A Man’s Home is his Castle

They say a man’s home is his castle but it is rare that a home really is a castle. We generally think of European royalty, but there is a distinctive group of wealthy industrialists who built homes that resembled castles. The Hearst Castle in San Simeon, California is one notable example. Another is the Boldt Castle in the Thousand Islands. 

One of these “bonanza castles” as they were called, sits on a rocky hill in the heart of Victoria, British Columbia. Built between 1887 and 1890 for coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, Craigdarroch Castle is marvelous display of 19th century opulence. The name “Craigdarroch” is Scots Gaelic and means “rocky oak place.” The original estate encompassed 28 acres. 

The back of Craigdarroch Castle facing the gardens

Dunsmuir was a Scottish immigrant who arrived in Canada in 1851 with a wife and three children as an indentured $5 a week miner for the Hudson Bay Company’s coal operations, first in Fort Rupert (now Port Hardy) and later in Nanaimo, B.C. 

The Bay’s crown lease which gave it rights to all the coal on Vancouver Island ran out in 1859 and Dunsmuir, now a seasoned coal operator, discovered a new seam one day while fishing northwest of Nanaimo. He staked a claim to 1600 acres and with some partners started a successful coal mining operation. He later bought out his partners, was a founding partner in the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway and became the “richest and most important man in Western Canada.” 

Sadly, Dunsmuir died in 1889, a year before the castle was completed. His widow Joan and their three unmarried daughters and two orphaned grandchildren, however, did live in the castle until Joan’s death in 1908. 

Front of the castle showing the porte-cochere

After her passing, none of the children wanted the estate so it was subdivided and sold. Over the years the castle has been used as Craigdarroch Military Hospital, Victoria College, offices for the Victoria School Board, the Victoria Conservatory of Music, and today it is the Craigdarroch Castle Historic House Museum.

It is operated by a non-profit society and its conservation is funded almost entirely from the revenues generated by its 100,000 annual visitors.

A visit to Craigdarroch is like stepping back in time into a fascinating piece of Canadiana. A tour will take you through the porte-cochere to the main hall and stairwell with its rich oak paneling.

The main hall and stairwell with its rich oak paneling

The castle is filled with Victorian era furnishings including some that belonged to the Dunsmuir family. Restoration is an on-going project. On the main floor you’ll find the library, the dining room and a drawing room.

The Dining Room

The drawing room includes an 1898 Steinway piano which came from the home of Dunsmuir’s oldest son James who served as Premier of British Columbia from 1900 to 1902 and as Lieutenant-Governor from 1906 to 1909. The room, like many in the castle has some magnificent stained glass windows. The castle has “one of the finest collections of Victorian residential stained and leaded glass windows.” 

The drawing room with its 1898 Steinway piano

One of the stained glass windows is of a woman and a swan. It is the only reproduction. All the other stained glass windows are original. 

The Woman and Swan stained glass window is the only reproduction. All other stained glass windows are original.

The tour of Craigdarroch Castle takes you through one half of the building going up and the other half coming back down. After the dining room, stairs take you to the second floor where you’ll see Joan Dunsmuir’s sitting room and several bedrooms. 

The Master Bedroom

Up another flight of stairs takes you to the third floor and the Billiards Room. There are two more bedrooms on this level as well. Many of the displays in the house have signs explaining the rooms. The Billiards Room was specifically built for the entertainment of the Dunsmuir daughters. 

The Billiards Room

Besides Joan and her three unmarried daughters, Craigdarroch Castle was also home to two of her grandchildren who has been orphaned. One of them, twelve year old Robert Dunsmuir Harvey, was the youngest resident at Craigdarroch. He was a keen sportsman and equestrian and won numerous trophies which are shown on the fireplace mantle in his room. 

Robert Dunsmuir Harvey’s Room

One more flight of stairs takes you to the top floor and a dance hall. Pretty fancy digs with both a Billiards Room and a Dance Hall! During the Victoria College years, the dance hall was a classroom.  

