Adventures in Lotusland: Victoria

Victoria has managed to maintain its small-town provincial feel despite the fact that it has drawn so many to share its blessings.


Adventures in Lotusland: Victoria

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

Victoria is a typical small port…its centre-city is focused around the waterfront. That does not mean, however, that you’ll be able to walk to all the places that you’ll really want to see. While one highlight of Victoria is the inner-harbour itself, you’ll need some kind of transportation to get to Craigdarroch Castle, the magnificent 1890 mansion built for Robert Dunsmuir and definitely a Victoria highlight. The other "must-see" is Butchart Gardens and they are closer to the ferry terminal at Swartz Bay than they are to the city proper. You might even consider seeing them on your way in from the ferry on route 17; the turn-off is clearly marked. The last "must-see" would be the Royal British Columbia Museum, and if you’ve seen all those things, you are in a small provincial city with a number of other minor attractions, quite a list of restaurants and some shopping. You’ll notice the human scale of Victoria; it’s not a city of soaring office towers. It has become a magnet for Canadian senior citizens who want the climate and who can afford the real-estate prices: so don’t prepare to be dazzled, be prepared to be charmed.${QuickSuggestions} There is not much to "tip off" people in Victoria. The city is clean and has a really "laid-back" feeling to it. If you’re only visiting for a few days, you probably won’t see the Victoria that most of its citizens see…a Victoria of car dealerships and low-lying businesses. Victoria has its share of panhandlers and you’ll find them throughout the entire area bounded by Wharf to Pandora to Government Road. Inside that area and along Belleville Street (first street south of the harbour), you’ll find most of the Victoria that you need.

Many people come to Victoria to experience high tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel…to find out more about that and to find a fantastic selection of tours go to Empress. For the tours, click on "Sightseeing"

${BestWay} A car would be nice in Victoria, but if you don’t have one, there is no problem. To sightsee, particularly to get out to Butchart Gardens or a couple of the other far-flung sites, the ubiquitous Gray Line (Gray Line) is here with their double-decker buses. Tickets for Gray Line can be purchased at the bus depot at 700 Douglas Ave. The depot is literally in the centre of town, just up the street from the Royal B.C. Museum. Sightseeing at a different pace is available in horse-drawn carriages. You’ll find them next to the Parliament Building on Belleville. For a complete picture of all the cab companies and tour operators, go to Tourism Victoria. When you get to the site, go to "Getting Here" and then to "Getting Around"… you can’t fail to find what you need. Other than that, if it’s getting to Victoria from the mainland, you might try Pacific Coach Lines from Vancouver (Pacific Coach). From Washington State, you might try the Coho Ferry that sails to Port Angeles (Coho Ferry). If you want to go "up island", you can get as far as Port McNeill or Port Alberni on Island Coach Lines or Greyhound. There is also Via Rail service as far north as Courtenay.

Harbour Towers Hotel And Suites

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

With a location close to ideal for a visit to Victoria, the Harbour Towers turned out to be an excellent choice. It’s a block back from the inner harbour and in a five-minute walk you can visit the Wax Museum, the Undersea Gardens, the Parliament Buildings, and the Royal British Columbia Museum; and although it has its own restaurant (Impression), there are a number of other restaurants nearby. If you want to walk 10 to 15 minutes, you can access much of downtown Victoria. It’s actually in an area with a lot of hotels, so why this one?

We were looking for a non-smoking two bedroom suite and your options in Victoria in a reasonable price range are fairly limited. There is this hotel and the Royal Scot just steps away down a pleasant street. Then the price goes up. We really liked the suite: a king bedroom with TV, balcony and full bath, a queen bedroom with balcony access and a half bath, a kitchen with a two-burner stove top, microwave and bar fridge, dishes and glassware. The main room was extremely large and divided into living room with balcony, sofa, armchairs, and TV as well as a dining area with seating for six. There is no air conditioning but all the windows open and there are ceiling fans in the living room and the king bedroom. I am inclined to believe that except in odd cases, that would be sufficient. Our eleventh-floor room had nice view over the city toward the Olympic Mountains and the harbour entrance.

