Victoria and Southern Vancouver Island

Published: July 20th 2009
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For several years, we had discussed the idea of going to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. I had visited twice before, once when I was five and the second time when I was eleven during a 6th grade field trip. I had lots of great memories from the second trip, and distinctly remembered having fallen in love with the city and it's beautiful architecture and serene setting next to the harbor. As Victoria was only about a three and a half hour trip from Seattle (one hour drive to Anacortes, a two hour ferry ride from Anacortes to Sidney, and finally a 30 minute drive from Sidney into Victoria) we both agreed it would be a great weekend destination. For some reason, it took nearly three years from the time we first talked about visiting the city until we finally planned a trip. As we both had an extra day off due to the Fourth of July Holiday, we decided to go the first weekend of July to take advantage of the extra day off. Everyone thought we were quite strange for wanting to go up to Canada over an American holiday, but I figured there would be less crowds, and honestly, it didn't bother me in the least bit to be away for the Fourth.

Day 1 (Friday, July 3rd, 2009)

After waking up at the exhaustive hour of 5:00, we finally hit the road around 5:30. About five minutes into our drive on Interstate-5, I suddenly realized that I had not grabbed either one of my jackets. Although the weather was predicted to be sunny the entire time, I still wanted to have a back-up plan in case the rain decided to surprise us. So, Mike had to get off of the interstate two exits north of our house and turn around. As we drove back, I also remembered that I hadn’t brought any sunscreen lotion nor my pillow for the long car ride, so in actuality, it was quite a good idea that we had to turn around.

After our turn around incident, we eventually made it up to the ferry terminal in Anacortes around 7:00; plenty enough time (or so we thought) for our reserved ferry departure time of 8:15. Unfortunately, when we arrived, we were greeted with a several-mile long line that was moving at a snail’s pace. After spending nearly 30 minutes in line and barely moving a mile, Mike decided to phone Washington State Ferries. Although we had already paid for a reserved spot on the ferry, we were both concerned that we weren’t even going to make it to the point in the line where the reserved cars were waiting to board the ferry. The employee on the phone that Mike spoke to indicated that it was not a problem and not to worry; we would definitely make it on as there was several officials from Washington State Ferries that were making their way up the line of cars to pull out those that had reservations. With several miles of cars in line however, I didn’t quite see how that feat would be possible, but I held my breath, nonetheless.

In the meantime, we eventually approached the booth (at nearly 8:00) where a Washington State Ferry official motioned us to move our car (and a few others who had reservations) off into a separate line. Thankfully, I could finally breath a sign of relief as I knew we would make it! I was so nervous, but what had made the entire situation so incredibly nerve-wracking was the fact that the only other ferry departure that day to Sidney, British Columbia was much later that afternoon. Had we been unable to make it onto the 8:15 departure, we would have had to wait six to seven-plus hours; not my idea of fun nor a good use of our limited time!

Once on the ferry, we headed upstairs to the food area so that I could make my traditional purchase of a bowl of Ivar’s clam chowder. Unfortunately, I realized too late that I had forgotten to pack any lactose intolerance pills for myself. Much to my great sadness, I am lactose intolerant, and without those magical little pills, all milk products are neither friendly nor nice to my body. As a result, it was no soup for me, so I was quite disappointed. I eventually settled for some French fries while mike picked out a breakfast sandwich. After eating, we both fell asleep in the car as we were quite exhausted from having received so little sleep the night before and knew that we had a long two hour ferry journey ahead of us. I had planned to go out and up to the upper decks to take photos of the gorgeous passing scenery of the San Juan Islands, but that didn't end up happening that morning!

We woke up about awhile later, with only 15 minutes until our arrival in Sidney. As we were parked up on the second level, we were one of the last cars off. I was hoping that the customs procedure would go quickly, but as we pulled our car up behind dozens and dozens of others, I realized that that was not going to be the case. After spending nearly 30 minutes in line, we finally made our way to the front, where we were asked five million ridiculous questions; I actually laughed at a few, which was probably not the best idea, but some were so strange and absurd that I couldn’t help myself. We’ve traveled overseas several times, and had never been asked the extent of questions we were asked in Sidney!

Since we had spent so much time waiting in the customs line, I realized that we weren’t going to be able to make it on time for our 11:45 reservation at the White Heather Tea House. I called the restaurant and informed them that we would probably be arriving about 15 minutes late, which they seemed to appreciate being informed of. I absolutely hate arriving late to reservations, especially at small restaurants, because I know that it can completely screw up their system, but I didn’t want to miss out on the popular and well recommended “high tea” experience. The White Heather Tea House is located outside of the normal tourist range of downtown Victoria in the Oak Bay neighborhood. Surprisingly enough, the small restaurant is located within a strip-mall. However, all of the reviews on the White Heather Team House explained not to allow it's strange location detour guests from visiting as it's lack of old-time atmosphere was more than made up by it's quality of food and the friendly staff.

While planning our trip to Victoria, Mike and I had both agreed that we wanted to experience some sort of “high tea” during our stay. There were a ton of options within the city, and although many tourists tend to chose the most well-known places (example: the Fairmont Empress Hotel) I wanted to go with a restaurant that had the best reviews for food, as that is always most important to us. In addition, we wanted to find a place that wouldn’t break the bank (ahem, the Empress) so after conferring with Trip Advisor, the White Heather Tea House seemed to be the place to go!

