It’s been a couple months since stepping foot in Canada for a special trip with my mom that was many years in the making. Where has the time gone? A series of work trips and a daily long commute to and from Raleigh each day and *poof* summer is over. One blink of an eye and the first day of fall is here. How I wish I could close my eyes, click my ruby slippers together, and wake up on the crisp sheets of the ever-so-posh, newly remodeled, Fairmont Empress. Sigh. Vacation in Victoria was sublime, which is exactly why it should be on your list of places to visit.
Victoria, BC, is a delightfully “old world” yet completely modern city. This invigorating duality awakens your soul. It’s like eating a comforting mac-n-cheese while kicking back in a pair of your most beautiful heels and party dress: you will not want to leave. The moment you step off the boat you feel this city’s Old World/New World vibe and it gets better with every passing day.
We arrived via Seattle on the Victoria Clipper, a large passenger ferry that glides across the Puget Sound from Elliott Bay, crossing the Straight of Juan de Fuca from the US to Victoria Harbor on Vancouver Island, BC.
I’ve always heard that Canadians were known for their hospitality and from the minute we docked every Victorian we met embodied that quality to a T. Most noticeable to me the entire week we were there was the lack of horn honking by passing cars. Go to almost any city in the US and be prepared for numerous horn honking drivers attempting to run over each other and pedestrians over in the street. It’s almost an Olympic sport here in the States. Not in Victoria…I’ve never seen a more gellin’ city in my life.
My mom and I share common interests in gardens, tea, and architecture, which is really how the idea of Victoria came about. Having tea at the Empress was what started this idea of visiting Victoria in the first place. Many moons ago, when I still lived in PA, we had numerous family outings with my grandma, mom, aunts and cousins at tea rooms across PA and New Jersey. Somewhere in there we learned about the Empress, which seemed like the ultimate tea pilgrimage. It was the tea of royalty in North America, after all….
We took nearly two decades to get there and it was well worth the wait.
We stayed two nights at the Fairmont Empress, which is the place to stay in Victoria. The recently renovated hotel is luxurious, reminiscent of old Hollywood movie glamour.
While glamorous Mindy loved the Empress, single income Mindy had to be a little more practical so after two days we checked out and strolled across the street. Several days were then spent at the more budget-friendly Doubletree by Hilton Hotel & Suites, located directly behind the Empress. Our 11th floor suite overlooked the harbor, the Royal BC Museum and the Parliament and we were greeted with spectacular sunsets each night. It was the next best thing to the Empress.
Victoria is known as the City of Gardens. It’s mild Mediterranean climate lends itself to growing many native and non-native flora that you wouldn’t expect so far north. I don’t know about you, but when I think Canada, I immediately think cold, as in snow, ice, hockey, long days and even longer winters. Victoria is a rare gem in this far north country. Everywhere you turn, vivid flowers grace flowerbeds, adorning the city in floral jewels as far as the eye can see.
One of the best examples of botanic divinity is the Butchart Gardens. An abandoned limestone quarry-turned-family-estate aptly named Benvenuto, the garden is the result of Jennie Butchart’s personal redevelopment project. The ornate garden includes such gems as the sunken garden on the site of the old quarry, the Japanese garden, the Italian garden and the Rose Garden.
As a child, yard work and gardening were something I did with my dad almost daily and probably the reason I love gardening today. There is a little piece of my dad living within me that I connect with when I garden. Inspiration can be found everywhere, even in an abandoned quarry. Today, the Butchart Gardens estate graciously shares their inspiration with those hoping to taking in the blooms and art tucked throughout.
By a stroke of luck, we scored seats for tea without a reservation. Word! We were seated at a picture window overlooking the Italian garden. A better seat in the house was not to be found. The Butchart afternoon tea was reminiscent of my favorite tea in the old Ethel Barrymore Room at the Hotel Atop the Bellevue in Philly. The Ethel Barrymore Room and tea are long gone, but the afternoon tea at the Butchart Gardens was a pretty close second. Victoria has a flavor of England, and tea is another aspect this Canadian city shares with the Mother Land.
The Inner Harbor is surrounded by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) Steamship Terminal building, the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, the Royal BC Museum and IMAX Theater, and the Fairmont Empress. You’ll want to visit each of these attractions in the city. The Empress hotel, CPR Steamship Terminal and the British Columbia Parliament Buildings were all designed by architect Francis Rattenbury, a British immigrant to Victoria. Today, each of these beautiful and unique structures or activities are popular with tourists.
The CPR Steamship Terminal is home to the Robert Bateman Centre, a gallery filled primarily with Canadian Robert Bateman’s paintings of nature and the natural world. A smaller portion of the gallery was filled with the work of local artists. Bateman, a conservationist that uses his detailed realism in art to highlight the natural world, is passionate about nature. While neither of us had ever heard of him, his paintings were soothing and we quite enjoyed spending time viewing his works.
Victoria has a few “musts” if you are visiting: Tea at the Empress, a tour of the British Columbia Parliament, the Royal BC Museum, the Craigdarroch Castle, and the Butchart Gardens. Other places to visit are Fan Tan Alley, a narrow alleyway in the oldest existing Chinatown in Canada. Victoria is also home to many beautiful neighborhoods, churches, and Beacon Hill Park. We did it all. It’s hard to pick a favorite because each place had something unique to pique my interest.
Other “musts” include eating your way around the city in the numerous local restaurants serving up locally grown fare. A few groovy local restaurants in Victoria include the 10 Acres Commons, the Bard and the Banker, the Irish Times Pub, the Parliamentary Dining Room, and Vis-à-Vis Bouchon Bar in Oak Bay. While eating didn’t follow any particular schedule, we sure did chow down on some local grub.
One of the most unusual and favorite things to eat while I was there were the Cauliflower Beignets with curry aioli and cilantro from Vis-à-Vis. This quaint eatery in Oak Bay was welcoming from the time we walked through the door. Reminiscent of a French bistro, it was decorated in an industrial rustic farmhouse decor, the exposed brick and warm lighting created a perfect atmosphere. The menu includes a wide variety of hors d’oeuvres, charcuterie, soups, salads, entrees and desserts. If you go, the cauliflower beignets are a must and if you care at all for French onion soup, you should try their version. It’s hearty, cheesy and utterly delicious. Your tastebuds will thank you.
A few other odd places to visit, in the case of rain which is what happened to us, is Miniature World. That right folks, a world of miniatures. Remember those dioramas we made as kids for school projects? Well, take that idea and make it the adult version and you are now in Miniature World. Yes, it’s campy, but in a way it was actually interesting. They’ve got many scenes to view: WWII, the Civil War, and the history of British Columbia and Native Peoples, and whimsical showings of old children’s tales. It was a good way to spend a couple hours on a rainy morning.
We walked and rode our way around the city, taking in every nook and cranny until it was time to leave. Sadly, this vacation didn’t last forever. I now understand why so many people choose to settle in Victoria: a temperate climate, culture aplenty, restaurants scattered about the city, access to the outdoors, gardens, tea rooms-I could go on and on. It’s no wonder people want to live there. Moving there may not be an option, but visiting is something altogether different. This is one city that should go on your bucket list. Have you booked your trip yet?!