As preparations begin for my first-ever Victoria vacation -- not to mention my first-ever trip to British Columbia -- I'm eager to finally see beautiful Victoria for myself.
The bright red double-decker buses, elegant Victorian and Edwardian-style architecture, quaint tearooms and dazzling gardens always make me nostalgic for my too-short stay in London and the Devonshire countryside.
After reading up on the city and its history, though, I realize there's more to discover than Old-World Victoria I've an island to explore. Victoria vacation, here I come!
Wanting a complete experience for this, my latest vacation in Canada, I decide to forego the faster but more impersonal air approach and instead cross the Strait of Georgia via ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo. Renting a car at the airport, I drive north through downtown Vancouver to picturesque Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver, where the Sea-to-Sky Highway begins.
It's early Friday afternoon, rush hour for BC Ferries. "The island," as it's fondly called by locals, is a popular weekend retreat for mainlanders. Fortunately, they've added an extra sailing and I'm driving up the ramp onto the Queen of Cowichan in no time.
As we glide out into Howe Sound I realize only a handful of people have joined me at the ferry's prow, where the full force of the wind can be felt. I watch the Coast Mountains recede into the distance while we wind our way past pristine islands with nothing but the quiet sea surrounding us. I can almost imagine a time before the arrival of the Europeans, when The First Nations people paddled these waterways.
Ninety minutes after leaving port, Departure Bay comes into view and lively Nanaimo Harbour brings me back to the present. Nanaimo is the island's second largest city, graced with a small-town vibe and one of the prettiest shorelines in Canada. Aptly named "The Harbour City," it's only an hour and a half away from Victoria along Highway 1. Strolling along Nanaimo's Harbourfront Walkway and the Old City Quarter turns out to be a pleasant way to spend an afternoon.
There are plenty of great dining options here, the most unusual being Dinghy Dock, a floating pub moored at nearby Protection Island. But I can't resist the lure of fresh seafood at Troller's Fish & Chips (open summers on the wharf).
Naturally, I order the fish and chips (halibut), and enjoy watching the fishing boats, pleasure craft and float planes come and go as I eat. A few doors away at Javawocky, I decide to sample the famous Nanaimo Bar for dessert. The chocolate coconut-custard confection definitely lives up to its hype.
Since my goal is to reach Victoria before dark, I head south through Cowichan Valley (meaning "land warmed by the sun") to soak in as many of the nearby towns and villages as I can before sunset. First stop is Chemainus.
I leave the car at Waterwheel Park and take a quick look around the self-proclaimed "City of Murals." Searching for a way to attract tourists when it was announced that the sawmill would close in 1982, this town put itself on the map by hiring professional artists to create an outdoor art gallery of murals.
Today, the quaint seaside community is famous for its self-guided tour of more than 40 murals and 13 sculptures depicting the local history of The First Nations and early pioneers. My favorite turns out to be the first in a new series featuring the life of Emily Carr, Canada's preeminent female artist. The year-round Chemainus Theatre Festival is another good reason to spend a day enjoying the sights, shops and eateries of Old Town.
Next on my route is historic downtown Duncan, nicknamed the "City of Totems", for its collection of 80 or so intricate and colorful totem poles all created by native carvers, many from the Cowichan tribes. Besides being known as the boutique capital of the Island, Duncan is also home to the Quw'utsun' Cultural and Conference Centre, where visitors can experience First Nations' culture, crafts, ceremonies and cuisine firsthand, and visit a gallery showcasing up to 100 Coast Salish artists.
On impulse, I decide to take one last side trip off the highway to Cowichan Bay. My pre-sunset view of this charming seaside village from the end of a long wooden pier makes the diversion worthwhile. Perched above the water with views of Fishermen's Wharf, seaplanes, boats and floating homes, there are dozens of taverns and historic restaurants piled practically on top of one another, serving everything from British pub fare to seafood right off the boat.
Leaving "The Warm Land" for "The Garden City," I realize I could easily spend a couple of days in any season exploring the Cowichan region with WorldMark Victoria as my home base (Ask about staying here for your Victoria vacation). I satisfy myself for now with thoughts of my Victoria vacation: meandering through rolling countryside, touring cider works and wineries, hiking through ancient forests and driving up the coast with its spectacular views.
