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Victoria: A Touch of Jolly Old England

by Paris Permenter & John Bigley

Cricket. Lawn bowling. Fish and chips in dark paneled pubs. High tea with scones and cucumber sandwiches.

This may not be England, but it's certainly English, at least with a Pacific Northwest flair. A visit to Victoria, British Columbia, just a two and a half hour ferry ride from either Seattle or Vancouver, it is as fun as a visit to jolly old England. Victoria comes with everything you'd expect from a British holiday but without the long flight and expense.

Victoria lies at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Georgia. The city of over 70,000 residents enjoys a mild climate year around. With an average of 2,183 hours of sunshine a year, it is known as Canada's sunniest city.

The capital city of British Columbia began in 1842 as an trading post and fort for the Hudson Bay Company. The post boomed in 1858 when the community became a supply center for the prospectors of the Fraser Gold Rush. Four years later, Victoria was incorporated, making it one of the oldest cities on the west coast.

Those early colonists may have been located in the middle of the rugged Pacific Northwest, but they weren't about the abandon their proper British ways. If they couldn't go to England, then England had to come to them. They filled their homes with fine china and linens and their lawns with beautiful gardens that thrived in congenial climate.

Even today, Victoria is distinctly British, from its Parliament Building watched over by a statue of Queen Victoria to its double decker tour buses to its shops selling the finest merchandise from the British Isles.

Most visitors arrive in Victoria by high speed ferry from either Seattle or Vancouver. From the boats, your first look at the city will be the Inner Harbour, the city's downtown waterfront. A welcome to Victoria is spelled out in flowers on a slope at the south end of the Inner Harbour, just a first glimpse at the colorful flowers that bloom year around and dot planters sprinkled throughout the city. Behind the gaily colored display stand the ivy-covered walls of the elegant Empress Hotel, the statuesque Parliament Building, and streets lined with vacationers from around the globe.

Make your first stop the Visitor Information Center on the Inner Harbour. Here you can pick up free maps of the city and brochures on area attractions, restaurants, pubs and shops and talk with the staff about making the best use of your time here.

If your visit in Victoria is limited, start with an overview of the city. Board double decker buses or a horse-drawn carriage for a look at Chinatown and its Fan Tan Alley (the narrowest street in North America), Government Street and also residential areas. You can even take a ride on a bicycle-drawn rickshaw pedaled by an energetic student.

Or just start off on foot. Victoria is a walker's dream city with rolling hills, wide sidewalks, pleasant weather and plenty to see. Within fifteen minutes of the Inner Harbour you'll find enough attractions to fill an entire vacation.

One symbol of Victoria is the Empress Hotel, an historic landmark built in 1908. With a recent $45 million facelift, the hotel again boasts the genteel atmosphere its visitors have always enjoyed.

Even if you're not a guest, stop in the hotel for a look at its elegant lobby. Proper English high tea is served in late afternoon in fine style. Proper dress (no jeans or shorts) is required for the elegant event that over 100,000 visitors a year enjoy.

The Empress is home to one of Victoria's most popular family attractions: Miniature World. In this museum, watch a big top come to life with acrobats, animals, cheering crowds and glowing lights, or see the replay of a Western battle -- all with lilliputian figures.

Just behind the Empress sits the Crystal Garden, a glass-topped structure built in 1925 as a public saltwater swimming pool. This was once the largest indoor swimming pool in the British Empire, a place where Johnny Weismuller set a world record. Today the pool is gone, replaced by a living jungle filled with exotic plants, colorful birds, free-flying butterflies, and tiny monkeys. However, even in a jungle one must observe proper British tradition, so naturally English tea is served daily on the Promenade next to the palm trees. Look down on a game of lawn bowling played behind the gardens.

Take a stroll back to the waterfront and have a look at the fish and marine life of the Strait of Georgia at the Undersea Gardens. At the downstairs theater, illuminated by pale green light filtering in through the glass walls, scuba divers perform daily shows with the star of the Undersea Gardens: Armstrong the octopus.

Next door, the Royal London Wax Museum brings some of England's and America's most prominent citizens, or at least life-sized wax versions of them, to Victoria. Over 200 figures fill the museum, including dioramas of The Last Supper created by Madame Josephine Tussaud.

But the best downtown attraction, one of Canada's finest museums, still awaits. Over a century old, the Royal British Columbia Museum is a compendium of exhibits including everything from natural history to totem poles to a reconstruction of Captain Vancouver's ship, the H.M.S. Discovery. Budget at least a half day to absorb all the rich displays that bring to life the history of this special area.

If all this sightseeing has worked up your appetite, then head to one of the many restaurants sprinkled throughout the tourist district. Although you'll find fare from around the world offered, give the local specialties a try. Fish and chips are an unbeatable and inexpensive dish.

You'll find pubs sprinkled throughout this district as well. Like British pubs, most of these operate as microbreweries, producing local varieties of beer and ale. The richly paneled pubs serve excellent pub fare as well, however, pubs do not permit children, even with accompanying family members.

After a meal, stroll around the shops of Government Street, boutiques that sell fine English linens, china, and tartans as well as Pacific Northwest specialties. One of the most popular purchases in this area are handmade Cowichan sweaters, sturdy beige or gray patterned pullovers and cardigans produced only by the Cowichan Indians of Vancouver Island.

Although it is difficult to leave downtown Victoria, schedule at least a half day for a look at the city's most famous attraction: Butchart Gardens, often cited as one of the finest gardens in the world. These formal gardens began in 1904 as a one-woman effort, the work of Jenny Butchart. Her husband's mining operation left limestone quarries here, and Mrs. Butchart came upon the idea of planting the walls with ivy. With the help of a hoist and a sling, she carefully placed cuttings in the quarry walls.

Her work grew, and today Butchart Gardens is still operated by her descendants. The sprawling attraction includes a rose garden, Italian garden, Japanese garden, sunken garden, elaborate fountains, and greenhouse displays.

Victoria has something for everyone, whether your interests run to blooms or brews, wildlife or woolens. Canada's most British city has one word of advice for vacationers contemplating a visit: Tally-ho!

Copyright Paris Permenter and John Bigley