British Columbia simply doesn't get much more British than this--its capital city has charm to spare
You have to love a town where even the lampposts have flowerpots. Victoria, at the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island, on the western edge of Canada, feels like the last outpost of the British Empire, with shops full of china and meerschaum pipes-until you notice the totem poles, and the seals mooching fish scraps. But where else in North America can you go from a traditional afternoon tea to watching killer whales in less than an hour? Even though it's the capital of British Columbia, Victoria is often overshadowed by its neighbor Vancouver. But Victoria has all the same pleasures at a fraction of the cost, and because it has the mildest weather in the Pacific Northwest, it's a year-round destination. (Prices below are listed in American dollars.)
The civilized side
This is a walking city-the streets downtown are so congested, your best bet is to leave your car behind. Everything revolves around the Inner Harbour, so get an overview by riding the stubby, colorful Harbour Ferry (250/708-0201). For $10, you can take a circle tour, getting on and off as you please. From March to October, stop at Barb's Place (250/384-6515) for a $6.50 halibut burger. You'll find this floating restaurant by the houseboats at Fisherman's Wharf. In any season, cross the harbor to walk the waterfront Westsong Way, a 1.5-mile path that starts near the Commonwealth Pole (a totem pole commemorating the 1994 Commonwealth Games).
Any view of Victoria is dominated by two landmarks, both designed by architect Francis Rattenbury. One is the Parliament Buildings and Legislative Grounds; when construction began in 1892, Rattenbury was only 25 years old. The project survived cost overruns and his own demanding nature-the man was picky about marble. Free daily tours show you where BC's laws are made, and how Rattenbury's hard work paid off. At night, the building's facade is lit up with thousands of tiny bulbs that are reflected in the harbor.
Rattenbury's other masterpiece is the Fairmont Empress Hotel, which overlooks the harbor at 721 Government Street, right on Victoria's main tourist shopping drag. The Empress is where many celebrities stay when they are in town, and the prices reflect it. The swank atmosphere is definitely worth a walk-through, and in the basement there's an archive of hotel history-photos, linens, and silver to remind you of the days when dressing for dinner meant tuxedos and gowns.
The nearby Royal British Columbia Museum has wonderful totem poles and masks. Go behind the museum to watch craftsmen work in the carving shed, keeping alive traditions that were ancient before Columbus ever got lost (675 Belleville St., 888/447-7977; $8 admission).
Thanks to its temperate climate, Victoria is always in bloom. The most famous flower beds are 14 miles north of the city at the Butchart Gardens: 55 acres of riotous nature, including more rose varieties than you'll want to count (800 Benvenuto Ave., 866/652-4422; $11 to $14 admission depending on the season). The cheapest way to the gardens is by public bus-get on No. 75 downtown-but it'll take about 40 minutes. More efficient is Gray Line's Gardens Express (800/663-8390; admission and round-trip transport, $17 to $20 depending on the season). Or make a garden walk of your own: James Bay, on the harbor's south shore, is full of old houses, flower boxes, and charm. It's a perfect after-dinner stroll.
You can't throw a crumpet without hitting a teahouse that serves tiny tarts, pots of Darjeeling tea, and watercress sandwiches. Tea at Point Ellice, a classic Victorian house, costs $14, including a tour of the grounds and maybe a game of croquet (2616 Pleasant St., 250/380-6506).
Make your kids scream with delight at the Victoria Bug Zoo, where eight-inch millipedes and giant leaf bugs will crawl on their hands (631 Courtney St., 250/384-2847; $4.25 adults). Or go for something bigger and slimier. The Pacific Undersea Gardens is the best chance to see what's under all that ocean: octopuses with 18-foot tentacle spans, wolf eels longer than your couch (490 Belleville St., 250/382-5717; $5.50 adults). Or go even bigger: There's nothing quite like seeing a 30-foot orca-they're like slippery pandas, with butcher's knives for teeth-hop out of the water to get a better look at you. Victoria has three local pods of orca, totaling about 80 animals. In winter, they head off to deeper waters (Baja, Alaska, etc.), but there are still seals, sea lions, porpoises, several species of whale, and unusual birds such as the rhinoceros auklet. The Inner Harbour Centre (950 Wharf St., 800/575-6700) runs orca expeditions from April through October for $64, and, when the orcas aren't around (November through March), marine wildlife tours for $42. Also, look for Caddy, the legendary sea monster "spotted" around Victoria for more than a century.
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