Other features of the hotel included the restaurant and lounge, a gift shop and underground parking (2007-$7.42/night). There are also a pool, whirlpool, sauna, and a fitness centre. A sun tanning bed is available and there is a children’s play area. As a full-service hotel there is babysitting (with notice), same-day laundry and dry-cleaning. There is also free Internet in the lobby and safety deposit boxes are available.

In the final analysis it had everything going for it…the only sore point was the lack of speed during check-out. (A convention was leaving as we left…I ended up being about sixth in line with only one girl on the desk.) Otherwise, it was a clean, middle-level hotel, attractive, and in pretty good shape. (My 2007 Internet rate for a two bedroom room charges plus all the add-on taxes and service charges was about $202/night.) Look it up at Harbour Towers.

Harbour Towers Hotel And Suites
345 Quebec Street
Victoria, British Columbia, V8V1W4
(250) 385-2405

Ric's Grill

Member Rating 2 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

There are a number of Ric’s Grills in Western Canada, and they tend to get good reviews (according to the write-ups provided to the customers). This establishment, in a second floor location on one of Victoria’s most interesting streets, is a feast for the eye. It’s an extremely stylish room done in dark browns from the attractive wood tables to the fabrics in the booths to the walls. The latter are hung with a display of smart, attractive abstracts in which the reds dominated. Add some stained glass, marble tile and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the street and it’s all good. The lighting is subdued with small fixtures hanging above the tables. The décor is 10/10.

The service was also a 10/10; who would have believed that the waitress was from our home town 3000 miles away? The menu? The menu is extensive; there are salads ($5 - $17), soups ($6 - $15) and an amazing steak menu (What cut did you want, how big and spicy or not?), for steak is what they do ($24 - $38). You can even add lobster or prawns to that big boy. You’ll also find chicken, lamb, and fish ($24 - $39) as well as pasta in the $20 range. Throw in the big wine list and there’s something for everyone. For sheer choice, let’s give Ric’s 10/10.

We placed three entrée orders: halibut, a 16 oz. spicy rib steak (That would be me, but even though we had arrived early, there was no rare prime rib left.) and a spinach salad with calamari (my daughter, the fussy vegetarian). With all the preamble, the meal was only fair…in fact it was a let-down. We are rarely critical with a restaurant, and with so many things going for it, we were prepared to love this one. I’m afraid I do much better on my own barbecue and that has never cost me $130 plus tip.

On the other hand, the next night we ventured out to the India Curry House at the foot of Fort Street (250-381-7427). Ambience and atmosphere: 5/10, service: 6/10 (and that might be a little generous), and food 8/10. Better, and for 2/3 the price.

Ric's Grill
910 Government Street
Victoria, British Columbia
(250) 381-7427

Swan's Brewpub

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

Brilliant! A brew pub located in the ground floor of a building that was originally a feed and grain warehouse (1913). It was converted into a boutique hotel/ bistro/ brewpub and Buckersfield Brewery in 1988. Its award-winning brewery offerings have made it the best micro-brewery in B.C. and in the country at various times over the years. We would try the Arctic Ale (a light Canadian lager), the Raspberry Ale and the Bitter, and we cannot argue with the brewery’s excellence (Pint $6).

The pub offers breakfast; the menu for the rest of the day includes soups and salads (to $10), snacks and food to share (avg. $8), pub fare (about $10), burgers, sandwiches, and wraps (about $11) and entrées of salmon, steak, chicken, pork , mussels, seafood, and pasta at $15. There are also desserts, coffees, martinis, and scotches but above all that, they offer friendly service, reasonable prices, and live music every night. You have an option of sitting inside or in the glassed-in Victorian patio setting that surrounds the building. It’s got atmosphere; it’s got it all. I wanted to take it home with me.

We chose to order nachos at $13 and a snack platter (wings, hummus, calamari, veggies, tortilla chips etc.) at $27 and simply snacked-out. It was all good. Did I say that the beer is excellent?

My only regret with Swan’s is that I didn’t discover it until our last night in Victoria; I’d put it high on a list of unpretentious fun-places to spend an evening if you’re in town.

