Our weekend in Victoria BC, Canada: Amazing food, the Butchart Gardens, funky little shops and adorable British charm
I’ve been to Victoria BC a few times in my life. I got my first tattoo in Victoria BC when I was 18, spent a debaucherous night out drinking with a group of friends when I was 19, and a few years later Paddy and I celebrated our one year dating anniversary in Victoria BC back in the summer of 2003.
Eleven years later, we were overdue for another visit. Previously we had traveled to Victoria BC via Washington State Ferry from Friday Harbor, San Juan Island (you can also depart from Anacortes, WA) to Sidney BC, and then took a bus into the city from there.
This time we booked a package deal of hotel and round trip ferry fare on the Victoria Clipper, which departs from Pier 69 in downtown Seattle and arrives in downtown Victoria BC. The price of $500 total was a little expensive for two nights plus ferry fare for two, but the convenience factor couldn’t be beat. We went during Labor Day weekend, which was a busy time. The fares do go down a bit during the winter.
Our ferry to Victoria BC departed at 7:30 AM, and we were told to get there an hour early for check in and boarding. We arrived at 6:30 and got some coffee and breakfast burritos from the Clipper Cafe at the terminal, then checked in.
**Note: To travel to Canada, you need to have a passport or “enhanced drivers license.”
Getting a good seat aboard the Clipper depends on how early you made your reservation, and how early you arrive for boarding. Fortunately, we had booked a couple months ago so we were in the first boarding group. We made it through the check in line to the boarding area as they were boarding the first group, and were able to walk past everyone else, get on board and choose our seats.
The Clipper ferry isn’t like the Washington State Ferries. It is passenger only, and much more like a large airplane than a ferry. There isn’t much space to move around out of your seat, and there isn’t a sit-down galley. Some seats have tables, however which are in groups of 4-6 seats. Seats without tables have a seat-back tray table like airplane seats.
There are 8 rows with two seats each towards the front of the vessel on the main cabin level, which is what we went for. Getting a window seat and a seat facing forward was imperative for me with my motion sickness. I took a Dramamine and fortunately the sea was smooth that morning, so I was fine. The Clipper has motion sickness medication for sale for $0.25 each if you need it, but it must be taken before you get going. An hour before boarding is recommended for motion sickness pills to be effective.
The boat was sold out and many people who boarded last got split up from each other in random single seats. To get a good seat, book as far in advance as you can, show up an hour before and get checked in ASAP.
Shortly after the boat set off from Seattle, the ferry attendants went up and down the isles taking food and beverage orders. They have a full bar, and Paddy and I ordered a bloody mary and a screwdriver. This made several people turn around and stare at us. What? We’re on vacation. So what if it’s 8:00 AM.
**Note: The Clipper Ferry is cashless, and only credit cards and debit cards are accepted as payment.
Hoping to get a good view from the upper outdoor deck, I went up with my camera. Space was very limited and the crates of checked luggage were stacked against the sides, making very little viewing area other than from the rear view of the deck. No great photo opportunities. I think I did see a porpoise from my window seat, however.
After a 2 hour and 45 minute journey, we arrived at Victoria Harbor and went through customs. We were also first off the boat because we had no checked luggage. People with checked luggage have to wait and exit second.
Customs was pretty easy, and we were able to walk to our hotel from the harbor. We were booked at the Best Western Carlton Plaza, which was inexpensive and in a great location near Chinatown and main shopping areas. The room was small (the bathroom door almost hit the toilet whenever it was opened) but it was clean and had everything we needed.
We unpacked and then headed out to explore and find some lunch. If you’re into comic books, games, collector toys, and other nerdy (albeit awesome) stuff like that, the Best Western Carlton Plaza is right next to two comic book shops, a game shop, a video shop, and a collector toy shop. We poked into Cherry Bomb Toys around the corner on Broad Street. They had a lot of vintage toys, and their selection is always changing with what people bring in to sell.
Some things are worth standing in line for. For lunch we went to Red Fish Blue Fish, a fish taco/fish and chips stand made out of an up-cycled shipping container down by the harbor. When we arrived there was a long line, and we ended up waiting half an hour. The line only kept growing as we stood there and well after we got our food. It was worth it.
