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Story by Vicki Andersen

Photos courtesy of Tourism BC

I’ve been on foot, driving a car, riding in a motorhome, and piloting a motorcycle while making the crossing by ferry and by hydrofoil. I’ve herded friends and family and luggage and way too many shopping bags around town. Heck, I’ve even clumped down the imposing halls of the Empress Hotel in my ski gear, weaving in and out of tourists while balancing skis and poles and winter gear.

Yet the Lady never fails to welcome me, or delight me, or surprise me.

Situated on the southern tip of 320-mile long Vancouver Island, largest isle off the west coast of North America, Victoria contradicts its Pacific Northwest location by claiming one of Canada’s driest climates, delightfully mild and congenial year-round.

Named for Queen Victoria of England, the city launched in 1843 as Fort Victoria, an outpost of the Hudson Bay Company. It has since become the capital of British Columbia, third-largest province of the largest country in the world. She surprises and delights her visitors with a language and culture familiar to visiting Americans, yet tinged with enough history and English influence to make you feel you’ve been transported abroad.

There is no better place to start your tour of Victoria than a stroll along the Inner Harbour Causeway, circling James Bay. Spend a few minutes relaxing on conveniently situated benches and soak up the sights and sounds of the Harbour. Populated by vessels ranging from sailboats to tugs, barges to cruise ships, float planes also bob on the soft swells. Getting around town is easy and entertaining -- the hard part is choosing among horse-drawn carriages, pedicabs and double-decker buses in addition to the usual transportation offerings.

Energetic visitors keep busy with an endless selection of year-round pursuits. Water lovers can surf, kayak, windsurf, sail or toss a line for great fresh- and salt-water fishing. Scuba divers will find a number of underwater marine parks with sunken shipwrecks, artificial reefs, and an underwater interpretive trail. Vancouver Island’s sites are so plentiful and fascinating, the Cousteau Society rates them second only to the Red Sea for winter diving.

On shore there are several excellent golf courses, numerous hiking and bicycling trails, exhilarating hang glider launch spots, and beautiful campgrounds. Spectacular glimpses of Washington’s Olympic Mountains and San Juan Islands embellish views from various locations throughout the city.

Nature abundantly blessed this region with 48 regional, provincial and federal parks. Exquisite gardens and picturesque scenic drives adorn Greater Victoria. Vibrant hanging flower baskets line the streets all year. Beacon Hill Park, a short walk from the Inner Harbour, was established in the 1890s with 184 acres of exotic and northwest native plants. The Park’s carriage trails and pathways meander through gardens and wildflower meadows, and a petting farm lures young visitors. The Horticulture Center of the Pacific offers 120 acres with 10 formal gardens and the bonus of all plantings bearing labels. Seven acres of public gardens at Government House include a sunken rose garden, woodland garden, perennial displays and a lily pond with resident ducks and koi.

Beautification of a limestone quarry on Saanich Peninsula began a century ago, resulting in a 50-acre show-stopper called Butchart Gardens. Among the stunning features are water ponds, fountains and formal Italian, rose and Japanese gardens. The grounds are awash in night illumination mid-June through mid-September, and pyrotechnics set to music are a highlight of Saturday evenings in July and August.

History buffs find a wide variety of locales and homes that celebrate Victoria’s past. Pass through the Gate of Harmonious Interest and you step into the second oldest Chinatown in North America, founded in the late 1850s. Here is Fan Tan Alley, narrowest street in the Northern Hemisphere and once notorious for its opium and gambling dens. Bastion Square is lined with restored 19th century warehouses, offices and saloons from the boom years of shipping, whaling and goldrush outfitting. Market Square Heritage Shopping Centre, once the home of bawdy saloons and rowdy hotels, now beckons visitors with more than 45 shops and restaurants.

Wonderful stores await the shopper, including specialty nooks like the Scottish House of Tartans, Irish Linens, Rogers Chocolates, Murchie’s Tea & Coffee and three amazing Christmas outlets. With the exceptionally favorable exchange rate between the American and Canadian dollars, you can load up with treasures.

Near or at the top of every visitor’s list is, or should be, the Royal British Columbia Museum. Forming a triangle with the Parliament Buildings and Empress Hotel, a cornucopia of natural and human history is presented in life-size dioramas, native plant and rock gardens, and galleries of art and artifacts. A trip into centuries past is effortless when you stroll through recreations that include a cobbled-street town with late 1800s storefronts, a Chinatown, a full-size sailing vessel, and mining and logging operations.

The Maritime Museum depicts the history of BC’s seafaring history with more than 5,000 nautical objects and Canada’s largest model ship collection. Prince Albert’s Miniature World presents over 60 displays of dollhouses, battle scenes, villages and towns -- all created in minute, painstaking detail. Built in 1925, the Crystal Garden glass-roofed conservatory rewards visitors with waterfalls, luxuriant tropical gardens and a delightful assortment of birds, animals and butterflies.

Completed in 1898, the Parliament Buildings incorporate native materials in a blend of Victorian, Roman and Italian Renaissance architecture. Outlined in more than 3300 lights, this has to be the showpiece of Victoria’s nightscape. Nearby Thunderbird Park displays ancient native totem poles and first-hand observation of modern carvers carrying on the tradition of creating these masterpieces. Craigdarroch Castle, built in 1889 by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, is a four-story 39-room dwelling that includes 35 fireplaces and authentic furnishings from the late 19th century. Commissioned and lavishly appointed in oak, rosewood and teak by Dunsmuir’s son, James, Hatley Castle is 200 feet long, 86 feet wide and its turret soars 82 feet into the air. Sample Olde England with a visit to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, a full-sized replica of her thatched home filled with antiques from that period and situated in replicated 16th century village. Tours include fascinating tidbits of facts and trivia about Shakespearean times.

After all this sightseeing and shopping, enjoy a welcome reprieve by taking Afternoon Tea (actually a meal in itself) at the Empress Hotel. The wood-paneled halls and lavish but stately décor impart a sense of British Colonialism, and a meander through the Palm Court imbibes the aura of exotic lands. This Grand Dame of British Columbia hotels is even rumored to have a resident ghost or two!

Whether you’re in search of atmosphere or activities, sight-seeing or shopping, a visit to Victoria provides endless excitement and lasting memories.

Tourism Victoria: www.TourismVictoria.com 800-663-3883
Tourism BC www.HelloBC.com 800-HELLO-BC

Vicki Andersen may be reached at: skicat1@comcast.net.




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