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Victoria and Vancouver Island
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
There are four major ferry routes leading from the mainland to Vancouver Island: two are from the U.S. and two from Canada. North of Vancouver is the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo. South of Vancouver, at Tsawassen, is the ferry to Sidney – which is outside of Victoria. From Anacortes, Washington, there is ferry service to Sidney. And, from Port Angeles, on the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, the ferry takes you into the heart of Victoria’s Inner Harbor.
The most scenic of the ferry rides is the one from Anacortes. The ferry with the most dramatic arrival point is from Port Angeles into Victoria’s Inner Harbor.
Check schedules and make advanced reservations if you plan to bring your RV rig.
If you want to visit more than the core of downtown Victoria, you’ll need a vehicle, and you’ll need to stay overnight at least one night. Vancouver Island is 350 miles long, but is quite scenic, so a few days of sightseeing is easily justified. Reason enough to take your RV.
So, put yourself and your RV on one of the ferries, and I’ll guide you around some of the best parts of Vancouver Island.
If you arrive in or near Victoria, there are several RV parks available for your selection. Use your Woodall’s to make advance reservations, and make sure it’s coordinated with reservations on the ferry you take. Once you leave the Provincial capital city, pressure for overnight places to stop diminish rapidly.
We’ll start in Victoria, claimed by some to be more British than Britain. It isn’t – some travel P.R. types over-hype everything – but it definitely is more British than are Tulsa and San Diego. The most eye-catching building along the Inner Harbor is the grand old Empress Hotel. Large, stately and vine-covered, it’s worth some time exploring the garden as well as the interior, even if you don’t indulge in afternoon tea. But do. Indulge. English-style High Tea is fun. And, like all the early Canadian Pacific Railroad hotels, the main room is very classy.
The few blocks located around the Empress are wonderful for window shopping, investigating art galleries, and enjoying all the gorgeous potted flowers hanging everywhere.
Fronting the Empress is that part of the harbor where private yachts moor. It’s a good place for strolling and celebrating Victoria’s mild summer weather.
The Parliament Building is also worth some wandering time, both within the building and along the paths. Tours are available in the day, and at night hundreds of lights show off the building to perfection.
The Royal British Columbia Museum is one of the best of its kind I’ve ever seen. It traces the history of the people of British Columbia, emphasizing the early aboriginal native people and their ways of life, plus British exploration and settlement, early gold rushes, logging, and up to the present. Also, it tells of the magnificent natural history of the province.
Thunderbird Park is right in the mix of sightseeing highlights near the Empress Hotel. The park offers totem poles for your viewing and, during summer, Native American craftsmen creating new totems.
Visit Craigdarroch Castle. Built out of stone in the 1890s, the mansion has 39 rooms and contains 20,000 square feet. It was the home of a wealthy coal tycoon, and is now a museum.
Sightseeing tours of the city leave from in front of the Empress. It’s simpler than trying to figure out where all the highlights are, driving to them and looking for places to park. Plus, city tours are informative.
Outside of Victoria is perhaps the most magnificent flower garden in the world – Butchart Gardens. Summer offers the greatest variety of flowers in bloom, but it brings the biggest number of people. Go during the week, and early. You will be far from alone, but your chances of being trampled are less. Crowded or not, visit Butchart. It is world-famous for good reasons.
Victoria is on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and has a mild climate. Summers are especially lovely, but even during the rainy months of winter, the clouds tend to blow over Victoria, butt against the mountains on the mainland, and dump their rain on Vancouver.
Okay, let’s hit the blacktop and drive up the island as far as Port Hardy. There are campgrounds along the way, and RV parks in the towns. Let your Woodall’s be your guide.
Beginning in Victoria, the Trans-Canada Highway #1 heads north along the eastern side of Vancouver Island. Then it catches the ferry at Nanaimo and crosses to Horseshoe Bay on the mainland. Okay, I know it seems funny having Canada’s only cross-country highway making a ferry crossing, but it’s not half as funny as Hawaii having an Interstate Highway.