The Dance Hall on the Fourth Floor

From the fourth floor you can go out on a landing at the tower and get a great view of the surrounding area. When it was completed in 1890, it was the highest point a person could stand in the city of Victoria. On the day we were there, it was a bit overcast.

Descending back down we pass more bedrooms and a bathroom. The flush tank in those days was high up on the wall and the toilet seat was solid wood with a wooden lid. 

One of the bathrooms

The household had several live-in servants. The coachman and his family lived in a separate lodge on the property and the stableman lived in the stables. But domestic servants had their own rooms in the castle. 

Maid’s Bedroom

Although young Robert Harvey was the only male living in the house, there were male visitors including Joan’s sons. For the benefit of these visitors, the house had a smoking room. The room has an interesting stained glass window of a Dutch pioneer smoking a pipe. 

The Smoking Room

We leave Craigdarroch with a visit to the Breakfast Room, almost as large as the Dining Room. The house had a very large kitchen to handle all the meals and refreshments for entertainment. 

The Breakfast Room
Archival pictures of the kitchen in its heyday

Be sure to check out the additional Photo Gallery as well as the links below.

Craigdarroch Castle Photo Gallery

Here are some additional photos of our visit to Craigdarroch Castle.

One of the information boards showing a photo of the castle in 1890
Sitting Room
The Billiards Room
A table with snacks in the Billiards Room
Large telescope in one of the alcoves
Another View of the Dance Hall
One of two pianos in the Dance Hall
View from the tower
A vestibule in the tower
Robert Harvey’s Bedroom
Effie’s Bedroom – Effie was one of the three unmarried daughters who lived at Craigdarroch
The Breakfast Room
The Kitchen which has yet to be restored

And that concludes our tour of this unique piece of Canadiana. If you have the opportunity, do visit. It’s a beautiful piece of our heritage. 

Chilliwack Sunflower Festival

The owners of the Chilliwack Sunflower Festival had been hosting an annual tulip festival since 2006. Then in 2017, while on vacation in Hawaii, they saw a sunflower festival there and pondered the possibility of expanding their operation. After some investigation, they opened the Chilliwack Sunflower Festival in 2018.

My wife and I along with some visiting family, took in the event on Monday and wow – it truly is a sight worth seeing. The gardens cover six acres and includes twenty-five varieties of sunflower as well as sixty varieties of dahlias. There are also several long rows of gladiolas. The map below shows the layout.

I didn’t know there were twenty-five varieties of sunflower. Most look very similar, but there are variations including giant sunflowers. And while most are the familiar yellow with a brown center, there are variations in color as well. Below is a lemon-yellow variety, much lighter than the traditional sunflower.

Most varieties of sunflower are quite tall, with some very tall indeed. An idea of the size can be seen in the photo of my wife and daughter below.

There are a few artifacts that have been added including a large double swing shown below. That’s my daughter and her husband.

And they also have a vintage 1950 Morris, somewhat rusted but interesting all the same.

The family owning the property is probably Dutch as there is a large wooden shoe at the entrance and a small windmill is one of the features.

We enjoyed exploring the sunflowers, but what impressed me most was the gladiolas and dahlias which are at the center of a horseshoe of sunflower beds. A large variety of dahlias were planted in long rows, and there were several rows of glads in vibrant colors.

This is a panoramic view of the fields created by merging three photographs. The paths are actually straight, not curved as shown. That’s Sumas Mountain in the backdrop.

Rows of gladiolas with sunflowers in the background.

There are over sixty different varieties of dahlias with many different sized and colored flowers.

One of the things we noticed was the large number of bees attracted to the flowers, particularly the sunflowers. There were the traditional honeybees as well as larger black bees, possibly carpenter bees.

Two honeybees on a sunflower.

A slightly larger black bee on a gladiola. Could be a small bumblebee.

Scattered throughout the fields are five lookout platforms. They are not very high, maybe two to three fee in height, but they do give you a chance to look over the tops of some of the taller plants and get a broader view of the fields.

