This trip is really an American road trip but we didn’t want to completely ignore our friendly neighbors to the north. Plus, the adorable city of Victoria, British Columbia is just a 90 minute ferry ride from Washington!
This little side trip is a bit different from our normal adventures because we didn’t take the RV with us. For large vehicles the ferry charges by the foot so it would have cost us a couple hundred dollars to take the RV to Canada via ferry. We were only staying for five days so it just didn’t seem worth the trouble. Instead, we rented a studio apartment on airbnb.com. Our apartment was very close to downtown and the harbor, which was perfect.
We left the RV at the Rainbows End RV Park in Sequim, Washington and for anyone traveling that direction we highly recommend it. It was one of the best maintained parks we’ve seen in a while. The landscaping was gorgeous and the park is exceptionally dog friendly. The owner even offers a dog sitting service for visitors planning to take the ferry to Victoria.
The process of booking a ferry crossing was a first for both of us. In retrospect, we should have bought our tickets sooner but it all worked out in the end. Our plan was to take the Black Ball Ferry from Port Angeles, Washington over to Victoria. The ferry runs multiple times a day but the most convenient times (not too early and not too late) book quickly. We were only able to reserve a spot on the 9pm ferry. However, they said we could try to get on the noon ferry without a reservation but we would need to arrive extra early to get one of the non-reservable spots. The lady at the ferry terminal suggested 9am. We didn’t want to miss the view from the ferry by crossing at night so we showed up early to try and catch a ride at noon.
At 9am, we were the very first people there. First in line! This secured our spot on the noon ferry but we were unnecessarily early. The next arrivals were not until 10:30 or 11:00 am. Clearly, they all knew something we didn’t.
We had a lot of time to kill. We ate breakfast at a cafe on the harbor, took lots of pictures, and grabbed a pick-me-up at a nearby coffee shop.
We were super excited when the ferry finally rounded the corner and into view.
The first vehicle to exit was a semi-truck. That is a really big boat.
One plus of being first in line was that we were the first to board!
The Jeep was parked snug up into the bow of the ferry. The vehicle deck is closed to passengers while the ferry is in motion but we were free to hang out in one of the lounges or on deck in the fresh air.
We had wonderful weather so the open deck was my favorite place to hang out.
Welcome to Victoria, where even the customs agents are super polite!
When we drove off the ferry we were directed to stop and chat with the customs agents before exiting the ferry terminal. They asked the usual questions like, were we importing any fruits, veggies, or exotic animals, and then noticed our Texas license plates. “Oh, you’re from Texas. So, where are the guns?” But being Canadian, he was super polite about it. He told us that lots of people just forget about the pistol in the glove box or the shotgun behind the seat. So if we needed to check to be sure, that’s totally cool. They would just store our guns in a locked cabinet for us and we could pick them up on our way out of Canada. We didn’t have any guns in the Jeep, but it was such a different experience than dealing with border patrol checkpoints in the U.S., where they seem to treat everyone as a suspicious character up to no good.
Victoria is really an adorable city. Lots of the homes are historic and the neighborhoods have an eclectic feel to them. Everything has character. We particularly loved this yarn-bombed tree.
There is so much to do in Victoria and we only had three full days to take it all in. We wanted to make the most of it and see as much as we could so we were on the go every day, out exploring the city.
One of our first stops was the historic Chinatown.
The area is small but significant. It was settled in 1858, making it the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest in North America, after San Francisco’s.
The area was built with a couple of very narrow alleyways that today serve as pedestrian-only shopping districts. Originally these alleys were where sailors and merchants went to get their fix of gambling, prostitution, and opium. We walked through Fan Tan Alley, the most famous of Victoria’s narrow streets. At only one metre wide in places, Fan Tan Alley is the narrowest street in Canada.
Most of the shops were closed for the day but this tiny record store was still open for business.
We don’t own a record player but we picked up some really great posters, including a Beatles Yellow Submarine promotional poster in German!
The next day we toured the main harbor, which is probably the most famous area of the city. Here you will find the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel (shown in photo below) and the equally impressive Parliament building.
The Parliament building (shown below) cost as much to build as The Empress, about a million dollars, which was a TON of money in the late 1800s. The two buildings were also designed by the same architect, Francis Rattenbury. Both buildings have stood the test of time and are still being used for their original purpose. The architect, however, didn’t fare so well. Rumor has it that he was murdered by his wife’s lover.
The aboriginal cultures of the area have had a significant impact on local art. Folk art and totem polls like the one below can be found all over the city.
This is a pickle boat, the super adorable water taxis of Victoria Harbor. These little boats take tourists and locals to locations all over the harbor. They also do pub crawls and harbor tours. We were taking the pickle boat over to Fisherman’s Wharf, which is home to friendly seals and colorful floating homes.
Victoria Harbor is a very busy place, with float planes taking off, and ferries, pickle boats and yachts all maneuvering around one another. The whole scene resembles a well orchestrated ballet.
Fisherman’s Wharf is one of those funny places that has become a tourist attraction but is actually made up of people’s homes. Most of the houses have multiple signs warning people to keep off the deck and not peek inside their windows. It makes sense. They live here for goodness sake!
