Lots of rainy-day attractions in off-season Victoria
Only a few passengers ventured on to the deck of the Port Angeles-based ferry M. V. Coho, their heads bent and feet firmly planted against...
Special to the Seattle Times
Northwest travel guides
VICTORIA, B.C. — Only a few passengers ventured on to the deck of the Port Angeles-based ferry M.V. Coho, their heads bent and feet firmly planted against wind gusts and light rain, as we entered Victoria's Inner Harbor. The warm-weather parade of float planes, sailboats and small harbor ferries had disappeared — the harbor's waters the same color as the concrete walks surrounding it.
This wasn't the Victoria pictured in tourist publications. This was Victoria in winter, devoid of its billowing flower baskets, lush flowerbeds, rows of horse-drawn carriages and London-style double-decker buses.
Off-season Victoria, with its near-empty sidewalks, lures travelers with special reduced rates for hotel and transportation and easy access to indoor tourist attractions that provide both warmth and hours of entertainment. With so many located on or near Belleville and Government, the two intersecting streets bordering the Inner Harbor, such explorations can be accomplished with limited exposure to the oft-times nasty weather.
By the time our blustery long weekend came to a close, we had never been farther than four blocks or a 10-minute walk from the harbor, yet we had "traveled" down the Nile, walked through Victoria in the 1800s, descended under the Inner Harbor, dined in Parliament's Legislative Dining Room, stayed at a private club, been face-to-face with a tarantula, followed the history of the Pacific Northwest's maritime development and experienced an Alice in Wonderland-like trip through a miniature world.
Close-in — and indoors
(Numbers correspond to map)
1. The Maritime Museum of British Columbia, 28 Bastion Square, 250-385-4222 or www.mmbc.bc.ca
2. Munro's Books, 1108 Government St., 250-382-2464 or www.munrobooks.com
3. Victoria Bug Zoo, 631 Courtney St., 250-384-2847 or www.bugzoo.bc.ca
4. Miniature World, 649 Humboldt St., 250-385-9731 or www.miniatureworld.com
5. Royal BC Museum, 675 Belleville St., 250-356-7226 or www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca
5. National Geographic IMAX Theatre, 250-953-4629 or www.imaxvictoria.com
6. B.C. Parliament Building, 501 Belleville St., 250-387-3046 (for tour times), www.leg.bc.ca. Dining-room reservations: 250-387-3959.
7. Pacific Undersea Gardens, 490 Belleville St., 250-382-5717 or www.pacificunderseagardens.com
Upon arrival, we passed several hotels across the street from the Belleville Street ferry terminal and walked four blocks to The Union Club, next-door neighbor to the towering Fairmont Empress Hotel. Housed in one of Victoria's Heritage Buildings, the 127-year-old private club rents its 22 guest rooms to nonmembers. With the décor and atmosphere of an old English club, the expansive reading room with its views of the Inner Harbor was a great place to escape the weather.
Miniature World was only footsteps away, tucked into the north side of the Empress Hotel. Since its creation in 1970, the small world has grown to include more than 80 miniature dioramas that re-create historical scenes and create imaginary worlds.
Staffing the ticket desk, Victoria resident Lynn Blackbourn greeted the few early morning visitors. She explained that the popularity of this tiny three-dimensional world spans generations: "We have adults who are coming in saying they came here as children 20 years ago."
"It's awesome!" pronounced Payton Renner, 9, as she examined the tiny worlds with her mom, Kelly Renner, both from Seattle, and grandmother, Linda Renner, of Redmond. Payton liked it all, but her favorite diorama was Fairy Tale Land. She claimed that this miniature world far surpasses video games, "because when you look at it, you feel like you are in that world."
Added her mother, "It's wonderful. It brings back a lot of history — when you spot something, you have to look close. There is so much to see."
