It’s 7:30 a.m. and the 132-foot Victoria Clipper IV is departing Seattle for the 71-mile voyage to Victoria, British Columbia. At sunrise, passengers line up on the stern of the high speed catamaran just as the sun crests the horizon and breaks across the city’s skyline. The ship traverses tree-lined islands and across Admiralty Way and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and after a pleasant and scenic 3-hour voyage, it slowly glides into the Inner Harbor where passengers get their first glimpse of the idyllic, coastal town of Victoria.
Established by the Hudson Bay Company in 1843, the city was first known as Fort Victoria. Gold rush fever from the Fraser River area brought a wave of settlers in 1862, and six years later, Victoria was named the capital of British Columbia, Canada.
Today, Victoria is a thriving city that boasts the mildest climate in Canada as well as charming Old World style architecture, cultural traditions like afternoon tea, and gorgeous green spaces and flower laden gardens year round.
Most of the activity for tourists centers along the waterfront with its most iconic landmark, the ivy covered Empress Hotel, sitting majestically along Government Street. At night, this property is lit up with multi-colored lights, providing visitors with a great photo opportunity.
Right along the Inner Harbor walkway is where street performers set up to entertain passersby with music, magic and acrobatic feats. During the day, vendors sell everything from First Nations arts and crafts, to fresh squeezed juice, to ice cream.
Marked by a tall spire, the visitor’s center is hard to miss and loaded with information about Victoria such as where to dine, activities and attractions. You can also purchase a Pass it Around Victoria booklet ($39.72 plus GST), which includes entrance to seven attractions, the Maritime Museum of BC and Craigdarroch Castle among them.
Here are a few of my recommendations for the best things to do and eat:
The Butchart Gardens
With more than 1 million visitors per year, The Butchart Gardens, located 14 miles north of Victoria, has won numerous awards and is often considered one of the most beautiful gardens anywhere in the world. Tickets are available from CVS Tours (in front of the Empress) or as part of an afternoon tea package at the same hotel.
What started as a depleted limestone quarry, the gardens were transformed over time through the lifelong vision and work of Jennie Butchart, who started with little more than some sweet pea seeds and a rose bush. During the day, Jennie could be seen hanging on ropes on the limestone rock wall, planting soil and ground cover in the nooks and crannies. Her hard work and perseverance paid off, making The Butchart Gardens the envy of the world.
What is lesser known, but equally impressive, are the culinary options available at The Butchart Gardens, which offers everything from casual to fine dining in their aptly named restaurant, The Dining Room.
Using fresh, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible, the chef at The Dining Room prepares 45,000 afternoon tea selections each year. The three-tiered trays come with their signature ginger scone, savory tea sandwiches, warm delicacies, house-made sweets, and berry trifle. All of the teas are blended especially for The Dining Room, including their very popular Anniversary Tea made with a combination of Darjeeling, black and gunpowder, as it is called, giving it a slightly smoky taste.
Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress
Your visit to Victoria would not be complete without taking part in the time honored tradition of The Fairmont’s Afternoon Tea. With a history that spans more than 100 years, the Empress has entertained celebrities, dignitaries and the public in a lavishly decorated setting.
As you enter, you can’t help but be impressed with the ambiance of soft music, chintz fabrics and antique tapestries. Add to this impeccable service and a view of the Inner Harbor and you are ready to experience something special.
After a bowl of fresh fruit with cream, your server will ask for your tea preferences. The Empress Blend is the most popular and will be served in china first used in 1939 for the Royal Visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Often confused with High Tea (dinner), Afternoon Tea is served at the Empress at a price of $59.95 per person. Some of the delectable finger-food sandwiches include bone-in ham with tarragon and a blend of mayonnaise and mustard, free range egg salad, cucumber and ginger mascarpone, and Moroccan spiced coronation chicken on marble rye.
That’s all just for starters. Next up are a pistachio raspberry dacquoise, a tropical fruit lamington, an Earl Grey mascarpone tea cup, and citrus vanilla shortbread.