Swans Brewpub
506 Pandora Avenue
Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 1N6
(800) 668-7926

Miniature World

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

You know, sometimes you walk into a place and you think, "tourist trap"? It wasn’t; in fact, it was charming. The attention to detail, the skill and the imagination kept assaulting us. It wasn’t just that the dioramas in miniature existed, it is admiration for the modellers who created them. And, of course, it’s fun.

Upon entry, there are a number of war scenes…Canadians taking Caen in 1944, the Battle of Saratoga (1777) and the Battle of Bull Run…but then the really interesting displays begin. Follow the Great Canadian Railway on its journey from Vancouver in 1885 through the Rockies, past the scene of the driving of the last spike and on to the Red River and soldiers marching against Louis Riel. The train takes you through Toronto and past Quebec City to a fishing port in the Maritimes.

Another series of dioramas features the American West including a model of Custer’s last stand with a whirl of Indians surrounding the doomed soldiers. Lest you think that much of this is beginning to sound all a little bloody, we pass to flights of whimsy…Santa’s Workshop, the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, Gulliver in Lilliput, the dwarf’s diamond mine and Tatiana’s castle. There are a number of scenes from different Dickensian novels, a group of complex dollhouses and then it’s on to 17th and 20th century London.

Perhaps the best is saved for last…the circus displays. From the Florida winter quarters we travel to a city to see the circus train unload and side-by-side we find the big top, a fair and a rodeo. The detail in this last display is absolutely staggering. There are dozens of moving parts, and only the closest examination will reveal them all. Tourist trap? Not at all, a visit to a beautifully crafted miniature world.

Miniature World
649 Humboldt Street
Victoria, British Columbia
(250) 385-9731

Maritime Museum of British Columbia

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

The Maritime Museum is particularly noticeable for the building in which it is housed. A handsome, Italianate design; it was once the Provincial Courthouse (1887) and while the building is attractive, it has an operating birdcage elevator (1889) and on the third floor, the Court of Vice Admiralty has been lovingly restored. But, I’m ahead of myself, so back to the first floor.

Your wander through this museum begins with a discussion of the native use of the sea and then the coming of the Europeans. In 1789, we find that the Spanish Viceroy established a fort at Nootka to stop incursions of Russians, Britons, and Americans… it resulted in agreements to share the west. Russia would claim rights to the West Coast for 126 years, but it would be the British who would move in during the 1850s and who would eventually move British Columbia into Confederation in 1871. The story is all a bit dry and is told in artefacts and what I tend to refer to now as "stuff to read." As I grow older, I grow less enamoured with "stuff to read," but if you need to know, then you need to know. There are also presentations on seal hunting which was limited in 1911, fishing and whaling and then there is a good story.

In 1901, John Voss and Norman Luxton decided to sail a canoe around the world. They found one abandoned on a beach and modified it, giving it a cabin and a mast. Naming it Tilikum, a native word meaning friendly; they sailed the 38 foot, 50 year old canoe across the Pacific to Australia then across the Indian Ocean to South Africa. From there, they sailed to Brazil and then to England…technically not really around the world, but an amazing voyage nevertheless. The Tilikum, if you haven’t guessed at this point, is the prized possession of the museum.

No western maritime museum would be complete without a gallery dedicated to Canadian Pacific Steamships, the British Columbia Coast service, and the Empress Service. And this is British Columbia, so there is another gallery devoted to "Bennett’s Navy"…BC Ferries. These galleries contain a number of the museum’s 400 ship models. Apart from that, the collection is fairly ordinary… there are representations of wartime vessels and working vessels…a model gallery for models that don’t seem to fit into a category. The collection is fairly extensive with no pretension of being world class. I would think that you would have to have some interest in Maritime history or ship models before you ventured through these doors. If you want to see if you would enjoy a visit, they have a great website at Maritime Museum.

