Victoria, British Columbia

Our next destination was located across the Straight of Juan de Fuca, almost directly north of the sleepy little town of Port Angeles. We were headed to Vancouver Island and its capital city of Victoria, a gem of a small city that often gets overlooked by the larger neighboring metropolises of Seattle and Vancouver. The city of Victoria is known for hosting the provincial legislature, a series of elegant and historic waterfront buildings, and the beautiful gardens that flourish in its maritime climate. We would also be exploring some of the nearby destinations on Vancouver Island, nearly all of them associated with the surrounding water in some fashion. This is consistently rated as one of the best cities in the world to call home, and after visiting, it was easy to see why.

We would be traveling to Victoria via another ferry boat, this one roughly the same size as the ferry that we had taken earlier to Bainbridge Island. Victoria is only located about 25 miles / 40 kilometers to the north of Port Angeles and there's regular ferry service from one side of the straight to the other throughout the year. This is not a difficult crossing. The weather on this particular morning had dawned foggy and raining, and the cars glistened with moisture as they were loaded one at a time into the belly of the boat. It was an early morning departure, with the passengers needing to be on board by about 7:00 AM and the ferry arriving at the other side less than two hours later. We watched the American shore recede into the distance as the ferry pulled away from the docks, Port Angeles disappearing into the morning mists. The ferry itself wasn't particularly crowded and held a mixture of tourists and commercial vehicles on their normal route. We did get some pretty views while crossing the Straight of Juan de Fuca; I included one picture where the sun broke out from behind the clouds and illuminated the waves underneath. Aside from the one ship in the distance, the straight was relatively empty this morning.

Seaborne traffic picked up as we drew closer to the Canadian shore. We spotted a large cruise ship that was docked on the outskirts of the harbor in Victoria, and then a series of seaplanes flying low overhead. There were four of five of them in total, although I've only included pictures of a pair of them, and they seemed to be commonplace along the Pacific coast of British Columbia. I also encountered lots of these small planes when I visited Alaska a few years later, and for similar reasons. Planes and boats are the best way to get around the rocky, irregularly shaped coastline. One of the seaplanes even touched down on the water as we were approaching the entrance to the city's harbor. Our first impression of Victora came from the viewing deck on top of the ferry boat, and it was a unique way to see the small downtown area. Victoria has a sheltered harbor that hooks around to the east as approached by sea. We turned to the right past Fisherman's Wharf and suddenly the center of the city popped into view. There was even a "Welcome to Victoria" message spelled out in red flowers at the docks of the harbor. What a nice way to visit a new city for the first time!

Our first sightseeing destination after disembarking from the ferry boat was the provincial legislative building. Known officially as the British Columbia Legislature, this was the most imposing structure that could be found in the downtown area surrounding the water. The architecture style here was Neo Baroque, with the green-colored copper domes atop the building serving as a dead giveaway. The British Columbia Legislature is a huge building stretching 500 feet / 150 meters from end to end, and it was built in the 1890s as a symbol of the growing maturity of British Columbia as a Canadian province. There are large open grounds surrounding the building decked out with colorful gardens, as well as statues depicting (of course) Queen Victoria, the namesake of this and many other cities. At the time of this visit in 2012, it was the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II (the 60th anniversary: 1952-2012) and there were a series of banners celebrating her long rule. I was pleased to see that there were also monuments to the First Nations of British Columbia on the grounds as well, finally getting some belated recognition in the midst of the otherwise Anglo-centric statues on display.

We were able to take a tour of the interior of the British Columbia Legislature and see the assembly rooms for ourselves. It was a stately building on the inside, lots of wood paneling along the walls and the floor combined together with white marble for decorative elements. The highlight of the building's architecture was the main dome in the center of the structre. The upper floor was left open beneath the dome to view all the way up to the top where a series of murals had been painted in the four corners of the large room. These images captured some of the traditional occupations in British Columbia, like agriculture and fishing and so on. Other parts of the building showcased the provincial coat of arms, memorials to the honored dead who had fallen in past Canadian wars, and homages to the British royal family. I should also mention one other thing: British Columbia has an amazing design for its provincial flag. It features a Union Jack next to the blue-and-white waves and a many-rayed golden sun. The flag is highly unique and instantly recognizable, much better than the rather bland flags that many of the other provinces employ. Seriously though, were Ontario and Manitoba even trying?

