Monday, February 28, 2011

Victoria: A Bit of Britain on the Pacific Coast

Where else can you go whale-watching in the morning and savor a proper high tea in the afternoon? Only in a spot where Mother Nature and a cosmopolitan city share the same place, and Victoria, BC, at the southern end of Vancouver Island, fits the description.
Getting there is part of the adventure and a good choice for those who want to leave their car at home is the Victoria Clipper, a ferry service out of Seattle’s Pier 69. Several daily departures offer comfortable seating, meal and beverage service, duty-free shopping and clean, but compact, restrooms. Huge picture windows provide excellent views of Whidbey and Bainbridge Islands, and the mountains on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. The trip takes a little under three hours and docks at Victoria’s Inner Harbour within walking distance of several hotels and almost all the major attractions. While the town can be done as a long day trip, it’s much better to spend at least one overnight.
The Tourist Information Center on the north side of the Inner Harbor is a great place to begin a visit, and load up on advice, maps, and brochures. Most points of interest are in the Inner Harbour area, making Victoria an immensely walkable city. This part of town is the perfect place for strolling, people-watching, and enjoying the many street performers- musicians, mimes, jugglers, and comedian wannabes.

Impossible not to notice is the vine-covered, majestic Empress Hotel across Government Street from the visitor center. Built in 1908, the hotel is a throw-back to a more glamorous travel era when the Canadian Pacific Railroad brought travelers and businessmen across Canada in style to Victoria. Here, they stayed at the Empress (owned by the railway) before boarding the ocean liners (also owned by the railway) to sail westward across the Pacific to ports in Asia.
The hotel, thoroughly remodeled in 1996, is noted for its traditional, afternoon tea served in Edwardian splendor in the Tea Lobby overlooking the harbor. Their proprietary, blended tea is served in fine Royal Doulton china cups and accompanied by freshly baked raisin scones, clotted cream, strawberry preserves, a selection of dainty tea sandwiches, and an array of tasty pastries. A dress code is enforced so don’t expect to drink tea wearing your flip-flops, and be prepared to pay about $50.
Across the street from the Empress is the Royal BC Museum, one of Canada’s best regional museums. It interprets several thousand years of natural and human history through dioramas, street scenes, hands-on exhibits, and even a replica of Capt. George Vancouver’s ship. Of special note is the First Peoples Gallery with its impressive collection of native artifacts including some amazing masks. Outside, in a small green space, is Thunderbird Park with a display of intricately carved totem poles and a ceremonial longhouse. 
Next door to the museum are the manicured grounds and beautiful buildings housing the British Columbia legislature. Referred to as the Parliament Buildings, they were constructed between 1893 and 1898, and designed by Francis Rattenbury, architect for the Empress Hotel. Free thirty minute tours of the interior give a glimpse of the stunning stained glass windows and ornate rotunda, but one of Victoria’s best kept secrets is hidden in the basement of the building. It’s a lunchroom open to the public from 9-3 during weekdays and serves delicious sandwiches and salads in a white tablecloth environment at reasonable prices. You need to check in with security at the entrance; after all, you will be rubbing shoulders with provincial politicians.
Another must-see sight is not in the walkable Inner Harbour, but about 13 miles north. There are numerous sightseeing busses and shuttles happy to take visitors to the Butchart Gardens, and public transportation is available as well. The gardens, covering more than 50 acres, were the idea of Jennie Butchart, wife of cement baron Robert Butchart. Offended by the sight of a nearby, abandoned quarry, she brought in topsoil from local farms and transformed it into a stunning Sunken Gardens. Over the years, an Italian Garden and English Rose Garden were added. Today, the gardens host over one million visitors a year and many consider it Victoria’s number one attraction.

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