I felt the throb of the engines ramp up a notch as the powerful Prince of Whales whale-watching boat veered to the right. The First Mate, Jennifer, excitedly pointed towards the grey bulk that the Captain had spotted working its way through the frothy sea. I hurried to the open side of the boat and joined the other guests peering out across the ocean being whipped by the winds ahead of us. I soon saw a dark figure churning surprisingly easily through the choppy sea as we drew closer.
As it worked its way out to deeper sea it remained steadily above the waves and seemed to be increasing speed as we drew towards the respectful 100-metre distance limit that all whale-watching boats adhere to. Jennifer said it was one of the four bought from the British Royal Navy after 1998. Cameras clicked excitedly around me in response. Although we had not been successful finding whales on our excursion, we wanted to capture the thrilling image of the huge diesel-electric navy submarine heading out of its base in Victoria towards open sea – and on to its regular tour in the Pacific Ocean.
As we returned to the harbour whale spotting free after our three-hour excursion, we heard that Prince of Whales invites every guest that missed out on seeing whales go on another trip with them for free. All we had to do was remember the day we went out and the name the booking was in. Jennifer told us the previous week someone had returned after an 8-year gap to take them up on this guarantee. While they had spotted humpback whales breaching above the waves, we returned having seen bald eagles, sea lions lazily lying around on a rocky outcrop and the submarine. A reminder that when you engage with wildlife nothing is guaranteed. However, I was not disheartened, as I had already discovered there is more to Victoria than whales.
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, although Vancouver overtook it to become a larger and more significant commercial city over time. Founded in the 1840s by British settlers who named it after Queen Victoria, it grew rapidly during the Canadian Gold Rush as a key port serving the fortune-hunting miners and industry. Later it thrived as the main opium importing and exporting port in North America into the East, until that was abolished in 1908.
Due to its comfortable and snow-free climate it eventually became popular with retirees, being unkindly dubbed by the writer Pierre Bertinas as the “place that old people go to visit their parents”. Things have changed and it is now more affectionately known as “the Garden City”, becoming a youthful-feeling and thriving tourist centre. One that is especially popular with Vancouver residents who can fly harbour to harbour in around half an hour via floatplanes that take off and arrive in the heart of both cities. It is also attracting a fast-growing audience of day visitors who arrive on cruise ships on their way to or from Vancouver to Alaska and dock in the harbour at Ogden Point.
Whale watching is one of the most popular activities, especially between late-May to September when many transitory Orca Killer Whales pass surprisingly close to the coast looking to feed on the sea lions and harbour seals that hang around on the rocky outcrops just offshore. There are boat and zodiac tours available.
Things to do Beyond Whale Watching
There is, however, a myriad of other things for visitors to also do in this gorgeous, vibrant and accessible city. Based on my time here, these are the top tips for travellers on things to do in addition to whale-watching:
Explore The Inner Harbour and Near-by Attractions
The harbour area is beautiful. The town is curved around an inner harbour of dark blue water with a series of piers that small water taxis scoot between. Boats and zodiacs heading off on whale-watching and sightseeing tours also launch from them. Around the waterside promenade people stroll, stalls sell a variety of food and entertainers perform throughout the day and late into the evening. Overlooking the harbour are grand hotels like the 477-room Empress, which opened in 1908, and the more modern Hotel Grand Pacific that I stayed at.
There is more than enough to do in and around the harbour to fill an entire day, or weekend. The main highlights I recommend to focus on are:
British Columbia Parliament
Tour the Neo-baroque style British Columbia Parliament building that houses the region’s Legislative Assembly. This attractive and ornate building opened in 1897, and has a wide sweeping lawn with statues of Queen Victoria and a soldier to commemorate the two World Wars and the Korean War. It also has a huge totem pole created by the First Nation population. It is open to visitors from Monday to Friday; entry is free with complimentary guided tours on offer. Inside there is the Legislative Dining Room, which is open for breakfast and lunch.
Royal British Columbia Museum
Spend time exploring the Royal British Columbia Museum. This has been around since 1886 and is one of the most enjoyable museums I have spent time in. I had expected to fly around it, but found it fascinating and compelling. Although it covers Natural and Modern History like many museums of its type, the most enthralling area is the First People’s Gallery. This mostly interactive space tells the complex story of the many ethnic groups who inhabit British Columbia and focuses on their diverse languages, customs and clothing. Do not miss the wonderful Totem exhibition behind the museum.
Beacon Hill Park
Take time out to relax and enjoy the outdoors in this huge 200-acre space that is behind the museum. It has been a municipal park since 1882 and has playing fields, gardens with exotic plants, ponds, walking trails and a popular petting zoo that is a magical space for families and children to get lost in the experience.
Watch the time-lapse video I made of Victoria Harbour
Watch the video I made of the Hotel Grand Pacific Hotel, Victoria Harbour
Travel to and enjoy Fisherman’s Wharf
From the harbour you can either walk along the attractive waterfront, watching the boats glide by and floatplanes land and take off, or catch one of the water taxi rides to Fisherman’s Wharf. It takes around fifteen minutes to stroll there, although if you get the water taxi ride the enthusiastic and knowledgeable Captain will share tips, give advice and share stories of the city on the ten-minute commute. This unique place is a floating village with quirky, brightly coloured houses, shops and restaurants. It has a vibrant and exciting atmosphere and is always busy and cheerful. You can also leave from here on zodiac whale-watching trips.
