Victoria – waterborne city of flowers
Covid was waning and the U.S. – Canadian border was finally open again. The weather was good and the Black Ball Ferry Line from Port Angeles to Victoria was finally back in operation. So, we decided to head out for a change of scene to refresh our thoughts after the seemingly endless months of contagion concern.
I like some really old-fashioned expressions such as “sea-girt” a term that perfectly describes the city of Victoria, British Columbia perched on the rocky shores of the southern tip of Vancouver Island reached by sea or air. The area, known as “Canada’s Hawaii” (which says something about the Canadian climate), is a Pacific Northwest temperate climate zone on the Straits of Juan de Fuca where the waters of the Pacific Ocean sweep in to form the Salish Sea to the south in the US, and the Inside Passage north to Alaska, both waterways dotted with a spray of islands.
For Canada, it’s an old city. Founded in 1843 as a Hudson Bay trading post, it’s now a low-key city full of parks and Victorian and Edwardian-style buildings mingled with modern buildings housing high-tech companies. As capital of British Columbia, the city hosts politicians to fill the beautiful Parliament Buildings, which date to 1893, and students from the university. But the city makes much of its living from tourists who fill the hotels lining the streets along the water. Besides the ferries bringing them and us to docks on the Inner Harbor, there is also a cruise terminal on the Strait where thousands on shore excursions enjoy the city for a day as part of their itinerary as they sail to or from Alaska in the summer. At least one of the regularly visiting ships is two stories taller than the tallest building in town.
Given the number of tourists, Victoria occasionally suffers from Ye Olde England kitsch with an abundance of offers for high tea, British memorabilia, and horse-drawn tally-ho wagons.
As an antidote, indigenous local tribes who were pushed out by incoming mostly British settlers, have regained a presence near the Parliament grounds to host a traditional longhouse and totem poles carved by these coast Salish peoples. The poles, so emblematic of coastal Pacific Northwest from Alaska to northern Washington State, are carved from Western Red Cedar. The brightly-colored intertwined animals and people, mythical and real, are of spiritual reverence or tell stories of family and clan. The longhouse with its sea-monster design sits in the midst of the poles. As we contemplated the artistry, we could hear drumming and see rising smoke attesting to native culture keeping traditions alive.
The Royal British Columbia Museum has a treasure trove of Native American art and culture spanning thousands of years. The artifacts are a testimony to the culture’s endurance against long odds. Formerly dismissed as unimportant or not art, their highly stylized carvings, silver jewelry, bentwood boxes, prints, and weaving are now in major museums and art galleries worldwide.
Beyond its history, Victoria is a city for walking and biking along the trails lining the harbor and the ocean. And it’s a city where gardening appears to be an obsession with even sub-tropical plants flourishing in the summer.
We started our flower tour by enjoying the display at the historic Empress Hotel, built in 1908, before walking around the lovely Inner Harbor where hanging baskets of flowers grace the path.
Seaplanes were landing and taking off, tugs guided barges under a couple of bridges toward the commercial end of the waters.
Adding to the scene, the Port Angeles ferry arrived with another load of passengers and their cars, and the Victoria Clipper boarded for the afternoon return trip to Seattle.
The 1924 Ferry Building that formerly hosted earlier passenger ship incarnations had a photo mural from the 1940s with the famous art-Deco style Kalakala ferry docked alongside two of the regular ferries that plied the waters. Sadly, that other-worldly 1930s craft was broken up for scrap several years ago. I’m one of many who thought it should have been preserved.
Footsore, we boarded one of the many tiny water taxis that dot the water for a tour. They are so cute I kept taking photos as they glided over the placid waters.
Later, we sat outside for dinner at the Ferry Building (seafood of course) and waited for darkness to bring on the light show where the Parliament building is outlined in white lights, a plaza with all the heraldic emblems of Canada’s provinces and a fountain glowed red. The lights from moored boats and seaplanes shimmered in the water, and the bascule bridge leading to the upper harbor, lit in purple and white, raised and lowered to accommodate water traffic.
A pleasant way to spend an evening planning our next days’ tours.