A few weeks ago, to celebrate our 9th “civil” wedding anniversary, Rich and I spent a few days in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Months earlier, Rich had purchased discount tickets, through Groupon, for Victoria Clipper, a high-speed passenger ferry that whisks you from downtown Seattle to Victoria’s Inner Harbor in less than three hours.

We started our trip at around 4:3 a.m. on Friday morning. After making sure the birds and cats had plenty of food and water, and all six of the four-footed, sneaky, furry brats(cats) were accounted for ─ and not locked in a room or closet ─ we headed to a neighborhood McDonald’s for a light breakfast. I opted for their fruit and yogurt cup. Rich choose his usual Sausage McMuffin and was surprised when they had a buy one get one free deal.

It took us scarcely half an hour to drive downtown, and then zip into a parking garage. The entire time, I kept wondering why Rich felt it was necessary to arrive two hours before the boat left. However, as we approached the dock, we could see long lines of people waiting to drop off their luggage, buy tickets, and have their passports checked. I was glad we arrived early. Unfortunately, we weren’t early enough to get “low” ticket numbers.

The boat is loaded in groups of fifty based on your ticket number. With ticket numbers 177 and 178, we had to wait until at least 150 people boarded before we were able to find a seat. Happily, we found two seats next to each other, towards the back of the boat.

We had a pleasant trip, reading, nibbling on snacks, talking to the people across from us (plump Floridian’s from Tallahassee who were in Seattle to attend their son’s graduation from Seattle University), staring out the large windows, and walking onto the deck to marvel at the massive water jets that enabled the boat to go 30 knots (really fast).

After arriving in Victoria, we thought we could waltz off the boat. Not so. We spent at least an hour in line to get our luggage (actually, just Rich’s suitcase since I crammed my stuff into a gym bag), and go through Canadian customs.

Rich had made reservations at the Fairmont Empress Hotel(part of the Victoria Clipper offer), which was a short walk away. I couldn’t believe we were really staying at the Empress!!! Not only is the hotel considered one of the best in the world, but it’s gorgeous. Built in 1908, it has accommodated Rita Hayward, Jack Benny, Douglas Fairbanks, Katherine Hepburn, Bob Hope… Bing Crosby, Tallulah Bankhead, Shirley Temple, Barbra Streisand, and a host of kings, queens, movie stars, and other VIPs.

After checking in, and leaving our luggage with the porter (it was not even noon so our room wasn’t ready), we hit the streets. Our first stop was a scooter rental shop, to put a reservation on a two-person scooter for the following day. I had my doubts whether both of us could fit on a scooter, but seeing it — a Yamaha BW — I realized it’s built for two and considerably larger and more powerful than a Vespa (my vision of a scooter).

Our next, and very important stop, was Chinatown for dim sum. Yummy, yummy dim sum! Burp!

With the weather absolutely perfect, and our stomach full, we started walking and taking pictures. Victoria is a very beautiful and historical city that wraps around the picturesque Inner Harbor. Our feet took us along blocks of elegant buildings from the late 1800’s; past artists displaying their work along the waterfront; by dozens of sailboats with colorful pennants, commemorating the races they’ve been in; to my posing with Plasterman who whispered funny things in my ear as Rich took my picture with him; around open squares with people sitting outside, eating, talking, and enjoying the sunshine; and finally to the BC Parliament Building.

Because it was weekday afternoon, I assumed the parliament building would be open… and I was correct.

It’s an exquisite building that’s been enlarged and remodeled several times to add modern amenities and accommodate more employees, yet retain its historical characteristics, such carved woodwork, stained glass windows, and breathtaking rotunda. Check out the pictures in the slide show accompanying this article.

After dawdling a little longer, we returned to the Empress to check into our room. The room was on the fifth floor, down a long, hallway, covered with elegant, patterned wallpaper. Off this hallway were larger hallways, which were also wallpapers and decorated with antique chairs, table, dressers, writing desk, and large framed pictures of women who must have had some significance to the hotel or area.

The queen-sized bed in our petite room took up most of the space. You could open the door and barely take two steps before bumping into it. The room, however, was beautifully decorated with elegant curtains, gold-framed pictures of botanical prints, cream-colored walls, two cozy upholstered chairs, cherry-wood furniture, and a spacious bathroom. We opened the windows, took off our shoes, and took a short nap while the cool breeze wafting over us.

Refreshed, we headed for a local pub for an early dinner – fish and chips for Rich, and a burrito stuffed with roasted vegetables and black beans for me. Afterwards, we revved up our feet, and walked along the waterfront. Check out the pictures of the cruise ships and me standing on a sea wall. The ships are huge! One had a giant movie screen on the top deck so you could watch Titanic while the ship moseys through the Gulf Islands.

It was dark when we returned to our room, but still a reasonable hour so we grabbed our bathing suits, and headed to the indoor pool and Jacuzzi. Our muscles soothed, we watched a little TV and then conked out.

The following day was overcast so Rich got up early, snuck down to a computer in the lobby and made arrangements to rent a car. Amazingly, it was cheaper to rent a car than a scooter, and we’d be able to go a heck of a lot further and enjoy padded seats, satellite radio, moon roof and other amenities like a heater and windshield wipers.

Breakfast was Starbucks coffee and cranberry scones. After reviewing tourist brochures and maps, we hit the road, traveling along the coast, north to Sidney. As we drove, we thanked our lucky stars for pointing us towards renting a car rather than trying to read maps and communicate with each other as we negotiated narrow side streets, and climbed hills on a low-powered scooter.