Big movie, fancy lunch
It takes hours to explore the Royal BC Museum, just south of the Empress Hotel. It provides an expansive trip through history from the Natural History gallery's Ice Age, with its full-size woolly mammoth, to the forest of totem poles and artifacts telling the story of British Columbia's First People. Our footsteps echoed on the wooden sidewalks of old Victoria as we experienced sights, sounds and smells of the old town in the Modern History Gallery.
There's a sharp contrast between the silent movies shown in the Old Town's 16-seat Majestic Theatre and the National Geographic IMAX Theatre that shares the BC Museum building. This 400-seat theater — with a six-story screen, surround sound and 3-D effects — put those of us viewing "Mystery of the Nile" into the rafts shooting the white-water rapids of the river, or so it seemed.
While many dined on snack-bar popcorn, we ate across the street in Victoria's Parliament Building.
We skipped the free, guided weekday tours of the 1898 Parliament building and admired the architecture as we went to the Legislative Dining Room, which is open to the public for breakfast and lunch from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Friday (closed during the noon hour when Parliament is in session). The setting is elegant — white tablecloths and napkins, fresh flowers and lace curtains — the food is excellent and prices reasonable. Lunch choices included tomato Portobello mushroom soup, $3.25 a bowl; sirloin steak salad, $9.25; and Montreal smoked meat grilled with melted cheese and sauerkraut on rye, $7.95 (all prices Canadian).
There are no metal detectors or long security lines at the building's entrance. However, those who dine must stop at the Security Office and exchange a piece of government-issued identification (a driver's license is OK) for a lapel badge that allows them into the lower level where the dining room is housed.
An architectural adventure
Munro's Books, with its 5,000 titles, is three long blocks north of Parliament on Government Street in a 1909 building that originally housed the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro has owned the store since 1963 and in 1984 purchased the building. A subsequent renovation provided some startling architectural discoveries.
"We removed the false ceiling and found this wonderful 24-foot ceiling and the original marble and hardwood floors," he explained, noting that the building is a striking example of neo-classical architecture.
Munro recommends a walk along Government Street for an excellent, free architectural tour of Victoria's Heritage Buildings, including the Victoria Christmas Store, site of the first British Colonial School (1849); The Alhambra Building, with its Murchie's Tea Salon; nearby Old Morris Tobacconist (1892); and Rogers Candy Shop (1885).
The Maritime Museum of British Columbia, in nearby Bastion Square, is housed in the first Provincial Courthouse. It's worth a visit just to see its 1898 birdcage elevator, believed to be the oldest such elevator operating in North America. Its real draw, though, is an extensive collection of ship models and artifacts tracing early sea explorations and passenger travels in Northwest waters.
Crawlers and swimmers
Not all Victoria attractions focus on history. Take, for example, the Victoria Bug Zoo, one block north of the Empress Hotel. There you come face-to-face with some 40 species of insects and spiders, including tarantulas like Pinkie, a Brazilian Salmon Pink Birdeater, as big as a woman's open hand. You'll also see scorpions, beetles and Canada's largest ant farm.
Tania and Derek Basham, of Olympia, enjoying a Victoria getaway, made the Bug Zoo their first stop. Tania said she's had a fondness for bugs since their children were young, and they used to participate in bug events at Seattle Center.
"It's [the Bug Zoo] a great deal — for $7, I had a little kid tell me about the bugs," she said of a pint-sized visitor conducting his own informal tour.
Most attractions are near the Inner Harbor, but Pacific Undersea Gardens is in it. After we purchased tickets at street level, a darkened stairway led us 15 feet below the surface to a narrow hallway lined with aquarium windows, each providing a close-up look at the variety of sea creatures — from salmon and sole to wolf eels and starfish — in the murky waters only inches away. The hallway ends at a theater, where an interactive dive show entertains at regular intervals.
Two wet, windy days weren't enough time to see it all. We'll be back before winter is over.
Jackie Smith is a freelance writer who lives in Kirkland.
Information in this article, originally published January 11, was corrected January 16. Jackie Smith wrote the article. A previousl version of the story carried an incorrect byline.