The menu was overwhelming–everything looked amazing. We finally decided on sharing two oyster tacones (cone rolled tacos), one spicy jerk fish tacone, one smoked albacore tuna tacone, and a small cup of the chipotle coconut corn fish chowder. They also served great sodas–Paddy got the ginger ale and it was very high quality. Great natural ginger flavor.
The chowder came up right away. It had a subtle coconut flavor from the coconut milk, but didn’t taste like Thai curry on account of the chipotle. There were large chunks of fish, along with corn and other vegetables and spices. It was unique and delicious.
There was a covered area with bar/stool seating in the corner of the dock, and more seats along the edge of the dock. No indoor seating, so bundle up in colder weather.
The tacones were out of this world. If we were in Victoria BC for a whole week, we would come back here and try something new every day for lunch. It was that good.
Apparently everyone else thinks so too–the line wasn’t getting any shorter when we left.
After lunch we walked back towards Chinatown. One of the best things about Victoria BC is the walkability. You can walk to everything in the downtown area, and there is a lot to see and do (and tons of great restaurants and bars).
Victoria BC has the second oldest Chinatown in North America, dating back to the mid 1800’s (the oldest one is in San Francisco). The main part of Chinatown is on Fisgard Street, as well as the famous and extremely narrow Fan Tan Alley. It is a very small area, but full of funky little shops to poke around in.
My favorite shop in Fan Tan Alley is Heart’s Content–a British punk rock shop that has been there since 1989. A number-one source for Doc Martens of all styles and sizes, as well as other clothing and punk rock accessories and a few random curiosities. I remember shopping here when I was 18. I bought a scarf with moose all over it and a new nose ring. Paddy was eyeing some skull rings, but talked himself out of it due to the high price.
There was a new narrow alley on the map called Dragon Alley, but it was mostly a condo complex with not much going on.
After Chinatown, we walked around Johnson Street, another great street for funky little shops.
Later that evening, we went for a stroll down to the harbor, trying to figure out where to go for dinner. We had planned on going to Brasserie L ‘Ecole, a little French place in Chinatown that we read about and is extremely popular. They don’t take reservations, and I read that you need to prepare for a long wait. Unfortunately, they were closed for Labor Day weekend. I suppose if you’re that popular, you can afford to go on vacation during one of the busiest holiday weekends of the summer.
It was just as well, as we weren’t really in the mood for waiting in another long line. We walked down Government Street, and Paddy treated himself to a Cuban cigar (since we can’t get those in USA).
The Harbor was busy with tourists and a blues festival that was going on.
While walking back up Government Street, we stumbled upon The Tapa Bar in Trounce Alley between View St and Yates St. We’re big fans of Spanish Tapas so we decided to check it out. It was super busy, which is always a good sign. The only seats available were at the bar or at a little window archway in the bar area. We took the window archway and it was actually pretty cozy.
We ordered a pitcher of white sangria, which was refreshing. We wanted to try everything on the menu, it was too hard to decide. Fortunately they had a tapa sampler platter for two for $47.50. It included marinated artichokes, four bean salad with salted cod, escabeche (Spanish pickles), smoked chicken breast, chorizo sausage slices, garlic chicken wings, “mussels de cha cha cha”, grilled eggplant with goat cheese, tortellini con salsa rose & a chile relleno.
Everything was excellent. The “mussels de cha cha cha” and the smoked chicken were our favorites, along with the chicken wings and the bean salad with salted cod. The only boring item was the tortellini, which we saved for last and didn’t finish because we were too full. It also came with really tasty bread which helped mop up the spicy broth from the mussels.
For dessert we couldn’t pass on the creme brulee trio: coconut, chocolate, and vanilla. It was fantastic and just the right portion for two. The burnt sugar was nice and crisp and the creme was decadently creamy on all three.
After dinner we walked down by the water to walk off dinner a bit and so that Paddy could smoke his fancy Cuban cigar.
We wanted to have some drinks, and ended up at a bar/restaurant called The Mint on Douglas Street for a nightcap. We had intended to stay out late, but the early morning trip and a long (yet fun) day of walking around the city had us pretty beat.
The Mint had nice atmosphere, and the friendly bartender told us it was a popular bar with people in the restaurant industry. They serve Mediterranean food, along with local beer, wine, and interesting cocktails. Paddy sampled the local beer and I tried a cardamom mojito. I’m not usually a rum person, so I think I could only drink one of those in a sitting, but it was good.