We were finally able to arrange a Victoria vacation reunion for all six of us. When we walked into our condo, the view over the harbor at Victoria was like looking at a giant jigsaw puzzle picture. It was too gorgeous to be real. At any time of day or night you would find one of us out on the deck watching the harbor traffic. For one week we laughed, we remembered, and we made wonderful new memories. When a friendship endures decades of change and distance, it is marvelous to find that those warm memories of happy times can be enriched by new experiences." -- Timeshare Owners Gregory & Michelle
My arrival -- the official start of my Victoria vacation -- is everything I anticipated. Even at 9 p.m. the city is full of life. Excited crowds fill the sidewalks everywhere I look lined up in front of restaurants and nightclubs, strolling around the Inner Harbour, heading to the theater. The route to the resort takes me along historic Belleville Avenue past horse-drawn carriages, the regal Fairmont Empress Hotel and the stately Parliament Buildings, lit up like Christmas trees in all their glory. Minutes later, I'm checking in at WorldMark Victoria (Ask about availability).
This Victoria vacation resort really is in the middle of everything. From its vantage point overlooking the mouth of the bustling Inner Harbour, the WorldMark Victoria vacation rental is only 15 minutes from downtown shops, restaurants, pubs, bookstores and a wealth of attractions that bring history to life. (There's a waterfront walk that runs just behind the property.) Its Kingston Street address puts the resort in the James Bay district Victoria's original upper-class neighborhood where the city's founding families built their mansions a stone's throw from Fisherman's Wharf. Looking down from my balcony, I marvel at this colorful hodgepodge of houseboats, yachts, fishing boats, seaplanes and food merchants. I've read that Barb's Place, open seasonally, is reputed to have the best British-style fish and chips in Victoria (and confirm this for myself a few nights later).
Being a first-timer, I start my explorations with a Victoria city tour to squeeze in as many of the best "tourist" spots as possible. At the front desk, Natalie Michaud helpfully explains that two companies offer hop-on, hop-off narrated tours during high season, and recommends Big Bus Victoria because it has more stops. (In low season, Gray Line offers a 90-minute continuous tour.) I buy my ticket right there at a 10 percent discount it's good for two days and board in front of the hotel next door how convenient!
Still new to the area, my guide Howard is a font of knowledge and his enthusiasm for his new home is contagious. It quickly becomes clear during my Victoria vacation that Victoria is a city of contrasts, where history blends into contemporary life almost seamlessly. One minute I'm riding along the bustling Inner Harbour watching the crowds as they line up for kayak and whalewatching tours, stretch out on the sprawling lawn of the Parliament Buildings, or stroll the lower causeway promenade where buskers perform and street vendors ply their wares. Next, we're in Old Town passing cobblestoned Bastion Square with its boutiques, gift shops, markets and courtyard cafés.
Taking a Victoria vacation is a good idea year-round, but if you're considering taking your Victoria vacation in winter, consider scheduling a trip around one or more of Victoria's annual winter events. In January, consider Skate Canada, the Victoria Whiskey Festival, or the Victoria Film Festival.
Enjoying your Victoria vacation in February? Enjoy Chinese New Year, the Victoria Tea Festival, the Maple Sugar Festival (in Nanaimo), or the fun "Dine Around, Stay in Town."
Then we head along historic Wharf Street, a sleepy little part of town that was overrun by gold seekers on their way to newly discovered gold fields on the mainland transforming it into a wild frontier city almost overnight. Among those who came and stayed were a few hundred Chinese citizens who settled nearby Chinatown. As we pass through, our driver points out famous Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada (and perhaps the world) at four feet wide.
Our tour continues into some of Victoria's older neighborhoods. My favorite is Oak Bay developed by Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) for the Crown Colony's elite with its English ambiance, grand estates, tea houses, galleries, bistros and scenic beaches. In Rockland I take advantage of the stop for Craigdarroch Castle to take a self-guided tour of this 20,000-square-foot Victorian mansion, built in 1890 for Robert Dunsmuir, a wealthy industrialist and politician.