The interior of the small but cozy restaurant was decorated in a very feminine fashion that seemed to create the perfect environment for a high tea experience. After looking through the menu, we decided to go with the “Not So Wee Tea” for $17.95 CAD per person. The selection obviously came with tea, but since I don’t like it, I opted to stick with water while Mike chose Earl Gray. When the food came out about ten minutes later, we were both blown away by the massive quantity. Our tray included a selection of the following: a variety of tea sandwiches, freshly baked scones with fruit preserves and Devon cream, mini cheese scones with a chicken salad filling, mini quiches, shortbread, cake, and lemon tarts. It was a TON of food, and all of it was incredibly delicious. My personal favorite was the scones, which were warm, tender, and incredibly soft and were served with a raspberry fruit preserve, lemon butter cream, and the yummy Devon cream. I also liked the mini cheese scones with a chicken salad filling and the lemon tarts. Mike's personal favorite was one of the ham tea sandwiches, which he liked so much that I gave him my own as I was quite full. The excellent food, combined with the jovial atmosphere of the restaurant, made the "high tea" a very fun and enjoyable experience that we would repeat in a heartbeat! We both left feeling very full, and even had leftovers to boot!

From the White Heather Tea House, we headed towards our hotel. Based on decent reviews it had received on Trip Advisor, the fact that it had free parking and wi-fi, and because it was less than $100 USD per night, we decided to stay at the Blue Ridge Inn. The hotel wasn't located in the heart of downtown, but it was only about a seven minute ride away. In addition, because we were only spending two of our four days in the city, I figured it was wiser to save money and stay at a cheaper place outside of downtown versus the convenience of a downtown locale.

After checking into the hotel and dropping off our things, we headed straight into downtown Victoria. The first sight we planned to tackle was the Emily Carr House, which was located a few blocks behind the Parliament Buildings. As we drove towards the house, we past the busy-filled streets of Victoria, and the well recognized sights that I had seen so many years before. The streets were jam-packed with people, so my prior thoughts of visiting the city on a non-crowded weekend proved to be a very incorrect estimate. The Emily Carr House was the childhood home of the famous Canadian painter Emily Carr. The house was originally built in 1863 for Emily's father and is listed as a National Historic Site of Canada. To be honest, I had never heard of Emily Carr, nor had I seen her paintings, but being the history buff that I am, I can never pass up the opportunity to tour a beautiful Victorian home. The house, which was painted a soft yellow, was just one of many gorgeous Victorian homes on the street. The front yard was landscaped with colorful flowers which complemented the house perfectly. We walked inside, and paid $12.60 CAD for both of us to enter. The tour of the house was self-guided, but an informational pamphlet was provided that gave detailed information on each of the rooms. We were unable to tour any of the rooms on the second story as the house apparently was still lived in...strange. In one of the sitting rooms downstairs, there was a biographical video playing on Emily Carr. It was good to learn some facts and information regarding the artist since I knew nothing about her prior. Mike, on the other hand, slept through this video. The combination of being very tired and touring an old home (which, generally, he doesn't care for) lulled him right to sleep.

After touring all of the rooms, we left the house and headed back into downtown. We were able to find a parking garage north of the inner harbor and then walked to the Fairmont Empress Hotel, where I took photos of it's famous exterior.

From there, we walked over to the British Columbia Parliament Buildings, where we waited for about 15 minutes for the next guided tour. Anyone can walk into the Parliament Buildings for free and complete a self-guided tour, but when I found out that the guided tours of the buildings were offered for free, it was obvious which choice we were going to go with. During the busy tourists season, the guided tours depart regularly from the front of the building. During our visit, it appeared as though tours were scheduled every 15 minutes. Our guide provided an in-depth history of the building, including it's construction, which took several years and whose budget nearly doubled the original estimate. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get the best photos of the exterior of the beautiful building due to positioning of the sun. I figured the best light to photograph the building in was probably the morning, but I wasn't sure if we would be able to make it out early enough on one of our other three days. After explaining the significance of some of the artistic details of the Neo-Baroque exterior, our guide took us into the interior of the building, which was lofty, grand, and in amazing condition. Parts of the interior were decorated quite simply without much ornamentation, but other areas, such as the rotunda and stained glass found near many of the stairwells, were quite impressive and fancy. The informative tour lasted about 30 minutes and is an easy recommendation for all who visit the city.

From the Parliament Buildings, we walked over to Thunderbird Park, which is located next to the Royal British Columbia Museum. The small park (which is free to enter) is home to several elaborately carved totem poles, St. Anne's Schoolhouse (built 1844), Helmcken House (built in 1852 by Dr. John Helmcken), and Mungo Martin House (Wawadit'la), a traditional Kwakwaka'wakw "big house" built in 1953. Unfortunately, just as with the Parliament Buildings, the positioning of the sun did not allow for the best light to photograph the totem poles, but I was able to take a few decent ones. I figured I would go back another day to get better photos.

From Thunderbird Park, we walked several blocks up Douglas Street. During our walk, I was able to take lots of great architectural photos as the sun was shining brightly on all of the buildings across from us. We eventually made our way up to a drug store where we purchased some lactose intolerance pills for myself as I knew I would probably need them at several points during our trip.

