February 4th – 6th, 2012
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Less than 3 hours by ferry from Seattle is Victoria the state capital of British Columbia, Canada. I had been to Vancouver Island previously in 2006 but never got to Victoria as my time was spent further North primarily for Bear watching, so with some sunny Winter weather at hand a long weekend there was in order. It’s always nice to visit Commonwealth country that has a lot of synergy with Australia.
Victoria was established in 1843 as a fort to protect the interests of the Hudson Bay Company. The company started as fur traders in 1666 on the Hudson Bay, then in 1670 they operated under the British Royal Charter of King Charles II (which basically gave them a trading monopoly over the area, plus the right to exploit mineral resources), by the 1800’s their business had expanded across the interior and by the 19th century they had moved into retail operations. The company still exists in Canada today.
It is a city of many historic buildings, museums and picturesque views around the inner harbour and downtown area. Surrounding the city are mountain and ocean vistas, picturesque gardens and the opportunity for numerous outdoor activities.
The centrepiece of the city is two prominent buildings facing the harbour: Parliament and the Fairmont Empress Hotel. In front of Parliament is a statue of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) for whom the city was named. She ruled the British Empire for nearly 64 years (1837-1901), which to date has been the longest reign of any British Royal and this period is known as the Victorian Era.
The Parliament building (built 1893-1897) is home to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and is very elaborate for such a small city. Distinctly European in style (said to be “free classical” renaissance and Romanesque), the Parliament is an impressive building by day and also at night when it is all lit up. I took a free tour around the interior which with many leadlight windows was equally impressive. My visit coincided with the February 6th Diamond Jubilee anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II (60 years on the throne), the current monarch of the Commonwealth nations, so they had a special flag flying from the roof.
The Fairmont Empress Hotel is almost as impressive, it sits opposite Parliament and was constructed in 1908 (it was then known as the Canadian Pacific Railway’s – Grand Empress Hotel). They have a famous “High Tea” but I couldn’t try it as I was not suitably attired (strict dress code)! Oh well maybe next time?
An interesting sight for me at the harbour was a prominent statue of Captain James Cook (1728-1779), a legendary explorer of the British Royal Navy who in 1770 became the first European to land on the East coast of New Holland which was later to become my homeland Australia (the first British colony was established in 1788 at the same place that Cook had named Botany Bay, but they shortly moved to the more suitable Sydney Cove and the rest is history).
On his third voyage (1776-1779) Cook was tasked with finding the famed North West Passage (a passage through the arctic from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean). Explorers had searched for the North West Passage for centuries as a possible trade route to save having to sail such huge distances around either Africa or South America. This voyage is why there is a statue of Captain Cook in Victoria, as he sailed the waters off Vancouver Island to try to find this passage. He mapped all the way along the West coastline of North America but could not pass through the Bering Strait between todays Alaska and Russia. He sailed south to Hawaii to conduct repairs, recuperate etc then attempt to find the passage again, alas in a confrontation with Hawaiians he was killed and his exploring adventures came to an abrupt end! By the way the North West Passage was not fully navigated until 1903 by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
At some stage overnight someone had made a slight modification to the statue of Captain James Cook. Sports sunglasses had been added to his head! This created quite a bit of amusement for people walking past. I noticed the next day they were gone again.
The Royal Navy and British troops were based in and around Victoria until 1906 and by that stage had established fortifications to protect the valuable port. I visited Fort Rodd Hill a National Historic Site which formed part of these defences during my stay which you can read about by clicking here.
Given it’s British background there are lots of pubs, shops, tea rooms and restaurants in Victoria which hark back to the Empires past. My favourite was called “The Sticky Wicket Pub” which is a term from the sport of cricket (oh so popular in Commonwealth countries). I tried a very unusual but tasty Doughhead Gingerbread Ale there which is a seasonal Winter beer (malty and deep amber in colour) brewed especially for the Victoria area by the Vancouver Island Brewery (the bar staff queried whether I really wanted to try this which was amusing).
Along with this British theme, there is also the oldest Chinatown in Canada. This is the second oldest in North America after San Francisco and has great restaurants and unique stores to explore.
First Nations tribes also have numerous totem poles around the city. Thunderbird Park has many totems on display near the inner harbour.
The Royal British Columbia Museum also has a great collection on First Nations history (clothing, totems, village life, the people themselves) along with historic displays on British Columbia’s human and natural history including a juvenile Blue Whale skeleton. This museum next to Parliament is well worth a visit to get a good overview of the area’s history, but they also have travelling exhibitions. I was lucky enough to see the National Geographic Wildlife Photographer of the year 2011 exhibition which had some incredible photos on display (unfortunately you were not allowed to take photos). Overall an impressive museum.
As a side trip I travelled by bus for about 45 minutes North to the town of Sidney to take a look at the British Columbia Aviation Museum (near the airport). They have a great collection for the aviation buff with most of the aircraft having a historical link to operational use in Victoria or Vancouver Island.
Victoria has something for everyone and I only scratched the surface during my short stay. You can check out more on the Tourism BC site. I recommend a visit for sure.