At the end of the tour, our group was shown into the legislative chamber itself. This is a unicameral lesgislature with only a single house, common in the British tradition but foreign to Americans. There were 87 seats in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia at the time of writing, with provincial elections held every four years unless called earlier due to the collapse of the government. The room itself was divided into two opposite sides, for the government and opposition, again modeled after the House of Commons in London. This is again different from most American legislatures which tend to be organized in a semicircular fashion instead. The far end of the room contained the desk where the premier would sit, with viewing galleries located around the upper floor of the legislative chamber for interested onlookers. Outside of the expensive wood and marble finishes, this was a relatively simple legislative chamber, small in size and lacking some of the pompous decorations that I've seen elsewhere. It seemed like a good fit for the hearty, down-to-earth nature of British Columbia.

We also viewed this pair of stained glass windows that had been produced for the jubilee celebrations of two different queens. The older one commemorated the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897, and had apparently sat forgotten in storage for decades before being rediscovered and put back on display again. The newer window celebrated the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth in 2002 with a depiction of some of the natural wildlife inhabiting the provinces. This was the most use of the color green that I'd ever seen on a stained glass window, lots of trees everywhere with small insets for the animals that inhabit the region. They made a nice pair to contrast how artists in British Columbia had decided to commemorate a queen's anniversary in the late 19th century as opposed to the early 21st century.

After finishing up with the tour of the British Columbia Legislature, we took the short walk down Government Street over to the sumptuous Fairmont Empress Hotel. This walk along the waterfront served up some excellent views looking back at the legislature building from a distance as well as out over the water where several dozen small boats were moored. That marina had to be a very expensive place to dock each boat given that it was placed in the center of the city's harbor. As for the Fairmont Empress, it competed with the legislature building for the crown of "most impressive" in downtown Victoria. The Fairmont Empress is an iconic landmark of Victoria and its ivy-covered facade adorns many of the souvenir postcards sold around the city. Like so many of the other Fairmont properties across Canada, the Empress was built initially as a terminus destination for the Canadian Pacific railway, as the company also operated steamships that docked a block away. Construction completed in 1908, and while the railroad company eventually went out of business, the Empress itself remained a tourist magnet for the wealthy and famous. We were not staying here, of course, but did take the opportunity to walk around on the inside and view the luxurious accomodations. The presence of all that greenery on the walls makes this a unique hotel attraction.

We headed next to the preeminent museum in Victoria, the Royal British Columbia (BC) Museum. One of the great things about visiting a small city like Victoria is the closeness of the attractions to one another; the legislature building and the Fairmont Empress and the Royal BC Museum were all within five minutes of walking distance apart. Anyway, the Royal BC Museum serves as the province's natural and cultural history museum and dates back to the 1880s, containing more than 7 million individual artifacts in its collections. They are divided into three main permanent galleries: Natural History, Modern History, and the First Peoples gallery. We started out by looking at the Natural History section:

This area was dedicated to the flora and fauna that lived in British Columbia, both past and present. The most popular attraction was the museum's collection of dinosaur fossils, and the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta have historically been among the best places in the world to find fossils. In addition to all of the dinosaur bones, the museum had a computerized demonstration showing how dinosaurs are believed to have walked, which was a unique addition I haven't seen anywhere else. The Modern Hisory section was a retelling of the colonial and provincial history of British Columbia over the last 200 years, with the largest exhibit recreating a street from the Victorian era. Those are the buildings depicted above, which were fun to walk through even if they presented a somewhat sanitized version of what life on the frontier would have looked like. (I doubt that 1880s Victoria was anywhere near that clean.) I also appreciated the focus on the naval history of the province, from the initial English voyages of exploration in the 18th century up through the continuing practice of commercial fishing into the modern day.