Eventually, we made our way to Chinatown, which is located at the north end of the historic old town area of downtown, in the 500-block of Fisgard Street. Victoria's Chinatown was the first Chinatown in Canada, and the second in North America after San Francisco. Compared to New York's or San Francisco's Chinatown, Victoria's was obviously much smaller; however, on the other hand, it was also much more kept up and actually quite clean. We were beginning to feel hungry by this point, so we figured we could find some cheap Chinese food in the area. After consulting our guidebooks, we settled on a restaurant called Wah Lai Yuen Restaurant, which was noted for having great wonton soup. Based on this recommendation, we each ordered a bowl of the wonton soup, and also split an order of pork chow mein. When the food came out, we quickly realized that we had ordered way too much. The "bowls" of soup were huge and could have filled us up on their own. In addition to that, we also had a massive plate of chow mein. The wonton soup was awesome, tasting as though the wontons were a mixture of both ground pork and ground beef. The chow mein was also delicious with a very light sauce, which was refreshing for Chinese food. At the end of the meal, we had almost managed to finish our soup, but had a lot of chow mein left over, so we decided to take that back to the hotel and keep in the fridge in case we got hungry later.

On our way back to the car, we stopped in at a store called The Original Christmas Village, which being a huge Christmas fanatic, I was quite excited about! Unfortunately, as soon as we walked into the narrow store, I was quickly dismayed. The ornaments were arranged in a very confusing and unflattering matter that made it difficult to locate certain colors or styles of ornaments. I was hoping to walk away with at least one ornament souvenir, but alas, even this Christmas buff was unable to find anything she liked. Needless to say, Mike was very pleased.

We finally made it back to our car, which was absolutely roasting inside. We drove back to the hotel in order to drop off the leftover Chinese food and also to freshen up.

Next, we drove back downtown, this time finding a parking lot near the Royal British Columbia Museum. The museum is normally open 9:00-17:00, but during the summer months, the museum stays open until 22:00 on Friday and Saturday night. Since we had so many things we wanted to see in Victoria, we figured we would save the museum for the evening hours, since most other things close by 17:00 or 18:00. The Royal British Columbia Museum was founded in 1886 and is currently the most visited museum in all of Canada. The museum has three permanent galleries (Natural History, Modern History, and First Peoples) along with a featured exhibition (Treasures: The World's Cultures from the British Museum) and a National Geographic IMAX Theatre. Given that we only had two or three hours to tour the museum, and given the fact that the museum itself was exceptionally expensive ($27.50 CAD per person) we opted not to view an IMAX film, as that would have raised the ticket price by another $7.50 CAD.

We started our tour in the Natural History Gallery, which featured information and detailed displays on the coastal flora, fauna, and geography from the Ice Age to the present time. We saw the famous Woolly Mammoth and massive dioramas depicting scenes from the coast and rain forest. There was also a very interesting display on climate change, where we spent a lot of time reading all of the information.

Next, we went to the featured exhibition, which during our visit, was Treasures: The World's Cultures from the British Museum. The British Museum had been kind enough to loan several hundred artifacts from their collections to the Royal BC Museum for a period of five months. The artifacts were from all over the world and from many different times periods. Personally, with the exception of a few artifacts from Europe, I didn't find the exhibit to be of much interest. But, then again, I am much more interested in historical clothing, furniture, and other such objects when visiting museums.

Afterward, we headed upstairs to the Modern History Gallery, which began with a display of collections of artifacts from the 20th century in "Century Hall". Next, we walked through a replica of Victoria's downtown and Chinatown from the early 20th century. This is the portion of my visit to Victoria when I was 11 that I remember the most. At the time, I was absolutely fascinated by the recreated buildings and the attention to detail that had been given to the historically accurate street scenes.

Finally, our last stop of the evening was the First Peoples Gallery, which we unfortunately only had about 15 minutes to spend in. This exhibit displays collections of masks, totem poles, a Kwakwaka'wakw longhouse, and other rare artifacts from First Nations tribes located throughout British Columbia. It was very dark inside this gallery, so I had a difficult time obtaining good photographs of some of the exhibits.

After finishing at the Royal BC Museum, we walked back to the Parliament Buildings as I had hoped to possibly take some great sunset photos. Much to my disappointment, the positioning of the sun was once again not as we had assumed or envisioned it would be. I finally realized that early morning would be the best light to photograph the building in.

At this point, we were quite hungry, so we decided to find a place to eat. Initially, we had wanted to eat at an Italian restaurant called Zambri's, but after calling for a price point, we decided to find something a little more affordable for dinner. Between the Royal BC Museum, the ferry ride, and the other places we had visited that day, we had spent a lot of money. Instead, we chose another Italian place called Il Terrazzo Ristorante, which specialized in Northern Italian fare. I was somewhat reluctant to eat at the restaurant, as it only had a so-so rating on Zagat. When we walked in, they were able to seat us immediately in the large, lofty, and noisy interior. For dinner, I chose the Risotto con Asparagi e Gamberi (arborio rice with asparagus, chopped black tiger prawns, prosciutto and cherry tomatoes) sans the asparagus, which I detest. When my plate arrived, I was surprised to see what appeared to look like massive amounts of pepper in the risotto. The taste of myy first bite was all pepper, and none of the creamy goodness that risotto should taste like. The pepper was so incredibly overpowering that I had a difficult time eating each bite without immediately washing it down with a large gulp of water. I had Mike take a bite and he also agreed with my assessment. Mike ordered the Pollo Pizza (honey-garlic chicken, mozzarella cheese, pineapple and toasted sesame seeds). He stated that the pizza was okay, definitely nothing special, but was edible. We left feeling disappointed with our restaurant selection that night and hoped that our next dinner in Victoria would be a lot more enjoyable.

