For a place that’s so close to Seattle, the city of Victoria, British Columbia is a real pain in the ass to get to. That was one of my thoughts as I prepared a trip to visit British Columbia’s provincial capital. Another was, why didn’t I just plan to visit Vancouver? It would be so much easier – just a straight shot to the north on a bus! If you want to talk about travel distance, in fact, Victoria is actually closer than Vancouver. Vancouver is just north of the Canadian border. Victoria is at the southern mouth of the Strait of St. George, right on the Salish Sea. It overlaps a little bit with the northernmost point of the border. And yet, despite being just 60 miles from Seattle, getting there wasn’t easy.
It wasn’t like there was a giant suspension bridge connecting Victoria direct to the Canadian mainland. The city is on an island off the west coast of Canada which is called Vancouver Island. It’s possible to drive there, but all the points narrow enough to build bridges between the island and the mainland are so far north that doing so is a massive inconvenience. A drive with no stops would be five hours one way. A bus ride would take half a day. So that left me with two options: Take the local ferry or the seaplane. The seaplane had better flight times and speed, but a one-way ticket on the seaplane cost as much as the round trip on the ferry. Wanting to save money for an August trip to Europe and a car repair, I opted for the ferry. That presented the question of how to get from my home in Edmonds to the pier by 7 AM. That got sorted out when my friend decided she was willing to massively inconvenience herself to deposit me there, although she made sure I knew I owed her.
Three hours after arriving at the pier and promising a safe arrival message when I got to Victoria, I was there. I had been presented with a new experience along the way: I had to fill out a customs form. Although I had been to Canada many times in the past, my last visit was about 16 years ago, before passports were a requirement. Back then, if we wanted to cross the border, we did. But now I had to answer to a customs agent, and after that, I was finally unleashed in British Columbia. My first order of business was to make my way to my hostel, which turned out to be just a 15-minute walk away from the Clipper dock. What happened then was typical me: I was still an hour and a half from my official check-in time, so I decided to go out and get some grub. At the hostel, the receptionist mentioned sending someone to a soccer bar to watch a game. Being a soccer fan myself, I knew exactly what game he was talking about. The Champions League Final was that day, and I knew that my favorite club, Liverpool FC of the English League, was playing in it. I hadn’t counted on being able to actually watch it, and I just wanted some damned food. But in my search for something light, I happened to stumble into a nearby Irish bar flooded with other Liverpool supporters… Who were very vocal. I forgot I was hungry as I watched an exciting, dramatic, and very physical soccer game which the Reds lost, but made their opponents really work for their victory.
After making my hostel check-in official, I set out and soaked everything in. I’ve never hidden my affection for Portland, but Victoria was a smaller, more walkable version of Portland. And despite seeing a handful of Starbucks, Victoria didn’t have the corporate saturation that affects Portland. It’s clear that the colloquial small city where you can sit in the coffee shop and watch the world go by was a perfect way of describing Victoria. And during the early hours of the two mornings I spent in Victoria, I did just that, with my computer, writing away at a piece for my other blog. Of course, I didn’t have much of a choice; my computer didn’t seem compatible with the hostel internet after my first day there. Apparently, that’s a fairly common problem at that hostel.
As I walked around and observed, I saw that the Canadian accent seems to vary in its thickness. From one person to the next, it always sounded differently pronounced. And when that teemed with the sheer number of foreign accents I heard around Victoria, I had trouble deciphering the locals from the visitors. And my hostel even had two or three workers who were clearly from other countries. One had a thick, brogue Scottish accent. But the common stereotype of Canadian politeness abounded, and when I made excursions out of tourist Victoria and into real Victoria, I was treated like an everyday neighbor, even though I was constantly carrying around a camera which plainly gave away the fact that I was a traveler. I received a lot of friendly hellos. At one point, I was trying to buy my lunch in a grocery store, and my card was having trouble being read. It took ten minutes before the machine processed me. In the United States, the customer behind me would have started complaining, and the clerk would have kicked me out of the line.
A city which is small but has a lot to do can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, you can walk everywhere. On the other, none of the things worth seeing are that small. Trying to cover serious ground meant not being able to wander aimlessly and take in anything I was looking at, but I like to have my mind occupied, so it was easy to come up with a few things to do. I managed to visit the Royal British Columbia Museum, which had a very cool exhibit on ancient Egypt; Craigdarroch Castle; and the Parliament building. Craigdarroch Castle was the one I was most looking forward to, the one I liked the most, and yet, the biggest letdown. Calling the place a castle was a bit of a misnomer. It’s a mansion that just happens to be very big and be designed with a few turrets. It’s distinction was that a very rich family had built it and lived in it. There were no murder stories worthy of old royalty, and the place lacked any hauntings. I loved learning about the history of it, though, but it was simply the history of a family. The Parliament building had an exhibit dedicated to the women in British Columbia’s Parliament, and the place had the same screening process as any capitol building in the United States.
I never forgot that I was a stranger in a strange land. It was impossible to forget that this was a different part of Canada as well. My experiences in Canada were all relegated to the east until now – I had been in and out of Ontario a thousand times. Fort Erie, Niagara Falls, Hamilton, and Toronto had been semi-regular and regular stops to such an extent that it was difficult to remember I was in a different country. While I never got that different planet vibe in Victoria, the signs that I wasn’t in Washington State anymore were all around. Canadian symbols were everywhere, and little reminders of the province’s British past were common. Fish and chips were a popular menu item in bars, the Union Jack was a popular symbol – it flew independently, and appeared on both the official flag and royal crest of British Columbia – and there were references to the British monarchy in the names of government buildings. And in many other places were little tokens that helped establish Victoria as its own little place: Orcas and totem poles were present nearly everywhere. City symbols, both of them, as if they had popped right out of the ground.
I managed to do a lot during my weekend, but as I left, I couldn’t help but think of the various things I wanted to do but, for one reason or another, couldn’t. I wanted to ride a rental bicycle, visit Butchart Gardens, visit the miniatures museum, and there were several places to eat on my list that I wasn’t able to get to. I tried to get to a place called Red Fish Blue Fish, but the line was always far too long. I also wished I could have walked around the local neighborhoods a bit more. That’s another big curse of placing everything in walking distance – you don’t get challenged to go out into the neighborhood to meet any of the locals.
Victoria is a small city, but it has a lot to do and see. I have a lot of other places I’d like to see in my life, but when I want a rest, it will be comforting to know that a relaxing place like Victoria is right there.