Sunday, August 14th
The highlight of the day was a ferry ride to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. I was sad that we were leaving Vancouver but excited to see our next destination. Victoria is, in a way, the primary reason we are making this trip! During our Alaskan cruise two years ago, we made port for part of a day, and I was so impressed with this lovely city that I promised then and there we would return.
I had never taken a car on a ferry, so that was a new experience. The ferry boats are huge and hold around 150 vehicles, yet they move surprisingly fast through the inner passages. The scenery, dominated by forested islands and mountain ranges to the east, is stunning, and once again we were blessed with gorgeous, sunny weather. Up on deck it was very windy, but I spent most of the time writing an earlier blog post. It took about an hour and a half to reach the ferry terminal at the northern tip of the Saanich Peninsula, on which Victoria is located at the southern-most point. We drove into downtown and headed straight for the waterfront for lunch. Rather than do our own fishing, we opted for The Flying Otter restaurant. It was noisy and touristy and the food took a long time, but everybody enjoyed their meals. The annual Dragon Boat Festival was going on, and we watched contestants paddling kayaks in the harbor as we ate. There were hundreds of people around the wharf and dozens of rowing teams – locals that did not appear to be super athletic but seemed to be really into the races.
Right behind us on the other side of the street was the ivy-covered Fairmont Empress Hotel. However, we had a couple of hours to kill before checking in, so we looked in the guide book and found an art museum that looked interesting. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria on Moss Street turned out to be a gem, featuring an exhibit of nice watercolors by Emily Carr. Part of the museum is an old house called the Spencer Mansion, donated in 1951 by Miss Sarah Spencer, who had been a benefactor of the arts. We had walked about a mile from downtown to get to the museum, and on the walk back we found a great bookstore and a record store (yes, they had vinyl in addition to CDs).
Our great luck with dining ran out in the evening when a well-reviewed, local pizza place (off the beaten path) turned out to be closed due to a broken water heater. We settled for the Old Spaghetti Factory near the Empress. For myself, compared to the unique places we have found earlier on the trip, I’m embarrassed to admit we went to a run-of-the-mill chain restaurant, but the food was inexpensive and tasty. As a plus, the meals included spumoni for dessert. 🙂
After walking around downtown, we retired to our elegant room at the Empress. We didn’t have a great view, but the room was spacious, the beds were very comfy, and it just felt so special just being there. We used the pool and jacuzzi to wind down and then relaxed in our room. For some reason, everyone has been staying up until about midnight on this trip, reading and watching TV. We found a Canadian comedy show we like called Just for Laughs. The “Gags” part of the show is like Candid Camera, and we saw some pretty funny tricks played on people.
I fell asleep with a true sense of happiness and contentment that the trip has been going so well and that there was no place that I would rather be at moment.
Monday, August 15th
The day dawned brightly, the sunniest morning yet on our trip! If you know me at all, you know I am nearly always hungry, and never more so than in the morning. My kids, who sometimes don’t eat breakfast, have heard me extol many times the virtues of the most important meal of the day. 😉 So, on vacation it is often my habit to rise early and look for something to eat on my own, because otherwise I would starve waiting for teenager slug boy to get going. Lara arose early enough to go with me. Well. Let’s just say the first part of my day was not going smoothly as I found myself searching for an open bakery. Lara is usually grumpy, like me, when she gets hungry, but for once she was the voice of patience and did not mind trekking all over the place. We found one decent-looking bakery that is closed on Mondays; bummer. Found another place that was about cookies and sweet stuff, not substantial items like bagels. I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew of a breakfast-type bakery, and she vaguely mentioned a couple of possibilities on Blanshard Street. I still had a heck of a time finding anything, but we ended up at a chain called Tim Horton’s, which apparently is very popular in these parts. The prices were surprisingly low, and I was able to get breakfast sandwiches for me and a bagel for Erik, and a cinnamon roll for Karen, while Lara was pleased with her cheese croissant. Mission accomplished! Whew.
Ah, but the best part of the day was yet to come. We drove up north about 20 miles (about 30 kilometers, I think – “Think metric!”) to the famous Butchart Gardens.
On our Alaskan cruise, Karen and Lara had already seen them, but this time we all made the trip. Wow! They are truly beautiful; I really have never seen anything like it. What is amazing about it is that the Butcharts (primarily through the vision of Jennie Butchart) created the whole thing in a former quarry. Parts of the rock walls are still visible, but most of it is covered by ivy and lush greens, and the floor of the quarry and the surrounding grounds are filled with hundreds of species of flowers arranged into various themed areas, such as the Rose Garden and the Japanese Garden. We spent over two hours walking through it, and it was more than worth the time and money. We definitely would go back again.
Nearby the gardens we found a diner called Smitty’s (a Canadian chain like a better quality Carrows or something) and had a really nice lunch.
We had some free time in the middle of the afternoon, so we drove to a landmark called Craigdarroch Castle, a stone mansion on a hill east of downtown built by Victoria’s richest capitalist of the late 1800s, a Scotsman named Robert Dunsmuir.
OK, let’s just say Robert and his wife Joan were filthy rich and really loved showing off their wealth. Ironically, the bastard died before the mansion was completed. His quite austere looking wife carried on for 18 more years or so. The compelling nature of it is, apart from the tall turrets and the opulent furnishings, the history of the Dunsmuir family is a fascinating read full of gossip about the alcoholic ways of some of their children and grandchildren, family infighting, and tragic endings. Great stuff, and worth the trip.
For Karen, Lara and me, one of the highlights of the whole trip was Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel. (We let Erik stay in the room, as he was not so interested.) This is a tradition that goes back a hundred years or so and has been enjoyed by English royalty and heads of state. The Empress Room is superbly fancy, and the porcelain tea service itself is exquisite. We loved sipping our Empress Tea and trying all the sandwiches, scones, and sugary desserts. Everything was great, and Lara proclaimed the whole experience “grand”. I cannot disagree!
As I suspected, the meal was rather filling, and I am not accustomed to eating that much between 4 and 5pm. Whereas Karen and Lara would basically be full for the evening, I knew I would get hungry late at night, and also I needed to ensure that Erik got a good meal. He and I went for a walk and found Pig BBQ, so he had a nice half rack of ribs, cornbread and slaw. Meanwhile, Karen and Lara found a chocolate shop and bought treats for everybody. They also toured an attraction called Miniature World (which I’ll write more about tomorrow). Back in the room, we watched Just for Laughs again and some other random shows. I went out for yet another walk and ate some gyros, and then it was time for reading and Facebooking before bedtime.
All in all, this may have been the best day of the whole trip. Victoria has a much different feel than Vancouver – very English/European, whereas the latter feels more American. Lara declares that Victoria is her favorite place on the trip. I put it right up there with Vancouver, but they are just different. Erik and I like big cities, and Vancouver is tops in terms of urban beauty and attractions, yet Victoria is amazing and special in its own way. I would not want to have to choose one over the other; I hope that I can spend much more time in both!