Wildlife Photographer of the Year

January 30, 2016 by Martin Vernon

The Royal BC Museum has welcomed back the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition from the Natural History Museum, London.

The quality of these stunning back-lit photographs becomes apparent when you discover that theyWildlife Photographer of the Year - Royal BC Museum are the top 100 selected out of over 42,000 entries. Many are nothing less than “awesome” (badly over-used word): of which we full of awe.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year is open daily until 4th April 2016 at the Museum, by the Inner Harbour in downtown Victoria.

The Royal BC Museum is one of those “must-see” places to visit in Victoria. So much more than a typical museum it brings the past alive through its permanent displays, major summer shows and its ongoing exhibitions. The 2016 summer show will be Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age.

Allow two or three hours at least just for the floors of permanent displays. An adjoining IMAX big-screen theatre adds to its impact with a continually changing programme of dramatic presentations.

Celebrating Christmas in Victoria

December 10, 2015 by Martin Vernon

The opportunities for celebrating Christmas in Victoria BC are broader than in most medium-sized North American cities due to the heritage of its cultures and architecture, fanned by the flames of tourism. Here’s a guide to a variety of events offering something for everyone.

The Lighted Ships and Trucks Parades introduces Santa to Victoria sailing by in the Inner Harbour. Celebrating Christmas in Victoria BC

Crafts shows run until mid-December.

The Magic of Christmas at The Butchart Gardens is magical indeed. Even if you are not in the mood for the celebrations this will inspire and delight. My wife and I enjoy this every year.

Our other annual visit in December is to stroll around the Inner Harbour and along Government Street popping into numerous venues for special displays, food and drink.

Musical concerts extend far beyond Christmas carols. They include swing, soul, Bach, celtic, blues, Handel’s Messiah, and even 65 massed tubas.

Christmas at Craigdarroch Castle includes one-man readings of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

Santa gets around everywhere, often enjoying breakfasts, lunches or dinners; no wonder he’s such a round jovial guy. You’d think his itinerary would keep him slim.

Or you can drive around to admire the Christmas lights and decorations outside homes throughout the Victoria area.

For more specific information, do speak to your Victoria bed and breakfast innkeepers.

Downtown Victoria tours

September 21, 2015 by Martin Vernon

A variety of downtown Victoria tours can be enjoyed, especially as an introduction to the city. Relaxing and informative they can be expanded upon later by a leisurely stroll around areas of particular interest. Guide books or a Victoria travel website are great for information but nothing beats hearing about a new place from a local.

Downtown Victoria tours - horse-drawn carriage

Whether horse-drawn, on a bus or ferry or on foot these downtown Victoria tours give insights that you’d miss if you were self-guided and they will cover a range of attractions which you can later explore more fully.

CVS Sightseeing offer a wide selection of bus tours, downtown on an English double-decker or on a modern hop-on hop-off bus, visit the Butchart Gardens, and more.

Take a 90 minute tour with Big Bus Victoria on a trolleybus or open-air buses with hop-on hop-off stops.

The Gray Line British double-decker bus tours include an enhanced ticket option to take a Victoria Harbour Ferry too.

A favourite has to be the Victoria Harbour Ferries, those little boats bobbing around the Inner Harbour. Take a tour or treat them as a water taxi.

Tally Ho and Victoria Carriage Tours both have a choice of varying horse-drawn carriage tours. These are a charming way of clop-clopping through the interesting parts of downtown Victoria. Instead of having a horse do all the work you could stop a Kabuki Kab or PediCab. All these will be entertaining as well as informative.

And my favourite, walking tours – when the slow pace ensures you miss nothing and have a chance to quiz your guide at leisure. And for further local information, your B&B hosts are accustomed to answering questions on a wide variety of topics (and you thought the breakfast table was only for eating).

Victoria Classic Boat Festival

August 30, 2015 by Martin Vernon

The Victoria Classic Boat Festival sums up the best of Victoria rather well: a maritime tradition, vessels in the Inner Harbour, character and charm, tourism, and celebration. It promotes those warm fuzzy feelings that catch us by surprise as we enjoy a moment from our past (or imagined past). So from 4th to 6th September 2015 I’m going to wander around the boats in the Inner Harbour, soaking in the good feelings. Join me.

The Wooden Boat Festival in Port Townsend was established in 1977, inspiring the nautical community in Victoria to establish their own celebration of maritime heritage so in 1978 the The Victoria Classic Boat Festival was born. 32 boats participated that first year, now more than fourfold ranging from small motor vessels to tall ships. The festival website has many excellent photos illustrating the variety of fascinating vessels you will see.