A view of the fields from one of the elevated platforms. This looking south and the mountains are either the ones flanking Cultus Lake or the ones straddling the border with the U.S., probably the latter.

While some of the sunflowers had faded, others were just starting to get into full bloom. Many of the giant sunflowers had gone to seed but are interesting to observe the layered structure of the flower.

The white sunflower seeds are below a layer of pollen parts in the new flower.

The Chilliwack Sunflower Festival is quite easy to get to. From Vancouver, drive east on the Trans-Canada Highway to the Yale Road exit in Chilliwack. Turn right on Yale Road and almost immediately turn right on Royalwood Drive. You can’t miss it. There’s a map on their website.

Because of the current Covid-19 pandemic, you have to book ahead of time online. Payments are not accepted at the gate. It’s $20 per person if ordered on the day of attendance and only $15 if ordered a day or more ahead.

Visiting hours have been extended to Sept. 13th.

The Other Antigua

When we think of Antigua, we usually think of the Caribbean island, but there are in fact three others. Two of them are small towns, one in Australia and one in the Canary Islands. The subject of today’s tour is the ancient city of Antigua in Guatemala.

Founded in 1543 as Santiago de los Caballeros, it was the third capital of Guatemala which then covered most of Central America and the southernmost state of Mexico. It served as the capital for 200 years before a devastating earthquake forced the capital to be moved to Nuevo Guatemala (present day Guatemala City) in 1773. The old city was renamed Antigua Guatemala or Old Guatemala, later shortened to Antigua.

A large Tiki hut greeted us at Puerto Quetzal.

Antigua is located between two volcanoes, both still considered active, the Volcán de Fuego and the Volcán de Agua. Fire and water! From the harbor at Puerto Quetzal you can see both of them. The Volcán de Fuego is the most active one, constantly erupting. In the photo below you can see a little plume of smoke above it. It erupts about every fifteen to twenty minutes, usually just a puff like in the picture.

A puff of ash and smoke erupt from the Volcan de Fuego on the left.

Major eruptions are rare but there were two in 2018. One on June 3rd of that year was the most explosive event since 1974, catching everyone off guard and burying several villages under ash and lava. 190 were killed and another 256 were reported missing. It was the deadliest eruption since 1929. The volcano erupted again on November 18th but the area was evacuated in time and there were no fatalities.

The tour bus taking us to Antigua passed between the two volcanos and through much of the countryside damaged by the November eruption.

A lot of ash from the November eruption was still in the process of being cleared.


One of the bridges along the route was still being repaired as we crossed a makeshift Bailey bridge.

After passing through the area and a couple of villages, we arrived at the embarkation point for Antigua where we boarded another bus. This one took us right into the old town, much of which has been reconstructed in the 17th century style complete with cobblestone streets. Our first stop was at a jade factory.

Cobblestone streets and quaint old buildings make up the ancient city of Antigua. The green building on the right is Jade Maya.

Jade Maya is a jade factory founded by archaeologists Mary Lou and Jay Ridinger. The couple discovered jade artifacts in 1974 and developed new jade discoveries as well. Mary Lou herself still runs the factory and museum and gave our tour group an overview of the history of jade in Guatemala.

Mary Lou Ridinger talks about jade in Guatemala. The country, with its high volcanic activity, is a rich source of this valuable material.

The museum itself houses many Mayan artifacts and one of the largest lumps of jade anywhere. Skilled artisans are constantly making new pieces of jade jewelry for sale to the public.

Artisans at work in the jade factory.
Janis with a large piece of raw jade.
Some of the many artifacts on display.

After the Jade Maya visit we took the bus to the city’s town square, known as the Parque Central. This area is rich in history and the square itself is a beautiful park with trees and an interesting fountain. Many locals were hawking souvenirs and there were a number of shops on one side of the square.

The long barracks like building on the left housed government offices and troops while Antigua served as the capital of Spanish Guatemala. It is now the City Hall. The town square is on the right.