Day 2 (Saturday, July 4th, 2009)

Although we had planned on waking up around 9:00 on our second day, we didn’t wake up until 11:30. I had assumed that Mike had set the alarm, but he had accidentally forgotten to do so. Needless to say, we woke up much later than planned. After getting ready as quickly as we could, our first stop of the day was a nearby grocery store, where we loaded up on some snacks and bread for the next few days.

Afterward, we drove south of the city, where we drove along the “scenic route” through Dallas Road in Oak Bay. This route, which was recommended by Moon Handbook, started south of the Inner Harbor and followed the coastline all the way until the University of Victoria. Along our drive, we saw countless gorgeous Victorian era homes in immaculate condition. We ended up stopping at several points along the drive, including Finlayson Point and Clover Point to take some photos, and also at Oak Bay, which was a quiet but picturesque small harbor filled with lots of boats.

After spending about one hour in the area, we headed north out of the city along highway 14. There were several sights I wanted to see along the way, but I figured we should get the largest chunk of driving out of the way in order to visit the most northern sight first. I slept for most of the ride while Mike drove. I eventually woke up about ¾ of the way into our drive, just in time to see a black bear on the side of the road! As we drove next to the back bear, I shouted “OMG, it’s a bear!” numerous times before Mike eventually realized that I wanted him to pull over. Since the bear was far enough off of the main road, I felt relatively safe to get out and join the small crowd of people that had also parked their cars on the side of the road. Some of the people were standing directly in front of their car, and when one of the men saw me walking towards the crowd, he said something along the lines of "well, I guess it will be every man for himself if the bear starts
Black bear we saw on the side of the road as we drove towards Port RenfrewBlack bear we saw on the side of the road as we drove towards Port RenfrewBlack bear we saw on the side of the road as we drove towards Port Renfrew

Unfortunately, I did not have a large lens, so this was the closest shot I could get of the bear
to approach us!". His comment brought me back into reality, realizing that we were only a couple dozen feet away from a wild bear, and that theoretically, he could at any point come running towards us. A scary thought, but I was still too excited to dwell on it for too long! Unfortunately, as I did not have the larger lens on me, I was unable to get any decent shots of the bear, but regardless, I thought it was cool enough just to say that I had seen a bear with my own eyes in a natural setting.

It took nearly two hours to finally reach the city of Port Renfew, which is located at the end of highway 14. Within the small city I wanted to visit Botanical Beach, which is located within Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. Botanical Beach is well known for it's tide pools, which includes many forms of sea life such as red, purple and orange starfish and sea urchins, white gooseneck barnacles, blue mussels and green sea anemones and sea cucumbers. After parking our car, we saw that we had to walk down a one mile hike in order to access the beach. Much to my disappointment, the blazing sun somehow disappeared beneath a blanket of heavy fog, which had so much moisture that it was creating rain! As a result, when we reached the beach, there was not a speck of blue in the sky. My hair was paying the price from all of the moisture in the air so I wasn’t too happy but still decided to go down to the beach. The tide pools were located between the massive craggy rocks that were very difficult and sometimes slippery to navigate. I was wearing sandals, so I was very nervous about walking around, especially since I had the camera around my neck and didn’t want a repeat of the beach falling incident that had occurred two months prior in California. To be totally honest, we didn’t see too much marine life in the tide pools, and the lack of sunshine and over abundance of fog didn’t make our experience especially enjoyable, so we left after about 20 minutes. In hindsight, I later realized that there was a very high tide during our visit (about seven feet) and that a low tide of four feet or less is actually best for viewing the tide pools, so make sure to check the tide tables prior to your visit.

From Botanical Beach, we began the long drive back to Victoria, first stopping in China Beach, which is also part of Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. After our parking our car at the trail head, we had a relatively easy 20 minute downhill walk to the beach. Along the hike we saw, amongst numerous other things, an abandoned car alongside the narrow trail. This car seemed oddly out of place, especially given the steep terrain, so we both wondered how in the heck it had managed to land where it did.

We eventually made it down to the beach, which was much longer and wider than I had anticipated it would be. It stretched along the coast for quite a distance, but we probably walked only about ½ mile down the beach. The sun was setting, so the trees and the ocean water were lit up beautifully and I was able to get quite a lot of good photos of the surrounding scenery. To our great surprise, the sand was very soft, much like what we had encountered down on the Oregon Coast two years prior and nothing like the rocky beaches of the Washington Coast. Shockingly, along our walk, we saw two women in bikinis whom were swimming in the water! While it had obviously been sunny out that day, neither one of us thought it was anywhere near warm enough to be wearing just a bikini, let alone swimming in the frigid waters of the Pacific Ocean; those girls had to have either been out of their minds or must have been from the north of Canada and thought that the weather that day was exceptionally warm. On the walk back up towards the hiking trail, we saw some sand sculptures that had obviously recently been completed by a child. There was a long row of turtles that were placed in front of a very large one; it was quite cute and we made sure not to step on the baby turtles as we walked by!

