Victoria, British Columbia's capital, is an occasional port of call during the Alaska cruise season, especially at the beginning or the end of the cruise season, when cruise lines have unique itineraries as they reposition their ships from the south to the north, or vice versa. A few cruise itineraries, which begin in San Francisco or elsewhere in the south, will often head straight to Alaska, stopping only in Victoria, and not detouring into the Inside Passage which is necessary to get to Vancouver. However, most cruise passengers who visit Victoria will do so as part of their pre-cruise or post-cruise stay in Vancouver. If your cruise ship stops in Victoria, you will want to skip over the next section about how difficult, or how easy, it is to get to Victoria from Vancouver.
Getting there from Vancouver
While Vancouver is the largest and best known city in British Columbia, our ancestors inconveniently located the capital, Victoria, on the tip of an island adjacent to Vancouver. To confuse tourists, we named the island Vancouver Island, so Victoria is on Vancouver Island, but Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island. It is not a small island: about 330 miles to drive to the most northerly point of the island from Victoria, and if you are in the middle of the island, it's about 90 miles to drive from one side to the other. Vancouver Island is 10 times larger than Rhode Island, and 450 times as large as the well known Caribbean Island of St. Thomas. Victoria, however, with 300,000 people is about one-sixth the size of Vancouver. In a float plane (seaplane) you can get from Vancouver to Victoria, or even from Victoria to Seattle, in just 35 minutes. If you go any other way, it's going to take you a minimum of 3-1/2 hours. If you are planning to do a one day tour of Victoria, you can already see that it's going to be a very long day if you spend any decent amount of time in Victoria - and you should.
The most popular way to get to Victoria from Vancouver, and certainly the cheapest, is a combination of bus or private car, and a ferry. The main ferry terminal to Victoria is located about 45 minutes from downtown Vancouver, and is called Tsawwassen (usually pronounced "Terwassen"). The ferries are very large in size, certainly bigger than some of the smaller cruise ships. The ferries can hold several hundred cars on board, and the time taken to load all the cars adds to the length of the trip. The actual ferry trip itself is an hour and 35 minutes, and is an interesting nautical experience [although perhaps less so if you have just finished your Alaska cruise (grin)]. Occasionally, you can see whales or dolphins on the ferry trip, and half way through the trip there are an interesting few minutes as the ferries weave their way through the Gulf Islands which occupy the strait that separates Vancouver from Victoria. Most people find the trip quite interesting, and there are diversions on board including a cafeteria, buffet service on the bigger ferries, gift shop and tourist information stands. You'll likely find it less interesting to re-do the same ferry trip at the end of a long day visiting in Victoria.
When the ferry arrives at Vancouver Island, at a port called Swartz Bay, it's still a 45 minute ride to get to the center of Victoria. The roundtrip fare for the bus/ferry is about US$37.00.
Although there is regular jet service from Vancouver International Airport to Victoria International Airport, the regular airline service is not much of an improvement over the time taken to do the ferry trip, as you will need to go through the hassle of boarding a plane at Vancouver's airport, and when you get to Victoria's, it's still a 30 minute drive to get to downtown. What I would recommend strongly, is that you consider a float plane or a helicopter trip from the harbor in downtown Vancouver, to the "inner" harbor in Victoria, which takes only 35 minutes. Getting on and off these informal float planes takes little time, and if you are just touring for the day, you won't be worried about any weight restrictions on your baggage. The flight itself is a fascinating experience, as you fly relatively low over Vancouver, the Gulf Islands between Vancouver and Victoria mentioned above, and also over Victoria itself. Depending on which float plane service or helicopter you catch, your landing will be right in front of the Empress Hotel in downtown Victoria, or within just a few blocks.
West Coast Air and Harbor Air are two of a number of companies that fly from harbor to harbor. Most of the Vancouver terminals are within walking distance of the Canada Place cruise terminal, although some of the area in between is under construction. Helicopter service through Helijet Airways is from their terminal right next to the Canada Place cruise terminal. If you fly both ways, you could actually see Victoria in just a half day, although I would recommend taking the full day to enjoy Victoria properly. You can get a round-trip flight to Victoria for about US$109.00.
If you plan to do the Victoria trip by air, then I would suggest that you contact your travel agent ahead of time, and make the appropriate bookings. If you are prepared to spend the time to do the trip by ferry, either one way or both ways, then you might want to take advantage of any package offered by your cruise ship. Alternatively, there are companies like Gray Line who do day trips to Victoria, including picking you up and returning you to your hotel in Vancouver. In the busy tourist season in the middle of summer, you might also be wise to phone ahead, and make a reservation.