The park-like town square was a beehive of activity with locals selling their wares to the many tourists.

The old fountain dates back to 1738. It was designed by Diego de Porres, the most outstanding architect of the time. Inspired by the Neptune Fountain in Bologna, Italy, Diego designed the fountain to show four water nymphs or mermaids spouting water from their breasts. Formally known as Las Sirenas, the Sirens, it is often called the Mermaid Fountain.

Las Sirenas Fountain in the Central Park of Antigua. It dates from 1738, was largely destroyed over the centuries and rebuilt in the 1940s.

The heads were destroyed over time but the torsos survived , buried in the rubble. They were rediscovered in 1944 and now reside in the museum at the old City Hall across the street. Upon their discovery, noted Guatemalen architect Roberto González Goyri used them as a basis to recreate the fountain which you see today.

The mermaids spout water from their breasts. One legend about the fountain says it was ordered by an earl to honor his daughters who did not want to breastfeed.

The square was filled with tourists when we were there, and there were plenty of locals in colorful costumes selling various souvenirs. Whatever they were selling, the women often balanced their wares on their heads. 

Street vendors in colorful costumes often balanced their wares on their heads.


A street vendor performs her balancing act.

The Parque Central is a perfect square and is surrounded on each side by the old barracks that served as the seat of government for 200 years, the Catedral San José, and by a museum and a variety of shops on the other two sides. 

The Cathedral of San Jose faces one side of the Central Park.

We explored the square and surrounding shops for some time before we boarded the bus again. We then toured some streets and passed the magnificent Iglesia de la Merced and passed under the famous El Arco de Santa Catalina. 

The Iglesia de la Merced.
The Santa Catalina Arch is a famous Antigua landmark. Our bus drove right under the arch.

We enjoyed our visit to this colorful and historical city. I leave you with two photo galleries, one of the Parque Central and one of the rest of our visit to Guatemala. 

Photo Gallery: Guatemala

Some additional photos of Guatemala.

From Puerto Quetzal you get a clear view (if you discount the haze) of the twin Volcanoes, the Volcan de Fuego and the Volcan de Agua, Fire and Water! There are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala.

Volcanic ash from the eruption of Volcan de Fuego in November 2018 fills a creek bed along our route.

Abandoned building in a village wiped out by the volcanic eruptions of 2018.

Riding through the cobbled streets of Antigua.

Mary Lou Ridinger tells us about jade Mayan artifacts found in the region.

One of many news clippings framed and hanging at Jade Maya tell of Mary Lou and her husband’s exploits.

A jade artisan at work.

A lovely pool in the courtyard at Jade Maya.

Some Mayan artifacts at the Jade Maya museum.

Some of the custom jade jewelry manufactured at Jade Maya.

Ruins of the Iglesia de la Concepcion, currently undergoing restoration. This is just down the street a bit from Jade Maya.

On our way out of town we passed this odd family sculpture.

And we end with a final look at the cobbled streets of Antigua.

Photo Gallery: Parque Central, Antigua, Guatemala

Here are some more photos from Central Park, Antigua.

The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales or Palace of the General Captains was the headquarters for the government of Guatemala from 1543 to 1773. It is across the street from the park.

The Central Park is a beautiful square with a central fountain, many trees and lawns and some sculptured trees as well.

The Cathedral of Saint Joseph (Catedral de San Jose) is on the adjacent corner from the Palacio.

Women street vendors almost always carried their wares on their heads.

Even the ones selling manufactured trinkets carried their merchandise balanced on their heads.

The Mermaid Fountain (Las Sirenas) is the centerpiece of the park.

The fountain was pretty much destroyed over the centuries with just the torsos remaining. It was recreated in the 1940s to match the style of the original. Mermaids are featured in two other places in Antigua, Guatemala.

Inside one of the shops surrounding the park.

While the street vendors did aggressively promote their wares, I found their colorful dress charming and they added to the cultural feel of the park. We did buy a couple of hand-carved flutes from one vendor.

