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Wrapped around the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is a gentle blend of colonial England and contemporary Western Canada. The thriving cafe scene conjures something European, while having the outdoors at your doorstep could only be pure British Columbia bliss. Wherever you venture, this famously temperate region reveals natural, historic, culinary and cultural delights.
Proud of its British influence, Victoria delights in serving up an elegant High Tea, with all the trappings. At the same time, it urges you to get outside and enjoy the alfresco lifestyle. Walking trails lead right from the city center to Dallas Road, what locals call the scenic drive, along the Pacific Ocean and around the southern coast of the city. Vancouver Island is renowned as a world-class scuba-diving destination, where you can get in the water with seals and sea lions on a regular basis. But, for people who prefer to keep their feet dry, there are all kinds of boat excursions, from kayaking and glass-bottom-boat tours, to get you up close and personal with the amazing marine life.
Victoria is the capital city of British Columbia, and its grand Parliament Buildings, along with the gracious Fairmont Empress Hotel, dominate the Inner Harbour. Adjacent walkable inner-city streets foster cordiality. And, indeed, walking is a favorite local pastime -- Victoria is lauded as one of the most walkable Canadian cities.
An area of handsome 19th-century brick buildings, windows hung with richly textured flower baskets and lively shops, restaurants and brewpubs, invite leisurely exploration. Or you can just kick back with a picnic on the grassy lawn of the Parliament Building or find a bench by the harbor to breathe in all that fresh, Pacific Northwest air while listening to a busker belt out a tune.
Just beyond downtown, luxuriant yet well-ordered parks and gardens and a rugged, wind-swept Pacific shoreline offer broader vistas and invite you to set off on boat excursions to explore the coastline and soak in the snowy peaked views.
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A two-pound box of Victoria Creams from Rogers' Chocolates (913 Government Street; 250-881-8771) makes a great gift.
For truly unique, handmade arts and crafts items (pottery, wood turnings, glass art, textiles, jewelry, etc.), you may also want to pay a visit to Side Street Studio (737 Humboldt Street; 250-590-4644), which represents more than 250 British Columbia artisans and artists.
English is spoken.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The Canadian dollar is the official currency. There's a Custom House Currency Exchange across the street from the visitor's center on Wharf Street, and others are in Bastion Square and at 1140 Government Street. Major banks with ATM machines are located at Douglas and Fort Streets. The U.S. dollar and the Canadian dollar are roughly equal these days, but check at www.oanda.com or www.xe.com for the latest rate.
Where You're Docked
Cruise ships berth at Ogden Point, a short taxi ride or 15-minute walk northeast to downtown. Most cruise ships offer shuttles or taxi service, but it's a very pleasant walk along the waterfront on Dallas Road then on Government Street to reach the Inner Harbour or Douglas Street into town. Small passenger ships may dock or anchor in the Inner Harbour.
There are no facilities at Ogden Point -- just four well-maintained deep-water docks where passengers disembark. So file into line with your fellow cruisers for the stroll into town.
Tourism Victoria's information center is at 812 Wharf Street in the Inner Harbour. From there, you can see the landmark Parliament Buildings and Fairmont Empress Hotel; beyond, to the north, lies the inner city -- the entire area is very easy to negotiate with a city map.
Myriad experiences are just a short walk away: a slice of Old England, an evocative meander through Chinatown, a forage along Antique Row (on Fort Street), the Royal B.C. Museum and Imax Theatre, and fine hotels, tea houses, restaurants, pubs and shops -- both traditional and contemporary. So put on your walking shoes, and get moving.
To the south and east, you will find lovely Beacon Hill Park and James Bay, as well as a picturesque road, walking paths and beaches along the shoreline to Oak Bay and beyond. The West Song Walkway is a 1.5-mile-long paved pathway that lines the Inner Harbour from downtown Victoria to West Bay Marina -- another very pleasant place for a stroll.
Tie up your shoe laces; this is a walking city. The Greater Victoria Harbour Authority has a handy walking map on its Web site, which shows where the cruise port is in addition to shuttle bus stops, points of interest, restrooms and viewpoints.