Continuing northwest, you should take Provincial Highway #4 to the wet west coast of the island and the small town of Tofino. Nice country with lovely sightseeing. Then back to the main road. North and west again. Unless you want to go salmon fishing at Campbell River, there are few things for me to mention in the way of highlights. It’s a long and lovely drive. If you see something that interests you, pull off the road and stop.
Look carefully for the turnoff to tiny Telegraph Cove, which has an RV park. You will have made your reservations to go killer whale (orca) watching, of course. And Telegraph Cove is the best place to do it because it is along Johnstone Strait. Throughout much of summer and most of autumn there are pods (small family groups) of orcas that cruise and feed in this narrow channel of the southern section of the Inside Passage.
One of the main reasons Orca pods frequent Johnstone Strait is that hundreds of thousands of Pacific Salmon pass by on the annual search for the small streams where the fish hatched. Because resident pods of Orcas eat mainly fish, they gather for the month’s-long feasting. Even the far-ranging transient pods of Orcas pass through Johnstone Strait occasionally. But the transients aren’t looking for fish. Although they are the same species as resident Orcas, transients eat sea-going mammals such as seals, sea lions, dolphins, and sometimes the great whales. Years ago, whalers saw transient Orcas attacking large whales and nick-named them “killer whales.” The name stuck.
Another reason Orcas come to Johnstone Strait is because of Robson Bight. There is one small place where the rocks on the bottom of the water near shore are of the right size, number, texture and whatever else it is that pleases these marine mammals. The orcas take turns scratching themselves along the smooth-rock bottom of Robson Bight. This is such an important part of their routine that the Bight has been set aside so that no “people activity” will interfere with it.
Killer whale watching in Johnstone Strait from a small boat is one of the most exciting excursions you’ll ever take. It’s even better than whale watching because the Orcas often swim over to you to investigate your boat. They are very intelligent sea-going mammals and are curious. Let me relate one of the many exciting experiences I had on a sightseeing boat in Johnstone Strait. We were cruising the same direction as a pod of resident Orcas when one of the 30-foot mature males came to investigate. Six-foot dorsal fin sticking above the water’s surface, he matched our speed and direction. He was about 20 feet from where I was hanging over the railing. Then he rolled slightly, bringing his left eye out of the water.
And he looked straight at me.
Mind you, I wasn’t afraid because I knew there had been no known case where a wild Orca attacked a person. Well, once a juvenile transient Orca mistook a juvenile surfer for a seal and chomped on him. Immediately realizing his mistake, he spit him out. The human survived with nothing more than killer whale tooth marks across his chest. But the poor killer whale has been teased by his family ever since.
Okay, back to Telegraph Cove, and back to the highway, and northward to Port Hardy, where one of the most exciting ferry trips in the world awaits us. I refer to the all-day journey up the Inside Passage to Prince Rupert, B.C. During summers the trip starts early in the morning (every other day), sails north, arriving at night, and then awaits the dawn for the return trip. Technically, it’s a ferry for vehicles and passengers. In truth, it’s also an amazing sightseeing trip. It is 300+ miles of the Canadian half of the Inside Passage, with land close by on both sides of the ship for much of the way. The ferry ride is absolutely super!
Packing yourself and your RV onto the ferry to Prince Rupert accomplishes several things: It gets you back to the mainland. 18 hours of daylight running up Canada’s section of the Inside Passage is sightseeing at its best. Also, it gives you a chance to visit Prince Rupert, a town that, without ferry traffic, would remain largely unvisited by Americans (it’s also on the route of the Alaska State Ferry). Plus, you can drive up the Yellowhead Highway following the Skeena River, and then continue to Prince George and beyond to the rest of Canada. The several-hundred mile drive offers some of the best scenery in Beautiful B.C.
But that’s another story.