The highlights will be on Sunday 6th September when the sailpast and classic sail race provide a spectacle from Ogden Point (by the Inner Harbour) to Clover Point, along the southern coast of Victoria. There are displays and demonstrations, live entertainment and food. Admission is free.

Swiftsure International Yacht Race

May 10, 2015 by Martin Vernon

Some major festivals are just perfect for their place – the Swiftsure International Yacht Race in Victoria BC is one of those. Driving around the Victoria area one spots thousands of boats: from masses of masts in the marinas to stored vessels on home driveways. People here love their boats.

The race began in 1930 with just six entrants, sailing to the lightship on Swiftsure Bank and back. Swiftsure International Yacht RaceThis year, the 72nd running of the Swiftsure International Yacht Race, about 200 entrants will contest four different races, the longest being 140 nautical miles typically taking boats 20 – 40 hours to complete. The currents and winds of the Juan de Fuca Strait are unpredictable, creating a challenge for the finest sailors from around the globe. One year over 100 boats were blown way off the course yet on others the races are referred to as “Driftsure”.

Victoria’s Inner Harbour is the place to be from May 23rd to 25th 2015. There can be plenty of drama but there’s always a great spectacle offshore and nautical events onshore. The Tourism Victoria Info Centre in the Inner Harbour can guide you as to when to be where for the best viewing.

The Architect of Victoria – Francis Rattenbury

February 10, 2015 by Martin Vernon

We might dispute who is the architect of Victoria – Francis Rattenbury or Samuel Maclure but residents and visitors alike should be grateful to them both for the distinctive stamp they placed on our city. Rattenbury designed a few dominating buildings in significant settings whereas Maclure created many fine homes in residential areas. They were contemporaries working in the same environment though rarely collaborated, partly due to the emphases of their work and partly for reasons of personality.

Francis Rattenbury was born in 1867 and trained as an architect with a leading firm in Yorkshire. BC Legislative Buildings Victoria - Francis RattenburyHe sailed to Vancouver BC in 1892 where he saw a newspaper announcement of a competition to design new buildings for the Legislative Assembly in Victoria. Cunning and manipulative means enabled his entry to defeat the other 66 entrants. At the age of 25 he had grasped the plum commission which led to future prominence and was indicative of his grand architectural style of public buildings. This 500 feet long classical domed building was opened in 1898, proudly overlooking the Inner Harbour of Victoria.

At that time the Inner Harbour consisted of James Bay flowing onto mud flats. These mud flats obstructed access to the Parliament Buildings from the commercial areas, not only an inconvenience but a smelly one too. The City failed to recognise that this undesirable land was prime real estate. They offered the land to the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1903 at no charge and with no taxes for fifteen years, if they would reclaim the land and build a “tourist hotel”. The C.P.R. selected Francis Rattenbury as architect and the Empress Hotel was born.

By now his commissions usually ended in court wrangling as Rattenbury’s unscrupulous ambitions brought him wealth and status but not personal respect. His nickname “Ratz” was doubtless ambiguous. Two buildings of his design now dominated the Inner Harbour, with a third to follow 20 years later; the very different columned Victoria Steamship Terminal, now housing the Robert Bateman Centre.

Rattenbury’s determination and over-riding ambition saw him win conflicts again and again including the commission in 1901, against the odds, to design a new official residence for the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia. Cary Castle burnt down in 1957 but its later replacement in the Rockland area, Government House, can be visited today.

One more major project, just behind the Empress Hotel, was to receive his grand interpretation of past architectural traditions: Crystal Garden. The Victoria Chamber of Commerce wanted what we would call today a recreation centre focussing on a swimming pool. Rattenbury’s design was inspired by London’s Crystal Palace with the swimming pool set under a grand greenhouse-style roof. The Crystal Garden proved to be immensely popular, gaining repute by Johnny Weissmulle of “Tarzan” fame setting an indoor swimming world record for 100 yards freestyle in 1925. This is all history now but it is a wonderful setting for part of the Victoria Conference Centre.

His admiration for past architectural heritage, set in a fast growing young city, led him to two conclusions which make him a man for today. One was a concern to preserve trees and create adequate parks. The other, which we have not come to terms with, was a desire to see some civic oversight over the designs along with height restrictions – artistic taste, though subjective, should be implemented.