After leaving China Beach, we had one more stop along the way before we headed back to Victoria. French Beach, like the two aforementioned beaches, is also of the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. Unlike the other two beaches however, this one is extremely accessible for all of the public, just being a two minute walk from the parking lot. Another difference of this park was the fact that there wasn’t really any sand; the beach itself was covered in rocks and pebbles of all different shapes, sizes, and colors. Mike, of course saw all of these rocks as a gold mine, as he immensely enjoys skipping rocks in the water. After playing around for 20 minutes or so, we decided to head back into the city as we had dinner reservations at 9:00.

We stopped back in at the hotel in order to freshen up and then drove into downtown where we had reservations at a French restaurant called Brassiere A l’Ecole. After referring to Zagat, this was the restaurant I was most looking forward to eating at while in Victoria. It had received not only excellent reviews from Zagat, but also from Trip Advisor, and was mentioned in several of the Victoria guidebooks I had checked out from the library.

When we walked into the small but cozy restaurant, we were greeted by an extremely friendly waiter who walked us through the narrow restaurant to our seats, which were located in the back corner. The interior was decorated in an "oh so chic" Parisian way with deep red walls and many photographs of Paris and other French inspired paintings. Our waiter, who like the host was also very kind, promptly greeted us and handed us the menu. I was immediately drawn to the chicken dish, but since I tend to always order chicken dishes in French restaurants, I decided to go with one of their steak options, which is one of the items the restaurant is known for. Instead, Mike ordered the chicken, which came with potato gnocchi and mustard cream sauce, and together we opted to split the Soupe de la Maison (French Onion) for an appetizer. While ordering my steak, the waiter informed me that it came with a blue goat cheese butter on top, a shallot-red wine glaze, and fries that were coated with parmesan shavings, truffle oil, and parsley. At the time, I made a mental note that I should ask that the steak come without the butter as I am not a fan of any goat cheese product. However, somehow, I inadvertently forgot to do so, and did not realize my mistake until the steak later came out.

In the meantime, we were first brought our soup. The soup was cooked with a Belgian beer base making the soup have much more depth and flavor. Many times, French onion soup turns out to be slightly sweet, so it was refreshing to eat one that was not at all sweet. Next, our entrees came out. I, of course, saw the butter right away, but tried to psyche myself out and convinced myself that I wouldn’t be able to taste any remnant of goat cheese. Before I took my first bite of steak, I stole one of the gnocchi off of Mike’s plate and swirled it around in the mustard cream sauce; it was a divine and rich sauce that complemented the chicken so perfectly well.

Onto my steak…the first few bites I took did not have any butter on top, and therefore, tasted spectacular. The fillet was perfectly cooked and the red wine and shallot sauce paired wonderfully with the rich flavor of the beef. I kept looking at the butter, but continued to tell myself that it was mostly butter and just a little blue cheese and that it would all taste great and compliment the steak wonderfully. Eventually, I took a bite that had a little bit of the blue cheese butter on it…the very strong and earthy flavor of goat flooded my taste buds; NOT GOOD! I immediately looked at Mike with utter panic and asked what in the heck I should do with the butter as there really wasn’t any other place to put it on my plate without it messing up the very delicate balance of flavors. As Mike is very familiar with the look of “OMG it’s GOAT cheese” he too looked around for a minute, trying to figure out how to help me, when I suddenly decided to scrape the butter off of my steak and threw the butter onto his plate instead. It definitely wasn’t a nice move, but a desperate one on my part. Instead of Mike being the understanding and supportive husband that he so often is, he instead got very angry and sarcastically thanked me for ruining his sauce. He then scraped up the butter (which by this point had already half-way melted into his sauce) and set it on top of the mustard sauce that accompanied my fries. I felt terrible, but I absolutely had to get that butter off of my expensive steak or else I wouldn’t have been able to eat it. However, even after that ordeal, when I went to go take another bite of steak, the butter had already melted enough into the steak that all I could taste was GOAT. I was so PISSED off and extremely disappointed, but there was nothing else I could do at that point. I choked my way through the steak, feeling absolutely revolted by every bite. Mike was none too happy either as he stated that his chicken dish had been ruined by the overwhelming taste of goat cheese. We finished our dishes and hoped that dessert would be a much more pleasant experience.

For dessert, I ended up ordering the cherry clafoutis (layer of cherries that are covered with a pancake-like batter) while Mike ordered the chocolate tart. I had never had cherry clafoutis before, but being an avid lover of cherries, I figured it would be delicious! As I predicted, the dish was excellent; the rich cherries were surrounded by a soft and moist cake that was strongly infused with the taste of vanilla. Although I wasn't able to sneak a taste, Mike stated that his chocolate tart was the texture of a fudge brownie and was topped with real whipped cream. Even including our goat cheese debacle, the entire meal at Brassiere A l’Ecole was phenomenal and a place I would return to in a heartbeat.

