The lobby of the Fairmont Empress, Victoria’s landmark hotel named in honor of Queen Victoria, was renovated as part of a two-year, $60 million project to elevate the historical property into a new era of modern luxury. (Submitted photo)

Flowers, tea, ketchup chips, romance… Victoria has it all

VICTORIA, B.C. — When your neighbors are celebrating a big anniversary milestone, it’s only polite to join the party.

That was our excuse for going to Canada, which turned 150 years old this year.

Not only that, the exchange rate is in our “favour” of $1.25 Canadian for $1 US.

With Victoria Clipper advance reservations, for $1,000 we got a carefree, car-free, five-day summer vacation for two in a water-view suite in Victoria, plus a chance to smell the roses.

Victoria is a popular romantic getaway for couples young and old. It has been called “the city of the newly wed and nearly dead.” My husband Max and I fall closer to the latter category.

It was smooth sailing at the Clipper terminal on the Seattle waterfront from check-in to boarding and the cruise across the sea. The ship’s cabin was spacious with comfortable seats. There was a vacation vibe going on and everybody was in a good mood.

Two cold beers, one smoked salmon cream-cheese bagel and three hours later, we were in the harbor city that offers historic appeal with a modern kick. Named after Queen Victoria during its British settlement roots, the city boasts the elegant Fairmont Empress hotel, majestic British Columbia Parliament Buildings and the Royal B.C. Museum that’s home of the woolly mammoth statue and a mammoth movie screen. There’s an IMAX movie theater inside.

What’s not to love about a museum with the aroma of hot-buttered popcorn?

The city’s British colonial past is reflected in its Victorian architecture and politics. Canada is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. A portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, Queen of Canada, hangs in the Legislative Assembly building, which offers free tours. I snapped a seflie with the queen.

The main floor of the Empress, a hotel known for pomp and high tea, has a new look that is sleek and modern, with fewer British airs. You don’t have to be a guest there to stroll the lobby and grounds. We weren’t dressed to partake in high tea, so I bought a box of Empress Tea bags at the gift shop.

No car is needed in Victoria. Water taxis bob around the harbor. Horse carriages share road space with cars. Tour buses go everywhere. Your own two feet can get you many places. It also helps to have a cousin living there who shows you around town and invites you to her house for refreshments.

My cousin Erjean moved there 31 years ago. “We love Victoria for its pace, climate and friendliness of the people,” she said. “Best move we made. Smaller than Vancouver but with same offerings, culturally similar. Cost of living is a bit high. Real estate is crazy.”

Erjean likes it so much she doesn’t even have a passport. Nor does she have a Costco membership card. I, of course, had mine handy but I couldn’t persuade my dear cousin to take me to the Victoria Costco, which was high on my must-see list. She almost made up it for it by showing us the university, panoramic parks and neighborhoods where the rich people live.

The Clipper doesn’t offer Costco tours as an option, either. So instead we went to The Butchart Gardens, the Costco of gardens. Butchart is impressive, even if you aren’t a flower person and don’t know the difference between a wisteria and a clematis.

More than a million people from all over the world visit the floral theme park every year. The 55-acre garden was started by Robert and Jennie Butchart on land in 1904 where they had developed a quarry and built a cement plant. It has a restaurant, shops, carousel and lots of places to sit down and enjoy the view. And yes, high tea.

The harbor area of Victoria has about as many food choices as Butchart has varieties of flowers.

Dragons mark the dramatic arched entrance to the oldest Chinatown in Canada. It still has some old-school Chinese restaurants where the food isn’t fusion and there’s probably MSG in the sauce. The fortune cookies are in English and French, as is everything in this bilingual country.

Want chocolate French toast piled with fresh fruit? Go to Cora, a Canadian chain diner. It was recommended by several friends who said we must go there. We’re glad we did.

Usually places give you less than the pictures on the menu. At Cora, you get more. It was a colorful mountain of fruit.

A craving for burgers led us to the waterfront Days Inn that holds its own against the neighboring fancy hotels. We sat on the outdoor patio at the inn’s diner for a lean and tasty burger, cold beer and thick fries, without gravy. The patio has heaters and blankets and can be enjoyed year-round, as can much of Victoria.

One day we bought a pub-style chicken pot pie at Thrifty Foods and had a late lunch on the terrace at our hotel room, along with the Empress Tea, which was delicious, though not intended to be paired with supermarket pot pies. The cashier at the grocery store who chatted us up and learned we were from the USA insisted we buy ketchup potato chips, which are popular in Canada, for some reason. I don’t know why these people put gravy on their fries and ketchup on their chips.

Victoria has a small town feel. The air is fresh. People are polite. Cars stop to let you cross the street. The panhandlers are the most low-key you’ll find anywhere.

The harbor area is touristy but not like some traps where there are souvenir hawkers on every corner. Instead, there are tidy shops with maple leaf magnets, “eh” T-shirts and numerous items commemorating the 150th.

Many stores there also have a presence in the U.S., including a huge Value Village.

Even with so much to do, we still made time to watch a little TV. Our hotel had the Seattle news stations, and seeing reporter Jesse Jones made me feel at home.

Andrea Brown: 425-339-3443; Twitter: @reporterbrown.

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