Walking Tour 1: The Inner Harbour
Start & Finish: The Visitor Centre (812 Wharf St.) on the Inner Harbour.
Time: 2 hours, not including shopping, museum, and pub breaks.
Best Time: Late afternoon, when the golden summer sunlight shines on the Fairmont Empress.
Worst Time: Late in the evening, when the shops close and the streets empty.
Victoria was born on the Inner Harbour. When the Hudson's Bay Company's west coast head of operations, James Douglas, happened across this sheltered inlet in 1843 while searching for a new corporate HQ, it was love at first sight. "The place appears a perfect Eden," he wrote to a friend. High praise indeed, although as Douglas was pretty deep into local real estate, his words should be taken with a wee pinch of salt. His confidence in the location certainly paid off, however, for less than 20 years after Douglas set foot onshore, the native stands of Garry oak had been supplanted by small farms, the town was choked with miners and mariners, and the harbor was full of ships, many of which had circled the globe. This tour circumnavigates the Inner Harbour, showing some of its lesser-known nooks and crannies while providing an opportunity to enjoy the same view seen by many a Victorian sailor.
1. Victoria Visitor Centre
At 812 Wharf St., this is without a doubt one of the finest-looking visitor centers in the world -- a masterful Art Deco pavilion topped with a shining white obelisk rising high above the Inner Harbour. It would be a tribute to the taste and vision of city tourism officials, except that it started out life as a gas station.
From the Visitor Centre, thread your way south through the jugglers and musicians on the causeway until you're opposite 721 Government St., where stands:
2. The Fairmont Empress
"There is a view, when the morning mists peel off the harbor, where the steamers tie up, of the Houses of Parliament on one hand, and a huge hotel on the other, which is an example of cunningly fitted-in waterfronts and facades worth a very long journey." Thus spoke Rudyard Kipling during a visit to the city in 1908. If he'd come only 5 years earlier, he would've been looking at a nasty, garbage-choked swamp. The causeway was then a narrow bridge over the tidal inlet, and as Victorians made a habit of pitching their refuse over the rail, the bay was, not surprisingly, a stinking cesspit of slime. In 1900, the ever-shrewd Canadian Pacific Railway made an offer to the city -- we'll build a causeway and fill in the stinky bay if you let us keep the land. The city jumped at the offer. Little was expected -- the land was swamp, after all. But taking their cue from the good folks in Amsterdam, the CPR drove long pilings down through the muck to provide a solid foundation. And on top of that, they built the Fairmont Empress. The architect was Francis Rattenbury, and his design was masterful, complementing his own Provincial Legislature Buildings to create the view that has defined the city ever since.
Around the south side of the Fairmont Empress is a formal rose garden -- worth putting your nose in for a sniff. Cut through the garden, cross over Belleville St. and continue another half-block east to the corner of Douglas St., where you'll find:
3. Thunderbird Park
The park is instantly recognizable by its forest of totem poles. Even if you've overdosed on the ubiquitous 15cm (6-in.) souvenir totem, take a second look at these. The original poles on this site had been collected in the early 1900s from various villages up and down the coast. Some decades later, when officials decided the severely weathered poles needed restoring, they discovered the art of native carving had eroded even more than their collection of poles. From all the thousands of carvers on the coast, only one man still carried on the craft. In 1952, Kwakiutl artist Mungo Martin set up a carving shed on the park grounds and began the work of restoration. Martin replaced or repaired all the existing poles while teaching his son and step-grandson-in-law to carve. Seeing them at work renewed public interest in the form. Other young artists came to learn and train, which led to a revival of totem carving and native artistry among coastal natives.
All poles have a purpose; most tell a story. The stories associated with the poles in Thunderbird Park have unfortunately been lost, but many of the figures are easily recognized, including Thunderbird (look for the outstretched wings and curly horns on the head), Raven, Bear, and Killer Whale. On the edge of the park is the shed where Martin carved many of the poles. Feel free to poke your head in to take a look and ask the carvers what they're up to. The artists generally welcome questions and enjoy sharing their stories.
Farther back in the park, at 638 Elliott St. Sq., stands the:
4. Helmcken House
This simple woodframe house, the oldest house in BC still standing in its original position, was built by Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken in 1852. A surgeon with the Hudson's Bay Company, Helmcken married the daughter of Governor James Douglas and went on to become a statesman and an important figure in the negotiations to allow British Columbia to become a province of Canada. The house, originally a three-room log cabin, is open daily from May through September noon to 4pm; admission is by donation (C$5 suggested).
Walk west along Belleville past the modern-looking Carillon Tower (a gift from the Dutch people who settled in BC) and the not-to-be-missed Royal BC Museum; cross Government St. You're now standing in front of 501 Belleville St. at the:
5. Provincial Legislature Buildings (Parliament)
In 1892, a 25-year-old Yorkshireman arrived on the west coast just as an architectural competition for a new Legislature Building in Victoria was announced. Francis Mawson Rattenbury had no professional credentials but was blessed with both talent and ambition. He submitted a set of drawings and, to the surprise of all, beat out 65 other entries from around the continent. The Provincial Legislature Buildings are open for tours 9am to 5pm. In summer, the 40-minute tours start every 20 minutes.