When we were leaving a DJ was setting up–his DJ station made out of ovens was the coolest we’d ever seen.
On Sunday we got up a bit early to make breakfast at The Jam Cafe before our bus left for The Butchart Gardens. The Jam Cafe is a popular local spot on Herald Street near Chinatown that serves creative and delicious food. Sure enough, there was a line at the door when we got there. We didn’t wait too long though before a spot at the bar opened up, and we took it.
The menu made for a tough choice, but we decided on the pulled pork pancakes and the fried chicken eggs benedict, and we’d share. A couple of local guys next to us were drinking some damn fine looking caesars, and we decided to go for bloody marys. The bloody marys came with a seasoned salt rim, pickled asparagus, and a strip of candied bacon.
We struck up a conversation with the local guys drinking caesars, talking about their favorite local restaurants and local drinks. They told us that we had to try “The Shaft,” a popular local drink consisting of Bailey’s Irish Cream, vodka, and an espresso shot over ice, meant to be consumed as a shot all at once. They ordered three (I decided a bloody mary was enough alcohol for my morning) and Paddy took the plunge. He said it was delicious.
Our food arrived. I can honestly say that this restaurant has to be one of the top breakfast spots I’ve ever eaten at in my life. The pulled pork pancakes were unreal. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to us, they could also feed a family of four. We each ate half the benedict (which was outstanding), and barely made it through a third of the pancakes. We hate wasting food, but we didn’t have a fridge in our room to take it to go.
After our giant breakfast we waddled down to the Empress Hotel at the harbor to meet our 11:20 AM tour bus to The Butchart Gardens. We booked a round trip “tour” with CVS Tours which included round trip shuttle bus and entrance to the gardens for $58.00 per person. A little steep, but the options were that or take the city bus, which I read takes an hour or so. The gardens admission is $30.80 per person, and the shuttles leave every hour or so and take 30 minutes to get to the gardens. The ticket is open-ended, so you can take whatever shuttle you want back when you are done with your visit.
I’d visited The Butchart Gardens once when I was 12, but hadn’t been back since. It is the quintessential tourist attraction in Victoria in the summer. If you like gardens, it’s a must-see attraction. Summer is the best time (and the busiest) for obvious reasons, but spring and fall can be nice too. They also do a Christmas light display in December at night.
The Butchart Gardens started out as a limestone quarry back in 1904, owned by Robert and Jennie Butchart. Jennie Butchart began planting flowers and landscaping the quarry to make something beautiful out of the rock pit, and the gardens grew from there.
Our first stop was the Sunken Garden, which is the garden you will see on all the brochure photos. It is the first garden built by Jennie Butchart out of the rock quarry pit. A descent down some stairs leads you to beautifully landscaped pathways and colorful flower beds. A raised lookout in the middle offers more views, but the best view is from the stairs at the entrance.
Click on any image below to view larger
Next we walked by the Bog Garden on our descent up a gradual pathway out of the Sunken Garden. Low and shady, with a fern grotto and cedar bog, and statues covered in moss.
There were many other stunning flower beds along the paths between the larger gardens, including some enormous dahlias.
We made our way to the Rose Garden, but it was overcrowded with little old ladies completely freaking out over the roses. I like roses, but this was probably my least favorite garden. We squeezed our way around the other tourists and moved on quickly.
My favorite garden was the Japanese Garden. It was the second garden built by Jennie Butchart and has many peaceful little nooks and crannies with ponds, bridges, stone temples, and immaculate plants and shrubs.
Last, we visited the Star Pond and the Italian Garden.
CVS Tours has buses back to the city about every hour, so we could choose when we wanted to return. Back in the city, we took a rest at the hotel and then went out and did some quick obligatory souvenir shopping for maple products.
I’m a sucker for theme bars, so after shopping we stopped into Big Bad John’s Hillbilly Bar for a beer and free peanuts. The surly old bartender with overalls plunked a plastic bucket of peanuts down and took our drink order. Shells can be thrown on the floor. Burlap sacks on the seats, dim lighting, Christmas lights, graffiti on the walls, and bras hanging from the ceiling. It’s all part of the ambiance. They take cards, but the bartender grunted that he preferred cash. There was an ATM right outside the door in the Strathcona Hotel, so it wasn’t a problem.
