Off to Victoria, British Columbia, for three nights to escape phones, computers and all the trimmings that come with working at home. The reality of our sweet retreat sinks in as we park in the ferry lane and seek warmth from our fleece blanket on this crisp autumn morning.
We plan to walk everywhere, exploring Victoria on foot – visually soaking in the rich fall colors and feasting on the bounty of foods from the farmer’s fall harvest. A poetic time of year, Keats called the autumn – “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”. While Albert Camus felt “Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower”.
Later in the morning the sun is shining brightly as the Washington State ferry (from Friday Harbor, WA to Sidney, BC) glides smoothly across the glassy water. Soon the ferry is passing the mostly barren side of Spieden Island with its randomly placed ice age boulders. In the early 1960′s the actor, John Wayne, and his business partners imported big game animals here. Their vision was to have a private island for their sport game and hunting hobby. Fortunately, the idea was short-lived and today the forested north side of the island is home to hundreds of European Sika deer, Asian Fallow deer and Corsican Big Horn sheep.
About 75 minutes after departing the San Juan Islands we are slowing for our landing in the port of Sidney, British Columbia. Located at the northern end of the Saanich Peninsula, on Vancouver Island, Sidney is a popular eco-tourist destination, with whale-watching, bird-watching, kayaking and scuba-diving… and a 2o minute drive from Victoria.
Not sure when we last visited Victoria, maybe 6 years ago? In preparation for our trip, and open to the mystery and savings of booking our lodging on Hotwire, I visited their website. After providing the details of our trip (dates of stay, area we want to stay in, how many people) Hotwire provides a list of available hotels in that area with the star rating. The mystery is that Hotwire will only show you the name of the hotel after you have paid for the booking. I prefer 3.5 stars or better, and have read that Hotwire gives the most savings if you use it to book hotels that are better than 3.5 stars (three stars or lower and the savings become small, so you are better booking through the hotel itself). Important note: Hotwire does not refund, so you want to be pretty sure you will be there!
I choose a four star hotel for $80 a night, and am very pleased when Hotwire reveals that we have selected Parkside Victoria Resort & Spa. Situated just one block from the Victoria Conference Center and two blocks from the Inner Harbor, the location is perfect for us – we can walk everywhere and enjoy the quiet that sets in just a few blocks from the downtown. Designed, built, and furnished with sustainable development in mind, it is Canada’s first resort hotel built to LEED® (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards. The grey, charcoal and earth tone palette throughout the hotel helps bring the beauty of the West Coast outdoors inside, and creates a peaceful and calm environment. We thoroughly enjoy our three nights stay in the one-bedroom suite with a kitchenette, and balcony overlooking the interior plant-filled atrium.
Elegant Victoria retains “a bit of Old England” with its beautiful gardens and historic buildings. Named after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and of the Dominion of Canada, Victoria is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, with British settlement beginning in 1841.
Overlooking the inner harbor, the Fairmont Empress Hotel is one of the oldest and most famous hotels in the city. On May 26, 2011, the hotel welcomed the Queen Bee and 400,000 honeybees. The bees now live in the Centennial Garden of The Fairmont Empress and will pollinate Victoria’s hotel gardens. In total, ten hives of European bees will produce over 1,000 pounds of honey which will be featured in the hotel’s restaurants, including world-renowned Afternoon Tea service.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia – “Although the archaeological record is still incomplete, it is clear that native people have occupied Vancouver Island for several thousand years. A tribal village society evolved with an economy based on fishing, collecting and hunting. The abundant marine and forest resources along the coasts supported a culture rich in oral tradition and artistic expression. Two main linguistic families, Salishan and Wakashan, developed and continue to exist“.
In the 1980s, Victoria’s Chinese community entered a period of renewal after a gradual decline over the previous 50 years. The Gate of Harmonious Interest was constructed at the corner of Government and Fisgard Streets as a monument to recognize and preserve the Chinese heritage in Victoria for everyone. The Gate is a gift from Suzhou, China, one of Victoria’s sister cities.
If you walk down Fisgard St. towards Wharf St., make sure to keep your eyes open for Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada. The old opium dens, gambling houses and brothels of Fan Tan Alley have now become novelty stores and souvenir shops.
Victoria is known for its strong support of cyclists and pedestrians and there is an extensive system of paths, multi-use regional trails, and cycle lanes on city streets. We spend much of our time walking around the city, along the waterfront path, and in Beacon Hill Park.
Beacon Hill Park is located in Victoria along the shore of Juan de Fuca Strait. The 200 acre park was officially established in 1882, after being set aside in 1858 by James Douglas, governor of Vancouver Island. The name derives from a small hill overlooking the Strait, which once held navigational beacons. The hill is culturally significant, having been a burial site for the First Nations Coast Salish people, who are the original inhabitants of the Greater Victoria region. Now it provides scenic vistas of the Strait and the Olympic Mountains of Washington.
The park is beautifully landscaped and manicured with bridges, lakes and ponds, and an alpine and rock garden. It is home to many species of ducks, birds and wildlife. I read that a pair of Bald Eagles nests in one of the huge trees, and a large family of Great Blue Herons also nest in a thicket of Douglas-fir trees at the west end of the park. Enjoyed by tourists and locals, the park has woodland and shoreline trails, two playgrounds, playing fields, a petting zoo, tennis courts, many ponds, and landscaped gardens.
A short walk from Victoria’s Inner Harbor is Fisherman’s Wharf… a floating boardwalk with food, shops and colorful float home community.
Not to miss is a walk around the Victoria Inner Harbor after nightfall. The Parliament Buildings light up the sky and cast a magical spell over the harbor.
Attractions in and around Victoria:
- Alcheringa Gallery – Contemporary Indigenous Fine Art of the Northwest coast, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Museum quality aboriginal art.
- Art Gallery of Greater Victoria – The museum features contemporary exhibition space and a historic 19th-century mansion called Gyppeswick, and features a permanent collection of more than 15,000 objets d’art, drawn from Asia, Europe, North America, Canada and Japan. There is a permanent exhibit on Emily Carr and her contemporaries.
- Butchart Gardens – Internationally acclaimed gardens created after Robert Butchart exhausted the limestone quarry near his Tod Inlet home, about 14 miles from Victoria. Still in the family, the gardens display more than a million plants throughout the year.
- Maritime Museum of BC – Enjoy a rich and vast link to the province’s nautical roots. Among a superb array of artifacts, are fascinating displays on Pirates, Heritage Vessels, Shipwrecks and special exhibits.
- Royal BC Museum – A great regional museum with an incredible showpiece of First Nations art and culture, including a full-size re-creation of a longhouse, and a dramatic gallery with totem poles, masks, and artifacts. The museum has an IMAX theater showing a variety of large-screen movies.