a good 14 miles from Victoria, where most tourists stay. Tours (Gray Line and Marguerite Tours both offer them) will cost you about $9, but half of it goes for the gardens admission fee. On a tour you are likely to travel in a two-decker red bus. The view is better from the top level, but you may feel a bit like a cowboy entering the Calgary Stampede when you are that high above potholes. With a tour, of course, you will hear a good deal about both Victoria and the gardens along the way. There is an advantage. As one of my traveling companions put it, "I find I don't always care that much about all the facts and figures but it's satisfying somehow to have them all given you -- I always feel I'm getting more out of it."

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The city's transit system does go within a mile of the gardens, but it requires a good hike to get to the front entrance. Those who want to visit them in the late afternoon or evening, possibly taking in supper there, are better off going by car, even if it means renting one.

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