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.
The first destination—practically every tourist’s, for that matter—is ironically not within the city limits but 20km north, the famed Butchart Gardens. For years, I had been pronouncing it as if it were spelled “Bu-shard,” like almost every Seattleite I’ve ever discussed it with. The locals instead have a different pronunciation, more true to its spelling: Bu-chart. Although I thought about including our visit there in this post, it really needs one all its own. Boarding a tour bus at 12:10pm, we arrived shortly before 1. We spent the entire afternoon there, admiring the spring blossoms. The last chartered bus left the Gardens at 4:45pm and got us back to Victoria at 5:30.
We stayed at the venerable Empress Hotel, possibly the most distinctive landmark in all of Victoria by virtue of its grand design and prime location facing the Inner Harbour. It is now owned by the Fairmont chain, which seems to be doing an admirable job of renovating and upgrading the property. Afternoon tea has been a longtime tradition at the hotel and, as such, has commanded a king’s ransom at a minimum of C$51 per person, besides observing a dress code. All this for little sandwiches, cookies and tea. We had experienced tea here before on a previous visit, so we saw no need to do it again.
On check-in, the hotel staff offered us an upgrade to the Fairmont Gold package, normally an additional C$150 per night, but available at an introductory rate of C$50. We gladly accepted because the package included not only a much larger room but full breakfasts, appetizers in the early evening, complimentary wi-fi and personal concierge service at our disposal. Generally, we don’t seek to live high off the hog at hotels but this offer was hard to pass up. Our room was very spacious with nice appointments throughout. Other amenities included a large bathroom that was tiled with marble, an unexpected luxury, and a walk-in closet with a security safe for valuables.
The Fairmont Gold lounge is where all refreshments, including breakfast, are served as well as providing comfortable surroundings for guests to lounge around until it closes at 10pm. After we returned from Butchart Gardens, we decided to have a few appetizers before going out to dinner. To our total surprise, there was a large spread of finger foods, fruits and desserts, as well as complimentary non-alcoholic beverages. Wine, beer and hard liquor were also available at an extra charge, done on the honor system. We didn’t have to go out to dinner at all.
A platter of chocolate-covered strawberries waited for guests when we returned to the lounge later in the evening.
It was back to the lounge for breakfast. What a wonderful way to start off the day! It dawned on us that lunch would be the only meal we’d have to take care of on our own.
While most things to see and do in Victoria are within blocks of the Inner Harbour, the Gardens (above) is one exception. Another is Craigdarroch Castle. We walked the 2km (1.2mi) distance from The Empress to the castle on a cooler and cloudier day than yesterday. Completed in 1890, it is a Scottish baronial castle built for Robert Dunsmuir, who amassed an enormous fortune locally in coal. Now a museum, its four stories house a variety of rooms that the Dunsmuir family occupied, not including Robert who died before the mansion was completed. Interestingly, the castle is roughly divided in half with the owners having lived on one side, the servants on the other. No upstairs/downstairs here. While the furnishings show how the wealthy lived, restored mansions such as these have more architectural and design interest for me. The craftsmanship is evident in the woodwork, stained glass, metalwork, bas-relief and other architectural details. The tour was self-guided.
After walking back to city center, we had lunch at Noodle Cart, a new Thai restaurant that has quite a following. The chocolate confections at Roger’s were tempting but their ice cream bars were more so. Government Street is the hub of many tourist activities, mostly shops and restaurants, Munro’s Bookstore, and Bastion Square that used to have a seedy history but now gentrified with boutiques and restaurants. Irish linen stores and British-y pubs add to a UK flavor. Murchie’s has been selling tea and coffee since 1894, much longer than Starbuck’s. But I got the feeling that some of the old shops are being replaced by tourist crap and franchises. Anyway, the shops held little interest for us.
What sort of surprise awaited us at the Fairmont Gold lounge in the afternoon? It turns out, plenty.
Later on, the appetizer spread was just as impressive and delicious as the day before.
True to forecast, it started drizzling sometime during the early morning hours, not enough to deter our taking in a few more attractions before heading home. After another sterling breakfast, we took a stroll in front of the Parliament Building, admiring the blossoming Mt. Fuji cherry trees that lined Menzies to the west. The beauty of Beacon Hill Park and the quaint neighborhood of James Bay, where Emily Carr grew up and lived, were showcased in a 45-minute horse-drawn carriage ride. The homes in this neighborhood are very desirable, commanding steep prices, because of their nineteenth-century façades yet proximity to downtown Victoria, many of them on the Heritage Register.
With precipitation picking up, our best bet was to go to the Royal BC Museum. I recall how impressed I was when we went through the museum many years ago. Its natural history exhibit is widely regarded as second to none and its anthropological displays of First Nation peoples one of the finest in Canada. Like any great museum, you can spend as little or as much time as you want, and learn something every time. If we weren’t so time-strapped (and maybe less tired after a busy day), we could have stayed for hours. But, we picked up some carry-on dinner at Sam’s Deli, claimed our baggage from the hotel, and boarded the Victoria Clipper to go home.
Fifty-five pleasant hours spent in this most British of Canadian cities.