Returning downtown along the Scenic Drive (Beach Drive and Dallas Road), I encounter one of the most stunning sights I've ever seen. Looming in the distance over Juan de Fuca Strait is Washington State's Olympic National Park. The snow-topped peaks are so close it's almost as though I can reach out and touch them. The strait is less than 20 miles wide at this point making Victoria closer to the U.S. than to mainland Canada.
After passing beautiful Beacon Hill Park with its exotic species of plants and animals, I'm further reminded how passionate the residents are about their gardens when our driver points out Victoria's trademark hanging flower baskets. Each year the city celebrates the start of summer by hanging more than 1,600 Victorian flower baskets from lampposts a European tradition begun in 1937. Another testament to Victoria's pride is the annual Victoria Flower Count in late February when locals begin a ritual, described as a "flower count," to gloat over the rest of Canada that spring comes first to Victoria.
I join the crowd of locals and visitors and continue my explorations on foot. Heading north on Government Street, Victoria's main shopping and dining district, I sample the wares of several merchants: Rogers' Chocolates, one of Canada's premier chocolate makers (the vanilla Victoria Creams are to die for), at its current heritage storefront since 1891; Munro's Books, which occupies a landmark location in the heart of Old Town a refurbished neo-classical structure built for the Royal Bank of Canada in 1909; Murchie's Tea & Coffee, a popular retail store and café, where I treat myself to cream tea and scones; and 90-plus retail stores at The Bay Centre, which is named after its anchor store, The Bay, the main brand of HBC.
Next, I carve out an hour to experience a must-see attraction, the Royal BC Museum. I browse their world-renowned anthropological exhibit, the First Peoples Gallery, which showcases a fascinating collection of artifacts from the island's first inhabitants. Before leaving, I can't resist a quick peek at the Ice Age woolly mammoth (awesome!) and the collection of totem poles in Thunderbird Park, which is visible from the street (and free).
Of the 49 WorldMark resorts that owner Mark Souder has visited so far, he says WorldMark Victoria remains his favorite winter, summer, spring or fall. "I love the Victoria resort in winter I've been going there for the last several years during January when it is on special. And special it is the two-bedroom Presidential units are the tops as they come with their own private hot tub and barbecue, with stunning views of the Victoria Harbour no matter what floor you are on. The sounds of the seaplanes landing, the Coho and Victoria Clipper horns, the water taxi ballet I never get tired of it." With its mild year-round climate, great hiking and cycling, theatrical and music venues, golf, spectacular gardens and attractions for every age, Victoria has all the ingredients for a great Canadian vacation in any season. But winter brings an added bonus it's less crowded. "You've got the place to yourself. In summer, it's elbow-to-elbow," says WorldMark Victoria Resort Manager David Martin. Another plus is that some attractions lower their prices during low season.
Finally, the pièce de résistance The Fairmont Empress. After savoring the elegant lobby which for 95 years has played host to England's most beloved ritual, Afternoon Tea I'm welcomed warmly for a drink in the colonial-style Bengal Lounge. This delightful diversion is followed by dinner on the veranda with a view of the Inner Harbour at sunset. Sitting there, with the best seat in the house, I ask myself how Victoria could possibly top this. Little did I know I'd have my answer the next day at The Butchart Gardens.
Located on the Saanich Peninsula 30 minutes north of the city, The Butchart Gardens is all I expected and more. The 55 acres of breathtaking gardens were designed as a four-season showcase. But it isn't until I discover their origins that I realize what a miracle of nature these gardens are. After Robert Butchart exhausted the limestone quarry near their home, his wife, Jennie, conceived a plan for refurbishing the pit. She had tons of top soil brought in by horse and cart and used it to line the quarry floor. Little by little, under her personal supervision, the site blossomed into the spectacular Sunken Garden, which opened to the public in 1904. More than a century later, the Gardens has been expanded to its current-day splendor featuring more than a million plants throughout the year. I can easily see why Victoria is considered by so many to be one of the world's best cities (and why "Condé Nast Traveler" proclaimed it the 4th Top City in the Americas in their 2009 Readers' Choice Awards.) It's truly the complete package! The latest Victoria vacation guide sums up my adventure best: " All the while, you are immersed in a city that glitters like a jewel in the midst of some of the world's most spectacular scenery." I'm already planning my next Victoria vacation.
This article adapted from an article that appeared in our timeshare owner's magazine about one owner's Victoria vacation.
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