As we pulled into our slip in the Inner Harbour in Victoria, B.C., I was a little surprised.
Though I’m a native British Columbian, I’d somehow forgotten just how charming and beautiful the provincial capital is. Before last week, my memories of it consisted of elementary school field trips and a couple of visits in my twenties with friends.
Back then, Victoria was known as a sleepy place dominated by government offices and was jokingly referred to by young Vancouverites as “home of the newly wed and nearly dead.” Pretty, yes, but deathly dull.
Still, I was looking forward to going there by boat for the first time. Arriving there last week after a 15-hour, 94-mile trip from Bamfield, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, we were excited about staying at the Causeway Floats in the Inner Harbour for a few nights.
Run by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority, the floats are directly in front of the famed Empress Hotel and the B.C. Parliament Buildings. The Parliament Buildings are illuminated with white lights each night like a building in a winter village, making for a beautiful view from the boat.
Cruisers we’d met up with the previous week in Barkley Sound advised against staying at the Causeway floats, warning us that they were smack in the middle of a very busy, touristy area. After a week of staying at mostly empty, beautiful anchorages in Barkley Sound, that sounded great to us.
The friendly Causeway floats staff, adept at squeezing in boats at a moment’s notice and shuffling them around when needed, got us in without a reservation and we were soon tied up directly in front of the Empress.
Note: the only not-so-charming thing about mooring in the Inner Harbour is the cost. Moorage at the Causeway floats from June through September is $1.50 a foot for boats up to 59 feet, and more for larger boats. For our 38-foot (41 feet LOA boat), moorage was close to $70 a night.
Rates are almost the same for the nearby Ship Point Wharf and Float, and the Wharf Street floats; the latter is located about 0.2 miles northwest past the customs dock. But the beautiful surroundings and location of the Causeway floats — within easy walking distance of shopping, dining, museums and other attractions — justify the cost.
Around the Causeway floats, the Inner Harbour buzzes with a festive energy. Vendors line the walkways in front of the docks, horse-drawn carriages pass by on the streets above, and street performers entertain crowds. The scene manages to be touristy without feeling schlocky.
From your boat you can hear the bagpipers who play daily and the dulcet tones of the 62 bells chiming in the Netherlands Centennial Carillon tower. Located across from the Parliament Buildings and in front of the Royal B.C. Museum, the carillon was given to British Columbia by the province’s Dutch community to honor Canada’s centennial in 1967. Each day on the hour, a musician climbs up a 75-step spiral staircase and a 10-step ladder to play a song on the carillon.
Learning I was heading for Victoria, a friend remarked, “That place is magic.”
Maybe I’m just getting old, but I think she’s right.
What to do
The Royal B.C. Museum, at the corner of Belleville and Government streets, is worth a visit for anyone interested in the province’s natural and First Nations history. The Maritime Museum of British Columbia, at 28 Bastion Square, is also recommended. Victoria’s Chinatown, North America’s second oldest after San Francisco, features interesting architecture and with its 1950s-style neon restaurant signs, feels delightfully retro. It’s also within walking distance of the Inner Harbour.
Marty and I visited what must be Victoria’s oddest tourist attraction, the self-described “hillbilly bar” Big Bad John’s. Incongruously located in the Strathcona Hotel (919 Douglas St.), the bar is dark and musty, lit mainly by Christmas lights. The ceiling is decorated with bras left by customers, who are served free baskets of peanuts and encouraged to throw the shells on the floor.
Bartenders clad in denim overalls are known to prank customers by dropping plastic spiders and other creepy items on them from controls located behind the bar.
Big Bad John’s was B.C.’s first licensed bar when it opened in 1962. Intended as a temporary novelty for tourists heading to and from the Seattle World’s Fair, the dive bar proved popular enough to keep open.
Far removed from the fancy restaurants and shops surrounding it, Big Bad John’s is a surreal experience. Walking in, you might feel like you’ve entered the Twilight Zone.
Eats and drinks
From what I saw and read, the area around the Inner Harbour seems (not surprisingly) filled with spendy eateries aimed at tourists. Even the food in pubs is higher priced that what you’d typically find in Seattle.
And since we were on a quest to sample poutine, a Canadian favorite consisting of French fries topped with gravy and cheese curds (which we’ll be running a story about later this week), we didn’t get a representative sampling of downtown Victoria restaurants.
But we did have a delicious dinner at the Vietnamese restaurant Green Leaf Bistro (1684 Douglas St.) One place we wanted to try but didn’t get to is Red Fish, Blue Fish, a takeout joint located on the pier below Wharf Street. It got rave reviews online for its fish and chips and tacones (taco-cones).
Having English roots, I was tempted to try the much-vaunted afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel, which draws about 100,000 people annually. But at $58 a pop, I was a tad skeptical. Instead, we went for cocktails in the hotel’s Bengal Lounge, a beautiful, colonial-inspired space overlooking the hotel’s gardens. The cocktails were tasty and it was a fun place for people-watching.
And as usual, we stopped by a few pubs, including the Garrick’s Head (1140 Government St., in the Bedford Regency Hotel), and the Smiths Bar & Restaurant (777 Courtney St.). A cozy, stylized English pub that plays mostly ’80s post-punk music, the Smiths was our favorite place we visited.
Shower and laundry facilities are located about a five-minute walk from the Causeway floats, nearer to the Wharf Street Marina.
For provisioning, Thrifty Foods (475 Simcoe St.) has pretty much everything you might need. We schlepped our bags the six blocks or so back to the docks, but Thrifty will deliver your groceries for a $5 fee, or you could take a cab back to your boat.
Since it’s British Columbia, beer, wine and liquor can’t be purchased at the grocery store. The Strath Ale, Wine & Spirits Merchants store in the Strathcona Hotel (919 Douglas St.) offers a superb selection and some hard-to-find items, including Cuban rum (just don’t try bringing it back into the U.S.). We picked up a few unusual Canadian beers, including a raspberry ale made in B.C. and a black currant beer from Quebec.
The store is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.
There’s also a provincial liquor store at 225 Menzies St.
If you go
The customs dock is located at the Broughton Street Wharf, northwest of the Causeway floats. If you have to clear customs, do that first and then call the Harbour Authority for a slip assignment.
Reservations are available throughout the year at the Ship Point, Wharf Street and Causeway floats, which are all run by the Greater Victoria Harbour Authority. Rafting is mandatory when needed, even with a reservation. Call 1.877.783.8300 or 250.383.8326.