2001: Washington

Victoria, B.C.



For years, I've wanted to visit Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia, located on Vancouver Island off the Pacific Coast. (I like this idea of keeping the government isolated. Do you suppose we could cut Washington, D.C. adrift?) But government is a subordinate activity here; the real deal is tourism. Victoria's mild climate, picturesque harbor, ivy-covered buildings, double-decker buses, pedi-cabs, and horse-drawn carriages bring visitors year-round from all over the world. A ninety-minute ferry ride from Washington brings you into lovely Victoria harbor.

The Empress Hotel. A bright street corner.

The Empress Hotel -- that's the building you always see in Victoria advertising -- is the grand old lady facing Victoria harbor, and there you can enjoy an oh-so-veddy-British afternoon tea for about $25 per person (we passed).

Directly behind the Empress is the two-story Crystal Garden, exhibiting exotic small animals and birds in lush garden settings. A small cantankerous ibis met each entering visitor and attempted to untie his shoelaces, or perhaps eat the shoes. Other animals on display included the pygmy marmoset, the smallest monkey in the world at about 6", and locally-raised hyacinch macaws, which are endangered in the wild.

The Crystal Garden also boasted a butterfly enclosure, the second one we've encountered on our trip. This one contained much brighter, more tropical specimens than its cousin down in Seaside, Oregon.

Around the corner from the Empress is Miniature World, an extensive collection of miniature models of everything from world-war battles to fairy tales.

Next to the ferry terminal, the Wax Museum snags waiting passengers for one last Victoria thrill. Most of their wax figures were pretty standard stuff, but they did have a brand-new George W. Bush whose realism was pretty scary, standing next to an unbelievably bad, bug-eyed representation of Clinton.

The most interesting attraction we saw is a 25-year-old Russian submarine, bought by Canada in 1994 and permanently installed in the Victoria harbor. A recorded voice with a Yakov-Smirnoff accent and attitude guides you through the different sections of the diesel sub.

The crudeness of the engineering and construction was startling; all the metal surfaces were rough and uneven, instruments and gauges were mounted crookedly and willy-nilly, and wires and pipes snaked overhead and underfoot in all directions. A set of eight "hot bunks" -- just enough for one/third of the 24 crewmen to share in 8-hour sleep shifts -- looked barely large enough for children, much less full-grown men. It was incredibly cramped and made me wonder how crews could spend months at sea cooped up like that, without going crazy and killing each other.

 Parliament by day... ...and by night. Like Central Park.

The number-one attraction in Victoria is the justifiably world-famous Butchart Gardens. Located about fifteen miles inland from the harbor, it requires a 45-minute bus ride to get there. Tour operators offer bus transportation all during the day.

On the advice of a local who praised the evening lighting in the gardens, we opted for an early-evening visit at 7 p.m. This turned out to be a mistake, as we were only able to see about half of the fifty-acre compound in daylight; and while the sparkling lights were pleasant and charming, they were not adequate for a full appreciation of the botanical splendor. Our evening visit did allow us to enjoy a rollicking concert by the musical group Kitangus, who described their musical style as "West Coast Celtic".

In truth, a full appreciation of this magnificent place would require you to return each month of the year to see the different plants in bloom, and the glorious fall colors of the trees. I hope to return at least once in May, when the azaleas, rhododendrons, and tulips will be in their full glory.

We spent the night at a Victoria hotel, and took the ferry back the next morning. We'd left Chelsea alone in the trailer with lots of dry food. When we returned to our semi-deserted RV park, she was none the worse for being alone overnight.