Hail, Victoria!

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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).

Getting wild

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.

Food and lodging

Victoria's most expensive hotels are harborside, but prices drop dramatically just a few blocks away. Swans Suite Hotel is a 5- to 10-minute walk from the harbor; one-bedroom suites (many with water views, all with full kitchen and room for four) start at $93 in low season, from October through April, and $104 in high season, from July through September (506 Pandora Ave., 800/668-7926). The bistro downstairs, Wild Saffron, is a popular dinner spot, specializing in "West Coast cuisine" (entrZes start at $11).

In the heart of downtown, the Bedford Regency has clean, surprisingly quiet doubles starting as low as $57 low season/$107 high season (1140 Government St., 800/665-6500). The Cherry Bank Hotel is a bit further out, but doubles are as low as $42/$50 with shared bath and $50/$71 with private bath (825 Burdett Ave., 800/998-6688). The Strathcona is right behind the Empress, with rates starting at $42/$64 for a double; it's a popular nightlife spot (919 Douglas St., 800/663-7476). A bit pricier in high season but with some nice history as the third-oldest hotel in Victoria is the James Bay Inn, with doubles from $39/$79 (270 Government St., 800/836-2649).

Another good budget choice is Traveller's Inn, with three locations near downtown and doubles from $42/$85 (1850 Douglas St., 888/254-6476; 1961 Douglas St., 888/877-9444; 710 Queens Ave., 888/753-3774). Hostelling International Victoria, five minutes from the harbor, has beds from $12 to $15 (nonmembers add $3; 516 Yates St., 888/883-0099).

If you arrive in Victoria without hotel reservations, stop at the Inner Harbour Tourist Info Centre, where you can pick up discount coupons and the free British Columbia Approved Accommodation guide (812 Wharf St., 250/953-2033). Or call Tourism Victoria at 800/663-3883.

Victoria has the second-highest number of restaurants per capita in North America, after San Francisco. Willie's Bakery is a required stop in the morning for fresh muffins and cups of coffee big enough to drown in (537 Johnson St., 250/381-8414); breakfast, $2.50. Yates Street, near Bastion Square, has lots of bargain eateries, including Ferris' Oyster Bar and Grill, with its terrific sweet-potato fries (536 Yates St., 250/360-1824). EntrZes start at $9.25. Around the corner is Chandler's, a good choice for seafood (1250 Wharf St., 250/385-3474). EntrZe prices begin at $14. Mel Gibson called the lasagna at Pagliacci's the best he's ever eaten (1011 Broad St., 250/386-1662). Pasta dishes start at $8.50. And consider Hunan Village in Chinatown; the sesame chicken, $10.75, is astounding (546 Fisgard St., 250/382-0661).

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