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Like its Big Three neighbors in the Pacific Northwest, Victoria is a healthy place to live, the Canadian government saying is it the fittest city in the country and the most walkable. More people walk to work here than in any other city, 10.4% in fact. The nearby Big Three (Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, all with many more people than Victoria's 75,000 or so), incidentally, are also all very fit, and very green, places. But Victoria has location (the sea), location (the mountains) and location (mild climate) in its favor.

Highlights

The center of everything Victoria is the Inner Harbour, where the huge BC Parliament (Legislature) Building and the Fairmont Empress Hotel occupy two of the three sides, the Visitors Center and boat/floatplane docks the other. Ask at the tourist office for the Walk Downtown Victoria pamphlet, which outlines, with good maps, six one-hour loop walks and gives you their "Top Ten photography locations" as well. The six hikes, all within a 15-minute radius by foot from the Visitor Center, are Westsong Walkway, Upper Harbour, Secret Passages (including Chinatown), James Bay West and James Bay East, and City of Trees and Gardens. I took the third, featuring the oldest Chinatown in Canada (c. 1856) and its newest addition, Dragon Alley, where I can recommend the neighborhood-friendly, non-chain Union Pacific Coffee Shop for a good cuppa and cozy ambience, from $1.75 and up.

The Royal British Columbia Museum has a renowned First Peoples exhibit, as well as outstanding galleries for Natural History, the 20th Century and Modern History. In the First People's Gallery you'll find a dozen or more totem poles, Haida shaman figures, Tsimshian shaman objects including exquisite spoons, ladles and grease bowls, and a Kwakwaka'wakw Big House, among many more items. Outside are several totem poles in Thunderbird Park. Royal British Columbia Museum, 675 Belleville Street, Victoria, tel. in US and Canada 888/447-7977 or 250/356-7226, website www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.

At the opposite end of scale in size is the Victoria Bug Zoo, where kids and adults can enjoy more than 50 species of insects, including bird-eating tarantulas, efflorescent scorpions and Canada's largest ant farm, among other things. You can buy bugs, too, a tarantula going for only $60. Near Inner Harbour, too. Admission $8, less for students, kids, seniors. Victoria Bug Zoo, 631 Courtney Street, Victoria, tel. 250/384-BUGS, website www.bugzoo.bc.ca.

Canada's Napa Valley

One of the few First Nations (Cowichan Tribes) owned and operated vineyards in Canada, Cherry Point Vineyards is just 45 minutes north of Victoria in what some call Canada's Napa, the Cowichan Valley. Its 24-acre vineyard is the second largest in the Cowichan Valley, and they produce ten main varieties and eight limited varieties, including Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc. There's a bistro as well, open from April through December, a main course of mussels and clams at lunch from $13, and several winemakers dinners yet to come in October, November and December. Cherry Point Vineyards, 840 Cherry Point Road, Cobble Hill, tel. 250/743-1272, website www.cherrypointvineyards.com.

There are seven distinct regions in what they call here The Wine Islands, meaning Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands in the protected Strait of Georgia. More info at www.wineislands.ca.

Activities

You can rent a horse and carriage for a Waterfront Tour at $80 (30 minutes), or a shorter trip for less, all the way up to a 90-minute trot for $200, all starting from alongside the Parliament's Legislative Buildings on the Inner Harbour. Much cheaper are rides on horse-drawn wagons at $15, less for seniors, students and children. Tally-Ho Carriage Tours, tel. 250/514-9257, website www.tallyhotours.com.

If you suffer from hippophobia (fear of horses), there's the Royal Blue Line double decker bus (top deck open), which has several options, starting at $14 for a 35-minute route (half price for children). Their tours operate also from near the front of the Legislature Building on Belleville Street. Blue Line, tel. 800/663-1128 or 250/360-2249, website www.royalbluelinetours.com.

Whale watching is always fun, especially in gorgeous weather. One good company offering tours is Ocean Explorations, starting from its office a couple of blocks from the Inner Harbour. Prices begin at $59, and they have discounts for students, groups and families. They have been in business over ten years now. Ocean Explorations, 602 Broughton Street, Victoria, tel. US and Canada 888/442-ORCA or 250/383-ORCA, website www.oceanexplorations.com.

If you want a bird's eye view, try a float plane with West Coast Air, from as little as $99 for a 20-minute flight above the capital. They use the wonderful Canadian built deHaviland Beaver. They'll also fly you over the Olympic Mountains down in the States or take you to the Wine Islands with a one hour stopover wine tasting and souvenir bottle of wine (the Wine Flight is $279). In addition, they have daily scheduled service to downtown Vancouver Harbour and Vancouver International Airport, at $119 and $109, respectively, one way. West Coast Air, tel. 877/388-4521 or 250/388-4521, website www.westcoastair.com.

Dining Out

If you want trendy, Sanuk is it. Located in the Magnolia Hotel near the Inner Harbour, Sanuk is an Asian "fusion plus" restaurant that features attentive service, innovative cuisine (tapas-style smaller dishes) and throbbing music, live on Saturday nights. I had the sweet and sour (dry) pork with (dry) fried rice for $13 and was told later the sticky pork side ribs at $12 might have been a better bet. A glass of Bombshell Blonde Ale at $4.50 was a sure winner. Sanuk, Magnolia Hotel, tel. 250/920-4844, front page-only website www.sanukinfusion.com.

For a quick and tasty lunch, consider the Noodle Box, close by the Royal Museum and Inner Harbour again. This former street food vendor could do with better ventilation in its storefront digs behind the Fairmount Empress Hotel, but the menu seems fairly comprehensive, with teriyaki boxes from $9 and Singapore Cashew Curry from $10. Noodle Box, 818 Douglas Street, tel. 250/384-1314, website www.thenoodlebox.net.

Getting There

The BC Ferries between Vancouver and Victoria are civilized boats, the more modern ones having two or three places to eat, shops (one with a good book section), and other amenities of note. On the older Queen of Saanich, I dined on a decent pasta Bolognese at $9.45, with mixed fruit at $2.99 and yogurt at $2.09. On the more modern Spirit of Columbia and Spirit of Vancouver, you'll find the Pacific Buffet, slightly upscale from the regular cafeteria. The all-inclusive buffet here costs $17 for lunch or brunch, $20 for dinner. Breakfast buffet goes for $14.75. Typical one-way fare from Vancouver to Victoria (from Tsawwassen Terminal at the Vancouver end to Swartz Bay at the Victoria end) is $11.95, less for seniors, students, children. BC Ferries, tel. in US or Canada 888/223-3779, website www.bcferries.com.

Lodging

The Magnolia Hotel & Spa is very close to Victoria's Inner Harbour, the center of activity in this attractive city. In the luxury boutique category, it offers complimentary breakfast (I would call it enhanced continental), 63 sumptuously decorated rooms and a very trendy restaurant, Sanuk (see Dining Out). Prices from $189 in winter, from $289 in summer. Magnolia Hotel, 623 Courtney Street, Victoria, tel. 250/381-0999, website www.magnoliahotel.com.

The Victoria Regent Hotel is ideally located, right on the Inner Harbour (get a balcony room). Small lobby, cozy breakfast room. Standard, nicely decorated, rooms from $129 to $199, depending on season. Victoria Regent, 1234 Wharf Street, Victoria, tel. 800/663-7472 or 250/386-2211, website www.victoriaregent.com.

Contacts

For all the info on Victoria Tourism, contact them at tel. 250/953-2033 or at website www.tourismvictoria.com.

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