I absolutely do not recommend trying to do Victoria in a day using a rental car. Apart from the 7 hours of travelling which I mentioned above, as a private motorist you face the problem of whether you will get on the first ferry when you arrive at the ferry terminal. Even though the ferries to Victoria run every hour during the summer season, it's not unusual to have giant line-ups to get on the ferry, and you could be sitting in the parking lot of the ferry terminal for a couple more hours on each end. By contrast, the buses that Gray Line and other services use are first to be allowed on the ferry, and obviously also the first to get off. There is basically no wait when you take the bus, other than the time it takes to load each ferry with several hundred cars. When you go by bus and you're first onto the ferry, you have the best chance of getting the nicest seat in the cafeteria or restaurant, and enjoy the subsequent views. You'll pay an extra US$20.00 for the privilege of taking your car on the ferry.
[Editor's Note: If you want to visit Victoria from Seattle, there is now high speed turbo jet service which takes only 2 hours. Schedules and Information can be found at http://www.victoriaclipper.com.]
After that long introduction, let's get to the fun of seeing the sights of Victoria - sights that rarely disappoint. With one notable exception, the most interesting sights in Victoria are within easy walking distance of each other downtown.
British Columbia's capitol buildings, which we call the "Legislative Buildings" or "Parliament Buildings", are on Victoria's inner harbor (where you will land if you come by float plane, or a very short taxi ride or shuttle from where the helijet lands, or the cruise ships dock on the outer harbor). This symmetrical capitol complex was designed in 1897 by Francis Rattenbury, and is an outstanding example of European architecture. The buildings are outlined by lights, both day and night, and make a wonderful photo [See above photo by Alan Walker]. There are tours of the Legislature, but you may need to use your time elsewhere.
The Empress Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company in 1908, is typical of the grand architecture of Canadian Pacific hotels across Canada. Another great photo opportunity [See above photo by Alan Walker] may be had by simply standing at the edge of the inner harbor and shooting towards the hotel, but don't overlook a visit inside. In addition to some really unusual and classic boutiques, there are stores and displays featuring the history of the Canadian Pacific Railway including the time when it owned the largest cruise ship fleet in the world. The layout of the Empress is confusing, and make sure you don't overlook the fact that there are three main levels where tourists are welcomed.
If you are getting thirsty or peckish by this time, there is an excellent English style pub adjacent to the Empress (to the extreme left as you face the hotel) called "Charles Dickens". One of the old traditions of the Empress Hotel is having "High Tea" with fruit scones, strawberry preserves and Jersey cream, although not inexpensive at about US$18.00 per person. If you are interested in this experience, you should check with the hotel early in your visit, and find out the appropriate times, and make a reservation. The Bengal Lounge in the Empress is still a classic place to have a drink in Victoria - you will see a combination of locals and tourists in this wonderful lounge of classic architecture.
If you walk through the Empress Hotel, you will come to the Convention Centre which is connected to the hotel, and whose modern architecture is in contrast to the rest of the hotel - but nevertheless quite attractive. At the back of the hotel you will also find the Crystal Garden [Photo at right courtesy of Crystal Garden], a glassed-roofed structure which used to contain the largest swimming pool in the British Empire when it opened in 1925. It is now filled with colorful tropical flowers and exotic birds and butterflies.
Tourist Information Centre
When you exit the Empress Hotel and look across the road to your far right, you will see an unusual building housing the Victoria Information Centre, where you can pick up some free souvenirs, and ask about getting to Butchart Gardens which are discussed later in this article.
While you are still within sight of the Empress Hotel, you may want to visit Miniature World, which is on the Humboldt Street side of the hotel (on the left as you face the hotel). Although costing about US$5.00 per person to enter the exhibit, Miniature World is an extraordinary display of dioramas and the ultimate in model making. Exhibits range from way-out spacecraft, military settings, important historical events and fairy tales. Anyone interested in military history or model trains will love the exhibits. If you have young children in tow, you may want to skip through the first few exhibits, so you can concentrate on the Cinderella-type stuff which is the last of the displays.
From the front of the Empress you can see, to your left, the catamaran-type structure in the harbor which is Undersea Gardens. This is really an aquarium set on the harbor bottom, and there are great displays of fish and underwater vegetation. Additionally, there are scuba divers who you can watch in action in the underground tanks, feeding octopuses and seals, and doing general scuba diving demonstrations. Well worth the entrance cost of approximately US$5.00, in my view.
