A Bit Of Britain
There’s Vancouver, the city; then there’s Vancouver, the island, which contains Victoria, the city, instead of Vancouver. All very confusing. And to contribute to the confusion, compact, cultured Victoria, not sprawling, brawling Vancouver, is the capital of the Province of British Columbia. Not only that, but Vancouver Island, and Victoria jut so far south into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, they look like they should be part of the United States, not Canada. And when you go there, you’ll think you’re back in England.
For the tourist, everything in Victoria will seem to start and end at the 500-room Empress Hotel. Its impressive façade dominates the waterfront of the inner harbor and its attitude defines what is unique about Victoria. Refined airs and strictly enforced dress codes mark that certain properness found throughout this very British city.
Opened in 1908, the hotel is named for Queen Victoria, Empress of India. It is a legacy of the heady days of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which commissioned Francis Rattenbury to design it along the lines of his well-received Parliament Buildings nearby. From the Empress you can walk to most of the important sights and catch ferries to the more distant ones. Information about all of them can be found at the visitor center in the art deco building across from the hotel.
Not to be missed is Miniature World with a 110-foot model of the entire 5,000-mile, continent-spanning Canadian Pacific Railway line. And, of course, no city worth its British accents would be complete without a wax museum.
Another most British behavior, practiced throughout Victoria but achieving mythic proportions at the Empress, is afternoon tea. The formality of the event has contributed much to the hotel’s reputation and draws inquiries from all over the world about the proper brewing, serving, and sipping of tea. Think “pinky up.”
After tea, you may be refreshed enough to visit Market Square, the former red light district, its unsavory past replaced by shops full of savory goods. Nearby, you’ll come across Fan Tan Alley, a collection of artist’s studios in the middle of what used to be a substantial Chinatown. If the weather is fine you may also want to take a carriage out to one of Victoria’s two turn-of-the- (20th) century Scottish Castles, Craigdarrock and Hatley, built by the robber baron Dunsmuir brothers.
“If you plant it, they will come,” seems to be the motto of anyone sharing the heritage of English gardening. And Victoria is thick with them. Start with the Crystal Garden, another Rattenbury design sitting just behind the Empress. It’s a glass-roofed “tropical paradise” that once contained the largest salt-water pool in the British Empire. Now, it’s another place to have tea.
Beacon Hill Park features Victoria’s signature tree, the Garry Oak, which closely resembles a stalk of broccoli. Other than that, it has the requisite duck ponds, flower gardens, stone bridges, benches overlooking the sea… and tea.
The granddaddy of gardens is of course, Butchart Gardens, about 13 miles north of Victoria in Brentwood Bay. Jenny Butchart began creating this masterpiece in 1904 when her husband set about excavating limestone for his cement plant. The former quarry is resplendent now with ponds, fountains, color, and fragrance. The gardens are open at night when lighted pathways provide a whole different experience.
Butchart Gardens have inspired similar botanical projects around the world, including the recently opened Hunter Valley Gardens in Australia, designed and built by The World’s own Bill and Imelda Roche.
The Island, And Beyond
Our ship will call in Victoria three times this summer. More than enough opportunities to see everything this city has to offer at the refined pace preferred by the locals. On one of our visits, you may also want to reserve time to see the rest of Vancouver Island on an organized tour, by self-drive automobile, or even the train. The island offers a variety of scenery ranging from snow-capped mountains to sunny beaches. The west coast is storm-battered and lined with craggy fjords. The east coast, facing Vancouver across Georgia Strait, has farms and inns scattered around peaceful bays.
Those with more ambition, and a bit more time, will want to start their exploration of the environs from the in-town corner of Douglas Street and Dallas Road, otherwise known as Mile Zero of the Trans-Canada Highway. From that point it is only 4,860 miles to the terminus in St. John’s Newfoundland. The World will probably stop by to pick you up again sometime in 2005.