When news broke that Prince Harry, Meghan Markle and baby Archie had escaped the public eye to find shelter on Vancouver Island, I, like most people who have spent a lot of time there, raised an eyebrow. Exotic it is, but it is hardly the first place that comes to mind when one thinks of a royal getaway. I’ve been to the island dozens of times to visit in-laws, and I can attest that, even in the summer, the weather is gray and the water is always cold. And the unusually snowy 2020 so far has no doubt baptized the couple to what Canadian winters can be like. Even though Prince Harry said baby Archie thought it was “bloody brilliant,” it’s likely he enjoyed it through double glazed windows beside a roaring fire.
The very British city of Victoria, near where the Duke and Duchess of Sussex found refuge in a $15 million mansion owned by the country club where I rather coincidentally had my wedding reception nearly two decades ago, is a mishmash of colonial chic with double decker buses, British flags along the streets, and proper tea rooms. The Empress Hotel is the jewel of the city and as luxurious as it gets, but the city is cozy, not cosmopolitan, and certainly nothing close to the same level of sophistication as London.
And the place is hard to get to. It is reachable from the mainland by private jet for royalty, but most people have little option but a two-plus hour ferry, a white knuckle float plane or commuter cigar-plane service from the larger Canadian cities.
The rest of the island is a mix of rugged terrain and the largely uninhabited northern reaches are isolated and almost entirely off the grid. Highways are scarce—there is just one major thoroughfare called the Island Highway that cuts a curvy swath along the island’s east coast. It was only recently completed all the way to the northernmost town of Port Hardy, and has opened up the most remote areas of the island to tourism and trade which won’t make everyone who is settled there happy. The island was a haven for American draft dodgers who settled there during the Vietnam War and who still live there comfortably under the radar.
The island is popular with outdoorsy types who favor off-route hiking and those for whom rough camping—read no amenities—is a treat. One of the main tourist attractions during the winter months is storm-watching off the rocky Pacific coast. Hotels like the famous Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino on the island’s remote west coast are booked months in advance, especially during the harshest seasons. Microphones set up along the sharp rocks capture the violent crashing sounds of the waves that can be piped into every room in the hotel and take the place of dinner music in the main dining room.
Beachcombing here takes on a whole new meaning. Cargo ship wreckage—including cars, containers, and tons of plastic—regularly washes up on the coast line. Over the years, the British Columbia province spent millions to clean up debris that had been swept across the ocean after the 2011 tsunami in Japan that killed more than 15,000 people. I still have a weathered yellow hard hat with Japanese writing inside that rolled up on the shoreline in 2013. The island is also where a number of severed feet in sneakers and leather shoes have washed up on shore in one of the area’s most bizarre claims to fame.
Another oh-so-Canadian treat is Coombs Old Country Market about halfway up the Island Highway between Nanaimo, with its popular port and world-famous chocolate and custard squares, and the Comox Valley, which is where indigenous Canadians, called First Nations People, first settled the island. The market started as a highway fruit stand in the 1970s and has grown into a bizarre roadside attraction featuring live goats that graze the convenience store rooftop. It’s the kind of thing Baby Archie would surely love–I know my kids could never get enough of seeing animals eating the steep rooftop.
The island is a commercial fisherman’s paradise, offering some of the best prawn, salmon, halibut and crab anywhere in Canada. Whale-watching and bird-watching are regular pastimes, too, but royal-watching is apparently not. Miles Arsenault, the owner and captain of Deep Cove’s Bay to Bay Charters near Victoria, said he turned down several British tabloid hacks who descended on the island over the holidays, who tried to get him to take them out for a glimpse of the Sussexes in their hideaway. He said he and other charter boat captains made a pact not to create such a cottage industry. “It’s hard to turn down money when you are starting a new business, but this one was an easy choice to turn down,” he told the Global News. “Canadians and all of the islanders respect the privacy of others and would not feel good about taking them [paparazzi] out to take pictures of the royals.”
It is yet unknown whether Meghan and Harry will stay on the island, but it seems more likely they would move to the more glamorous city of Vancouver on the mainland. The city, called Hollywood North, has produced a string of television series and movies in recent years, including Star Trek, X-Files, Deadpool, Tomorrowland, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Godzilla, The Twilight Saga and X-Men. It seems a good spot for the duchess to job-hunt.
It is also a great spot for charity work. The Downtown Eastside, where Meghan was photographed just last week at a women’s center, is known for the high number of heroin addicts and homeless people who get help from the area’s numerous shelters.
Already, several real estate companies have started courting the Sussexes with some of the city’s best properties on the market. According to one article in the local newspaper The Province, called “Fit For a King: Five B.C. Homes That Could Work for Meghan and Harry,” agents have compiled a list of some stunning homes. The most expensive goes for around $30 million and is located in the ritzy First Shaughnessy district, referred to in the listing as, “the traditional seat of power for Vancouver’s rich, after being developed by Canadian Pacific Railway for its executives back when Vancouver was a railroad town.” The 12,400 square-foot home was built in 1922 and, according to the ad, “stripped to the bones and rebuilt to include all sorts of probably unneeded things like an indoor Koi aquarium and an enormous Cognac Cellar.” Another one goes for around $20 million in a district called Surrey. “As Surrey is a very British word, and they don’t mind living outside of the city, this 11,000 square foot home on 77 acres of rural land could work,” the listing suggests.
Whatever they decide to do, they will likely be ignored by the Canadian population, who tend to not meddle as a matter of national pride. Big name celebrities, from Tom Cruise to Demi Moore, have bought property in the area precisely because they are left alone. If that’s what the couple formerly known as royals really want, then they will easily find the peace and quiet that countless others love about the area.