Hop the straight, step back into Island time

B.C. Legislature, Fairmont Empress Hotel dwarfs anything Vancouver offers

The hooves from a horse-drawn carriage clip-clop past, just as the city centre's clock tower chimes 4 p.m. Iconic 19th century redstone buildings cast their historic shadows over the throngs from around the globe as cartoonesque miniature ferries chug tourists and commuters back and forth across the harbour.

So far is Victoria's blast-from-the-past downtown removed from the rat race of the Lower Mainland, it's hard to believe it's just a two-hour ride across the Georgia Strait on BC Ferries away.

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The truly impressive Victorian sights of the B.C. Legislature and the Fairmont Empress hotel, built in 1897 and 1908 respectively, dwarf anything Vancouver has to offer.

And that's before you've even set foot in the stately surroundings of Craigdarroch Castle, erected in 1889 by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, the wealthiest man in B.C. of the time.

Suffice to say, spending a weekend in Victoria - my first, and long overdue, visit in six years of Canadian life, motivated out of 'you've never been there?' comments - is all about stepping back in time and immersing yourself in the grandeur of B.C.'s rich past.

Like any great vacation, the journey to your destination is all part of the road/sea trip fun.

Being able to put the car in park, breathe in the clean ocean air, armed only with a fresh cup of coffee and a sniper's eye for orcas is definitely one of B.C.'s most underrated travel experiences.

For the last few summer seasons, BC Ferries also offers up, on its main routes to Vancouver Island the "Coastal Naturalists" program.

In conjunction with Parks Canada, the Coastal Naturalists offer an entertaining, 30-minute interactive talk on the open deck, beguiling adults and children with all kinds of fascinating marine information of what lies beneath and in front of them on the islands and ocean.

It certainly breaks up the journey and lends the trip across and back a certain depth, no pun intended.

Another redeeming feature of a weekend away in Victoria, is the easy half hour-drive from the Schwartz Bay terminal into the city centre.

And while on the subject of redeeming qualities, I would thoroughly recommend splashing out a little bit extra for your base camp by staying at the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort and Spa.

Many of its rooms boast fantastic views across Victoria's famed inner harbour and everything about this hotel - from the friendly and professional staff, to the fixtures and fittings in the Lure restaurant and lounge and in the bedrooms - oozes quality and a teaspoon of class, especially for a hotel chain.

Delta Victoria also has a pretty good health club, spa, of course, an indoor swimming pool, squash and tennis courts, if you need a workout of sorts.

And if you have a four-legged family member, like we do, the hotel welcomes dogs with open arms, offering a one-time $35 pet fee (other hotels charge per night) and a welcome pack for the pooch.

The hotel is only a 10-minute walk into the downtown core, but it offers guests a complimentary shuttle service if you don't feel like putting one foot in front of the other. The hotel also has its own floating jetty where you can hop on one of the many water taxis that zip around the harbour.

Victoria really is a city where the old shakes hands with the new, as neighbouring centuries fold over each other inside, around and above the Inner Harbour.

Horse-drawn carriages and sailing ships share the spotlight with cruise liners and floatplanes, while ornate, Victorian architecture rubs shoulders with 21st century design. The B.C. Legislature is one of the mustsee echoes of the past and present, and does, thankfully - in a city that's not shy in charging the tourist top dollar for its attractions - offer a free guided tour.

Nearby "The Leg" is Thunderbird Park, home to many spectacular and fascinating totem poles and monuments from various First Nations.

Also in the park are St. Anne's Schoolhouse (built 1844) and Helmcken House (built in 1852 by Dr. John Helmcken).

Right next door is the renowned Royal BC carry you through the dinosaur and Ice Age in our province, all the way to Capt. George Vancouver's ship landing on Vancouver Island in 1792.

The current feature exhibition - running until Oct. 14 - is Race to the End of the Earth, charting, with real artefacts, the grueling and often harrowing race to the South Pole between Britain's Robert Scott and Norway's Roald Amundsen.

Both exhibits were captivating and educational and it's not too pricey at $61 for a family of five for a one-day pass.

A mere 400 yards away - most attractions in Downtown Victoria are within walking distance of each other - is the famous landmark of the Fairmont Empress hotel, with its yawning, sculpted hedge trims, stretching out to grab your attention.

According to many, a trip to Victoria is not complete without an "afternoon tea," a time honoured English tradition for over a century, served in the elegant tea lobby of the Empress.

We never partook of the "tea" - that's been served up to royalty, celebrities and dignitaries alike - but I'm led to believe it's well worth the effort, despite the $60 per head tab that awaits you.

If you're with a young family and don't fancy splashing out $200 plus for some fancy pastries, sandwiches and teas, Miniature World is actually within the Empress' north entrance and will cost you less than a quarter of the tea.

Billed as "the greatest little show on Earth," Miniature World is every kid's and many adult's dream of, yes, you guessed it, everything in miniature, from actual World War II battle scenes to the Great Canadian Railway and fairytale land to outer space.

There's no end to eating options in the downtown core, but when it is time to break from sightseeing, I'd recommend some fish 'n' chips and a Bellini cocktail or two on Milestone's upper patio, right behind the tourist information office. Great value, quick service and serves up fantastic open air views of the harbour.

And when you're done, slip down the few steps to the dock and enjoy the boats coming in and out and the buskers and street entertainment, often on show in the summer months.

They even sell the finest Beaver Tales down there, a B.C. delicacy I've only ever been able to source in Whistler or up Grouse Mountain! If you still have funds left, one of the more expensive, yet worthwhile, attractions is the Hippo tour, offering an amphibious 90-minute land and sea tour of the city. Yes, the bus goes on land and into the sea and it is a lot of fun, but some of you might drown in the $43/adult or $125/family-of-four ticket price.

Exceptionally lighter on the wallet is the free summer tours of the CFB Esquimalt naval base, just 10 minutes' drive from Victoria and the by-donation Naval & Military Museum at Naden. Both are definitely worth the effort if you're interested in military and your history of conflict over the last century.

So that was Victoria in about a day and a half. Many firsts for us and you can hit up many of the main attractions in a couple of days without breaking the bank or too much sweat. I'm looking forward to heading back to fill in the blanks and, just maybe, an afternoon tea.

There was time, however, for one last "first" on the journey home. A pod of orcas surfaced about 500 yards away, while on the ferry, much to the awe of our 11-year-old son, who knows the Free Willy script by heart.

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