It’s 7:30 a.m. and the 132-foot Victoria Clipper IV is departing Seattle for the 71-mile voyage to Victoria, British Columbia. At sunrise, passengers line up on the stern of the high speed catamaran just as the sun crests the horizon and breaks across the city’s skyline. The ship traverses tree-lined islands and across Admiralty Way and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and after a pleasant and scenic 3-hour voyage, it slowly glides into the Inner Harbor where passengers get their first glimpse of the idyllic, coastal town of Victoria.
Established by the Hudson Bay Company in 1843, the city was first known as Fort Victoria. Gold rush fever from the Fraser River area brought a wave of settlers in 1862, and six years later, Victoria was named the capital of British Columbia, Canada.
Today, Victoria is a thriving city that boasts the mildest climate in Canada as well as charming Old World style architecture, cultural traditions like afternoon tea and gorgeous green spaces and flower laden gardens year round.
Most of the activity for tourists centers along the waterfront with its most iconic landmark, the ivy covered Empress Hotel, sitting majestically along Government Street. At night, this property is lit up with multi-colored lights, providing visitors with a great photo opportunity.
Right along the Inner Harbor walkway is where street performers set up to entertain passersby with music, magic and acrobatic feats. During the day, vendors sell everything from First Nations arts and crafts to fresh squeezed juice to ice cream.
Marked by a tall spire, the visitor’s center is hard to miss and loaded with information about Victoria such as where to dine, activities and attractions. You can also purchase a Pass it Around Victoria booklet ($39.72 plus GST), which includes entrance to seven attractions, the Maritime Museum of BC and Craigdarroch Castle among them.
Here are a few of my recommendations for the best things to see and do:
The Butchart Gardens
With more than 1 million visitors per year, The Butchart Gardens, located 14 miles north of Victoria, has won numerous awards and is often considered one of the most beautiful gardens anywhere in the world. Tickets are available from CVS Tours (in front of the Empress) or as part of an afternoon tea package at the same hotel.
What started as a depleted limestone quarry, the gardens were transformed over time through the lifelong vision and work of Jennie Butchart, who started with little more than some sweet pea seeds and a rose bush. During the day, Jennie could be seen hanging on ropes on the limestone rock wall, planting soil and ground cover in the nooks and crannies. Her hard work and perseverance paid off, making The Butchart Gardens the envy of the world.
Today, visitors can tour 55 acres of lush landscaping and gorgeous, colorful flowers in 5 gardens: The Rose, Japanese, Mediterranean, Italian and Sunken. There are also plenty of green spaces, an old time carousel and fireworks displays on Friday and Saturdays in July and August.
What is lesser known, but equally impressive, are the culinary options available at The Butchart Gardens, which offers everything from casual to fine dining in their aptly named restaurant, The Dining Room.
Using fresh, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, the chef at The Dining Room prepares 45,000 afternoon tea selections each year. The three-tiered trays come with their signature ginger scone, savory tea sandwiches, warm delicacies, house-made sweets, and berry trifle. All of the teas are blended especially for The Dining Room, including their very popular Anniversary Tea made with a combination of Darjeeling, black and gunpowder, as it is called, giving it a slightly smoky taste.
The Dining Room is open for lunch and dinner with a nice selection of seasonal cuisine like wild BC salmon and Cowichan Valley chicken breast. You can pair the fare with any number of their fine wines while enjoying one of the loveliest viewing spots in the gardens.
Victoria is the oldest city in the Pacific Northwest and has had quite a notorious history with a number of notable, unsolved murders. Consequently, there are plenty of stories of apparitions seen in and around town.
John Adams and his son Chris provide 90- minute guided ghostly walking tours of Victoria at night and are high on Trip Advisor’s list of activities. Using a combination of history, humor and showmanship, John and Chris give the living a glimpse into the seedy side of Victoria’s past that could possibly include those still hanging around.
Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress
Your visit to Victoria would not be complete without taking part in the time honored tradition of The Fairmont’s Afternoon Tea. With a history that spans more than 100 years, the Empress has entertained celebrities, dignitaries and the public in a lavishly decorated setting.