Experience more of Victoria on themed tours
There are various ways to get an in-depth feel for the broad spectrum of city by venturing beyond the harbour area. The best is via themed tours, of which there are a number of options:
The Tourist Association offers a range of maps for self-guided Heritage Walks. These are “Mysterious Chinatown” (the second oldest after San Francisco), “Rollicking Boomtown” (covering the wildness of the Gold Rush years), “Law and Order” (characters and stories of wild activities and events from the city’s history) and “Haunted Victoria” (tour of the ghostly and mysterious areas and stories of the city). You can get these from the Tourist Office at the Harbour or by downloading them online.
If want to go on a guided trip, the historical Discovery Walks hosted by local historians (Chris and John Adams) are recommended by Tourism Victoria. These are also themed and include “Rum Runners and Smugglers” (which includes the story of Victoria’s Opium years), “Rockland Mansions” (tour and stories around the district where the rich and famous lived) and “Victoria Stories” (which gives a broad overview of the city, the architecture and famous families).
Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tours
There are three providers with a key stop outside the Empress Hotel at the harbour. They also stop at the cruise terminal when ships are visiting. You can choose from CVS Sightseeing (http://www.cvstours.com),Gray Line (http://sightseeingvictoria.com/)and Big Bus (http://bigbusvictoria.com) all of which cover a lot of ground including downtown, Chinatown, Fisherman’s Wharf, Dallas Road and Beach Drive, Oak Bay and Craigdarroch Castle (a grand house built by the coal baron Robert Dunsmuir in the 1890s).
Bike Tours and Rentals
The city is cyclist friendly and easy to navigate around, as it is fairly flat. I recommend going on a hosted tour to see the key sights and hear the stories of the city. The Pedaler is one of the leading companies, and they offer tours such as “Castle, Hoods and Legends” (taking in the main neighbourhoods including Chinatown and Beacon Hill Park) and “Eat.Drink.Pedal” (a 4-hour trip visiting some quirky food places for pizza, ice cream and other treats). The latter was highly recommended by a colleague I travelled with (Lucy Dodsworth of OnTheLuce.com).
Victoria has many trendy, unusual and fun places to eat. Every corner seems to have yet more interesting dining options. The following are places I visited and especially enjoyed:
Canoe Brewpub and Restaurant (http://www.canoebrewpub.com). This vast place has a sprawling outside area along the river or inviting wooden interior with gleaming chandeliers. In addition to their own brewed beers they serve a wide range of comfort food like hamburgers and nachos.
Willie’s Bakery (http://www.williesbakery.com). I loved this place. It serves amazing breakfasts. I had a pile of the fluffiest pancakes I have ever had topped with blueberries, with the required Canadian maple bacon on the side.
North 48 (http://northfortyeight.com). This is a hyper-trendy spot that has usual and surprising combinations of food, such as their Chicken and Waffles (yummy!) and French Onion soup served in a jar.
Cruise Passenger Tips
If you are visiting the city as a cruise stop, you will be docked at Ogden Point which is at least 20 minutes walk from the harbour. Tourism Victoria supplied me with the following advice and suggestions on how to get into the areas that I recommend you explore from there if you do not want to walk;
Victoria Pedicab Company: The Victoria Pedicabs operate from Ogden Point and offer several different tours of the city or will provide transportation into downtown.
Personal Guided Limo & Van Tours: There are several “cars for hire” that are ready and waiting for cruise ship passengers. Visitors are able to choose what vehicle suits their needs and what tour they would prefer. Vehicles range from limos, 14 passenger vans, 19 passenger mini buses, and vintage cars. Companies include Sidecar Victoria, LA Limos, and Victoria London Taxi. A lot of visitors use this option if traveling in large groups as many of the larger vehicles can take big groups all at once when a taxi cannot.
Bike Rentals and Tours: There is a small bike rental at the Ogden Point Pier B terminal. They offer bike rentals or tours to cruise ship passengers. They are located in the Pier B parking lot. Guests can rent a bike for a day or a few hours and each rental it includes a lock and helmet.
Cruise Shuttle: Wilsons Transportation offers a Cruise Ship Shuttle service from Ogden Point to downtown Victoria. They only have one pick up and drop off place downtown and that is at the corner of Fort Street and Government Street.
Although my whale-watching excursion on the “Ocean Magic 2” with Prince of Whales only delivered sighting of that large metal beast, getting out to the sea and seeing Victoria from the water added to my overall experience of this attractive garden city. The guarantee of a further excursion to see those magnificent creatures at no cost has given me a reason to go back to the city. Though I did not really need one, as I was taken with the place. Not only is it a gorgeous destination, but also the atmosphere and profusion of striking buildings combined with the history made a compelling impression. If you have the chance to visit, take it. I know I will.
Inspired to find out more? Visit http://KeepExploring.Canada.travel. I visited Victoria as a guest of Destination Canada as part of a Travelator Media campaign.
- Cities on the edge of nature – Victoria, British Columbia
- Where and what to eat in Victoria, British Columbia
- A Weekenders Guide to Victoria British Columbia
- Exploring British Columbia’s cultural heritage in Victoria
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