Today was a pretty typical non-travel day for me. It was a day off work so I spent the day with my four year old son doing my grocery shopping, going to the library and doing a few other errands. One of those errands was a lot more enjoyable than the others, though, since I was finally able to get to the post office to pick up the stuffed elephant that my daughter left behind in Victoria last weekend. Watching her rip open the box after school and pull out the toy while squealing with glee made me wonder why I bothered to buy her presents at all for her birthday and Christmas. Maybe I should just “lose” some of the old ones and sent them back to her in the mail!
It also reminded me that I was going to finish writing about our fun mini holiday to Vancouver Island last week. We had two nights at the Hotel Zed in Victoria and this gave us a full day and a half to explore the city itself. While we didn’t see everything, the main sights of the city are concentrated into a fairly compact area, so I felt like we got a good overview of the place. It also helped that we had great weather for February; about 10-12 degrees and mostly sunny which made for very nice walking weather.
We started off by doing one of our favourite family activities: tromping around a fancy hotel with our unruly children in tow. The hotel shuttle dropped us off right outside the Empress Hotel so we wandered right on in and started poking around the 100 year old building. It’s one of the old flagship hotels built by the Canadian Pacific Railroad and it was full of dark wood and elegant furnishings. The hotel staff was actually surprisingly tolerant about tourists coming in for a look around and we enjoyed looking at some of the old photos of royal visits and fancy balls from days gone by.
From the Empress we went over to the Parliament buildings which have a beautiful setting right on the harbour. One disappointment is that the buildings are only open for tours from Monday to Friday and closed holidays as well. Great for school groups but not particularly tourist friendly. We then walked along the waterfront and decided to stop for Sunday brunch at the Milestones restaurant that’s right on the water. Yes, it’s a chain and it was exactly the same menu as the one we have at home, but the kids loved the pancakes and the view couldn’t be beat!
We spent the afternoon enjoying the downtown area as we wandered up towards Chinatown. We checked out a few clothing boutiques, spent about an hour picking out new books at an enormous independent bookstore called Monro’s and stopped for tea at the lovely Menchie’s tea store. It was mainly a retail store selling the most amazing selection of bulk teas and china tea sets, but they also had a small cafe where you could pick up a small pot of freshly brewed tea and a few goodies for a fraction of the price of one of the formal English tea services they serve around town. Someday I may splurge on tea at the Empress, but with wiggly kids in tow this seemed like a much better alternative. They even gave me an espresso cup so I could share my pot of tea with my daughter.
After tea we wandered around the historic Chinatown neighbourhood. It’s much smaller than the one in Downtown Vancouver, but also a lot less seedy. We checked out some of the traditional Chinese grocery stores with their interesting displays of fruits and vegetables and found a few historic alleyways leading off the main street that were fun to explore. But by the middle of the afternoon we were ready to get back to the hotel to relax, make a simple supper and enjoy our new books and teas.
For our last day in Victoria we went to the biggest sight in the downtown core, the Royal British Columbia Museum. I had saved it for the holiday Monday because I had seen that it was free that day for family day. I knew it would be more crowded than usual, but I just can’t resist a free entry day!
We got there right after it opened and sure enough, it was pretty packed. We started at the top floor which was divided into two sections featuring the First Nations and early European history of Vancouver Island. The First Nations section had a recreation of a longhouse as well as totem poles, artwork and a full scale traditional pit dwelling. The section on early European settlement had a ship you could walk through as well as sections on farming, mining and logging.
Our favourite part of the museum was a recreated street from Victoria in the 1920’s. You could watch silent movies in a working cinema, check the train schedules in the railroad station, peek into shop windows on main street and explore a fully furnished two story hotel. There was even a small Chinatown area. It was really well done with lots of great details from the cobblestone streets underfoot to the faint smell of firecrackers around the Chinese New Year displays.
The lower floor had a large exhibit on the native animals and birds of British Columbia including a full scale model of a a woolly mammoth. There was a large forest section where you could spot models of animals and birds in various native habitats and a small marine display as well. It was about noon when we got to this area and by then we were really feeling the effects of the large crowds. For the most part the museum absorbed the crowds surprisingly well, but anything hands on was mobbed by groups of kids and of course when my kids saw a lineup of kids waiting to try something they immediately felt that they had to join too, no matter how mundane the exhibit or activity actually was.
The museum also had a large temporary exhibit space and hosts some excellent special exhibits. The current one was a large collection of prizewinning wildlife photographs. We would have loved to spend some time in this area, but the kids were pretty much done by that point and after a quick look we decided to head on out.
We had made reservations for both legs of the ferry trip at $15 extra each way and had actually been quite disappointed when our Saturday morning ferry to the island wasn’t even full. We got our money’s worth on the return trip, though. We were able to drive right onto the 4pm sailing with our reservation in hand, but it looked like there was at least a two sailing wait for folks on standby. After an uneventful return sailing we drove off the boat at 5:38 and pulled up in front of our house at exactly 6:38. It seemed almost too easy; no border crossings, no airport security lines, just a great, low key weekend in our own province. We may have to do it again sometime.