Although pedestrian-friendly, taxis are numerous (Empress Taxi, 250-381-2222; Victoria Taxi, 250-383-7111). Rental car outlets include Avis (1001 Douglas Street; 800-879-2847), Budget (2634 Douglas Street; 800-668-9833) and Hertz (2505 Douglas Street; 800-263-0600). Victoria also bustles with cycle rickshaws that will whisk you around the inner city.
Watch Out For
Victoria is a college town and fairly safe. There is, however, an abundance of panhandlers in downtown Victoria, although the police monitor them. Also, keep in mind that Canada's five percent goods and services tax is paid on everything you purchase.
Inner Victoria is endlessly picturesque -- you only have to amble and enjoy. Highlights include the Parliament Buildings, Fairmont Empress Hotel, the Royal B.C. Museum, Bastion Square and the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, and Beacon Hill Park, which overlooks the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the mountains of the Olympic peninsula in Washington state. At the Inner Harbour, watch the buskers from a bench in the sun, or line up a boat trip to see whales at play.
Antique-lovers can peruse the stores of Fort Street, known as Antique Row. For something edgier in the same area, head to North Fort Street, home to east-meets-west fashion boutiques where you'll find modern, sustainable clothing lines for sale, in keeping with the city's trendy-yet-green ethos.
Garden aficionados will want to taxi 13 miles to the world-famous 50-acre Butchart Gardens. It recently celebrated its 100th year, and the gardens are particularly beautiful during the spring and summer months, when fireworks light up the concert grounds each Saturday. Consider the behind-the-scenes tour that takes you to rarely visited corners of the park, including the greenhouses where the flowers and plants are grown. Afternoon tea in the gardens' Dining Room Restaurant during spring and summer is another beloved ritual, complete with scones, tiny lobster rolls and tasty organic teas. It's open daily at 9 a.m. (800 Benvenuto Avenue; 250-652-4422).
Victoria's Chinatown, while small, is the oldest in Canada and worthy of a visit. Traditional Asian markets share space with contemporary boutiques. Begin at the entrance gate at Fisgard and Government Streets, and don't overlook Fan Tan Alley (the narrowest street in Canada) and its eccentric shops like the Fan Tan Gallery and Silk Road Aromatherapy and Tea Company.
Numerous ships offer evening calls -- inquire at Tourism Victoria about a nighttime lantern-lit walking tour, or visit Old Chinatown. A variety of city walking tours, including ghostly walks, can be booked at Discover the Past.
Of course, a visit to Victoria isn't complete without having tea at one of the city's plentiful tea salons. Good bets include the Fairmont Empress (721 Government Street; 250-384-8111).The cost of tea -- the full spread -- is pricy. A less expensive option is tea in the garden of Point Ellice House, a historic Victorian manse just outside the downtown (2616 Pleasant Street; 250-380-6506). Another is the White Heather Tea Room in Oak Bay (1885 Oak Bay Avenue; 250-595-8020).
Been There, Done That
Visit the watery ocean hangout of resident orca whales, roughly 80 in all with a boat tour into their domain. Try Prince of Whales or Victoria Whale Tours. For something more adventurous, don a very thick wetsuit at nearby Brentwood Bay (about 15 minutes from downtown Victoria) for a snorkeling excursion with Rockfish Divers. You'll stay warm in the thick rubber while admiring colorful starfish, octopuses and lion's mane jellyfish in the shallows, and you might even get the chance to fin around with seals!
For more sedate ocean travel -- and perhaps a whale sighting from a distance -- venture for the day to Southern Gulf Island by B.C. Ferries.
Another enticing destination is the coastal Sooke-Metchosin region, west of Victoria. Visit Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery near the village of Sooke, and try a glass of rare, barrel-aged mead -- the oldest fermented beverage known to man. May 1 - September 30, Wednesday - Sunday, noon to 5 p.m. (8750 West Coast Road; 250-642-1956).
