Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tourist Season! Duck Season!

Well, although spring officially started March 20th according to the calendar, and evidence has certainly been widespread of late, this past Monday brought the first kickoff of Visitor Season 2010 to our shores in the form of the Holland America ms Zaandam, a 1400-capacity cruise ship. Here’s how it looked from our balcony (with the help of a zoom lens):

And here’s the local paper’s photo:

From now till October 3rd, some 228 cruise ships will bring an estimated 450,000 passengers to Victoria in this manner. Most of them stop here for a day or two before going on to Alaska, but Victoria’s famous Butchart Gardens and other attractions (most of which are very close to the Ogden Point piers where they come in) make us a popular destination as well.

This doesn't count the other methods of visiting Victoria and Vancouver Island, ferries from Vancouver, Seattle or Port Angeles primarily, but the direct economic impact of the cruise ships alone is said to have been $70M last year.

Tourists have been spotted in town since before spring began, but late April marks the beginning of the real “season” and the weather (and daylight hours) are rapidly improving to accommodate them. We’re always happy to see people from the US and elsewhere visiting Victoria, particularly if we know them, so to that end here’s our annual tips for visiting if you’re thinking of coming this way.
  • For visitors from the US, it is generally cheaper to fly into Seattle rather than Vancouver. It is possible to fly more-or-less directly to Victoria from certain points (particularly Las Vegas and San Francisco), but it’s quite expensive to do so.
  • From Seattle, you have three main options: take the Clipper ferry directly to the Inner Harbour of Victoria, or take a train or bus to Vancouver and then take a BC Ferry over to Sidney (and bus transportation from there to Victoria). The Clipper takes a lot less time (three hours), and if you have an Amex or AA card (or both) you'll save big. The company offers well-priced hotel and attractions packages if you like.
  • There is also the option of a seaplane or helicopter excursion from Seattle, Vancouver or several smaller points in the Pacific Northwest to Victoria. It’s pricey, but the scenery is incredible.
  • Most of the hotels here (apart from the big names) don’t have air conditioning. Apart from very rare occasions, they don’t need it. Even our summer is very mild, rarely reaching above 80°F and being a seaside town we have an almost constant breeze. Fans are of course always available. If you live in one of the more tropical parts of the US (Florida, Texas, the Southwest, southern California, etc), you may want to pack a light jacket for those cool evenings.
  • By law, if you buy something in BC you will receive your change in Canadian currency. Please don’t ask merchants for US change, they’re not allowed. Charge things on a debit or credit card if you’re concerned about this, but almost every merchant in the main parts of the city will happily accept US dollars for payment (usually at or close to par, depending on how the currency is rated at the time). And Canadian money is beautiful (and there are currency exchanges you can hit on your way out if need be).
  • Don’t expect every US chain you love back home to be up here. We do have quite a number of them, but this is a foreign country with its own merchants and culture. Although Victoria is the provincial capital, we’re kind of a smallish city and thus even some chains that are prevalent elsewhere are much more scarce here. For example, you’ll have to travel two hours to get a Taco Bell. But you’ll have a lot of fun exploring the Canadian “brands” and still have the comforts of Starbucks or Denny’s if you require them. :)
  • During tourist season, there is at least one festival (sometimes several!) going on every weekend. One thing we can confidently promise you about this area is that you will not lack for things to do and see. Wonderful shopping here too.
  • Things you should definitely eat while you are here: sockeye salmon, eggs benedict, tea (both the drink and the meal), fish and chips, real beer (English and Canadian -- you may find them a bit stronger than back home) and salmon candy. Yes, salmon candy.
  • Things you should take with you: British candy, first nations artwork, a tackily humourous Canadian t-shirt (usually involving a moose or beaver even though we have neither of those things here), and lots of pictures. This really is a gorgeous town.
  • Oh, did we mention that it can be daylight well before 5AM and well past 9PM during the tourist season? Visitors from closer to the equator sometimes get a little freaked out about this. Believe us, we pay for it with ridiculously short days in the winter.
  • Victoria is a very safe and clean city with extraordinarily friendly and polite locals, but we also have a lot of homeless people about. Canadians are generous and tolerant -- and haven’t quite come up with a good plan to more permanently help such people. Don’t be put off by them, they are generally friendly and polite as well.
  • Finally, yes, everyone should go see Butchart Gardens before you die. It’s actually located outside of town, but well worth the short trip. It’s not our only attraction but it’s one of the best.