We end our tour of Parque Central with a photo of a bird of paradise flower. They were prominent in several gardens around the park.

Birding in a Tainted Paradise

The next stop in our Panama Canal cruise, after leaving Panama, was Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We had booked something called Tárcoles River: An Eco Adventure, one of eleven different excursions available at this port of call. It is promoted as Jungle Crocodile Safari, which is a bit of a misnomer. But they also promote it as a Bird Watching and Tropical Mangrove Boat Tour and it is as a bird watching adventure that this excursion should be taken. Birds abound and when you board the boat, you are given a Bird Guide which shows 61 species of birds that you might encounter there.

The tour starts with an hour long bus ride to the Tárcoles River. There are a number of tour operators along the river and when we reached our destination, we took a short walk through a lush jungle garden to our tour boat.

A lush garden welcomes you at Jungle Crocodile Safari.

Our boat then took us out on the Tárcoles River for a 90 minute tour. We headed up river and soon spotted our first crocodile. Most of the crocs we encountered (less than a half dozen) were just lazing in the river looking much like a log.

A large crocodile near the shore.

If you’re really keen on a crocodile adventure, this is not the tour for you. But if you are an avid birder, you’ll find many birds to look for. Though the bird guide lists 61 different birds you might spot here, we probably spotted about ten different species. Many can be found sitting in the shrubbery along the shore.

This is the Bare Throated Tiger Heron, #18 in our bird guide.

Costa Rica is covered by lush jungle, however the Tárcoles River has become very  polluted. We saw old tires and other debris scattered along the shore and the river itself is an ugly brown color and certainly not a place one would want to swim, even if there were no crocodiles. A search on Google found reports that the Tárcoles is, in fact, the most contaminated river in Central America.

Most of the pollution comes from San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city and home to fifty percent of its population.  A report in the Costa Rica Star from 2016 notes what is dumped into the river: “Bottles, shoes, plastic containers, tires, toys, clothes, straws, umbrellas, brooms, electronic appliances; the list goes on and on. In 2007 the Bridgestone Company organized a general cleaning of the area and gathered 1000 tires.”

Given its condition, it is astounding what a wonderful assortment of wildlife make their home nearby.

The Great Egret – #17 in the bird guide.

Besides birds, you’ll also see banana groves and lizards, including iguanas. We spotted some horses along the river, probably from a nearby farm, and a couple of groups of recreational fishermen, though I don’t know why anyone would want to eat anything caught in this river.

Bananas growing along the shore.

Some horses along the shore, probably from a nearby farm.

But it was the bird population that was the most vibrant on the Tárcoles.

The Green Kingfisher – #43 in the guide.

The Magnificent Frigatebird – #1 in the bird guide.

After cruising around for a while up river, we headed back down the river all the way to the coast. Along the way our eagle-eyed guide spotted a toucan in a tree at a fair distance from us. I could barely catch it with the zoom lens on my camera.

At the mouth of the river is the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific Ocean. Here birds covered entire trees along the shore, fish loving birds like the pelican.

A tree near the mouth of the Tarcoles River covered in pelicans.

A magnificent Brown Pelican – #4 in the bird guide.

After our tour completed, we went through the obligatory gift shop, which featured a couple of marimba players, and back on the bus for the trip back to the port.

A couple of marimba players entertained at the gift shop.

We did see quite a few birds and a few crocodiles and other creatures, but overall, this was a bit of a lack-lustre tour. One of my friends who has lived in Costa Rica told me that the Puntarenas region is the least desirable place to visit in the country, largely because of the pollution.

We had opted for this particular tour because it involved a shorter bus ride to and from the excursion, but if we were to do it again, we would pay a bit more and travel a bit further inland to catch one of the other excursions, maybe the Hummingbird Gardens, Butterfly and Frog Park or A Walk in the Clouds or Costa Rica From the Sky.

Photo Gallery: Tarcoles River, Costa Rica

Here are some additional pictures from our visit to Costa Rica.