Maritime Museum of British Columbia
28 Bastion Square
Victoria, British Columbia, V8W 1H9
(250) 382-2869

Butchart Gardens

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

When Jennie Butchart decided to turn her husband’s limestone quarry into a garden, she had a few things on her side. Obviously, she had money, but she was also able to borrow workers and equipment from the cement plant, the tall chimney of which still rises just beyond the garden. In answer to the question of whether or not a garden admission could possibly be worth $23 (2007)… yes, don’t miss it. It is the one thing that you must see in Victoria.

Our mid-May visit saw a profusion of tulips in every colour imaginable set in the midst of a number of other varieties of annuals and perennials. Near the beginning of the visit, we made our way into the sunken garden, and it is, indeed, sunken…in the deepest part of the quarry. The quarry walls that were once a hardscape of stone were softened by Mrs. Butchart who planted them with ivy. Now, the green walls are broken only by a small cascade of water. The area is filled with rock features, one of which is a mound covered in plantings that almost obscure the stairway to the top. From that vantage point, you can overlook a large pond and much of the former quarry floor. We learn that Mr. Butchart once stocked a second pond with trout that would rise to feed when he clapped his hands. Beyond that is another vista and yet another pond which houses the beautiful Ross fountain.

Every turn in the walkway opens up a new scene, whether it is a sculpted plant or a massive redwood rising out of swaths of purple, red, and green. For the rose lover there is a larger rose garden with countless varieties, each of which has a small plaque containing the name of the rose and the country and date of its conception. May was too early…we would love to return just to see them in bloom.

From the rose garden we passed into Mrs. Butchart’s first formal garden, the Japanese Garden which can be entered through a torii gate. You can expect understated beauty, winding paths, water features, and stands of bamboo built into a gentle hillside leading down to a small cove where the Butcharts once kept their boat. Once through that garden, we passed the Star fountain and enter the Italian garden… a pleasant, classical place to sit and perhaps have a gelato.

End, or start, your day in the plant identification centre (Take a picture of that mysterious plant with your digital camera and they will be able to identify it for you.), one of the restaurants or in the large, well-stocked, up-scale gift shop. Regardless…no description of Butchart Gardens can truly do them justice; they simply must be seen.

Butchart Gardens
800 Benvenuto Ave
Brentwood Bay, British Columbia, V8M 1J8
(250) 652-4422

Parliament Buildings

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

Victoria’s inner harbour is actually dominated by the Empress Hotel which is at the head of the harbour. The Parliament is huge and occupies much more spacious grounds, but it seems to play second fiddle. A visit won’t take long because not much is open to the public. You can poke about the building on your own, but I have to recommend the free tour (every half hour). We started the tour at the building entrance and moved around the building to a side entrance to move to the atrium under the impressive rotunda. There, you’re surrounded by the provincial crest and large murals depicting major events in British Columbia history. We see Vancouver and Quadra defining the Spanish-British boundary, the arrival of Sir James Douglas of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1852, and the building of Fort Victoria in 1853.

At that point, we were interrupted by Amor de Cosmos (played by an actor, of course). He had been lured to the California gold fields from his home in Windsor, Nova Scotia and it was there that he had his name changed from the more prosaic William Alexander Smith to Amor de Cosmos. Arriving in Victoria in 1858, he started a newsletter in which he was highly critical of Douglas (How could Douglas be the premier and the head of the HBC at the same time? Conflict of interest.) and his cohort, the "Hanging Judge", Begbie.

Amor de Cosmos would sit in the legislature and push to have British Columbia made a part of Confederation (1871) long before either Saskatchewan or Alberta. One of British Columbia’s most colourful figures, he was a true eccentric. Actually, perhaps a little too eccentric; he was declared insane two years before his death in 1897.

The rest of the visit was somewhat less exciting…a look at the stained glass windows celebrating Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee and Victoria’s 60 years. The Legislative Assembly was in session, so only the galleries were open, and the security is intense enough that I was not inclined to go in. So the visit was somewhat limited, but of course, the actor made a piece of British Columbia history come to life.

