A geographical oddity was created when the Oregon Treaty of 1849 ceded Vancouver Island to the British. Victoria, capital of British Columbia, along with approximately one-quarter of Vancouver Island, lies below the 49th parallel. Yet, for all its proximity to American cities—closer to Bellingham and the American San Juan Islands than to Vancouver—it has a distinct feel that has been described as British.
Over twenty years ago, my wife and I (with our young children in tow) visited Victoria for the first time. The details of that visit are fuzzy, though I do recall how British it felt. Even if the city is named after Queen Victoria and the stately Empress dominates the Inner Harbour with its Edwardian appearance, the impression of English-ness was not based on any firsthand experience of Britain, because I’ve never been there. So, what does a British city look like? And who’s to say Victoria doesn’t look more British than, say, London or Liverpool? Yet, there is the culture of afternoon teas, famously promoted by the Empress Hotel, and civic obsession with gardens, both of these being culturally, well, British—eh? We have come here one more time, also many years ago. Our infrequent visits were not because we didn’t like Victoria—far from it—but because we learned that the city had always been dumping untreated, raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which Victoria shares with the U.S. Olympic peninsula, and had no plans to do anything about it. So many Washingtonians decided to boycott Victoria until things were cleared up, so to speak. I was one of them.
In 2006, the BC government ordered the city to develop a sewage treatment plan. Victoria complied and has committed to installing a secondary treatment facility, scheduled to begin construction in a few years. With this kind of news, it was time to go back for a visit. Our local AAA was running a special that included transportation on the marine vessel Victoria Clipper and lodging at one of three accommodations, including The Empress. There is no need for a car, for the Clipper drops passengers off at the Inner Harbour, only blocks from any of the hotels, and most of the attractions would be within walking distance.
We would have 55 hours to enjoy the city before taking the Clipper back to Seattle.