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Five Hours in Victoria, British Columbia

The symbol is greater than visible substance. . . . Unhappy the land that has no symbols or that chooses their meaning without great care.” ― Freya Stark, East Is West.

The mythical and mystical overlapping of azure and verdure in the southern end of Vancouver Island as the B.C. Ferry slices through the blue waters is as contemporary as one can get to the legendary ride on 'Noah's Ark'. A queue at the terminal as we wait to be ingurgitated along with buses, sedans, SUVs, heavy duty vehicles and of course humans into the cavernous hold and the ninety-five minute journey from Tsawwassen Bay, near Vancouver, to Swartz Bay, 32 km from downtown Victoria, is not a life saving event but an entertainment extravaganza of cafeterias, gift shops, video arcade, kids play area, restaurants, snack bars, work/ study stations and a nature commune with the numerous tiny and big islands, inhabited or near vacant.

This is my first visit to Victoria (September 2013) after numerous takes of ‘What still not been to the island’ and with anticipatory zeal boarded the ferry. Finally land sighting (Swartz Bay) and with robotic precision the captive vehicles and people are released onto the gravel drive cutting across farms, strawberry fields and cottages, with visible sea line, towards one of the oldest cities of Northwest America. We by-passed Butchart Gardens, an old limestone quarry converted into a landscaped and manicured garden, a must see for its layout and presentation, because of limited time at our disposal, five hours, before taking the return ferry. The famous tip of 'the ragged green edge of the world' as novelist Jack Hodgins had referred to Victoria Island was our first preference.

Downtown Victoria, the crowded Inner harbor area of windswept Pacific shoreline profiled with boats, yachts and gawking tourists, is a quintessential island locale highlighted by preserved heritage buildings, pubs, cafeterias, art and culture establishments and a clear bright day. This is a favor to us; it had rained the previous day, and a perfect day to walk around the main streets, the nooks and corners. Victoria is a characteristic walk able tourist haven, laidback and distinctive with a mix of traditional and modern, highlighted by First Nation, Chinese and British ethnic symbols, open areas, parks and welcoming frisky waters.

The history of Victoria reads similar to all British colonial stories of trade expansions turning into settlements. In 1778 Captain James Cook established trading contact with the natives and the first European settlement was at same site as present Edwardian Fairmont Empress Hotel on Government Street. The hotel, constructed in 1908 and named after Queen Victoria, is an iconic symbol of the city for its antiquity as well as ghost visitations and rumors that it is sinking few feet every year. The Guide on our tour bus reassured the listeners that the real ratio is a few centimeters. Another Victorian symbol is the imposing Legislative Building, a Versailles look alike with a Queen Victoria statue on the front lawn and a gold covered statue of Captain George Vancouver atop the Central dome. The building is worth reconnoitering for its Baroque and Romanesque architecture, the dazzling woodwork, stained glass windows, fine mosaics and majestic portraits. One is saved from getting lost in its cavernous interiors by barricades and security restricting free walking.

We strolled around the Inner Harbor areas, a bee-hive of tourists of varying ethnicity posing for pictures in front of the heritage buildings, the horse carriages and the waterfront. It was crowded and seeing a 'Hippo' Amphibian tour bus or the 'bus that floats' opposite the Legislative building, decided on the land and water tour of the Island. Luckily two tickets were available and we sat back in the glass roofed 'Harry Hippo' bus for a comfort ride around the city.

The blue, white and yellow 'Harry Hippo' rolled off in a loop towards the busy and crowded Inner Harbor thoroughfare dotted with the oldest China town of North America, after San Francisco, with its ubiquitous Chinese landmarks and the famous Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest point is only 0.9 meters wide, in the block between Government Street and Store Street. The Alley, originally a gambling district with restaurants, shops and opium dens, has taken on a new avatar as an evolving center of art galleries, cafés, pubs, restaurants, Ghost Tours of its deserted buildings and movie shoots.

The bus moved on with no stoppages, except listings, crossing buildings and entertainment blocks, the oldest chocolate factory, the Victoria Police Department Station Museum, the Gothic Christ Church Cathedral, the Royal British Columbia Museum/IMAX National Geographic Theatre, author Emily Carr's house on Birdcage Walk/Government Street a short distance from the Birdcages or the legislative buildings, her statue is outside Empress Hotel, the Victoria Bug Zoo, Market Square and the Pacific Undersea Gardens with underground marine life display.

The Guide’s never ending historical data sheet made us realize that we should have taken a walking tour to at least the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Craigdarroch Castle built by industrialist Robert Dunsmuir and Government House, the official residence of the Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia. The bus tour sightings were embellished with names of well known Islanders, some names sounded familiar, such as Nelly Furtado, Taylor Anne Reid, Emily Carr, Colin Firth and Randy Bachmann.

And then with much hype 'Harry Hippo' jived into water and the close proximity to water in a hybrid was inhibiting and I tried to focus on landmarks, the mid- center buoy, the Naval Training Center, the parks and housing blocks, Fisherman's Wharf, the Johnson Street Bridge or the Blue bridge because of its color and precursor of Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco , and the setting sun across the bay till we tyred back on land at James Bay, the oldest residential neighborhood on the south side of the Inner Harbor close to downtown.

Back on land, the Hippo drove along Dallas Road, one of the most breathtaking drives, past playing fields and Beacon Hill Park, adjacent to the Southern Shore. The Park, an urban green oasis in the center of the Island, covers an area of 75 hectares (190 acres) flaunting manicured gardens, ponds, exotic species of plants, birds and animals such as the peacock, we saw one in full dress rehearsal and the tallest Totem pole in North America. Finally, a u-turn off Clover Point and along the shoreline overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountain in Washington State, USA, and we were back to the starting point, the Legislative Building.

The uninterrupted 90 minute amphibious guided tour of downtown Victoria and the Inner Harbor maybe the ' Hippest Way to See Victoria' but as we made our way to the ferry, for the return journey, I realized we had seen Victoria but did not experience the Island as that comes with measuring the alleys and indulging in local cuisine.

*Scot James Douglas, the Hudson Bay head honcho in 1842 had referred to the southern end of Vancouver Island at Fort Victoria as ‘a perfect Eden'.


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