VICTORIA is BC’s provincial capital and the region’s second city after Vancouver. It’s a popular excursion from Vancouver, and though it’s possible to come here for the day, it’s better to stay overnight and give the city the two or more days it richly deserves. Much of the waterfront area has an undeniably quaint and likeable English feel – “Brighton Pavilion with the Himalayas for a backdrop,” said the writer Rudyard Kipling – and Victoria has more British-born residents than anywhere in Canada.
Despite the seasonal influx (some four million visitors per year), it’s a small, relaxed and pleasantly sophisticated place. It also provides plenty of bars, restaurants (and the odd club) and serves as a base for a range of outdoor activities and slightly more far-flung attractions. Chief of these is whale-watching, with a plethora of companies offering trips. As a final lure, the weather – though often damp – is extremely mild; Victoria’s meteorological station has the distinction of being the only one in Canada to record a winter in which the temperature never fell below freezing.
Victoria’s heart is compact: the best shops, restaurants and attractions are within walking distance of the Inner Harbour area and the Old Town district behind it. On summer evenings this area is alive with strollers and buskers, and a pleasure to wander around as the sun drops over the water. Foremost among the daytime diversions are the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Parliament Buildings. Or you might drop by Craigdarroch Castle and think about a trip to the celebrated Butchart Gardens, some way out of town, but easily accessed by public transport or regular all-inclusive tours from the bus terminal. If you’re around for a couple of days you should also find time to walk around Beacon Hill Park, a few minutes’ walk from downtown to the south.
Salish peoples originally inhabited Victoria’s site, in particular the Lekwammen, who had a string of some ten villages in the area. Captain George Vancouver, when mapping the North American coast, described his feelings on first glimpsing this part of Vancouver Island: “The serenity of the climate, the innumerable pleasing landscapes, and the abundant fertility that unassisted nature puts forth, require only to be enriched by the industry of man with villages, mansions, cottages and other buildings, to render it the most lovely country that can be imagined.”
The first step in this process began in 1843 when Victoria received some of its earliest white visitors, notably Hudson’s Bay Company representative James Douglas, who disembarked at present-day Clover Point and built Fort Camosun, named after an Aboriginal landmark (the name was later changed to Fort Victoria to honour the British queen). Aboriginal peoples from across the island settled near the fort, attracted by the new trading opportunities it offered. Soon they were joined by British pioneers and in time, the harbour became the busiest West Coast port north of San Francisco and a major base for the British navy’s Pacific fleet.
Boom time came in the 1850s following the mainland gold strikes, when Victoria’s port became an essential stopoff and supplies depot for prospectors heading across the water and into the interior. Though the gold-rush bubble soon burst, Victoria carried on as a military, economic and political centre, becoming the capital of the newly created province in 1866 – years before the founding of Vancouver. But Victoria’s planned role as Canada’s western rail terminus was surrendered to Vancouver, and with it any chance of realistic growth or industrial development. Today, the town survives quite well almost entirely on the backs of visitors, the civil-service bureaucracy and retirees in search of a mild-weathered retreat.
The waters around Victoria offer different opportunities than those in Tofino (on the west coast of Vancouver Island) where you’re more likely to spot grey whales. Throughout the season (May to Oct) transient and resident pods of orcas (killer whales) live in the seas around southern Vancouver Island, around a hundred animals in all, so you may see these, along with minke, occasional greys and humpbacks, with Dall’s porpoises, harbour or elephant seals and California and Steller sea lions also present. Most outfits offer “guaranteed” whale sightings so if you don’t see them on your first trip, you can return again for free.
While there are many outfits to choose from, they offer almost identical trips at the same prices, typically around $100 for a three-hour outing. The only real variables are the boats used, so you need to decide whether you want a rigid-hull cruiser (covered or uncovered), which is comfortable and sedate, a catamaran, or a high-speed aluminium-hull inflatable known as a “Zodiac”, which is infinitely more exhilarating, but can offer a sometimes bumpy, chilly ride and lacks toilets.