I woke up on last Friday, December 30th with one thought in my mind: “I’ve got to get the hell out of town.” I was feeling the weeks of festive eating, drinking and socializing and realized I couldn’t bear another hangover.
It meant skipping out on New Year’s with friends, but December 31st is the dregs of the holiday season; we’re all maxed out on family, pickled from a month of alcohol-soaked parties and gloomy about returning to work. It seemed like the perfect moment to get out of town.
But where to go?
Planning a last minute getaway during a holiday is a recipe for frustration, especially when you’ve already been everywhere close and easy, from Portland to Port Townsend, enough times that the novelty’s worn off.
I hadn’t even considered that international travel might be in the cards.
I’d never been to Victoria, British Columbia and neither had my husband. When he suggested it as a possible destination for this getaway I immediately assumed it was too late to make travel plans.
“Let’s just look it up,” he encouraged.
One search brought us to the Victoria Clipper website, which offers ferry/hotel packages and had deals available for the next day.
There were cheaper hotel options, but we decided to go all out and bought two round-trip tickets on the Clipper plus a deluxe room at the Fairmont Empress, a huge and historic hotel that defines the Victoria skyline. All told it was just over $400, though the cheaper hotel options could bring the price down closer to $300.
The next morning we (somewhat miraculously) made it to Pier 69 on the waterfront by 7AM for an 8AM departure. We scored a ride, but we could have easily taken the bus or even walked from where we live in the Central District.
We were through customs and seated on the Clipper within 20 minutes, at which point I promptly fell asleep (missing all of the apparently stunning sunrise views of the Puget Sound as it turns into the Salish Sea).
We arrived in Victoria to a cold clear day. Our hotel—a tarty Victorian affair with pointy gables, bushy ivy and weird colonial touches such as The Bengal Room and the famous Afternoon Tea—was a five-minute walk from the ferry terminal.
Fancy places tend to make me nervous. I immediately start worrying that I smell bad and irrationally think I’m going to get thrown out for unwittingly offending secret “fancy standards.”
But I shouldn’t have worried. This was Canadian-fancy, where pomp and circumstance comes with a dash of denim. The very first conversation I heard, between the receptionist and a departing patron, went as follows:
Patron: “excuse me, I don’t mean to make a fuss but I thought you should know I found a bug in my room.”
Receptionist: “Oh gosh, that’s not very impressive is it? What can we do for you?”
Patron: “Nothing at all! I couldn’t care less, just wanted to let you know so that you don’t get in trouble with someone else who might get mad.”
Receptionist: “Kind of you, thanks.”
Patron: “Happy New Year!”
It seems worth noting for a Seattle audience that this interaction was completely free of the passive aggressive subtext you might assume. Both parties seemed in friendly agreement that ritzy things were silly, but standards had to be maintained wherever possible for the sake of other’s who might care.
Our room sort of continued in that vein (no bugs as far as I could tell). There was a white comforter and perfume-y soaps and a wide-screen TV but it was a posh veneer painted over a pretty lackluster hotel with an early 1990s mauve-and-mint color scheme. The view of the harbor from the three big windows was worth the price of admission though.
Having spent our entire vacation budget on transportation and lodging we decided to entertain ourselves by walking as much of the city as we could. It being late-December we only had about five hours of daylight to do it in so we set out right away.
Our first stop was Victoria’s historic Chinatown, the oldest in Canada and second oldest in North America (behind San Francisco). It seemed smaller than Seattle’s International District, but featured plenty of cool old buildings and yummy $1.50 pork buns at the Victoria BBQ House & Bakery.
From there we wandered down Fort Street stopping at an awesome Charcuterie shop called choux choux charcuterie that carried all manner of fancy cured meats, exotic cheeses and delicious jars of imported preserves and pickles.
We were headed to Craigdarroch Castle, one of those requisite mean-old-industrialist-that-came-from-Britian-and-built-the-railroad-on-the-backs-of-poorer-immigrants type mansions that offer a staid, predictable and over-priced destination in most North American tourist towns. (It wasn’t till the ferry ride home that I realized the Clipper had given us a 2 for 1 coupon for entry. That’s $13.75 I’ll never get back!)
This “castle” was no exception. The only things that I found interesting were the mechanized shoe brush we were politely ordered to use before entering, the creepy Victorian Hair Art on the parlor wall (turns out some folks are still making this stuff) and a fellow guest with a huge mustache and squeaky leather jacket that smelled like super skunky weed.
From there we walked down to Ross Bay Cemetery and then cut over to Dallas Road where we walked along a promenade swarming with hilariously cute off-leash dogs. Seriously, dog-lovers, a visit to this park alone would be worth the trip.
We rung in 2012 along the waterfront, (as per my no-hangover promise, I teetotled and toasted with Diet Coke), wishing stumbling strangers a “Happy New Year” and admiring the lights strung over the Parliament Building. We figured we should eat one more time and enjoyed “curry pizza” (veggie pizza with curry powder) at The Joint before climbing under the fluffy white comforter back at the Empress.
The next morning, we headed to the movies and dim sum at Dynasty (a pretty uninspired, greasy affair, though we might have just ordered wrong) before hopping back on the Clipper for home.
By 8pm, a little over 36-hours since we’d originally departed, we were back in Seattle. Two friends were waiting to pick us up at pier 69, quick to bemoan their hangovers and declare New Year’s Eve at the Seattle bars “amateur night”.
Close as it may be, Victoria really did feel like getting away to another country. I definitely wasn’t sorry I’d left town for the weekend.
A couple of other tips:
You do need a passport to go to Canada. But really you should have one anyways; you never know when you’ll need to flee the country on short notice.
The Canadian dollar is about equal to the US dollar nowadays, so no math required to calculate prices. US credit and debit cards work fine purchases and at ATMs if you want to avoid the embarrassment of asking folks if they “take American” (though almost everyone will)