a short ferry ride away from the Northwest coast of Washington, USA, is the provincial capital of British Columbia, Canada. Celebrating it’s 150th anniversary in 2012, Victoria is Western Canada’s oldest city. When coming from the states, the Victoria Clipper, a fast hydrofoil from Seattle, or the Black Ball Line ferries, a slow haul from Port Angeles are both excellent choices for arriving in this incredibly picturesque little town, I mean city. Plan to spend a full day here exploring on foot to see everything in the downtown area.
Your ferry arrives at the Inner Harbor where they have a quick set up to get the walk-ons through customs. Those who arrive by car have a much longer process to go through, so we’ll concentrate on the day traveler who is relying on his or her feet. As soon as you leave the customs building, you’ll see the Fairmont Empress Hotel in front of you. If you’ve come here to have High Tea…..and of course you have, the Empress is the place to do it. Stop in and make reservations and be sure to check the dress code – it is high tea, after all, you will need to dress.
If you’re staying the night, plan your route based on your bed’s location. I’ll tell you about some of my favorite sights, kind of going South to North.
Carr House. Historical displays and videos describe the life of Emily Carr, one of Canada’s best known painters, in this house in which she was born. The house has been beautifully restored to it’s 19th grandeur using modern replicas, as much of the original work was lost through renovations and fire. Read about the painstaking work to scrape of layers of paint and newer wallpaper to discover the original patterns which were closely matched to replicate what the house may have looked like in Emily’s time. If I recall correctly, this house is at the top of a hill, so it’s a good choice for a bus ride, and starting a walking tour of Victoria. It’s all downhill from here.
Parliament Buildings. On the southern part of town, there isn’t much else to see here. Worth a visit if you like parliament and have some free time. Free tours are given several times a day. It’s pretty at night when all lit up.
Crystal Garden. A bit like a giant greenhouse, the Crystal Garden offers a fun wander through tropical gardens with real live butterflies and exotic plants. A very nice place to stop in if it’s cold and rainy out and it’s right next to Cridge Park if you feel like hanging out and people watching for a while. This might be a good place to kill that last hour before your high tea as it’s across the street from the Empress.
A little farther from the waterfront, south of Cridge Park, is Beacon Hill Park. You could spend several hours wandering around this 61 hectare park just enjoying the quiet. If you’re on a mission to see all the sights, head straight for the southwest corner to find the “mile 0” marker that represents the Pacific terminus of the Tran-Canada Highway.
Maritime Museum. Once you’ve seen the bugs, or if you’re skipping them, head into the Maritime Museum for a peek at what it was like to sail back in the day. Learn about piracy and navigation while you marvel at how humans got anywhere in those scary looking boats.
Take some time to wander around downtown. The buildings are beautiful and it’s fun ducking into different shops to see what they have. Head north to Chinatown for a break from the Victorian décor.
Craigdarroch Castle. Built by coal millionaire Robert Dunsmuir, this Victorian era Scottish Baronial mansion is 20,000 square feet. It’s four stories house lavish furnishings which are beautifully set off by the stained glassed windows and delicate woodwork. Check your bags and strollers at the door, and prepare for stairs. The view, once you get to the top floor, is worth the climb.
Nearby is the Government House, the official residence of the lieutenant governor. Only the gardens are open to the public.
Other things to do. If it’s in season you can book a whale watching tour, otherwise bicycles and motorbikes can be rented at the harbor. You can rent kayaks or canoes and take a guided tour on the water, or hop onto a horse-drawn carriage for a pampered drive through town. Look for double-decker hop-on, hop-off tours if you’d like to have the sights brought to you, or walking tours if you enjoy a guide.
If you’re in Victoria during summer, consider going to see the Butchart Gardens. These incredible manicured gardens are spectacular when everything is in bloom and will consume even the least botanical for several hours. If you have a car, or are willing to arrange a cab, the grounds are lit on summer evenings and there is live music. Three restaurants are on the grounds, and if the Empress was a little too high-falutin’ for you (or you forgot to bring a tie), you can book your high tea here.