Western Canada’s oldest city and British Columbia’s capital, nestles on Vancouver Island’s southeast coast. Once a regional outpost for the Hudson’s Bay Company, it was founded by Sir James Douglas and established in 1843.
Its waterside location, with Saanich Inlet and Tsehum Harbour to its north and Esquimalt and Victoria harbours at its south, enables visitors to embark on boat tours to watch the resident pods of orcas and view the abundant sea life including seals, sea lions, porpoises and the occasional minke whale.
If you feel there are few chances of seeing an orca or minke, rest assured that all the whale watch companies use spotters to make certain a whale sighting happens on nearly every trip. They operate from May to September.
Away from the marine life, the city offers an abundance of attractions, many of which are around the inner harbour. Victoria’s famous Carillon tower – Canada’s largest – was a Centennial gift from the British Columbian Dutch community. It houses more than 60 bells and at noon, plays host to a daily musical performance.
Not far away, across Belleville Street, are the imposing Parliament Buildings. These were built in 1898 at a cost of nearly $1 million. Architect, Francis Rattenbury, had only just arrived in British Columbia, when he won the design project in a competition. At night, the entire building is illuminated with more than 3,000 lightbulbs.
Francis Rattenbury was also the designer of the equally magnificent Empress Hotel, facing Government Street. Built in 1908, the building retains its “Englishness” by inviting guests to traditional tea in the main lobby. The hotel is also home to Miniature World, named the “greatest little show on earth”, and rated a “gem attraction” by the AAA. It is a memorable experience in sound, light and animation.
Close by, the Royal British Columbia Museum and Imax theatre is host to countless breathtaking exhibitions and performances. Set in the inner harbour area, it is easily reached from the surrounding attractions and is always superb value for money.
As the museum is virtually next door to Thunderbird Park, it is well worth taking time out and wandering among the impressive and intricately carved totem poles on display. The Park has been part of Victoria’s tourism for around 60 years.
Whether it’s long haul or short visit, accommodation is king. Among the city’s many hotels is the Chateau Victoria on Burdett Avenue. Its central downtown location makes it ideal, and its rooftop restaurant – Vista 18 – has stunning views. A major factor is the hotel’s courtesy collect-and-return transport which runs from the inner harbour direct to the forecourt. With parking facilities, heated indoor pool and 176 guest rooms, the hotel is the perfect place to unwind after all that walking. For more details, go to www.chateauvictoria.com.
Transport around Victoria is plentiful. BC Transit runs 365 days a year, is convenient, safe and clean. A daypass is literally valid all day long from Sooke to Sidney. Another unique way to see the city is with Big Bus which operates a hop-on/hop-off service. The tour lasts 90 minutes and covers more than 20 stops, including Chinatown, Craigdarroch Castle, Rockland, Oak Bay Village, Beach Drive and Victoria’s inner harbour: victoria.bigbusinternational.com has more information.
If your preference is for a little more “wind in your hair”, try Cycles BC on Wharf Street. Rentals are by day, week or longer and they claim the largest selection of rental motorcycles, scooters and bicycles in Canada: www.cyclebc.ca has all the details.
When the pangs of hunger strike, Victoria offers plenty of choices. If Greek food is your preference, try Ithaka on Yates Street. Family owned, they offer a wide choice from steak to classic Greek dishes. Millos, on Burdett Avenue, is right next door to the Chateau Victoria. Open seven days a week, the portions are huge, the service and ambiance first class. You can enjoy Greek ribs, pasta, steak and savoury rack of lamb to name a few.
Japanese Village on Broughton Street is the place to indulge in Teppan Grill or the Art of Sushi. The restaurant has been voted best of the city since 1995. Alternatively, if Chinese food tickles your palette, try Ming’s on Quadra at Johnson, in downtown Victoria. Walk through the Moongate and visit a world of vegetarian, superb Cantonese and Szechuan. With takeaway service, it opens seven days a week but reservations are appreciated. If traditional food is more to your taste, Smitty’s on Douglas Street serves up a hearty breakfast with excellent service and very friendly, courteous staff.
Back on the tourist trail, if you journey a little further afield, the Butchart Gardens is a must see. Open daily, this 20 hectare garden not only displays a kaleidoscope of dramatic colour but also includes a summer fireworks display on Saturday evenings. If you visit in December, the whole area is transformed into a winter wonderland with thousands of Christmas lights, decorations as well as entertainment and an outdoor ice rink.
The Gardens have bloomed for nearly 100 years and are one of Canada’s National Historic Sites. Five minutes away from Butchart Gardens, is Victoria’s Butterfly Gardens. Here you can feast your eyes on koi, tropical birds, butterflies, exotic flowering plants, orchids and plenty more. Keep your camera primed and guided tours are available. Family discounts for groups of 10 or more are offered.
You can’t really visit a new city without browsing for souvenirs or indulging in more serious shopping. In Victoria, simply pick a direction and go for it. Speciality stores are just a short hop from the inner harbour area. Government Street has an abundance of shops, galleries, jewellers and food stores. Some are hidden away on side streets. It can be so easy to spend the entire day browsing.
Visit Munro’s Books and explore a comprehensive selection of American, British and Canadian authors. The store has been described as “the most magnificent bookstore in Canada” and recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. If you venture further along Government Street, you’ll find The Original Christmas Village–a famous store indulging in year round Christmas. This is one attraction you and your kids might find hard to leave.
All in all, Victoria offers plenty of attractions to keep its visitors returning. If you’ve been there already, your visit helped gain the city a place in the Canadian Top 10 for Family Vacations. If you’ve still to visit, you’re sure to enjoy the experience.