Looking for a European-flavored escape without having to jump on an airplane? Consider Victoria, B.C. The provincial capital of the Canadian Provence of British Columbia is located at the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island and is only a few hours away from our own little rock on Bainbridge Island.
Victoria is one of those places that is nearby geographically, but a world away in its sophistication, history and entertainment. We try and get up there at least once a year to soak in its natural beauty, British culture and wonderful museums and architecture. We also truly enjoy riding our bikes on any number of well-marked trails that emanate from the City’s Centre and Inner Harbor.
Don’t be intimated by crossing the border. Now that the Pandemic is safely in our rear-view mirror (fingers crossed), you no longer have to go through the previous protocols needed to enter our northern neighbor, such as downloading the Arrive Canada app, and following its list of complicated instructions, which at one time included showing evidence of a negative COVID-19 test. All that rigmarole is behind us – we hope!
We like to sail into Victoria aboard the Coho ferry out of Port Angeles. The historic Black Ball Ferry Line operates the M.V. Coho passenger and vehicle ferry linking Port Angeles with Victoria and our own scenic Olympic Peninsula. It is the most direct ferry crossing between Victoria and the United States, with daily, year-round service provided.
Depending on the time of year, a walk-on passenger can hop aboard the Coho for $22, plus a 75-cent fuel surcharge fee for a one-way ride. Likewise, a driver and vehicle (under 18 feet long) is $73, plus a $3 fuel surcharge for a one-way pass. You can also reserve a vehicle space in the Coho ferry parking lot in PA for a fee. It’s best to check out the Black Ball website https://www.cohoferry.com/ to gather the latest information, as sailing times and fees typically change with the seasons. We have found that it’s more economical to buy round trip fares, whether we’re walking on or taking our car.
Once on board the 60-year-old ferry, you begin to sense you’re on a mini-voyage of escape, especially as you slowly watch the beautiful Olympic Mountains and City of Port Angeles fade into the distance. The 90-minute, 22.59 nautical mile crossing is a scenic journey through the Strait of Juan de Fuca. This isn’t like taking the Bainbridge-Seattle ferry, where it’s rush, rush, rush to get to the other side and get on with your day.
No, this definitely more laid back and relaxing. You can sit and read, listen to music, or chat with companions and chart out your time in Victoria by perusing any number of magazines or maps available on board. We’ve enjoyed walking around the ship’s spacious decking and checking out the scenery, whether it be distant shores, approaching freighters, or bubbling seas that could be hiding whales, dolphins, sea lions or any number of fish.
The amenities on the Coho are nothing compared to, say, sailing aboard a luxury cruise liner, but the ship does have decent services, including a cafeteria, gift shop, a duty-free store – where you can snag your favorite liquor for a reasonable price – plus comfortable interior lounges, a solarium and pet-friendly areas.
What we like are the cool historic pictures that line some of the ship’s walls, as well as the large nautical maps nearby that one can study, and which give you a sense of the size and scale of Victoria and Vancouver Island. As the Coho steams towards its destination, you can see the outline of the City’s hills and neighborhoods and the Canadian Coastal Range peeking out of the sky in the distance.
Once you enter the Inner Harbour, the scene changes from sea-faring to urban landscape. On the right is Victoria’s Cruise Ship Terminal, further down is Fisherman’s Wharf, and on the water, there are any number of seaplanes, water taxis and whale-watching tourist boats crisscrossing the channel.
Further in, the ship wends its way around Laurel Point, and then you are struck by the beauty of downtown Victoria, with its British-like splendor, featuring the magnificent Empress Hotel, the nearly 100-year-old Provincial Legislature building, the Royal B.C. Museum, the Johnson Street Bridge, the city’s skyline and more.
Staying in Victoria is a must – although you can do a day-trip from Port Angeles and get a taste of the place. There are typically good deals to be had depending on the season, and we’d recommend using the aforementioned Black Ball web site, or a site such as Visit Victoria https://www.tourismvictoria.com to gather information.
We do enjoy “over-nighting” in Victoria and staying at a place near the Inner Harbour. This allows you to either walk on the Coho, sans your car, or walk-on with your bikes (there is an additional fee for two-wheelers). Staying close in gives one easy access to great restaurants – seemingly on every block – and most of the main attractions, without having to get into a car, and hassle with parking, traffic, and so on.
If you are able to snag accommodations close in, downtown Victoria is a wonderful place to walk around and explore, with easy to access waterfront sidewalks and paths, on either side of the harbor. We like to check out the Empress, and stop in for High Tea and a crumpet, or maybe a drink at its historic bar. The place is like a museum with beautifully appointed furnishings, floor to ceiling paintings of British and Canadian luminaries from the past, ornate staircases, chandeliers, and interesting shops and restaurants.
Within less than a mile of the Empress, you can visit Market Square, Chinatown, and the aforementioned Johnson Street Bridge, which lights up at night, and has a great walking (and biking) path across it. If you want to see more of Victoria, consider hopping aboard a double decker tour bus (they meet in front of the Empress) and take in the sights, including Craigdarroch Castle, worth the price of admission, and the city’s lovely homes and neighborhoods.
Another great way to see Victoria is by bike on the Galloping Goose Trail that begins in the City Centre and has several spurs that take you as far away as Sooke or Sidney. We also love riding on Dallas Road, just past Fisherman’s Wharf. It wends its way along the city’s west side, past many beautiful parks, high-bank cliffs and beaches, and affords riders a breathtaking view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains.
While there is no ideal time to visit Victoria, we truly enjoy the holiday season, when the air is crisp, the days are short, and the city turns magical with its signature buildings ablaze with decorative lighting, giving it a storybook feel, akin to a Currier and Ives lithograph. Any time of year, though, Victoria is a great place to escape to and capture a sense of other worldliness.
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