With its mild climate, diverse First Nations, British and Asian influences, and proximity to Seattle, Washington and Vancouver, British Colombia (BC), Victoria, BC makes an enjoyable day excursion from either location. Stay longer to leisurely enjoy all the city has to offer. Situated on Vancouver Island, the best ways to reach Victoria from either location is by air, boat/ferry, or bus via the ferry.
A friend, upon hearing I was going there, noted that I would think I was in “Jolly Olde England without the British accent” and indeed, with some of its 19th century architecture and high tea offered at various restaurants, its British roots are evident.
Sailing into the Inner Harbor, the Fairmont Empress Hotel presents itself as the grande dame of the city. Built in 1908 by the Canadian Pacific Railway, this chateau has become the unofficial symbol of the city. With its majestic lawn and rose garden, stained glass dome, and tiger skinned Bengal Lounge it exudes old world elegance. Indeed, royalty has stayed here and day trippers can enjoy some of its charm by making reservations for afternoon tea at $65 per person. There are many ghost stories in Victoria; one of the best known involves the Empress’ architect, Frances Mawson Rattenbury. Murdered by his second wife’s lover, it is said his ghost still walks the halls of the hotel. Since he was killed in England, that is quite a long distance for his spirit to have traveled!
Also designed by Rattenbury, the domed Parliament Building is the other large structure overlooking the Inner Harbor. The seat of British Columbia’s government, there are free guided tours ofits elaborate interior which features Italian marble. When the legislature is in session, it may be observed in action.
A compact city built around the Inner Harbor, most of the main sights are easily reachable by foot and there are guided walking tours available at the Information Center located under the clock tower at the north end of the harbor. There are ferries, buses, taxis,water taxis, pedicabs, horse drawn carriages, and rental bikes available for transport around the city. Yet, most sights are within walking distance. The harbor is busy with float planes, boats of all sizes, and artisans, including those from Canada’s First Nations, and buskers dot the walkway around it. It’s pleasant just to sit and watch some of the shows. The Inner Harbor is also the origin of whale watching cruises.
Between the Empress and the Parliament is the Royal British Columbia Museum which presents this province’s history from prehistoric to modern times. A highly interactive museum, one hour tours are included with the price of admission. There is a National Geographic Imax theater here and some of western Canada’s oldest buildings, including St. Ann’s Schoolhouse and a collection of totem poles are adjacent to the museum.
Leading downtown from the Empress is Government Street, home of shops and restaurants. Victoria was founded by the Hudson Bay Company and one of its outposts, now a modern department store, is located near here.
Streets extend off Government to more shopping and dining. Bastion Square hosts a farmers market and affords al fresco dining opportunities; one can wander from here through alleyways and plazas filled with more shops.
The Gate of Harmonious Interest built fromTaiwanese tiles at Government and Fisgard marks the entrance to the small Chinatown section. Chinese immigrants were brought here in the 1800s as part of the Frasier River Gold Rush and also for the building of the railroad. Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown is said to be the narrowest street in Canada. Previously the home of opium dens, gambling, and other illicit activities, it now houses a variety of small shops. The Chinese School, with its pagoda roof is interesting. Once Chinese students forced to attend this separate school learned English here. Today, children of Chinese descent learn Chinese in after school classes. The Chinese temple is the oldest one in Canada.
Should time allow, other highlights in Victoria include the Pacific Underseas Garden, Craigdarroch Castle and the Government House Gardens east of downtown.
The Royal London Wax Museum is currently closed and being relocated. Most visitors to Victoria include a trip to Butchart Gardens, about a half hour from downtown. In the early 1900’s, Robert Butchart opened a limestone quarry near his home for his cement business. When he abandoned the quarry, his wife, Jenny, wanted to make something beautiful out of the then blighted area. She began by building a sunken garden and then a Japanese garden. An Italian garden on the site of a tennis court and a rose garden were later additions. Today, the gardens encompass 55 acres and are still owned by the Butchart family. A staff of 300 tends the various gardens, fountains, and pools at this National Historic Site of Canada. Two hours is sufficient time to tour the gardens unless you want to take oneof their eco friendly boat tours. On Saturday evenings during the summer, there are fireworks displays.
There is a coffee shop and self service restaurant in Butchart Gardens. Benvenuto, the former Butchart family home with a beautiful view of the gardens, offers high tea, lunch, and dinner seasonally. During the summer, there is a gelateria in the Italian garden. Young and not so young visitors enjoy taking a ride on the old fashioned Rose Carousel. There is a shuttle as well as several tours offered from downtown Victoria to the gardens. Public buses also go there, but the trip takes a long time and is not recommended. Taxis are always available, costing about $50 each way.
Accommodations in Victoria include bed and breakfasts, guest farms, cottages, timeshares, and hotels that range from modest to five stars. Restaurants tend to specialize in fresh local seafood including salmon, halibut, and oysters. Local produce, meats and cheeses are proudly advertised. Liquid refreshment from Vancouver microbreweries and regional wineries are featured in many restaurants.
Victoria is host to many festivals, including a 10 day Jazz Fest in June. Visual and performing arts companies have an active calendar throughout the year. If you travel to Victoria from the USA, don’t forget your passport!
Vickie is a former member of the Marco Island City Council and Artistic Director of the Marco Island Film Festival, and has been a volunteer for many island organizations. She is presently on the board of the Naples Mac Users Group. Prior to relocating to Marco, Vickie served as a school psychologist, Director of Special Services, and college instructor and also was a consultant to the New Jersey Department of Education.