After 20 years of living in the Pacific Northwest and saying, “One of these days, I should…” I finally did. I took the clipper to Victoria. We planned a trip the travel industry likes to call a “City Break,” just a couple of days to explore a single city, usually on the weekend, although we went midweek. It was also a bit of a “Girls’ Getaway,” although the girls were my mom and my two daughters instead of a bunch of girlfriends, and instead of hitting malls and spas we aimed for gardens and afternoon tea. But even though my travel plans never seem to conform to industry standards, Victoria managed to exceed expectations.
I hate to drive. Add a border crossing, a new city, speed limits in kilometers, and looking for parking with two kids in the back seat, and taking the Victoria Clipper was a no-brainer.
When I travel, I like to stay in funky, independent places that have more character than class, but charm is a pricey commodity in Victoria. All my bargain-hunting ninja skills failed to find anything quaint or quirky for less than double the package price of booking a hotel with clipper tickets. We ended up at the Best Western Carlton on the edge of Chinatown, and I took comfort in the fact that it worked out to about $45/night. It might have been blandly corporate, but the room was squeaky clean, the beds were comfortable, and the folks at the front desk were Canadianly friendly.
(I still haven’t figured out what the $90 charge on my credit card was for, though. Was wi-fi not free after all? Did they charge $25 each to hold a suitcase and three shopping bags after check-out? Is that a damage deposit that will be refunded in a couple days? I will call them to find out, and I hope it’s the last one. Otherwise, the cost of the hotel was doubled by this mysterious charge.)
Everyone we met was eerily, stereotypically friendly. When my ten-year-old ran into someone on the street, I scolded her, “Look where you’re going.” The woman turned around and said, “Oh no, it was my fault, I wasn’t looking either.” Everyone seemed to have time to chat, and to actually care about the answers to questions that are just formalities a few hours south. When my daughter walked into a comic book shop looking for back issues of Inu Yasha, everyone in the store gave her advice on where to find them.
Traveling with three generations is rewarding, but there’s no denying the challenges. Each day, I had to revise my expectations for what was achievable. In the end, we saw about 2/3 as many places as I could have reached on my own. Between my mom’s sore feet and my 5-year-old’s short legs and the general herding of cats that is four stubborn relatives trying to decide what’s next, it seemed like each block was an entire outing.
And we spend A LOT more time and money on food than I would ever do alone. It seemed like we ate, got to our next planned activity, and then had to find food again before we could actually do anything. My ten-year-old’s hummingbird metabolism was mostly to blame, but it isn’t easy getting four people onto the same feeding schedule, so someone was always desperately hungry. This was also a bit of a mom fail on my part. When I travel, I tend to eat opportunistically, or not at all, so I tend to forget about it unless someone is whining. I think most moms plan ahead with snacks and stuff.
Fortunately, Victoria is a good place to be unprepared. We randomly walked in to several restaurants during our three days there, and each time were surprised by local, organic ingredients on an Asian-inspired menu with lumberjack proportions. At a place called Mint the kids got ham and cheese on baguettes, my mom got a salad, and I had spinach paneer served in the divided metal trays I remembered from India. It was a completely eclectic assortment of desires, and Mint fulfilled them all. We had breakfast around the corner at Lady Marmalade, where two of us shared a “French toast” that was more like a bread pudding with mango baked inside. I had scrambled eggs with shiitake mushrooms and bok choy in soy sauce with a sesame salad on the side. It almost broke my heart that I could barely eat half of it.
It really helped that Victoria is so small. With ages ranging from five to seventy-two, we were able to walk from the ferry terminal to our hotel, the Royal BC Museum, and Chinatown. The only places we needed to take the bus were Butchart Gardens, which is well out of town, and Craigdarroch Castle, which was uphill from the water. There are all sorts of tourist bus options in Victoria, but we found that the $5 Day Pass was by far the best deal. It pays for itself in one round trip. The buses are clean and we never had to wait more than 10 minutes for one to come by. A couple of times we took a bus up or down Douglas when we could have walked because it was so easy.
The only down side to Victoria was the bookstores. They were everywhere, and they were irresistible. We had wisely packed very little for our trip; on the way up we checked one small carry-on-sized suitcase. But on the way back, half of the suitcase was full of books, and all our clothes were stuffed in shopping bags that we had to carry on the clipper. Needless to say, we had also blown our budget.
I’ll write more about what we actually saw and did on our girls’ city break getaway in Victoria, but for now I’ll just say that I wish I’d visited much sooner and stayed longer.