Day 3 (Sunday, July 5th, 2009)

On our third day of the trip, we drove north out of Victoria and headed to the
Cowichan Valley, which is home to many wineries, different types of farming and artists galleries. The area is renowned for it's natural beauty and plethora of outdoor activities to choose from. Having just had a great time visiting lots of wineries a few weeks before in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, we thought it would be fun to visit some local wineries on Vancouver Island.

Our first stop of the day was at Merridale Cidery. No, not a winery but a cidery instead! Merridale is home to a massive apple orchard where several varieties of apples are grown. Several products are created from their apples, including different types of hard apple cider and cider brandies, all of which have a reputation of high quality. When we pulled into the driveway for this small family run operation, we were greeted with quaint red buildings and row after row of apple trees. We first walked into the tasting rooms of the cider house and asked if they offered guided tours. Instead of guided tours they offered pamphlets for visitors to complete their own self-guided tours. Although the short self-guided tour was somewhat interesting, I would have much more preferred a personal guided tour in order to learn more information about the processing of the apples.

After completing the self-guided tour, we walked back inside the tasting room in order to participate in a tasting. We sampled five to six different kinds of cider, including Traditional Cider, House Cider, Scrumpy, (which tasted watered-down, hard, and whose flavor did not resemble apples whatsoever), and Merri Berri (a very sweet and smooth cider that most would probably consider dangerous to drink!) The tasting was completely free, but we opted to purchase a bottle of the Merri Berri for $9 CAD.

From Merridale Cidery, we headed to a nearby winery called Cherry Point Vineyards. This winery was originally created back in 1990 and after several trials of planting different types of grapes, Cherry Point later became one of the first licensed wineries on Vancouver Island in 1994. Cherry Point Vineyards is known for it's blackberry wine (notably, one called Solera Blackberry) so I was quite excited to try some as I was hoping it would be very sweet. When we arrived at the winery, the tasting room was packed with lots of people; in fact, there were so many people within the small space that we had a hard time getting up to the front of the counter to ask someone about a guided tour. Eventually, a representative from the winery came out and loudly announced over all of the noise that a tour was about to start.

The tour itself was very informal, just lasting about 20 minutes. The tour guide gave us a brief history about the winery and explained how much more difficult it was to grow grapes on Vancouver Island versus other areas (such as Northern California) due to the infrequent days of sunshine and lack of consistent heat. I thought that it was very interesting to see that the formation of the grapes on the vines were tiny in comparison to the grapes we had seen two months prior in California. I had been hoping to attain some shots of grape clumps, but that obviously didn't happen!

After the quick tour, we walked inside to complete a tasting. We tried a ton of different kinds of wine, most of them red, eventually ending with the Solera Blackberry. Unfortunately, I was unimpressed with everything we tried, as were most other people in the tour. Even Mike, who has grown to like red wines, didn't like anything with the exception of the Solera, which he thought was decent but nothing spectacular. In all honesty, it has to be extremely difficult to compete with other wines from the nearby United States, specifically the more well-known ones from California, Oregon, and Washington. Being located so far north of those other locations definitely has it's disadvantages, and I personally think that those differences can be tasted in the quality of the wine.

After finishing our wine tasting at Cherry Point, we headed north to the city of Duncan. This small little town has been made famous by it's plethora of totem poles that can be found sprinkled throughout it's streets. It is now known by many as "The City of Totems". Once we arrived in the town, we were able to quickly find a parking spot, and then I jumped out of the car in order to get some pictures. Unfortunately, it wasn't sunny out that day, so while some of the pictures of the totem poles themselves are good, I'm not happy with the overall composition due to the lack of blue skies. Oh well though; you can't win them all!

From Duncan, we headed just slightly north to Chemainus, which is a yet another small city, but this one made famous by it's dozens of outdoor murals, which are painted on buildings all over the city. Chemainus was founded back in 1858 as a logging town. The logging industry was able to support the city for a very long time until 1982, when one of the larger mills in Chemainus shut down, only to be replaced by a new one that needed much less people to operate it. As a result of this change, locals were worried that they would lose many of their residents and that the town would eventually die out. To prevent these things from happening, a few of the residents decided to try and bring tourism in by hiring local artists to paint many of the town's exterior walls with massive murals depicting the history of Chemainus. Luckily for the locals, their plan paid off as Chemainus was soon hit with lots of tourists and hasn't stopped since. Our visit occurred during the late afternoon, and the streets were still filled with tons of visitors. The range of murals was quite surprising; everything from western scenes to coastal scenes to beautiful paintings of tribal members of the Chemainus First Nation. There was a walking tour that one could follow (distinguished by yellow footprints on the sidewalk) but I opted to wander myself for about 20 minutes before heading back to the car.

Next, as Mike drove to Cowichan Bay, I napped in the car. For some reason, I had felt quite exhausted all throughout the trip, even with the extra sleep I had been receiving. After consulting our guidebooks, we decided upon a restaurant called the
Rock Cod Cafe for a late lunch. As we approached the restaurant, it didn't appear to be anything too special, but without knowing the area, we didn't want to waste any time looking for another place. The menu had familiar options such as fish and chips, burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads, etc. I opted for the Two Piece Cod while Mike went with one of the advertised specials, the Buffalo Chicken Wrap. We also ordered the Blazin’ Buffalo Popcorn Shrimp as an appetizer as it sounded appealing at the time. The shrimp were okay; slightly too spicy for this sensitive mouth, but Mike didn't have any complaints of the spice level. In terms of our entrees, both were good, but nothing out of this world. Although the food wouldn't make me going running back to the place, the prices were quite decent and I would say the restaurant would be a good value for families.