For dinner that evening we decided to try out the Japanese Izakaya style restaurant next to the Tapas Bar in Trounce Alley, called SO-YA. Izakaya style is kind of like Japanese tapas–small plates.
We started with some Sapporo beers, and the seared salmon. The seared salmon was the highlight of the whole meal, with a miso sauce and sauteed onions. It was delicious. Next we tried some of the fried and grilled skewers: grilled prawn, deep fried brie cheese, fried oyster, asparagus, yam, and grilled pork and chicken. They were served with worcesterchire sauce, home made tartar sauce, and a spicy seasoning powder to dip in. They were all excellent. I would never have thought that deep fried brie dipped in worcestershire sauce would be good, but it was. The oyster I had was fried perfectly–very crisp and not too greasy.
The food we ordered started off fantastic but ended up mediocre by the end. We ordered some kimchi, a spicy tuna roll, salted cucumber, and some pork gyoza. The kimchi was pretty good, the salted cucumber was a little bland and a little salty at the same time. The gyoza were hard and not very flavorful, and the tuna roll was very heavy on the rice and not so heavy on the tuna. Overall, a good meal but I wish we’d ordered more of the delicious seared salmon instead of the tuna roll and gyoza. They did have some tasty-looking ramen soup dishes on the menu as well. I’d go back again to try the ramen and eat more seared salmon and deep fried brie.
They did have one of the coolest bathrooms I’ve ever seen, so extra bonus points for that. Red neon moving bubble wall and a beautiful red bowl sink with cherry blossoms and a bamboo fountain style faucet. Very nice. Paddy said the men’s room wasn’t as exciting, so I guess they just want to impress the ladies.
We considered catching a local rock show at The Copper Owl, but decided that we were too tired to commit to an entire four band show with a cover. Next time.
We walked down by the harbor to see the Parliament building all lit up–definitely a must see after dark. It wasn’t quite dark yet, but it was a really nice evening.
We meandered uptown to Chinatown, wondering if we might find a little hole in the wall bar to duck into. We didn’t find much. Chinatown was pretty at night with all the lit up lanterns on Fisgard Street, but there wasn’t much going on.
We walked around for awhile, and ended up back at The Mint for a few drinks before calling it a night.
The next morning we packed our backpacks and checked out, and then made our way over to The Blue Fox Cafe for breakfast. Paddy was debating if we should try somewhere new or go back to The Jam Cafe, but we were both glad we tried The Blue Fox.
There was a line at the door, but the host was doing a very good job of getting everyone in as fast as possible, all while wearing an adorable bow tie. We waited about 20 minutes, and were finally seated. The atmosphere was cozy, with funky art on the walls and reggae music playing.
The boozy breakfast drink menu was fairly extensive, along with full espresso menu, chai teas and lattes, juices, etc. Paddy got the Irish Angel, which was coffee and Bailey’s Irish Cream topped with whipped cream, and I ordered a cappuccino.
It was hard to decide what to get, but Paddy decided on the Eggs in Hell, and I got the Moroccan Chicken Benedict. Both were outstanding and we were glad we came.
After breakfast we headed back to the harbor and got in line for the Clipper Ferry. Our boat left at 11:20 AM and we were told to get there an hour early. There was already a long line forming when we arrived, and it kept growing and stretching around the parking lot while we waited. We were glad we got there early.
We were in the first boarding group again, and after a long wait going through customs, we were able to board. We chose our same seats. We were so glad we booked early, it was really nice to get priority boarding and our choice of seating. We were also happy that we packed light, as it meant we got to be in the first group off the boat as well.
Victoria BC is one of our favorite cities to visit. We were surprised to find that the food and restaurant culture had really expanded and flourished since we were there last. It feels urban, but is small enough to walk everywhere, and there is much to do and see. My only disappointment was that The Royal London Wax Museum had closed–I loved that place! Maybe it will re-open, word has it that they couldn’t afford their harbor front location anymore and that the wax statues are stored in an “undisclosed refrigerated location.” Someday we’d like to explore more of Vancouver Island as well. There is a lot of beautiful coastline and Northwest wilderness that we have yet to see. Either way, we’ll definitely be going back to Victoria BC.