See? In British Columbia, they take trolling so seriously that it's become an entire industry. (Yes, I'm aware that "trolling" is also a word for a type of fishing using a dredge line.)

But it was the gallery devoted to the First Peoples that was the star of the show at this particular museum. There were hundreds upon hundreds of artifacts on display in this section of the museum, mostly but not exclusively from the Haida people along the coast. They have a very distinctive form of artwork that casts the animals of the region into fantastic shapes, with a truly unique representative style of eagles and bears and wolves and whales. It's the same art style that was used as the inspiration for the Seattle Seahawks logo, for anyone who might be a sports fan reading this. I spent almost an hour wandering through this portion of the museum, taking in the artifacts on display and reading the information about how contact with Europeans disrupted the traditional lifestyle of the First Peoples nations. It was all extremely well done and provided the sort of background that only a local museum that worked together with the current First Nations peoples living in British Columbia would have been able to put together. If there's only time to see one portion of the Royal BC Museum, this should be it.

Once we were finished visiting the museum, we hopped back into our rental car and drove outside the city to the last attraction for the day. This was a place known as the Butchart Gardens, located about a half hour's drive outside of Victoria to the northwest. The Butchart Gardens are a famous tourist attraction created and maintained by the Butchart family that draw more than a million visitors annually. They have been open to the public since the early 20th century and the gardens have been designated as a National Historic Site of Canada. We would be visiting during the evening hours, which seemed like a magical time to stroll about the enormous grounds of the gardens. The small lights along the pathways were just beginning to turn on, and the twilight hour gave everything a bit of a mystical cast.

That first picture should provide a little bit of a sense of scale for the Butchart Gardens. The whole place was absolutely huge, stretching on and on through a series of twisting walking paths. We were looking down at the Sunken Garden, one of four major sections (with the others being the Italian Garden, Rose Garden, and Japanese Garden). Unfortunately I'm not very knowledgeable when it comes to plants, and I'm not going to attempt to identify all of the different varieties of trees and flowers that were on display here. The flowerbeds were perfectly manicured though, and it was obvious that a great deal of time and effort went into getting the look of each area just right. The flowers themselves ranged the full spectrum of the rainbow, with every color represented somewhere on the grounds. There were even blue flowers here:

That seems to be the rarest color for flowers, or at least the particular hue that I'm least familiar with. These pictures were from the Rose Garden, which contained the expected roses in many different shades of color as well as a bunch of flowers of other types. The air was clean and fresh here, full of the perfumed aromas of these flowering plants. Again, I'm not much for gardening in general but there really was a ton to see here. Someone with a genuine interest in botany could spend hours exploring the Butchart Gardens.

I'll finish this section with a few pictures from the Japanese Garden along with one of the overhanging arches of flowers that visitors could walk beneath. The Japanese Garden was more subdued than the other parts of the venue, lacking the bright colors of the other areas. Instead it featured several rock gardens and small ponds, along with vegetation brought from various parts of East Asia. This seemed like a place to sit and quietly think deep thoughts, taking a break from the riotous display elsewhere in the gardens. Finally, I'll include some images of the overhanging arches of flowers that were placed near the entrance to the Butchart Gardens. The brightly-colored pink flowers were practically bursting off of their vines and looked like something out of a wedding bouquet. There was even a nighttime concert of live music taking place performed by a three piece band. We were chased out by the oncoming arrival of darkness and the need to return to our hotel in Victoria for the night. The Butchart Gardens had been quite an impressive display of blossoming plants, and an unexpectedly interesting place to visit.

The next morning we woke up to beautiful weather, a bright sunny day with only a handful of puffy white clouds in the sky. We would be visiting the small city of Nanaimo on this day, located about 65 miles / 110 kilometers to the northwest of Victoria. Like most of the cities in this region, Nanaimo is located on the coast and serves as a hub of waterborne transportation. The city signs that we came across made this quite clear, proudly indicating the nickname of Nanaimo as "The Harbor City". (Well, "Harbour City", this being Canada.) This was originally a coal mining town back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but today has switched over to more of a technology and service based economy. We were impressed by the deep blue color of the waters in the harbor, looking out over the sheltered bay towards Gabriola Island. There were boats everywhere and lots of people out on the water this day.