Our final stop of the day was at Goldstream Provincial Park where we planned to hike to Goldstream Falls. This short hike (.7 miles long) began at the south end of the park, but took us much longer to complete due to the constant stopping on my part for taking photos. I had a very difficult time restraining myself from snapping away on my camera as the passing scenery was beyond gorgeous. It appeared as though nearly every tree and bush was draped by soft, green moss that silhouetted everything so beautifully. In order to get up close to the falls, we had to climb down several flights of stairs, which was absolute murder on my knees. While the size of the falls was relatively small, their setting within the thick wall of trees and small pool of water that settled beneath them was quite impressive. All in all, visiting Goldstream Provincial Park and it's waterfall is a very easy day-trip from Victoria and one that I recommend to anyone wanting to get in a good dose of nature.

After our hour-long excursion at Goldstream Provincial Park, we drove back to the hotel to rest as we were both completely exhausted. Upon our arrival, we had planned to decide upon a restaurant for dinner. However, we were both so tired that we ended up falling asleep and taking a several hour nap.

When we finally awoke, it was dark out. I had really wanted to be able to take photographs of the Parliament Buildings lit-up at night, so we drove straight to the inner harbor. There wasn't much street parking available, so Mike dropped me off and drove a few streets behind the Parliament and waited while I photographed the building. The building looked incredible beautiful with the thousands of small lights that lit-up it's silhouette. Surprisingly enough, there weren't too many tourists admiring the pretty lights; instead, I saw about a half-dozen photographers with their tripods attempting to capture the perfect shot. As soon as I saw those tripods, I wanted to hit myself in the head as I had completely forgotten to grab it from the hotel room in our rush to get out the door. Luckily, my pictures still turned out decent, as I was able to take a few shots by bracing myself up against some statues.

Across the street, the inner harbor and the Impress Hotel were also dramatically lit-up. I had wanted to get a closer shot of the hotel, but I didn't want to wander off too far since I was by myself. I called Mike about ten minutes later, and he came to pick me up and then we drove back to the hotel and hit the bed.

Day 4 (Monday, July 6th, 2009)

On our last day in Victoria, we awoke to cloudy skies; a first for this very sunny trip. I was slightly agitated by this news as we were planning to visit Butchart Gardens later that day, and I had really wanted clear skies for those photos.

Our first stop of the day however was to take photos of the totem poles at Thunderbird Park since the morning light seemed to be the most ideal time to do so. Although we had the right light, we didn't have the blue sky backdrop, so I was only somewhat happy with my second attempt at photographing the gorgeous totem poles.

Next, we drove slightly out of downtown Victoria in order to reach Craigdarroch Castle. The massive house is not really a castle, but actually a gigantic mansion covering 20,000 square feet and containing 30 rooms. It was originally constructed during the 1890's for the wealthy coal baron Robert Dunsmuir and his family. Unfortunately, Robert died one year prior to the completion of the castle, as did the original architect of the building, so neither were able to see their visions come to fruition; very sad. The Dunsmuir family only ended up living in the house for less than 20 years. Throughout it's history, Craigdarroch Castle has been owned and used for numerous things, including a Military Hospital (1919-1921), Victoria College (1921-1946), Victoria School Board (1946-1968), and the Victoria Conservatory of Music Era (1969-1979), before finally being saved by the Craigdarroch Castle Historical Museum Society and turned into a Museum in 1979. We paid $12 CAD each to enter the house and were given several brochures and self-guided tour pamphlets that provided a very thorough history of the house. We entered the house through the main hall, which had gorgeous and ornate paneling made of white oak. The most impressive aspect of the entrance however was the staircase, which when looking straight up from the entrance door appeared to go on forever. We spent about one hour touring the interior of the house and listened to a few of the volunteers (whom were spread throughout the house) give detailed historical information on the furnishings and decorations of the home.

From Craigdarroch Castle, we headed one last time back over to the Parliament Buildings, where we had been planing to eat lunch within the Legislative Dining Room. We had read positive acclamations about the small restaurant from Lonely Planet ("One of Victoria's best-kept dining secrets"), and also from my sister Kimberly who had recently eaten there a few weeks prior when she had visited Victoria. Normally, the restaurant is frequented by government officials who work in the Parliament, but it is also open to all visitors. In order to gain access to the restaurant, we had to drop-off our ID and were given security passes which enabled us to get into the halls and corridors that only government officials are allowed to go into. When we finally reached the restaurant, I was surprised to see that it's interior was just a tad out of style. We got wind from someone at the front counter that a huge tour group was coming in, so we made a mental note to place our order quickly; given our experience at eating restaurants that tour groups frequent (see the London Blog from September 2006) we knew we would be waiting quite awhile for our food if we did not order pronto. Considering that the menu is subsidized from the government, I was surprised at the lack of creativity for the lunch choices; for the most part, there were burgers, salads, and sandwiches. I ended up choosing the chicken foccacia sandwich while Mike played it safe and ordered a hamburger. Luckily, our food arrived just as the tour group of 15 sat down, so we were able to breath a big sigh of relief! Unfortunately, the big sigh of relief was then followed by a big letdown as the food was highly disappointing, especially with all of the hype it had received. The food was certainly edible, but nothing near spectacular as I had imaged it would be. We also decided to spring for dessert, which was a mistake as it was obvious that my lemon meringue pie had a store-bought crust; yuck. I definitely wouldn't classify this as "One of Victoria's best-kept dining secrets" nor would I actually even recommend it at all to anyone.

