"Victoria is such a lovely place," said the lady on my left as we pulled into that city's fabled Inner Harbour. Yes, it is, I thought, and it's no insult to say that its planners beat Disney to the punch, way back in 1908, by creating a terribly attractive town center where there had been only a dismal swamp. It's picture-postcard perfect, that waterfront, from the imposing Legislative Building (looking like a US state capitol) to the Fairmount Empress Hotel and the gorgeous landscaping.
All of Victoria is blessed by accolades from dozens of sources. Just this year, a Canadian poll named Victoria as the best place to live in the country. It's also the healthiest place, with more people walking to work here than in any other Canadian city (10.4% of them, in fact). Canada the country, too, has plenty of fans. Now, even the ex-Wall Street felon, Michael Milken, reformed and enjoying life as a philanthropist, has declared through his Milken Institute that Canada is the best country in the world for building a business. (Hong Kong was first last year, the USA is Number 6 this year.)
Following up on the Disney-like quality of Victoria are the tiny boats of the Victoria Harbour Ferry Company (tel. 250/708-0201; www.victoriaharborferry.com), scuttling around the water between 12 stops. The company also has a 45-minute narrated tour from its downtown home just behind the Victoria Regent Hotel. Short hops between stops from C$4, tours from C$20.
If you like the arts and gardens, Victoria is the place for you. Many tourists make a beeline for the Butchart Gardens (800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay; tel. 888/824-2973; www.butchartgardens.com), 14 miles north of the city, fabled for its night illuminations and entertainment in summer and its magnificent floral displays the rest of the year round. Adult admission from C$16.25 up -- the warmer the weather, the higher the charge.
I prefer human-made art to Mother Nature's, so I head first for the Royal British Columbia Museum (675 Belleville Street; tel. 250/387-2137; www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca), which at time of writing is host to Treasures of the British Museum, until September 30, 2009. Among the 309 exhibits are some of the BM's most celebrated items, including some of the oldest known artifacts made by human hands, they say. Spanning almost 2 million years of human history, the items include an Egyptian mummy, works by Picasso, Renoir, Matisse and Rembrandt, and a large marble statue of Dinoysos, the god of wine. The museum's regular exhibits, especially, I think, those of First Nation (aka Native American) arts and crafts, are spectacular, too. Adult admission (including British Museum Treasures) C$27.50.
Another museum on my list is the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (1040 Moss Street; tel. 250/384-4101; www.aggv.bc.ca), housed in a modern building attached to a 19th-century mansion in a posh residential district. The emphasis here is on Canada and Japan, with what is said to be the only authentic Shinto Shrine in North America, a tiny wooden structure from the Meiji era perched in the miniscule garden. There is an impressive display of Japanese folding screens and an amazing Tokugawa palanquin from the 18th century. A good display of ukiyoe prints includes works by Utamaro, Hiroshige and Hokusai, and don't miss the big shell game (kaioke) exhibit from the 18th or 19th centuries. Adult admission C$12.
An imposing mansion, with a very sad story, is just a few blocks from the Art Gallery. This would be Craigdarroch Castle Historic House Museum (1050 Joan Crescent; tel. 250/592-5323; www.thecastle.ca). It was built from 1887 to 1890, but was never lived in by the owner, Robert Dunsmuir, who died before it was finished. His widow lived here for 18 years and got involved in a series of disputes with her children, including suing her son, James, when he was premier of the province. After her death, the place was sold in a raffle, and later became a military hospital and a college. The finest of materials (many prefabricated) were used in this stunning house, many of them imported from the U.S. (Dunsmuir was a colleague of several American railway barons, himself having made his money from selling coal to the railroads in Canada and the U.S.) Adult admission C$12.
Down near the waterfront, fittingly, is the Maritime Museum of British Columbia (28 Bastion Square; tel. 250/385-4222; www.mmbc.bc.ca), in an 1889 building right on Victoria's historic and charming Bastion Square. The museum is starved for money, not even having a brochure to hand out, but its website is quite good. I was most impressed by a replica of the iron cage in which pirates, such as Captain Kidd, were hanged and by the Tilikum, an enhanced dugout canoe that sailed from Victoria to England back in the early 1900s, around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. Its hull is one, huge hollowed out redwood trunk, dating back at least to 1860. Some tourism sources say you can ride in North America's "oldest operating birdcage elevator," but the museum really wants to reserve that privilege to persons with disabilities. Adult admission is C$10.
Talk with fellow Frommer's cruisers on our British Columbia Forum.