On the Road: Victoria

After three days in Vancouver, we hopped on the ferry to head to Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia. The ferry is the easiest way to get between the two points. The weather was perfect on the day we made our trip, so we spent most of the time outside on the deck taking in the scenery.

Named after Queen Victoria, the British settled the city in the early 1840s as a trading post. However, after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in Vancouver, Victoria lost its position as a commercial center. Fortunately, its mild, dry climate and scenic gardens and waterfronts made it a popular destination for wealthy tourists to unwind and for industrialists and government officials to make their homes.

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Craigdarroch Castle, home of coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and his family. Definitely take the time to check out the gorgeous interior!

Today, remnants of traditional British architecture and culture remain and the atmosphere more laid-back and relaxed when compared to Vancouver.

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Parliament Building

The Butchart Gardens are one of the best places to see why Victoria is nicknamed the “Garden City.”  Robert Butchart and his family made their fortune in cement manufacturing and once their 55-acre limestone quarry was spent, his wife Jennie transformed it into a seasonal garden with floral displays in the Victorian tradition.

The Sunken Garden was the first display to be completed, and over the years, the family  has continued to create additional features. Today, Butchart Gardens is one of Victoria’s most popular attractions and one of the premier show gardens in the world.

sunken garden

Sunken Garden

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Japanese Garden

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Italian Garden

The Gardens are located halfway between the ferry terminal and downtown Victoria. Since we had a rental car, we made it our first stop on our way into the city (if you don’t have a car, there are plenty of shuttle/public bus and boat options from both the terminal and downtown).

Once you get into the city proper, Victoria is very walkable and getting around on foot is a great way to appreciate all of the beauty and charm of the different sections of the city. The downtown area, with shops, restaurants and hotels spills into the bustling Inner Harbor, which is surrounded by museums, government buildings and recreational activities.

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The harbor around sunset

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The swanky Empress Hotel, all lit up at night

From there, you can walk along the harbor trail or through quaint residential streets to Fisherman’s Wharf, to have lunch by the water, see the brightly decorated float houses or feed the seals.

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Float House at the wharf

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Seal friend

One of my favorite activities of the trip was our whale watching excursion, which we booked through Prince of Whales tours. Depending on how adventurous you are, you can take a trip on an open or closed style boat. The former, called the Zodiac, looks kind of like an inflatable raft and requires you to wear a special flotation suit the entire time. Needless to say, we opted for the sturdier looking enclosed vessel.

 whale watch

Getting ready to set sail!

We traveled to the area around the San Juan Islands during our three-hour trip, and had a very knowledgable guide who taught us quite a bit about porpoises, whales and seals along the way. We had plenty of whale sightings that day, including a few orca mothers and their babies (fun fact: the period of gestation for orca calves is 18 months. Yet another reason I’m glad to be a human).

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If you go, definitely dress in layers as it does get pretty chilly out on the water. Binoculars and/or a zoom lens also come in handy, since the boats stay a couple of hundred meters away from wildlife. It was definitely an amazing experience.

I read somewhere that Victoria has more restaurants per capita than any other city in Canada and is regarded as one of the world’s centers for slow food, for its emphasis on the production and enjoyment of local, sustainable agriculture, fisheries and cooking. Like Vancouver, Victoria’s dining scene offers a mix of high-end restaurants and casual cafes, specializing in diverse cuisines, from Asian to West Coast fusion to European. Not surprisingly, you’ll find plenty of English pubs and hotels serving afternoon tea.

In the touristy areas, like the Inner Harbor and the Wharf, you’ll find chain restaurants catering to tourists and the cruise ship crowds, so it’s worth it to venture off the beaten path and into the surrounding neighborhoods.

We had our rental car on the first day, so we drove a bit out of the downtown area where we were staying to the Oak Bay neighborhood for dinner at Blighty’s Bistro (2006 Oak Bay Avenue). The restaurant only has about a dozen tables and most of them seemed to be filled with regulars when we visited on a Saturday night. Although it was busy, the service was very attentive and friendly. The owner of the restaurant was there, checking on each table several times throughout the evening and helping the server take orders and deliver dishes from the kitchen.

For the most part, the menu sticks to traditional bistro dishes, like seafood, chicken breast and beef tenderloin, but they are well executed. We particularly enjoyed the savory garlic and basil panacotta with bits of crispy bacon as a starter. My main course, a lamb tagine, was perfectly spiced with cinnamon and nutmeg and paired well with the accompanying watermelon and mint salad. A warm sticky toffee pudding with banana ice cream was the perfect ending to the meal.

If you have time for a leisurely breakfast, the Blue Fox Café (919 Fort Street) in the heart of the city’s Antique Row, is a good option.

I emphasize leisurely here because the service is pretty slow. It’s popular with locals and tourists alike, so there was a line out the door to be seated. This part doesn’t bother me a ton because I’m used that from the brunch places here in Philly. But, I do get annoyed when the servers have no sense of urgency once you get in there! There were quite a few staff members working when we visited, but they all seemed focused on one task and one task only. One person brought over menus and took drink orders. Another person took food orders. A third person delivered orders from the kitchen and sometimes let them sit awhile in the window before doing so. It made no sense to me, especially because I felt like they should have been trying to turn over the tables as quickly as possible.

That being said, the food is delicious and creative. There are ten different kinds of Eggs Benedict on the menu, ranging from the classic to the exotic, like the Moroccan spiced chicken with apple chutney and the Eggs in Hell (Chester’s choice) with spicy chorizo and fresh avocado. I couldn’t decide which of the four French toast options I liked best, so I went in a totally different direction and ordered porridge. The kitchen was so generous with the toppings on the huge bowl of steel cut oats; I got bit of baked banana, roasted pecans, maple syrup and sour cream along with each bite.

But, if you only have time for one meal in Victoria, go to Red Fish, Blue Fish (1006 Wharf Street). Sure, we had a few fancy meals during our trip, but still can’t stop talking about the fish and chips and seafood tacos from this unassuming outdoor waterfront restaurant housed in a converted shipping container. It’s apparently pretty common to have to wait in line for 30 minutes to an hour to place your order; but, be assured that the wait is well worth it.

In short, the fish and chips were the best that I’ve had outside of the UK. There are three choices for the fish and chips platter–halibut, salmon or cod. We went with the first option and the piece that we received in our basket was bigger than the palm of my hand and served with a heaping pile of thick-cut fries and cole slaw. I’m glad that we decided to share!

fish and chips

The fresh fish was covered in a tempura-style batter and fried to a perfect golden brown. It had a bit of a sheen to it, so I was surprised when I took my first bite and heard a satisfying crunch, without any greasiness at all. The batter didn’t become soggy or fall apart, so it kept the fish hot and moist throughout our entire meal.

Fish tacones are one of the other specialities of the house. A generous helping of seafood is wrapped in a grilled tortilla and topped with creamy mayo, cabbage slaw, and tangy lemon pickled onions. We sampled the barbeque wild salmon and the sweet bay scallops. These are good, light addition to round out your meal, but two of them would make a substantial main course on their own.

seafood tacos

We spent about two and a half days in Victoria, which was the perfect amount of time for an overview of the city. It kind of reminded me of being at a resort. There are plenty of activities to do if you want to, but you’ll enjoy it just as much if all you want to do is sit by the water and take in the beautiful surroundings. For us, it was a great stopping point before we headed to busy Seattle, the final stop on our Pacific Northwest tour.

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