From the Parliament Buildings, we drove out of Victoria to Fort Rodd Hill National Historic Site. This area is comprised of Fort Rodd, which was built in 1898 as a coastal artillery fort, and another site called Fisgard Lighthouse National Historic Site, which was built in 1860 and was the first lighthouse on the west coast of Canada. Fort Rodd was originally built to defend Victoria and the Esquimalt Naval Base, and remained a military base until 1962, when Parks Canada took over it's operation. The entire site is now listed as a National Historic Site of Canada. When we arrived at the ticket office, we were sadly informed that the lighthouse was closed to visitors due to renovations that were taking place. At the time, it didn't bother me too much as I had no expectations of the place. We started our visit by exploring it's massive grounds, including the Upper Battery and Lower Battery. There wasn't many people visiting the site, so walking into some of the empty barracks was quite eerie and uneasy feeling. Eventually, we made our way to the southeastern area of the site, where we were rewarded with a great view of the Fisgard Lighthouse. It was at this point when I began to feel very disappointed that we were unable to go up inside the lighthouse or it's keeper's residence as the lighthouse was absolutely gorgeous from a distance.

Afterward, we headed to the famous Butchart Gardens. These massive gardens were built upon the former cement quarries of Robert and Jennie Butchart. Initially, the Butchart's had a mansion built in 1904 near the quarries. Just a few years later, the quarries were all abandoned and Jennie decided to do something with the ugly pits. She was able to purchase top soil from nearby farms and used it to line the floor of the abandoned quarry. This area would later become the well-known Sunken Gardens. The couple soon also had a Japanese Garden, Italian Garden, and Rose Garden created. By the 1920's, word of Jennie's gardens had spread to the public and 50,000 people per year were visiting the gardens. Throughout the decades, the gardens became world-renown, and now host over one million visitors each year. Unfortunately, visiting these famous gardens came with the steep price tag of $28 CAD per person! I about had a heart attack with the cost, but being Victoria's most well-known attraction, I hoped it would be money well spent.

We started our tour in Rose Gardens, which were filled with both thousands of roses and hundreds of people. The variety and vibrancy of colors was astounding; it was difficult to focus your attention on any one rose as so many others were calling out for your attention! After spending some time in the crowded rose garden, we made our way to the Japanese Garden, Italian Garden, and lastly, the Sunken Garden. The sun couldn't make up it's mind during our visit, and we saw glimpses of it mostly while we were in the Italian Garden. Out of all of the gardens, my personal favorites were the Rose Garden and Sunken Garden. Every single square inch of Butchart Gardens was impeccably designed and well-cared for; it was obvious that it's staff of 200 gardeners were always on their toes. I'm sure many of the gardeners go out at night or in the morning before visitors arrive in order to cut off any of the dead flowers; I literally did not see one wilted or dead flower petal anywhere in that garden; it was almost incomprehensible! Overall, even with it's steep price tag, a visit to these gardens is a must for anyone who enjoys flowers and for all photographers as it is truly a photographer's paradise.

From Butchart Gardens, we headed towards the ferry terminal in Sidney. Before getting in line however, we decided to stop off in downtown Sidney to look around for a bit. We didn't have a lot of time, but we managed to visit a large bookstore called Tanner's, which had an extensive travel section. It was too bad that we did not have more time to explore Sidney as it looked like it was a very cute and pleasant city to wander around in.

On the ferry ride back to Anacortes, there was surprisingly very few cars. The ride took a little longer than expected as it stopped at San Juan Island to pick-up additional cars and passengers. We eventually made it back home, about three and a half hours after leaving Sidney.

Overall, we had a great four day weekend in Victoria and Southern Vancouver Island. We were truly lucky in the weather department, experiencing only one partially cloudy day. It was so enjoyable to be able to visit a city I had been to once before; I was amazed how much of it I remembered, albeit on a smaller scale. With it's underlying quaint English charm, Victoria is a very special and unique destination within North America. I can't honestly think of any other city on this continent which is anything quite like it. Aside from it's plethora of high tea options and Tudor style architecture however, the city is vibrant and has a buzzing energy, with lots of young people and modern architecture that somehow blend together so seamlessly with the old. In some ways, the city and it's outlaying areas reminded me very much of Seattle as there are limitless opportunities for outdoor excursions and activities. In addition to the countless parks which fill the city streets, there are several Provincial Parks located within less than a 30 minute drive from downtown. Even though Victoria is situated on an island, I think one might find it difficult to catch the so-called "island fever" as there are so many different things to do and see for people of all ages and of different interests. Someday, we will visit the island again, although we would like to deveote at least a week so that we are able to see many of the sights and other cities in the highly recommended northern part of Vancouver Island.

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