By chance we had arrived on a day when Nanaimo was hosting an outdoor festival. This was officially listed as the World Championship Bathtub Race and Marine Festival, although unfortunately we hadn't arrived at the right time to see the bathtub races out in the harbor. That was a pity. However, the rest of the marine festival was in full swing, with live music and carnival games and even some Zorbs that must have been brought from New Zealand. Those are the huge plastic balls that people run around inside like a pet gerbil. I've always wanted to try Zorbing, but this wasn't the proper time and place. Overall, it was a nice place to stop and spend a few hours as well as getting a freshly grilled lunch. However, I didn't end up finding Nanaimo to be as interesting as I had hoped. Outside of the marine festival, there wasn't too much of interest taking place. I had wanted to spend this day driving to Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast of Vancouver Island, but that was a four hour drive in each direction and my family wasn't keen on spending eight hours driving for perhaps two or three hours spent in the national park. I can't say that I blame them, though if I had been alone I would have done it. I'm the one who spent 21 hours driving to watch a 2 minute total solar eclipse after all.

We returned back to Victoria and had dinner, then poked around a bit in the fading evening light in one of the city's nearby parks. This was Beacon Hill Park, located just to the south of the downtown area with the legislative building, and it had more of the meticulously neat gardens that we had seen throughout the Victoria area. The locals truly seemed to love gardening and the maritime climate is perfect for growing flowers. This little park also contains the "Mile Zero" marker for the Trans Canada Highway, either the beginning point or ending point of the continent-spanning road. I visited the other end of the highway the following year in St. John's, Newfoundland and didn't find any such route marker there. Maybe I missed it.

Then there was the wildlife in the park. I first noticed a peacock strolling nonchalantly through the gardens and wondered where it might have come from. It turned out that there was a small enclosure for the birds nearby where there were more peacocks perching on the top of the fence. At least, I think that the enclosure was for the peacocks; I'm not entirely certain of that. The birds seemed free to hop out and wander around wherever they pleased. I'm not sure that was entirely safe given that there were roads with passing cars nearby, and it was weird to see these large birds strutting about like they owned the gardens. As if that wasn't enough, then a small group of deer sauntered into view as well! They were perfectly content to graze at some of the grass along the edge of the park, and didn't seem fazed at all by the cars and motocycles speeding past them only a few feet away. I guess they were city deer and used to the noise, something like that. If I'd ever needed proof that Victoria is a city that remains close to nature, this was certainly it.

I closed out the day by taking a few pictures of Victoria's landmark buildings at night. They looked very different under the cover of darkness than they had earlier when we had first arrived in the city during the day. The British Columbia Legislature was completely illuminated with white lights, with the lines of the building and its windows picked out in glowing white orbs. It made the place look like something out of a carnival celebration, and I was reminded of the old Main Street Electrical Parade that used to be performed at Disney World. The Fairmont Empress was also decked out with its own lights, with floodlights for the green of the ivy growing on the walls and then red lights for the upper floor and blue lights for the roof. It gave the building a very distictive cast, making it stand out even more from the surrounding structures. At the water's edge of the harbor, there was a further series of ankle-level blue lights that outlined that edge of the docks to ensure that no one fell into the sea. Combined together with the surrounding street lamps, the whole area was brightly lit and gave off a cheery atmosphere. I loved this whole effect, and the downtown area felt like a magical place on this evening. If we hadn't been doing so much traveling, I would have happily spent an hour or more wandering around the waterfront.

That brought an end to our two days spent in Victoria and the surrounding portions of Vancouver Island. This was a fantastic place to visit with a lot to see, and I'd encourage anyone traveling in the Pacific Northwest to make a stop in Victoria. It's easy to overlook the city in favor of Seattle and Vancouver, but the little capital of British Columbia is worth visiting in its own right. Next up would be another ferry ride as we crossed from Vancouver Island back to the mainland and headed to the island's namesake city. The metropolis of Vancouver was our final stopping point on this trip before returning home.