Victoria! Victoria!


Posted: Friday, February 26, 2010

The minute I hit the shores of Canada, I feel like I'm in a charming European country. I'm transported back to a place in time when people made eye-contact and conversation.

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Courtesy Of Courtney Nelson
Courtesy Of Courtney Nelson

The double-decker buses, bright flowers, clean air and streets are a bustling cosmopolitan backdrop for the friendly, laidback people. The Canadian accent is so soothing it sounds like a songbird chirping - and did I mention their usually favorable exchange rate? I love Canada.

In the first L'attitude, I wrote about the San Juan Islands. Victoria has become another essential destination for our family because it is just a short, cheap ferry ride away from Friday Harbor or Port Angeles.

There are many destinations in Victoria, but my favorite part is not a place but an experience. The city feels healthy and integrated. People enjoy their lives and it shows. They are practical and genuinely pleasant. Here are some of the reasons I love this city.

Butchart Gardens

The drive from the ferry terminal to the heart of Victoria has attractions like the Butterfly Garden, a Buddhist Temple and a botanical paradise called Butchart Gardens. If you have limited time, this is the place to stop. Butchart has benches overlooking a pond with fountains that erupt in different patterns and a sunken garden that allows you to wander through the roses or stand on a rock quarry overlooking them. The experience is refreshing and relaxing. Butchart Gardens runs about $15-$20

The Executive Hotel

The inner harbor in Victoria is the ideal place to stay, and the most desired destination hotel there is The Fairmont Empress Hotel. It's grand and it's on the water. The architecture is old and historical, and it has impeccably manicured lawns and views of the floatplanes and water taxis coming and going. It is famous for its afternoon tea. I drool at the thought of staying there.

This summer we found ourselves parked in front of the Empress Hotel and after negotiating with the front desk on a Tuesday (the worst day in the hospitality industry) I was only able to get them down to $359 a night. Time for plan B.

I walked outside and noticed a hotel directly behind the Empress. Rising about 10 stories higher, it also had a view of the harbor from the top floors. I begged the desk clerk for a room with a view of the water and the highest floor he could give us because it was rare we had a night away from our kids. He hooked us up with a suite with a sauna in our room for $120.

The Empress hotel was in our skyline as we watched sunsets from our 16th-floor balcony. It was a little piece of paradise and it only got better when we went downstairs to Bartholomews.

Bartholomews Lounge and Grill

Attached to the hotel is a charming English pub which played Frank Sinatra on a six-piece band. There were a couple of single women in their 60s who danced every song with or without a man. While they giggled, re-applied makeup and primped their hair like school girls in the bathroom, I asked them why they were so happy on a Tuesday night. They went on about just enjoying life and not getting bogged down in silly things. They said they enjoy meals, dancing, laughing and telling stories and that was why they were so happy. It wasn't long before they emerged from the powder room refreshed and wowing their gentlemen friends back onto the dance floor.

The Blue Fox Café

The Blue Fox Café specializes in breakfast and is a brisk 15-minute walk from the Executive Hotel. There will usually be a line but it's worth the wait so take a seat. The tables are close together, the food is excellent and the vibe allows for lingering coffees over a newspaper.

Royal BC Museum and IMAX theatre

The Royal BC Museum is also in the inner harbor and shouldn't be missed. You can count on any exhibit being first rate. There are usually two or three IMAX movies playing along with an exhibit and they allow you to buy a package for both.

Beacon Hill Children's Farm

Up from the museum is a nice hike up steep Beacon Hill to all kinds of treasures like the Children's Farm. Along the way are huge playgrounds, duck ponds, benches and bridges. The goat petting zoo was by far the most crowded and one little goat actually sort of danced with my 3-year-old son. The last time we hiked up Beacon Hill I wore the wrong shoes and got very sore.

The International College of Traditional Chinese Medicine

While my husband window shopped for instruments, I noticed the steam baths at the Traditional Chinese Medicine College and inquired. It wasn't long before I was enjoying a complimentary Chinese herbal foot steam therapy and discussing acupuncture points when my husband spotted me in the front window.

Sunday morning dancing ferry boats in harbor

Sunday mornings from May to September all the ferry boats in the inner harbor get together and do a little dance to opera music blasting. It's really beautiful to see the boats coming together and dancing to the delight of the crowds.

• Courtney Nelson, a frequent traveler with small children, shares her travel adventures, mishaps and lessons learned from chartering the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

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