The first place most visitors to Vancouver Island go is capital Victoria. Yes, named after that beautiful (was she?) British queen that has given her name to so many places around the world. Even though the city is still known for being a bit boring and mostly appealing to retirees, Victoria has been shaking off that image in recent years. And quite successfully if you ask me. So we decided to stay down here for 3 days instead of rushing through it, and we’re very happy we did.
I’m On A Boat
We took an early morning ferry from the Tsawassen terminal in Vancouver (make sure you have a reservation) and after a nice hour-and-a-half journey we set foot on Vancouver Island. It was pretty damn cold and a bit cloudy but that made the views over the Vancouver Island coast even more mystical.
It’s only a 30 minute drive down to Victoria but make sure you stop at The Butchart’s Garden on your way over. Yes, it is completely and utterly swamped with golden oldies and mostly those from the Asian continent, but in their defense: it is quite beautiful. And for some reason it always makes me so happy to see old(er) people travel around the world. So cool to still go on adventures even long past your retirement day. After our visit to the gardens we decided to take the scenic drive to Victoria which I can highly recommend. See this link for a map with directions.
Location, Location, Location
We stayed at The Strathcona Hotel, which is smack in the middle of downtown Victoria, but other than that it pretty much lacks appeal. Well, it’s affordable. And we happen to have a thing for faded glory, and The Strathcona is a definite winner in that category. And like I said, its location can’t be beat so we walked everywhere.
Spend It Like (Victoria) Beckham
(see what I did there?) It is clear that Victoria is starting to “hipsterize” by the abundance of street art, fixed gear bikes, cool coffee places, healthy food options and independent boutiques. Let’s just say, we contributed quite a bit to the local economy in those three days… What can I say, we’re both suckers for local goods and yes, we really needed all those new shirts. Sort of.
Anyway, I can highly recommend shopping at Sitka (and I may or may not have transformed into the new Sitka promo person with all my purchases). And definitely check out the cool stores on Johnson Street. If you’ve packed a bit too light and are in need of some outdoor clothing or equipment I suggest stopping by Robinson’s Outdoor Store which has been open for over 85 years. I got a great deal on a The North Face jacket that I REALLY needed for the rest of our trip on Vancouver Island and later on in the Rocky Mountains.
We are really into book stores and we always try to find a good one and buy a book about the area while we’re away on our travels. In Victoria Munro’s Books is the place to go. It’s not only super pretty, the staff is very friendly and they helped us pick a great read about Western Canada.
Victoria also has a very nice Chinatown which is the oldest Chinatown in Canada. Try to look for Fan Tan Alley, a super small alley which runs only 0.9 meters at its narrowest point. Bonus: it’s a good place to test some cool features on our brand new camera.
A fantastic and cheap, and also healthy food option is either La Taqueria Pinche or Tacofino. Both taco places are located right around the corner from The Strathcona and are equally popular. Besides from the delicious tacos, I especially loved the color choices at La Taqueria – yes people, that’s also important – there’s just something about a mint & pink combo that makes this usually not so girly-girl so very happy.
If you’re looking for a bit more of a proper dining vibe you should definitely go to 10 Acres Bistro where you can get the best farm to table food experience. Try the Roasted Cauliflower Dip and go for the Cedar Plank Salmon. YUM!
Where The Wild Whales Are
Victoria is known for its whale watching tours and chances are that you get to see at least one sort of whale when you go out on a boat with one of the many tour operators. Of course I did extensive research before our trip and we picked Eagle Wings Tours for their environmental stewardship and they are Canada’s first 100% carbon-neutral whale-watching company. Their tours depart from Fisherman’s Wharf so we decided to go a bit early to grab some lunch before our trip. Right next to Eagle Wings we stopped by Barb’s Fish & Chips Shop, which has been voted Victoria’s #1 fish & chips for the past 32 years. And yeah, it was good. Pretty damn good. Fisherman’s Wharf is a nice floating area and you can (respectfully) roam around the floating houses and say hello to the curious seals that are always waiting for tourists to buy them some fresh fish (there’s a shop for that too).
Our whale watching trip was amazing! Eagle Wings’ staff is super knowledgeable and they told us all sorts of cool stuff about the area and obviously about whales. After a nice hour on the catamaran’s “sun deck”, while the captain was trying to locate some whales, we saw two humpback whales. Yay!
It happened to be Big Mama and her latest calf which was so cool for many reasons, one being that Big Mama is one of the humpbacks that originally came back to this area after the decades and decades of whale hunting were finally over. You go Big Mama! It was so beautiful to see Big Mama train her calf to deep dive to catch some krill or small fish and then come back up to breach.
There’s something so mysterious about these gracieus creatures and seeing them in the wild was amazing. Two years ago we got to see a gray whale mama and baby in Monterey Bay in California and now to see this humpback mom and baby duo was simply magical. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any orcas (killer whales) but we were lucky enough to see some later on in the Northern part of Vancouver Island, in Telegraph Cove (even though it wasn’t orca season there yet). Eagle Wings offers a “lifetime whale guarantee” meaning you can go back out with them for free if you haven’t seen any whales on your trip.
Go Back In Time
Another thing that just has to be on your list if you go to Victoria is the Royal BC Museum. Truth be told: it wasn’t really on our list. Boy, were we wrong. I have been to A LOT of museums throughout the world and this museum has entered my favorites list immediately. It tells the story of Canada’s First Nations, the Aboriginal – indigenous – people in Canada. Even though most people learn about Native American history at some point in (high) school, the original people of Canada are much more unknown. The Royal BC Museum gives a fantastic insight in the history of the First Nations and the changes for their communities once the Europeans arrived in Western Canada (read: when the Europeans brought disease and war). Currently there’s also an interesting exhibit about the many different languages and dialects spoken by the various First Nations tribes and bands.
The museum houses amazing original (or based on original) structures throughout British Columbia’s history. You can step inside a First Nations longhouse, practice your cowboy walk in a saloon, see the medicine man’s office in early 20th century Chinatown and walk through BC’s forest to spot grizzlies and elk. Especially if you have kids, you MUST visit the Royal BC Museum, and it definitely made me feel like a little kiddo. It’s just so cool! Especially late at night when there aren’t that many people around. The museum is open till 10pm during summer months. This is what your Night At The Museum dreams are made off. Mine at least.
All Of The Lights
After our night at the museum we watched the thousands of (not so environmental friendly) lights twinkling on Victoria’s Parliament Building. If you ask me, it looks better, and definitely not so Disneyland-like, during the day.
The Parliament Building is located right on the inner harbor of Victoria, and we were also lucky to see some cool sailboats since there was a race starting the next day.
Let’s Go North
After our first few days on Vancouver Island we got back in our car and headed all the way up north, to Telegraph Cove – a tiny seaside community that is completely built on a wooden boardwalk above the water and is known for it’s proximity to grizzly bears. If you wanna know if we were lucky enough to see those massive blobs of cuteness, stay tuned for my next post about our Western Canada road trip!
And also, don’t forget to watch the travel video I made of our wonderful road trip adventure across West Canada!