Many of the city’s most popular attractions are close to the water. And traveling by water means a cool respite as well as a bit less walking to get from one place to another.
Part of Victoria’s allure is that it’s just so easy to get there. A Victoria Clipper ferry or Kenmore Air float plane drops you off right next to the city’s compact downtown. From there, many of the best places to visit are within a short walk or bus ride — or a quick boat trip.
Many of the city’s most popular attractions are close to the water. And traveling by water means a cool respite as well as a bit less walking to get from one place to another. On previous trips to Victoria, I’d noticed, but never ridden, the adorably toylike wooden Harbour Ferry boats, whose green hulls and general shape earned them the nickname “pickle boats.”
Your options for using the ferries boil down to organized tours and water taxis. The former requires a bit more planning and time, while the second allows you to plan your itinerary around your ride.
Harbour Ferries operates two guided tours throughout the day, the 45-minute Harbour Tour and the hour-and-15-minute Gorge Tour (each $30). Both start at the Empress Dock, so called because it’s right in front of the Fairmont Empress hotel. Reservations are a good idea in summer.
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On a recent visit, I took both, each time hopping into a boat with a handful of tourists from all over. The Harbour Tour cruises around the inner harbor and makes for a nice introduction to Victoria’s waterfront landmarks. Highlights include watching float planes take off right over your head.
Based on what I knew of the Gorge Waterway — the long inlet heading north from the downtown area — I wasn’t necessarily expecting much from my second tour. The section of the gorge closest to downtown looks forbiddingly industrial, lined with businesses dealing in unsexy stuff like gravel and scrap metal.
But as the boat motors up into the farther reaches, the Gorge Tour becomes a revealing, relaxing journey through a quiet side of Victoria that tourists rarely get to see.
While the harbor boats use chugging diesel engines, this tour is in an electric boat, which adds to the serenity. We saw rowers, dragon boaters, kayakers and stand-up paddleboarders moving up and down the tree-lined waters. Before the swimming-pool era, the gorge’s warm, shallow coves were a popular swimming spot as well as the site of an ill-advised 110-foot-high diving tower whose concrete base still sits beside the water.
For a self-guided, booze-oriented experience, try a Pickle Pub Tour. Get some adult friends together (groups typically range from four to eight), make a reservation, and go to the Empress Dock to pick up green wristbands. These get you four water-taxi rides to inner-harbor docks near participating drinking establishments.
Many of the pickle-boat captains are semiretired, and they’re clearly having a good time playing tour guide, pointing out highlights, answering questions and telling stories about Victoria’s history.
Somehow, my guides for both tours were former law-enforcement officers. In contrast to his previous job with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, this one “is upbeat, it’s positive and you get to meet people from all over the world,” Ben Andersen, my endlessly cheerful harbor tour captain, told me.
Anyone can use Victoria’s water taxis. All you need to do is keep the phone number handy (it’s posted on each dock they serve) and call when you need a pickup. Fares ($6 —$24 for adults, $4 —$12 for kids) are based on how far you’re going. Buy tickets at the Empress dock, Fisherman’s Wharf or from your boat captain. Here are some ideas for DIY tours:
Walk to Chinatown from downtown, an easy 1-mile jaunt along busy Government Street, past some of the city’s most beloved shops, bars and restaurants. One of my favorites: Shanzee’s Biscuit Cafe in redbrick Market Square. You’ll know you’re in Chinatown when you reach the ornate red Gate of Harmonious Interest, at Government and Fisgard streets.
Explore Chinatown either by taking a 90-minute guided tour with Chinatown Walks or making your own among the compact area’s many intriguing alleys (including Fan Tan Alley, reportedly North America’s narrowest) and red storefronts. When your arms are weighed down with purchases, descend to the water at Swift Street to call your taxi back to downtown.
Take a taxi to Point Ellice House, a former family home still stuffed full of furniture and artifacts its owners collected during the Victorian era and kept over the decades, now preserved in museum form. Afterward, check out one (or more) of the four breweries within a six-block radius.
The farthest taxi-pickup point in the Gorge Waterway is a shiny mixed-use development, Selkirk Landing, with a restaurant, housing and the Fairway Gorge Paddling Club, where you can rent kayaks or stand-up paddleboards to carry on your own watery explorations in the gorge.
One of my favorite walks in Victoria is the paved and gently undulating Songhees Walkway, which traces Victoria Harbour’s northern edge for about 2 miles and gives great views of the bustling harbor. Rather than retrace your route, let a taxi take you back to where you started. But first reward yourself with a beer from Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub, one of the area’s pioneer breweries.
Fisherman’s Wharf is a small, ridiculously cute collection of colorful houseboats and small businesses. Buy some super-fresh fish tacos or fish and chips, then sit at one of the scattered picnic tables and watch goings-on in the surrounding marina. To get even closer to the water, take a kayaking tour from Kelp Reef Adventures.
From the wharf, downtown is a 20-minute walk via the pathway through Laurel Point Park. For a longer jaunt, walk to Dallas Road, which skirts Vancouver Island’s southern coast with in-your-face views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Olympic Peninsula. Both are paved and accessible to pretty much anyone.
I like to take a diagonal route from Fisherman’s Wharf to Holland Point Park, and from there along Dallas Road (note the marker noting the Trans-Canada Highway’s far western terminus) to sprawling Beacon Hill Park, one of my favorite Victoria spots at any time of year. While it may feel far away, downtown is only about a mile’s walk north from here, making the total Fisherman’s Wharf-Beacon Hill Park-downtown walk about 3 miles.
If you go
For all things Victoria: tourismvictoria.com
Harbour Ferry: victoriaharbourferry.com
Victoria Clipper: clippervacations.com
Kenmore Air: kenmoreair.com