Parliament Buildings
501 Belleville Street
Victoria, British Columbia

Royal British Columbia Museum

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

The Royal B.C. Museum is a massive building next door to the British Columbia Parliament Building overlooking Victoria Harbour. Its modern exterior is in sharp contrast with the rambling classical legislature on one side and the clan house and totems on its grounds on the other side. There are two permanent collections in the B.C. Museum: the second floor is devoted to natural history; the third floor has an excellent indigenous peoples display and a modern history gallery.

The natural history section starts with a little intensity, a lot of information, first on pre-history and then on climate change. (Sorry, when I’m in tourist mode, it’s hard to turn on my let’s-learn-about-science mode.) From hard-to-learn, we pass through a series of life-size dioramas of wildlife in various areas of British Columbia. Finally, they are wonderful, really well done. Then it’s on to Ocean Station to board Captain Nemo’s Nautilus to take a look at the undersea world. (It’s not an aquarium, but more of a species identification site.)

Up the escalator, on the third floor, we pass through a display of Tsimshian objects. Well, once they may have been objects, today they present as art. Then the collection passes through the ages of native work…Stone Age technology, a pit house, stoneware, fishing and hunting instruments and techniques. There is a mass of material, but the best part of this collection is that with many of the artefacts there are explanations of how they were created or how they were used. There is an impressive gallery of totems and your journey takes you through the clan house behind them.

Eventually, you will pass through the maze of the aboriginal gallery into the maze of the 20th-century gallery…I kept getting lost. I’m sure that small children and 90-somethings can pass through these exhibits without wandering about, doubling back or consulting the map, but I found it all confusing. Think of that as a challenge…me to you. The 20th-century gallery is social history, not so much dates and documents. Walk through a late-19th century town; look in the shop windows, go upstairs at the Grand Hotel to see a room, step into the captain’s cabin of H.M.S. Discovery, see Chinatown; it’s history for the whole family. From there, we passed through a series of dioramas celebrating British Columbia’s industries: farming, mining, forestry, and fishing. It’s all really well done. You can finish your visit in the gift shop which is much better than average.

Royal British Columbia Museum
606 Douglas Blvd.
Victoria, British Columbia
(250) 356-7226

Royal B.C. Museum Titanic Exhibit

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by moatway on June 8, 2007

My name is Masabumi Hosono, 42, a Japanese passenger travelling in second class. At least that is what my boarding pass indicates, and I will find out whether or not I survive the sinking at the end of the exhibit space. We have just seen "Titanica" in the museum’s IMAX theatre space and it has given us a vision of the wreck of a once-great-ship now on the frigid ocean floor. In 45 minutes, it tells the story of the search for the Titanic by an international crew in a Russian research vessel. There is a bit of drama and it is a suitable companion for the exhibit, but it doesn‘t come close to the power of the exhibit itself.

The journey through the exhibit space takes us through design to the launch. We see a reproduction of a first class cabin ($4500 ticket in 1912!) and a third class cabin (only $35... $630 today). An actress in costume plays the part of a first class passenger and she tells her story of the fateful night’s events. She introduced me to Lawrence Beasely, another survivor, who would later write a book about the voyage and sinking. And then there are the artefacts, a surprising number of artefacts.

We will see ship’s fittings: a couple of sinks, tiles, a cherub that once held a light and a spittoon, for instance. There are bottles, dishware, a steward’s jacket and the side armrest from a bench. And then there are the personal possessions, many of which have provenance. It is poignant to see an object and learn about its owner. Oddly, there are papers and paper money. Packed into leather suitcases, they survive.

Arriving in a room containing the names of the saved and the lost, we see the toll: in first class, 201 saved, 123 dead; second class, 118 saved, 166 perished; third class, 183 saved, 527 perished; crew, 212 saved, 698 perished. My conclusion? Rich is good. In the final room, we see the stories of passengers with links to British Columbia and that just about does it. I have heard it said that museums bid on artefacts and that each Titanic exhibit might be different from other Titanic exhibits. The Royal B.C. Museum has put together a particularly fine exhibition but it will close during the fall of 2007.

Oh yes, Masabumi Hosono? I survived.

Royal British Columbia Museum
606 Douglas Blvd.
Victoria, British Columbia
(250) 356-7226

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