Recently we took a short trip to Victoria, BC. We used a Clipper vacation package — you hop on a boat in Seattle which drops you off in Victoria two and a half hours later with, hopefully, your hotel van waiting just on the other side of customs. Most hotels are mere blocks away.
Victoria BC is a small town with a ton of stuff to do, with Butchart Gardens being the one everybody asks about. We did not visit Butchart Gardens because for this short trip the interest level/entrance fee/travel time (it’s about half an hour north of Victoria) didn’t weigh out with my goal of doing nothing much at all. If you are car-less you can get there via a tour bus or the regular public transportation bus.
Victoria is a very walkable/wanderable town, and the Victorian architecture and Canadian-ness of it all make it charming. I was a little worried about the size while looking at the map, but ten blocks in any direction from the hotel had us where we wanted to go so there was never any desire to rent a car or scooter to get around.
On Saturday we rented bicycles and discovered the Seaside Touring Route doesn’t allow them on the path, so you have to ride in the street. We got as far as Clover Point and turned back. The tide was low at Clover Point so we got to see a few sea creatures, and watch one very happy sea otter chew away at a still protesting eel. We were close enough to hear the chewing, it was fascinating and gross at the same time. Good thing the otter was cute. We came across an ice cream and burgers stand on Douglas along the West side of Beacon Hill Park, you can get a soft serve cone and wander back into the park. We watched a game of cricket and found an (albino?) peacock hiding out in some of the tall rocks.
If you want to bicycle in Victoria you’re looking for the Galloping Goose Trail, which we stumbled upon when we went over a train bridge to see what was on the other side. It is a rails to trails conversion and the site linked there gives a very good description. The trail is long, and I am eager to explore it. You can bring bicycles on the Clipper, this all seems ideal.
Saturday night I got a last minute reservation at Cafe Brio (thank you for the recommendation, Chowhound forums) which was excellent, and has a early chefs menu which is a fantastic deal. The restaurant was just as warm and wonderful as people say.
Afterwards we wandered over to the Empress Hotel and had martinis at the Bengal Lounge. The lounge is very cool, it has a colonial England hunting theme and is decorated in such a way as to be lavish and fun but not theme-y. It doesn’t have the same water view as the Veranda, but it does have a more relaxed dress code (by this I mean, you can wear jeans). I had the Victoria martini (I think, I forget the exact name) and can recommend it. But, order it with a twist instead of olives, the gin was smooth and lovely and delicate and the olives were a little distracting. The bartender mists the cocktail glass with orange blossom flower, and shakes the gin carefully, I bet he barely bruised the ice. We sipped and watched waiters come and go. I pretended that each one could have been the guy behind Waiter Rant.
Oh cool, look, the Victoria Gin from my drink is fairly new, it was released in May of 2008. It’s made by a Victoria winemaker on Vancouver Island. I’ll be buying a bottle on my next trip.
Sunday we nursed some hangovers and had late breakfast on the patio at Bon Rouge, which seems like it might be a bit touristy, but was very good. The food and service were perfect and our waiter was charmingly French. The bakery attached had the most fabulous looking pastries, and the menu lists a picnic basket, which sounds just about perfect. The patio has outdoor heaters so it would be a nice spot to eat even on colder days.
Somebody at our hotel recommended we take a look at the Government Street Sunday Market. It was a great little market with a lot of Victoria and Vancouver clothing makers. I was very tempted by a funnel neck sweatshirt made by a company I cannot remember the name of (Loden? Laurel? something like that) if only they had my size in a color I wanted. I’ll be back though. Here is a list of markets in Victoria on Saturdays and Sundays. I heard mention of a Thursday market as well, I wonder where that one is. We stopped in the original Smoking Lily store which really is tiny, like 10 square feet tiny, and fantastic.
We spent the rest of the day wandering along the streets. We stopped at Munro’s Books (I love this story about uncovering the 24-foot ceilings and original marble and hardwood floors, it’s like real estate porn). I bought some small puzzles at Interactivity Games and drooled over things at The Papery. Thanks to Emira at Domicile for recommendations on all these spots. We missed Trounce Alley and next time I’ll carve more space for myself to try on clothes at the various boutiques. We had nachos and beer with a view of the water in the afternoon before we had to head back to the boat. Perfect.
Victoria is a tourist town so you’ll find free (ad-laden) maps everywhere and you’ll never not know how to get to Butchart Gardens or take a whale watching tour. The typical souvenir stores can be found along Government Street. Along with Munro’s Books and a Lush shop there is lots of great architecture to be seen along that street, but the best shops are tucked away on other streets. Here are a few attraction type things we would have eventually gotten around to, but we’re happy to save for future visits when perhaps the weather won’t be so cooperative: Royal London Wax Museum with a chamber of horrors, Miniature World which is in the basement of the Empress, the petting zoo in Beacon Hill Park, Craigdarroch Castle, dining in the Parliament Building, Royal BC Museum, Undersea Gardens, seaplane tours, whale watching boat tours and kayaking tours.
The Clipper was ok, when it’s crowded it’s like being on an airplne. They have coffee and food (not great) and dramamine. In the evenings they have beer, and you can get a little bottle of champagne with breakfast.
Here is the one thing I wish we’d known about the Clipper in advance: when you pick up your tickets you’re assigned a group number for boarding (for both the inbound and outbound trips), the earlier you get your tickets the higher the group number you get, and therefore a better choice of seats. You can go and get your tickets up to seven days in advance at the Clipper office. So, it’s something to keep in mind if you’re able get your tickets early and you’re hoping for a low stress, romantic, take it easy sort of trip. We were in the last group for boarding and considered ourselves lucky that we got to sit together on the way over. So there, you’re in the know, making an effort to get your tickets early will allow you to stroll on board past all the poor souls who have visions of steerage in their heads.
You can also use the Clipper to take a day trip to Victoria. The couple sitting across from us on the way out were doing a trip that included a guided tour bus up to Butchart Gardens and back in time for the return boat that evening. It sounded like a good option for a family or group that wanted to take a trip but didn’t want to have to drive or worry about having a car. It’s something I’m keeping in mind for family visits as there is lots of time on the boat and at Butchart Gardens to talk, but taking the stress off of transportation.