Success never brought him happiness, with Rattenbury’s marital life bringing his final downfall; no less than his murder in England in 1935 by the lover of his second wife. His wife Alma and her lover received a sensational trial: he was found guilty and sentenced to hang, she committed suicide, then he was reprieved – a sad messy end for all concerned.

The beneficiaries of his inspired but unhappy life are … us. We can appreciate the character of the buildings at the centre of Victoria’s life, the Inner Harbour, and tour his legacies.

The Inner Harbour of Victoria

January 30, 2015 by Martin Vernon

As the kitchen is the heart of the house so the Inner Harbour of Victoria has been its heart for over 150 years. The early pioneers who came to Vancouver Island centred their defences around it and settlements steadily grew out from there. Travelling by water was the easiest option so it became the major trading centre of the region. Today the Inner Harbour has traded trade (ouch!) for tourism attractions and festivals yet it has never left the heart of its people: it is where we celebrate.

Some have the good fortune to enter Victoria’s Inner Harbour by ferry, seaplane or helicopter or they return to it The Inner Harbour of Victoria BCfrom a whale-watching tour. Beyond the busyness of the harbour are some imposing buildings with wonderful character. For these we owe much to Frances Rattenbury who designed the domed British Columbia Parliament Buildings, the classical columned Steamship Terminal now housing the Robert Bateman Centre and, front and centre, the Empress Hotel. Nestled among them, but rectangularly modern, is the Royal BC Museum with its IMAX theatre. Visiting all those will occupy a couple of days so many of our guests pick one or two (the Museum should not be missed) and soak up the vibrant life of the causeway and moorings. You can walk around the harbour and beyond; a lovely stroll on a sunny day. Do pop into the Tourism Victoria Info Centre to gather information about the many places to see and things to do in the Victoria area.

That vibrant life really comes to life with the sights and sounds of the many festivals such as these favourites. In May the Victoria Harbour Boat Show fills the Inner Harbour with 200 vessels and the Swiftsure International Yacht Race brings distant thrills and occasional spills. Street-life is celebrated with the Victoria International Buskers Festival on the causeway and Government Street in July, and the next month everywhere is crowded as 40,000 people and small boats cram in for our biggest annual party, Symphony Splash. The Dragon Boat Festival in August brings vigour and colour. Throughout the summer you can enjoy a browse through the artisan markets at Ship Point and Bastion Square. September visitors may see remarkable art created at the Victoria Chalk Art Festival and, lastly, there’s the fun of the Victoria Lighted Ships and Trucks Parades in early December. One thing is guaranteed: there’s never a dull moment at the Inner Harbour of Victoria.

Tour the British Columbia Parliament Buildings

January 20, 2015 by Martin Vernon

Looking for an interesting place to visit in downtown Victoria when the rain clouds descend? One good option is to tour the British Columbia Parliament Buildings. Some call this grand building overlooking the Inner Harbour the Legislature, Legislative Buildings or the Parliament Buildings; whichever, it’s the home of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and is not the dull place you might expect.

The people of Victoria gave the original building a different name after it was built in the 1860’s: The Birdcages. This is supposed Tour the British Columbia Parliament buildings - rotundato be in response to the appearance of the buildings but might the disrespect also have extended to the twitterings that went on inside? Anyway, a more substantial building was soon needed, resulting in the architectural landmark we see now. This was designed by a young architect, Francis Rattenbury, who was to place his stamp firmly on Victoria’s Inner Harbour by designing also The Empress Hotel and the Victoria Steamship Terminal which now houses the Robert Bateman Centre.

Completed in 1897, this dramatic building is set behind a lawn with a statue of Queen Victoria. Don’t be fooled into thinking that the grand central entrance behind her is where you enter for your tour; it is only used once a year by the Lieutenant Governor who represents the Queen (Elizabeth not Victoria). You enter through a small door to its left for free guided tours which last for about 45 minutes, year-round. Fortunately the Legislature is not sitting for most of the year and at these times further areas are open to the tour.

You’ll see the history of British Columbia (a province larger than France and Germany combined) through stained glass windows, paintings, statues, mosaics, flags, the state of arms and the Legislative Chamber – all very representative as brought to life by your tour guide.

BC Parliament Buildings - Inner Harbour Victoria


Robert Bateman Centre

January 10, 2015 by Martin Vernon

Let’s be honest, the coastal weather of Victoria is not always bright and cheerful so it’s good to have some indoor havens to enjoy during a visit here. Two excellent places in Victoria’s Inner Harbour are the Royal British Columbia Museum and the Robert Bateman Centre. The latter is the impressive building with classical columns overlooking the Inner Harbour.