From the Legislature lawn, make your way past the horse-drawn calèches parked on Menzies St. and walk west on Belleville St. for 2 blocks to Pendray St. The road takes a sharp right, but follow the path leading down to a waterfront walkway as it curves around Laurel Point. Continuing around the pathway past the first few jetties takes you to the:
6. Coast Hotel Docks
Here is one of several ports of call for the Victoria Harbour Ferries (tel. 250/708-0201). From here, the official Frommer's route is to take the ferry all the way across the harbor to West Bay (the next stop on this tour). If the weather's clear, you'll enjoy views of the Olympic Mountains to the south and possibly spot a seal or bald eagle. You have several options here: You can take a short hop out to Fisherman's Wharf, where just-caught fish is sold when in season; go directly across to Spinnakers Brewpub (stop 8) on the far shore; take the ferry across to Songhees Point (stop 9); or go directly to Canoe (stop 11). You can even give up on your feet entirely and take the full Harbour Ferries tour.
If you stick with the program, however, the next stop is:
7. West Bay
While a pleasant little residential neighborhood with a picturesque marina, West Bay isn't anything to write home about. What is worthwhile, however, is the waterfront walkway that winds its way from here back east toward the city. The trail twists and curves through several parks, and views south through the harbor look out to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains beyond. After about 20 minutes of walking, it may be time to take a break:
8. Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub
Excellent beer brewed on the premises, combined with an above-average patio, make Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub a dangerously time-consuming port of call. For those looking for more substantial fare, the pub grub's very good, and the entrees are above average. The on-site bakery makes inspired beer bread, as well as a range of more delicate goods. 308 Catherine St. tel. 250/386-BREW (250/386-2739).
From the pub, continue along the shoreline until you see the totem pole standing at:
9. Songhees Point
The point is named for the First Nations tribe that once lived on the site. The Songhees had originally set up their village close to Fort Victoria, near the current site of Bastion Square, but relations with the Hudson's Bay Company were always strained. In 1844, a dispute over a pair of company oxen slaughtered by the Songhees was settled only after Commander Roderick Finlayson blew up the chief's house. A few years later, after a fire started in the native village, spread, and nearly burned down the fort, Finlayson told the Songhees to relocate across the Inner Harbour. They refused at first, pointing out quite rightly that as it was their land, they could live wherever they liked. They assented to the move only after Finlayson agreed to help dismantle and transport the Songhees' longhouses. The totem pole here is called the Spirit of Lakwammen, presented to the city to commemorate the 1994 Commonwealth Games.
Continue on the pathway around the corner. The patio of the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort provides a great view of the Fairmont Empress. A little farther on is the:
10. Johnson Street Bridge
The same guy who designed San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge also designed Victoria's Johnson Street Bridge. Alas, while the soaring Golden Gate span is justly famous for its elegance, this misshapen lump of steel and concrete is something designer Joseph Strauss would likely wish forgotten.
Cross the bridge, walk past the Esquimalt and Nanaimo (E&N) Railway station and turn left onto Store St. Walk 1 block north to Swift St., turn left and walk downhill to the end of the street:
While having a drink at Canoe, it's hard to know whom to admire more: the 19th-century engineers who built everything with brick and beam, and always twice as thick as it had to be; the restorers who took this old building (once the site of the City Light Company) and turned it into a sunlit cathedral of a room; the owner, who had the vision to pay the restorers; the chef, who made the delicious plate of appetizers now quickly disappearing from your table; or the brew master, whose copper cauldrons produce such a superior brew. Try the taster option -- six small glasses of different brews for about the price of a pint -- and toast them all. 450 Swift St. tel. 250/361-1940.
Salutations complete, wander back up Swift St., turn right and continue south down Store St. for 2 blocks, where Store St. becomes Wharf St. Walk another 3 blocks until you reach:
12. Bastion Square
This pleasant public space stands on the site of the Hudson's Bay Company's original Fort Victoria. The fort was demolished in 1863 and the land sold off for development. When the BC government bought and renovated the Rithet Building on the southwest corner of the square, workers uncovered Fort Victoria's original water well, complete with mechanical pump. It's now in the building's lobby. The square is home to the Maritime Museum..
Continue south on Wharf St. another 2 blocks until you come to the pinkish Dominion Customs House. Built in 1876, the Second Empire style was meant to impart a touch of European civilization in the midst of this raw wilderness town. Take the walkway by the Customs house down to the waterline and walk out on the:
13. Floatplane Docks
Early in the morning, these docks buzz with activity as floatplanes fly in and out on their way to and from Seattle, Vancouver, and points farther north. The docks are also the place to come to arrange diving and whale-watching tours.
Back up on Wharf St., you're just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Visitor Centre tower, where the tour began.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.