Sidney-by-the-Sea, or as it’s commonly called, Sidney is preserved in time with a population of just 11,000. Lining main street and along the waterfront are charming shops, public art, and walking trails. As we approached the car – a cute, black Ford Focus – we saw an older couple checking it out. They were Canadians and interested in getting a fuel-efficient commuter car. We started a conversation, and they explained no “box” stores are allowed in Sidney.

I hope to visit Sidney this September when we charter a tugboat. It would be fun to leisurely wander through the shops.

From Sidney, with no way to go any further north, unless we boarded a ferry, we head south to Cowichan Bay, a small fishing village, which draws boatloads of tourist. We’d visited this town last year when we chartered a sailboat and had one of our worst un-docking adventures. We’ve since hard-wired in our brains the proper procedure for leaving a windy marina when you’re wedged between two boats… use your bow line and forward throttle to push the stern off the dock, and then release the line!

We weren’t impressed with Cowichan when we visited last year, and our opinion didn’t change this visit. While the Maritime Centre and Cowichan Wooden Boat Societyare very interesting with great exhibits and an unusual collection of buildings or galleries that stretch across a long dock, after you’ve seen the Centre once or twice, there’s little need to go back.

Referring to our handy-dandy tourist brochures, our next stop was Duncan, City of Totems. The town, one of the largest in British Columbia, is home to the Cowichan Tribe of the Coast Salish Nation. Throughout the downtown are over 30 totem poles, most carved in the area and some donated from other cultures, such as Polynesia.

I’ve always been fond of Salish designs and imagery. The totem poles are strangely comforting with dramatic colors, and abstract carvings of orca whales, ravens, seals, otters, eagles, beavers (humorous with giant teeth) people, and mystical creatures.

It was fun to follow the footsteps painted on the sidewalks and streets, to each totem pole. You never knew where they’d lead you, such as between two buildings which were painted with forest and coastal scenes.

The couple we meet in Sidney said we should visit Chemainus. Their website says it’s “so quaint and quiet, you will not want to leave.” I can’t wait to return to Chemainus in September!

Chemainus is a Norman Rockwell-perfect little town, which is made even more wonderful by the 37 murals painted on houses and buildings. Before I write about the murals, you need to understand the vision and fortitude of Chemainus residents.

With a single major employer in the area – a wood mill – Chemainus’ economy was tied to the fluctuating success of the mill and availability of timber. In addition, the town is located off the main highway so it couldn’t rely on tourists driving by, stopping, and spending money.

In 1981, when British Columbia was in the midst of a recession, Bill Vander Zalm, the Premier of British Columbia developed community initiative grants to aid towns in revitalization projects. Chemainus took up his challenge and their outdoor gallery of murals was started.

The 37 murals are spectacular, familiarizing you to the people, stories, and natural resources in the area. Unlike many murals, they’re meticulously painted. You’re compelled to walk up close to study the details, and then step back to take in the entire picture. It’s impossible to stand in one place. You want to move around, seeing how the murals appear from different angles.

Some of the murals meld in the architectural details of the “canvases” on which they’re painted. A window or door becomes part of a street scene, such as “The Lumber Barons” by Constance Greig-Manning.

See and read about all of the murals Note: It can take a little while to load each page, but it’s worth the wait.

After being mentally refreshed in Chemainus, we head south to Sooke, which was supposed to have nice beached. We had some map challenges and basically ended up driving through the area without stopping. By then, it was nearly 8 o’clock at night and our stomachs were aching for food.

We returned to Victoria, and used the GPS to pinpoint the nearest gas stations so we could fill-up, return the rental car, and secure food. To Rich delight, there was a Red Robin two blocks from a gas station.

After a tasty meal and chatting with the server about our day, we dropped off the car… and deposited the key in the rental car box. I then turned to Rich and asked, “Where’s your BVI [British Virgin Islands] baseball hat?”

The next ten minutes was a blur of activity, consummating in our donning warm clothing, and walking two miles back to Red Robin to retrieve Rich’s hat. It was around 11:30 when we got back to the Empress… time to slip on our bathing suits.

We had planning on sitting in the hot tub for a few minutes and then returning to our room, but we got in a conversation with a couple about sailing, places to visit, life in Canada, and other miscellaneous topics. The entire time, we were sitting in or by the hot tub — a perfect breeding ground for cooties.

During the night, my throat got scratchy and I started tossing and turning. By morning, I wanted to be put out of my misery. Nevertheless, I put on a brave face, slurped a large glass of orange juice from McDonald’s, and walked around the town for an hour or so with Rich, before returning to the Empress, slinging my duffle bag over my shoulder, and walking to the Clipper.

Once again, it took over an hour to get through customs, and wait in line to board the boat. This time, we got seats near a window. We shared the “booth” with two other couples. Nearest the window was a couple from Seattle who were adamant Republicans. They lamented the drop in government funding to a nursing home for which the man was on the board of directors, while crowing about the virtues of Rich Perry, the current government of Texas who’s aiming to be president of the United States. Actually, according to a recent statement from Perry, he like George W. Bush, has been chosen by God to become president. Yeah.

The other couple – Sam and Cynthia — was delightful, intelligent, retired professionals from Toronto. Sam, a dentist, had worked in public health, and Cynthia had been a commercial realtor. They had been on an Alaskan cruise, and before returning to Toronto, decided to zip over to Seattle for a few days. Rich and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them and learning more about Canada.

After departing the boat and once again going through customs, we headed home, refreshed from a splendid get-away.

As for my cold, I purchased a generic version of Musinex (booger de-gunker) and was amazed how quickly it worked. Within a day, most of my cold symptoms disappeared!!!

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