Past and present party in Victoria, B.C.
Explore bustling city by foot any season of the year
The Parliament Buildings light up the night in holiday colors.
A grand gate marks the entrance to Victoria's Chinatown.
A chandelier graces the lobby stairway of the Empress Fairmont Hotel.
A fundraising exhibit at The Bay Centre shopping mall feature whimsical dresses made from cereal boxes, candy wrappers and other food packaging.
Kids dance and chase the illuminated "Peace" and "Joy" designs that spin around on the sidewalk.
Victoria's Inner Harbor is the place to relax under a palm tree while watching ships come in.
The soggy streets are a swirl of color from this upstairs restaurant in Chinatown.
The iconic woolly mammoth is a long-standing attraction at the Royal B.C. Museum.
But any age can go to Victoria, B.C., and have a good time.
The Canadian harbor city offers historic appeal with a modern kick.
Charter buses and horse-drawn carriages whisk tourists by high teas where women dress like ladies and past trendy clubs where women dress to kill.
The best way to feel the mojo is by foot. The harbor area bustles with shops, restaurants and bars. Lots of bars.
"It seems like a good party town if you had friends with you," observed my 19-year-old daughter, Megan.
She could have gone out partying with her parents: The legal drinking age is 19 in Canada.
There was enough touristy stuff to keep us all out of bars. Well, this time, at least. The car-border-ferry journey from Everett took six hours, and we only had one full day to play.
About 3.5 million tourists stay at least a night in Victoria every year. Many come in warm weather to whale watch, honeymoon or smell the flowers, but the "city of gardens" is a vacation destination in any season. It's also a haven for retirees and the homeless.
Named after Queen Victoria during its British settlement roots, the capital city boasts the elegant Fairmont Empress Hotel, majestic Parliament Buildings, museums, castles and cathedrals.
"It's like a love letter to its English origin," Megan said. "It has a good feel."
Even with its British airs, it's still very much Canada: clean, green and stylish.
Stores take American money and give back Canadian money in change. The smallest paper bill is $5, so it's easy to wind up with a pocket full of coins, which polite panhandlers are more than happy to take off your hands.
Our first stop was the Royal B.C. Museum, home of the woolly mammoth statue and a mammoth movie screen. There's an IMAX theater inside.
How can you not immediately love a museum that smells like hot-buttered popcorn? The popcorn aroma was intoxicating as we wound our way through centuries of aborigines, sea captains, pop culture and Ice Age mammals.
A highlight was the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit of 100 back-lit photos on loan from London's Natural History Museum until April. That exhibit alone would have been worth the $16 adult museum admission.
"Those are some good pictures," remarked my husband, Max, his way of saying it rocked.
Next stop: Fairmont Empress Hotel.
The hotel, decked out in holiday finery, was free for the strolling. I was game to spend $150 for the three of us to have afternoon tea with fancy little pastries, because it's the tourist thing to do.
Max said he wanted real food. Megan said she wanted Chinese tea. I wanted popcorn.
Rain came down in buckets as we waddled toward Chinatown.
On the way, we leaned our noses against the window of Miniature World, billed as the "greatest little show on Earth."
"Everything looks normal size to me," Megan quipped.
The dazzling displays of dioramas are behind the lobby.
We paused outside Victoria Bug Zoo. Hmmm ... next time.
The Bay Centre's three levels of mall shopping lured us inside for some much needed retail therapy, until Max herded us out.
Dragons mark the dramatic arched entrance to Chinatown, but we entered through Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest alley in North America. Doors that once led to opium and gambling dens now lead to shops and eateries.
Out on the street, a neon sign directed us upstairs to a cozy dining room with white tablecloths and ceramic teapots. We sat by the window, mesmerized by the glistening street lamps and red lanterns swinging in the downpour. It looked pretty from this side of the glass.
The tab for green tea, crispy egg rolls, fat wantons and three savory entrees was only $60, with a generous tip.
On the walk back to the hotel, it was tempting to join the little kids chasing the flashing "Peace" and "Joy" designs spinning around on the sidewalk.
Instead, we went to Starbucks.
I fumbled through my pile of coins, explaining, "I don't understand this money."
The barista pointed to the second largest coin and said it was a "loonie." Or maybe he said I was loony.
Turns out a dollar coin with a loon replaced the dollar bill in 1987, hence the name loonie. A two-dollar coin, in Canadian parlance, is called a "toonie" for two loonies. It comes in handy to know these things to speak the language.
Fueled with coffee, we gazed toward the harbor to admire the Parliament Buildings illuminating the city in holiday colors. It was lit up like a Las Vegas casino, a contrast to its stern, classic look in daytime.
Such is the magic of Victoria.
BC Ferries: Tsawwassen Terminal/Vancouver to the Swartz Bay Terminal/Victoria; www.bcferries.com or 888-223-3779
Black Ball Ferry: Port Angeles to Victoria Harbor; www.cohoferry.com or 360-457-4491.
Victoria Clipper: Passenger-only ferry from Seattle to Victoria Harbor; www.clippervacations.com or 800-888-2535
Royal BC Museum: www.royalbc museum.bc.ca
The Empress Fairmont Hotel: www.fairmont.com/empress-victoria
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