Head north to the pastoral Saanich Valley and Marley Farm Winery for limited-edition vintages, including pinot grigio and pinot noir, blackberry and other fruit wines. May - December, daily, 11 a.m. - 6 p.m. (1831 Newton Cross Road; 250-652-8667). Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse is a lovely 10-acre certified-organic farm with orchard and ocean views where you can sample ciders crafted on-site and tuck into a charcuterie and cheese platter in bucolic surroundings. Daily 11 a.m. - 4 p.m. (2487 St. Michael Road; 250-544-4824). Wine tasting at de Vine Vineyards is another quintessential Saanich stop. May 7 - September 25, Weekends, noon - 5 p.m. (6181B Old West Saanich Road; 250-665-6983).
Active-minded travelers can rent kayaks, canoes or powerboats from one of many vendors in the Inner Harbour or hire bikes or scooters from Cycle B.C. The Galloping Goose Trail is an easy and scenic cycling route to Sooke . Or, visitors can cycle the city's leafy streets eastward to Beach Drive and Oak Bay.
Golfers should check out Bear Mountain Resort and its two 18-hole courses in suburban Victoria (1999 Country Club Way; 250-391-7160).
Casual joints include Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub (308 Catherine Street, just over the short Johnston Street bridge; 250-386-2739), where seafood and handcrafted beers star. Another favorite is Canoe Brewpub and Restaurant (450 Swift Street, close to the bridge; 250-361-1940) on the city side.
For something cheap and cheerful, hit the Puerto Vallarta Amigos Taco Truck (on the corner of Wharf and Yates Streets) for prawn tacos and vegetarian offerings with lots of local atmosphere.
Northwest pizza chain Pagliacchi's (1011 Broad Street; 250-386-1662) is recommended for Italian fare, as is Il Terrazzo (555 Johnson Street; 250-361-0028).
Red Fish Blue Fish is a takeout fish restaurant with heavenly Pacific cod, salmon and halibut fish and chips. It operates out of a shipping container on the Inner Harbour (1006 Wharf Street; 250-298-6877).
Other good bets include the Sauce Restaurant and Lounge (1245 Wharf Street; 250-382-8662), Tapa Bar (620 Trounce Alley; 250-383-0013) and Ferris' Oyster Bar and Grill (536 Yates Street; 250-382-2344), considered the best place in town for raw oysters.
The Re-Bar Modern Food (50 Bastion Square; 250-361-9223) is a funky vegetarian option. And a big success, with two locations, is The Noodle Box (626 Fisgard Street in Chinatown 250-360-1312; 818 Douglas Street, close to the Empress; 250-384-1314).
Staying in Touch
The Stain Internet Cafe offers printing, scanning and faxing in addition to Wi-Fi. It also holds PC and Xbox 360 gaming tournaments (609 Yates Street; 250-382-3352).
Victoria Cyber Cafe is in downtown Victoria (1414 Douglas Street; 250-995-0175).
Cyber Station is near Chinatown (1113 Blanshard Street; 250-386-4687).
Serious Coffee has eight locations in Victoria, all with free Wi-Fi (225 Menzies Street is closest to Ogden Point; 250-590-8506).
Exploring Victoria by horse-drawn carriage is a fun and relaxing way to get an overview of the town and guaranteed photo moments. Try Tally-Ho Tours, which start from the corner of Belleville and Menzies Streets, across from the Royal London Wax Museum (250-514-9257).
Ride an ATV into beautiful forests, and soar across 100 lush acres on eight different zip lines during an Adrena Line zip line adventure over the Sooke Hills, just outside of Victoria. Participants must be at least 12 years old (250-642-1933).
Families may enjoy Victoria Butterfly Gardens, designed to showcase the lifecycle and free flight of tropical butterflies and moths (1461 Benvenuto Avenue; 250-652-3822).
Repeat visitors may want to get out of town for a visit to Church & State Winery (1445 Benvenuto Avenue; 250-652-2671) or Victoria Spirits (6170 Old West Saanich Road; 250-544-8217), home to Victoria-made gin, during a 3.5-hour wine and spirits tasting tour in the rolling hill country surrounding Victoria.
For More Information
On the Web: www.tourismvictoria.com
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-- Updated by Terry Ward, Cruise Critic contributor
Images of the Parliament Building, the Inner Harbour at dusk, whale watching and Beacon Hill Park appear courtesy of Tourism Victoria.