Victoria's Royal London Wax Museum is close to the Undersea Gardens and is quite famous. I'm not a fan of wax museums myself, and I actually wasn't even impressed when seeing the original Waxworks in England, at Madam Tussaud's. If you have never seen any waxworks displays, you still might want to venture in. One of the displays is a full-scale replica of the British Crown Jewels. The building housing the waxworks was, by the way, the original cruise terminal in Victoria, and is an interesting piece of period architecture in itself. From the other side of the harbor when you look across at the Waxworks, you can see the Greek columns of that building looking somewhat incongruous with the Victorian Legislative Buildings behind.
Numerous companies offer whale watching excursions which depart from the Inner Harbor in front of the Empress. There's no guarantee you'll actually see any whales, but most tourists seem to enjoy the expedition in any event on the zodiac-type craft.
Royal British Columbia Museum
I'm not generally a fan of museums myself, but the Royal British Columbia Museum [Photo at right courtesy of Royal British Columbia Museum] is really outstanding, and I never miss an opportunity to visit when I am in Victoria. There are three main galleries, the first being the Natural History gallery, which is a fascinating recreation of the coastal forest and marine environment of British Columbia. The "open ocean exhibit" recreates a submarine voyage to the depths of the marine world. The second of the galleries is the "First People's gallery" a history of the triumph, tragedy and survival of British Columbia's native population. The Modern History gallery recreates the growth of British Columbia's industrial society from the 1700's through to the 1970's. The museum has a great gift shop, and an adequate cafe. Admission price is approximately US$5.00 for adults.
As you walk into the shopping area of downtown Victoria (to the left of the Empress Hotel as you are facing the hotel), within a few blocks you will come to Bastion Square which, among other things, houses Victoria's Maritime Museum. If you have any interest in nautical history or shipwrecks (including the Titanic), you will not want to miss the displays which are on three floors of the building. I personally find this museum more interesting than the larger version of the same thing in Vancouver. The museum, because it housed the province's original law courts, contains a restored "Vice-Admiralty Courtroom", the home of Sir Matthew Begbie, British Columbia's notorious "hanging judge". I'm sorry, but you will have to go there to find out why he was given that title (grin). The admission price is approximately US$5.00 for adults.
If you have a sweet tooth, don't miss going to the Rogers Chocolate Store, on Government Street near Broughton Street. Rogers has been in the chocolate candy business since 1885, and many people swear they make the best chocolates in the world.
Christmas in the Summer
If you are always collecting Christmas ornaments no matter what the season, you'll love the Spirit of Christmas Store on Government Street at Fort Street.
Last, but certainly not least in my summary of Victoria's attractions, is the world-renowned Butchart Gardens, which are about a 30 minute drive from downtown Victoria [Photo to the left courtesy of Butchart Gardens]. First of all, let me emphasize that this is an attraction not just for the garden and flower lovers, but an incredible display that will enchant men, women and children. The gardens, which date from 1904, began as a desire to beautify the site of a worked-out quarry owned by Mr. and Mrs. Butchart, and now has 50 acres of gardens including the exquisite sunken garden (the original quarry) and the Rose, Japanese and Italian gardens. The recommended duration for a visit to the gardens is approximately 2 hours. If you happen to be staying overnight in Victoria, you might want to consider visiting the gardens late in the day when the crowds are smallest. You could also stay for dinner, and watch the fireworks which begin in the middle evening and are quite spectacular. While you can obviously get a taxi to the gardens form downtown Victoria, you might want to get one of the bus tours to the gardens which leave from the major hotels, such as the Empress, and save quite a few dollars.
If you have lots of time, consider staying in Victoria overnight, as you could easily use up two full days in seeing all its attractions - and there are a lot more that I haven't mentioned. If you only have one day, consider spending the extra dollars in flying to Victoria from Vancouver, to give you a chance to really enjoy the major sights of Victoria. If you are really pressed for time, do at least enjoy the walk around the inner harbor seeing the Legislative Building and the Empress Hotel, visit the Royal British Columbia Museum - even if briefly, but certainly go and see the Butchart Gardens. If you and your spouse cannot agree on where to go, she could go to the Butchart Gardens, and he could visit Miniature World and the Maritime Museum, and then meet in the Charles Dickens Pub (grin). And while I personally think that Victoria is one of the nicest cities in the world, if you only have one day in Vancouver, do see Vancouver itself, and save your Victoria visit for your next Alaska cruise.
Originally from Australia, Alan has for some time been permanently settled in Vancouver where he is a practicing Attorney. He has been a SeaLetter columnist, reviewer and our resident humorist for some time now.
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