I loved how colorful the houses were and how each one had a distinct personality. No cookie-cutter houses here! The one below was named the Banana Boat.
The Wharf also housed a number of sailboats, motor yachts, and commercial fishing vessels. You could buy crab and fish right off the boat!
After our tour of Fisherman’s Wharf we hopped a water taxi back to the main harbor. Next stop was cocktail hour at The Empress!
Hanging out at The Empress is a total splurge, whether you stay overnight, eat dinner, or just have cocktails like we did. However, I think it is a totally worthwhile experience to take in the history, architecture, and at the very least, feel a bit posh.
We had a great time chatting with another couple that had spent time living in Finland and now lived in the Pearl District in Portland (downtown, very urban living). While living in Europe they had come to appreciate minimalist living and not relying on cars for day-to-day activities. We also appreciate minimalist living but can’t say that we could get by without a car. Our house has an engine under the bed!
We had a fabulous time and when we left we saw how beautiful the hotel and Parliament building were when lit up at night.
Our next big adventure was touring the Butchart Gardens. The Gardens are a world-famous attraction in Canada. The garden was started by Jennie Butchart who wanted to beautify the old limestone quarry on her family property. Over the years, rare and exotic shrubs, trees, and flowers were gathered from all over the world. Mixed with native plants, these became the famous gardens you can visit today. A paved walking path meanders though five types of garden: Sunken, Japanese, Rose, Italian, and Mediterranean. All were lovely.
We planned a special treat for our last full day in Victoria, a proper English tea!
We ordered the “Giant Munkle” tea at the White Heather Tea Room. It came with a pot of tea (our choice) and three tiers of treats, ranging from savory to sweet. We picked a whimsical tea blend called the “Mad Hatter”. Everything was delish but we only made it a tier and a half in before asking for a to-go box. So much pastry!
One of my favorite elements was the little tray of accompaniments. The raspberry jam was perfect and the lemon curd was so tart yet just sweet enough.
Brandon looked so cute with his dainty tea cup. Honestly, Brandon was a really good sport about the whole thing. Even though he was one of only two men in the entire shop and many of the other tea partiers were little girls under ten wearing frilly dresses. I’ll take this man to tea anytime.
After tea we went downtown to stop by a few of the iconic Victoria shops: Munro’s Books and Murchie’s tea shop.
Munro’s Books (est. 1984) is probably one of the most beautiful bookstores I’ve ever been in. The building was originally designed for the Royal Bank of Canada in 1909. The bookstore has maintained the original neo-classical architecture, including the stunning 24-foot coffered ceiling.
When we got to Murchie’s I was so excited by an entire store devoted entirely to tea that I forgot to take any pictures! Murchie’s is supposedly where the Queen of England buys her tea (at least according to the Englishman at the cigar shop down the street). It was a lot of fun to walk down the rows of tea samples, smelling each little tray of leaves. I eventually settled on a sampler pack of some of their iconic green and black tea blends. Murchie’s is one of the only tea companies that mixes black and green tea and I must say that the blend is just delightful.
To cap off the day we walked over to the Irish Times Pub for dinner and drinks. Also according to the Englishman at the cigar shop, Irish Times was voted the best Irish bar outside of Ireland in a vote by actual Irish men and women.
This street band called the Phat Funks started playing near our outdoor table. They looked so young and our waitress told us that they were just high schoolers. They are all members of the local high school band and play in the streets of Victoria each weekend for tips. That sure beats flipping burgers or bagging groceries!
Victoria was a fantastic city to visit, full of history, beautiful buildings, and very easy to navigate by foot and pickle boat, but the real stand out was the people. Everyone was just so darn friendly. We felt like we made friends everywhere we went. We made friends with locals on the pickle boats and chatted with other travelers in the pubs. But our absolute favorite was the adorable woman who ran the Hope Key restaurant.
We were craving Chinese food and went in search of the best buffet in the city. What we found was a real gem and we still regret not taking a photo with the owner. Instead of the typical Americanized menu of sticky fried delights sitting in warming trays there were a bunch of platters and crockpots full of things I’d never heard of and honestly couldn’t even identify. But the owner was right there telling us what everything was and encouraging us to try everything. She was so enthusiastic, high-energy, and always laughing. It was contagious.
We ate stewed pork with whole hardboiled eggs, little potato curry pastries (think Chinese empanadas), and perfectly cooked tempura fish (among many other tasty treats). The dishes were all personal family recipes, made just the way she made them at home. It felt like we had been invited over to her house for dinner. She even sat down with us for a while to talk about Texas. She and her husband liked to take their RV down to Texas to go antiquing! And the whole time she was checking to make sure we were getting enough to eat and suggesting this sauce with that or adding a topping to something. I’ve never had a restaurant experience quite like it.
Our stay in Victoria was short and sweet and we were a little sad to get back on the ferry. However, our next stop would be our second home and this made us very happy. We’ve only been gone six months but we already miss all those silly hipsters with their ironic handlebar mustaches and free-range kale. Portlandia or bust!