As you enter, you can’t help but be impressed with the ambiance of soft music, chintz fabrics and antique tapestries. Add to this impeccable service and a view of the Inner Harbor and you are ready to experience something special.
After a bowl of fresh fruit with cream, your server will ask for your tea preferences. The Empress Blend is the most popular and will be served in china first used in 1939 for the Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Often confused with High Tea (dinner), Afternoon Tea is served at the Empress at a price of $59.95 per person. Some of the delectable finger-food sandwiches include bone-in ham with tarragon and a blend of mayonnaise and mustard, free range egg salad, cucumber and ginger mascarpone, and Moroccan spiced coronation chicken on marble rye.
That’s all just for starters. Next up are a pistachio raspberry dacquoise, a tropical fruit lamington, an Earl Grey mascarpone tea cup, and citrus vanilla shortbread.
Strolling along Government Street, you will find a number of retail shops offering gelato, fudge and other sweet temptations. Rogers’ Chocolates is one of those that have been selling their hand-wrapped chocolates since 1885. The shop is decorated in Victorian style and the colorful red and white confection wrappers contain flavors like caramel and wild cherry cream. These are hard to resist and you have to try at least one while you are in town.
The Dutch Bakery & Coffee Shop
Around the corner onto Fort Street and a few blocks down is the Dutch Bakery, a popular spot for locals. This is a three generation, family run restaurant serving comfort food and pastries at affordable prices since 1956.
The Blue Fox
A little further up the street, you might notice a line spilling out the door of the Blue Fox Café. Best described as an eclectic café with a gourmet twist, this is the perfect spot for a memorable breakfast or lunch.
The most popular breakfast item is their Eggs Benny, made with soft poached eggs, locally smoked ham, house made hollandaise sauce, and a toasted Mount Royal bagel ($12).
Another item that could easily be called a dessert is their Orange Del Sol. Listed under French toast, this is the sinfully delicious choice for eaters who don’t like French toast. They start with a batter dipped, thick cut slice of cinnamon scented French bread; add vanilla bean sour cream sauce, naval orange segments, and roasted pecans; and top it off with triple sec syrup ($12).
The secret to the Blue Fox’s success seems to be its owner Rosamund Hartcourt, who creates the dishes and a comfortable working environment that result in very little staff turnover. This is probably the reason they have amassed a loyal following in Victoria since 1991.
Red Fish Blue Fish
Located in an up-cycled cargo container on Wharf Street, Red Fish Blue Fish has diners lining up an hour before opening time. They serve local fare sanctioned by the Vancouver Aquarium conservation program, Ocean Wise. Selections offered are Pacific halibut, albacore tuna, Fanny Bay oysters, and the recommended grilled salmon sandwich, the latter of which is simple and delicious and will leave you wanting another one the following day.
In one of the episodes of the old Twilight Zone television show, a stressed out businessman at the end of his rope falls asleep on a train and dreams of a simpler, less harried life in a fictional town called Willoughby. Victoria is a little like that— a place where, in the words of Rod Serling, a person can slow down and live life “full measure.” Take a trip back in time to a relaxing yet engaging destination where the people are friendly, the scenery is beautiful and the attractions and food will have you planning your next visit even before you depart for home.
Victoria Clipper Vacations- www.clippervacations.com
The Victoria Clipper is one of the best ways to travel to the island from Seattle. Seating is plush and comfortable with tables and electrical outlets in many areas. There is an onboard, duty-free shop; a kitchen and bar service. Prices vary depending upon the length of your visit and the time of year. Check their website for details.
In addition, you can book your entire vacation through Clipper Vacations, which offer discounted hotel rates and rental cars. Their packages are affordable, can be booked online or via telephone and include Victoria, Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress, golfing, the Canadian Rockies, Vancouver, Portland, and multi-city travel.
The Butchart Gardens
The Fairmont Empress
Dutch Bakery & Coffee Shop
Blue Fox Café
Red Fish Blue Fish