One of the plants in the entrance garden.

Some more plants in the garden at the Crocodile Safari place.

The Snowy Egret – # 15 in our bird guide

Can you spot the croc?

There he is!

Another Bare Throated Heron

This is either a Willet – #24 in the bird guide – or it is a bird not shown in the guide. It has the right shape for a Willet but the wrong coloration.

A pair of Snowy Egrets

This is a Plumed Basilisk, also known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to run over water.

The common iguana

The mouth of the Tarcoles River on the Gulf of Nicoya.

Jungle near the mouth of the river

A tree with a number of Anhingas and Cormorants

A pair of squawking Anhingas – #5 in the bird guide. The other bird is possibly a Neotropic Cormorant – #6 in the bird guide.

Some interesting gnarled trees at the edge of the jungle.

And we end out photo tour with this croc casting his beady eyes in your direction.

Monkey Watch

Monkey Watch was one of the excursion options on our recent Panama Canal cruise. The tour left from the pier at Panama City, after we had transited the canal itself. Panama has a large harbor but it is not set up to accommodate cruise ships so we took one of the tenders to get to shore. 

One of the ship’s tenders ferrying people to the pier.

From there we took a bus that went up past the Milaflores and Pedro Miguel locks to the junction of the Chagres River with the Panama Canal. The Chagres used to flow all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but when the canal was built, the mouth of the river was dammed to form the Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. The section of the Panama Canal from the lake to Gamboa is still considered part of the Chagres River. The boat launch was just the other side of the bridge that crosses the Chagres. 

The boat launch area for the Monkey watch tour.

There were enough people to fill several of the canopied boats. Our route took us under the bridge and onto the part of the river that is part of the canal route.

The Chagres River junction. The Chagres forks off to the right. Ahead is the part of the river that is also part of the canal.


One of the Monkey watch tour boats speeding along the river. The river has been widened here for ship traffic, and shored up with boulders.

We went downstream for a way to where the river widens into a group of islands actually known as the Monkey Islands. 

We were told by our guide that we would possibly see three different varieties of monkey and that proved to be the case. We followed another one of the tour boats towards the shore of one of the islands, pulled in close and encountered some Geoffroy’s Tamarins, also known as the Panamanian Tamarin. It is a very distinctive species with its bulldog-like face, white chest and brownish-red nape.

The distinctive Panamanian Tamarin monkey.

These particular monkeys ventured close to take some treats, even venturing onto the tour boats. Below is a video of some Tamarin monkeys on the boat.

We encountered Tamarins again later in our excursion but after this group, we headed on and came upon a very lively group of Capuchin monkeys. The Capuchins are even friendlier than the Tamarins. There were also a lot more of them.

A Capuchin monkey comes down from the trees.
And approaches our boat.
Have you got a treat for me?

I also shot a video of these delightful creatures. It’s a bit shaky as I try to follow their movements but it captures their liveliness well. 

The whole area around the Monkey Islands is verdant jungle. This is tropical rain forest and the rains, in fact, are one of the things that made the Panama Canal work. To move the ships up and down the locks uses up a considerable amount of water. Without constant replenishment, of the water, the canal could not operate. 

The lushness of the jungle is evident all around.


These lovely water plants are some of the flora of the area.

The third group of monkeys we saw are the howlers. The Howler monkey is so named because of its loud guttural howls which can be heard three miles away. They are said to be the loudest land animal. The howls are thought to relate to territoriality and mate-guarding.  The Howlers are a more reclusive species than the Capuchins or Tamarins. They did not venture down to the boats. They were often hard to spot, but we did see some that were clearly visible.

Two Howler monkeys in a tree. Howlers are quadrupedal, using all four limbs and sometimes their tail to navigate the trees.


A Howler monkey navigates the edge of a palm frond.

We enjoyed our jungle excursion. Along the way we got to see some of the activity of vessels navigating the Panama Canal as well as the wildlife. Below are some links of interest including an additional photo gallery of our visit.