The Centre is in the Victoria Steamship Terminal building designed by Francis Rattenbury, Robert Bateman Centre - Inner Harbour, Victoria, BCthe architect of the neighbouring Empress Hotel and Legislative Assembly of BC, and built in 1924. Canadian Pacific Steamships operated from it until 1974.

On its second floor are the galleries and interactive centre featuring the realistic wildlife art of Robert Bateman. Here you not only marvel at the detail within his paintings but also catch a sense of awe of magnificent creatures within their natural world. The importance of ecological conservation to Bateman is clear as he communicates the fragility of the environment. He has been called “the world’s greatest wildlife artist”.

Ten galleries present over 160 original art pieces from the smallest drawing to the largest painting of this prolific artist. You can download a guide app (devices may be borrowed) with commentary by Robert Bateman. If you are unable to visit the Centre, its website shows 72 pieces of artwork with excellent tools allowing detailed views.

The Robert Bateman Centre is open daily at 470 Belleville Street.

Variety is the Spice of Life

December 30, 2014 by Martin Vernon

If, as they say, variety is the spice of life then Victoria is a hot spot. I have been struck by the immense variety of things to see and do in this part of Vancouver Island. If you are thinking of visiting Victoria BC in 2015 you’ll find this array of information helpful for your planning.

For convenience, let’s divide them into:
– things to see, ie the attractions of Victoria, and
– things to do, ie the activities.

Things to see in Victoria

Not all are in the downtown area so it’s good to have use of a car.

The Inner Harbour – strolling the causeway next to the moored boats is always a pleasure. Here you’ll see the Royal BC Museum, a fascinating must-see top-quality museum, with an IMAX theatre too. You can tour the neighbouring BC Parliament Buildings and visit the harbourside Robert Bateman Centre with its collection of wildlife art. The Maritime Museum of BC in Bastion Square presents our rich nautical heritage.

Take a bus or horse-drawn carriage tour for an informative introduction to Victoria or a guided tour on foot. Hop on a harbour ferry or taxi to explore the Inner Harbour and Fisherman’s Wharf.

The best shopping is in the streets running off Government Street as far north as Chinatown.

East of downtown is baronial 19th century Craigdarroch Castle with its restored Victoria interior.

Relax in charming Beacon Hill Park with its old-style stone bridge and its petting zoo. The temperate climate of southern Vancouver Island is perfect for gardens; two of the most popular are The Gardens at HCP and, of course, The Butchart Gardens whose 55 dramatic acres are generally considered the top attraction in British Columbia. Nearby you’ll discover 3,000 butterflies and moths in the tropical jungle at Butterfly Gardens.

The Saanich Peninsula vineyards and wineries offer samplings and excellent souvenir opportunities. Buy a bottle to enjoy at your Victoria B&B in the evening.

Discover the importance of Fisgard Lighthouse to mariners and see the gun batteries at Fort Rodd Hill. These are west of Victoria close to Hatley Castle which was built in 1908 and set in lovely gardens.

Our small communities have their own character – visit the “book town” Sidney-by-the-Sea, or drive to Sooke on the rugged west coast.

– For further information view this summary of attractions with a Victoria BC map.

Inner Harbour Victoria BC The Butchart Gardens - Sunken Garden


Things to do in Victoria

It’s so beautiful here: the parks, lakes and beaches cry out to be explored. Take a look at some hiking trails, from easy to moderately challenging. Favourites include Elk / Beaver Lake and Gowlland Tod, and to the west East Sooke and Sooke Potholes parks. Get out and about to discover the natural beauty.

Play golf year-round on over a dozen courses.

Marine recreation is important to the locals (I’m often surprised at how many people own boats) so plan to join them: kayak along the shoreline such as in calm Brentwood Bay or the ocean, take a fishing charter or go scuba diving, discover how sailing tours are sooo relaxing AND don’t forget memorable whale-watching.

Clamber up walls in the world-class Boulders Climbing Gym, or try zip-lining.

Walk or cycle along trails such as the 55km Galloping Goose Trail. There’s horseback riding too.

After all that it’s easy to justify indulging in afternoon tea at one of several venues.

–  –  –

The phrase “variety is the spice of life” was coined by the poet William Cowper some 250 years ago. He was a lover of his natural surroundings and would, I feel, appreciate the beauty of southern Vancouver Island.


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