VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA
WE'RE the Garden City of Canada,'' Veral Park says proudly.
The comment might seem self-serving, coming from a saleswoman at Dig This, a gardening shop in downtown Victoria, British Columbia. But the nickname is apt for this city, nestled on the temperate southern tip of 300-mile-long Vancouver Island.
In February, while much of Canada remains locked in winter, bulbs and rhododendron blossoms are starting to come out here. Baskets of flowers hang from lampposts in the summer, and the harbor greets visitors with a huge floral message: ``Welcome to Victoria.''
All this is just a modest prelude to Butchart Gardens, a short drive outside town, where a dazzling variety of garden landscapes is on display, complemented in the evenings by colored lights and Saturday-night fireworks shows.
This city with a green thumb, the capital of British Columbia, differs in many ways from Vancouver, the province's mainland port, and both are well worth a tourist's visit. These urban experiences provide a pleasant counterpart to exploring the region's justly famous natural beauties - mountains, lakes, forests, and islands.
Vancouver has plenty of gardens of its own, such as the Van Dusen Botanical Gardens. Mountains rise as a splendid backdrop to the city's skyscrapers. But, as the economic hub of this Pacific Rim province, Vancouver is more cosmopolitan than the capital, and has 1.5 million residents to Victoria's 300,000. A stock exchange and the site of Expo '86 are among the downtown attractions.
While Vancouver has become a haven for Asian immigrants, especially those fleeing Hong Kong before the planned Chinese takeover in 1997, Victoria's much smaller Chinatown has been merely holding its own in recent years, local merchants say.
Dee Alexander, who lived in Vancouver for four years, says she found life there had ``a very fast pace.'' A year ago she moved to Victoria, which she prefers because ``it's more like my home- town'' in Ontario.
But Ms. Alexander worries that now the small-town feel is at risk in Victoria. The city will host the 1994 Commonwealth Games this summer: Athletes from many former British colonies will gather here from Aug. 18-28. She suspects visitors to the Games will ``see how beautiful it is'' and want to move here, as she did.
Vancouver, for all its big-city energy, offers plenty of respites from working life. On summer afternoons, many locals congregate in cafes or stroll along the waterfront in enormous Stanley Park, adjacent to downtown. Canada's British heritage surfaces here as cricket players, clad in white trousers, are silhouetted against the green grass - while native totem poles keep solemn watch in the distance.
Victoria is where the colonial history really comes on strong, much to the delight of those who enjoy being pampered with traditional English tea. Red double-decker buses wait for tourists in the shadow of the imposing Parliament building, which is outlined at night with white lights, like a Christmas tree.
Other worthwhile attractions in the two cities include:
* Victoria's Royal British Columbia Museum, which houses impressive exhibits on the province's history, from mammoths to Mounties, including masks and other artifacts of the native First Peoples. (In Vancouver, the University of British Columbia's Museum of Anthropology's fine collection includes a hall filled with weathered totem poles.)
* Granville Island in Vancouver, a pleasant shopping area with a large farmers' market, created from an abandoned industrial waterfront area.
* Crystal Garden in Victoria, the place to go if you love tropical birds, pygmy monkeys, and other animals. At any given time, some birds are loose in the glassed-in tropical garden, while most remain in large cages. ``They're loud,'' says zookeeper Mark Norrie as he picks up a pair of glorious macaws who are ready for their lunch. How small are the monkeys? The babies can just wrap their arms around a human finger.
* Afternoon tea, for those who prefer a more refined experience. The meal is offered at many locations, none more famous than the posh Empress Hotel. If seating is hard to come by in the upstairs dining rooms, the garden cafe downstairs is a less-well-known alternative. ``It's not as stuffy here; there's no dress code,'' the host explains. All the same foods, from crumpets to finger sandwiches, are available.
* The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, a five-minute bus ride out of town. The museum has been running shows that juxtapose work by Canadian and Asian artists, drawing on its stunning collection of Japanese woodcut prints. The relatively small museum also has a rental and sales gallery with works by local artists.
* Walking along the windswept coast a few blocks south of the Victoria's city center.
While these cities and this scenic province may seem idyllic at times, controversy abounds on how to preserve the region's environment. With logging foes fighting for tougher restrictions on timber harvests, forest workers rallied recently in Victoria to try to defend their jobs. Meanwhile, in a battle against water pollution, the federal government plans financial assistance for Vancouver to upgrade its sewage treatment.