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Victoria, B.C.: A Delightful Off-Season Destination

Our plans for a midwinter cruise to nearby Victoria, British Columbia, turned into a quest for red mittens.

We did not find them—- they were to be handsome souvenirs from the Winter Olympics in Vancouver—- but the cruise nonetheless was a four-star outing. Alan and Gwen Buchan, owners of the 75-foot Radiant Star, invited Yale and Sheila Gifford and Ellen Kaiser and me, all friends and neighbors in Anacortes, Washington, to join them aboard their vessel, a Scottish herring trawler from the 1950s that they converted to a comfortable and seaworthy yacht. The Pacific Northwest was enjoying spring-like weather in the middle of winter, and the 30-mile trip south in Rosario Strait and then west in the Strait of Juan de Fuca sounded exciting.

Victoria is a historic city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Many of the attractive buildings along its waterfront business district are stoutly built of stone, brick, and timber, and some date to the city's founding in the 1860s. The city is the capital of British Columbia, and its parliament buildings are lighted brilliantly every night—a scene I first saw as a 17-year-old Sea Scout. I have been impressed every visit since. Downtown Victoria is crowded with shops, restaurants, pubs, museums, and cultural centers, and much of the year the streets are filled with tourists, many coming on fast ferries from Seattle and Port Angeles.

Winter is a good time to visit. Downtown streets are busy, but not crowded. Moorage is readily available in the winter, even for a 75.

Radiant Star left her moorage at Skyline Marina in Anacortes about 0930, motored across Burrows Bay, and turned south into Rosario Strait. Pushed easily by her Gardner diesel, she cruises at 8 knots plus while burning about 6gph. With an ebb flowing, we picked up a couple of knots of free speed as the yacht turned west into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. The strait funnels ocean winds inland, and it can be rough, even nasty. But this time there was little wind, and Radiant Star motored easily on a calm sea.

Alan has an admirable habit. If Radiant Star is under way at 1130, he turns the helm over to a crew member and takes the ladder below. Soon, he's back with a basket containing one bottle of beer for each crew member. I now do the same on my boat, Quadra, except for the basket.

As we crossed the opening of Haro Strait, we spotted freighters inbound from the Pacific loaded with goods, most likely from you-know-where and probably to be unloaded in Vancouver. One paused, and we wondered why until we saw a pilot boat zoom out of the harbor.

Victoria Harbour can be crowded with pleasure boats, cruise ships, ferries, work vessels, and floatplanes. Buoys mark travel lanes past the terminal for ferries and cruise ships and lead to the central waterfront, as well as an inner, commercial area. Alan turned Shoal Point and set a course past Laurel Point for the central waterfront and the Canadian customs check-in dock while the rest of us went on deck to drop fenders and ready mooring lines.

At her home moorage, Radiant Star has a set of fixed mooring lines that are left draped across a boarding platform when she moves out. In Victoria, we had to step ashore and quickly secure her, first with a midship line and then with stern and bow ties. Alan, who bought the boat in Scotland and drove her home to Anacortes, handles her skillfully, almost instinctively. He maneuvered so close to the customs float that I was able to step down with a midship line.

While Alan dealt with the government on a dock telephone, we surveyed the shoreline. Dominant, of course, is the massive Edwardian-style Empress Hotel, built in 1908 and renovated at a cost of $45 million about 20 years ago. Guests have included Hollywood stars, political dignitaries, kings and queens, and even this reporter, who spent a night there sometime back while covering a story. The hotel is famed for afternoon tea, served during the summer season. The hotel says its serves tea for about 800 guests each day. A promenade edges the harbor below the hotel and the central city. A popular moorage centers on the promenade, and it seems there almost always are artists and musicians at work along the shore. (A hummingbird carving by a First Nations artist who works on the waterfront hangs in the saloon of Quadra.)

I've taken Radiant Star's helm several times, and I once steered her through Deception Pass, a narrow passage separating Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands that is known for swift currents. Alan, however, wisely reserves landing chores for himself. Check-in completed, he backed the yacht free, spun her around in the open harbor, and then took an open end slip at the Wharf Street marina after checking by radio with the central harbor authority.

There is too much to do in Victoria to fit it all into a two-day outing. The Royal British Columbia Museum proves museums need not be stuffy. It has an ice-age mammoth at the entry and a replica of Capt. George Vancouver's sailing vessel, as well as recreations of a west coast seashore, an Indian longhouse, a Victorian town, and... a lot more. The Maritime Museum of British Columbia, in Bastion Square, has some fascinating stuff, including a modified cedar dugout canoe in which John Claus Voss circumnavigated from 1901 to 1905. Another is Trekka, a small sailboat built by John Guzzwell in 1954 (he laid up the keel in a YMCA boiler room) and in which he completed a circumnavigation. Both boats knocked about for years after their famous endeavors, until they were rescued, restored, and put on display.

Just north of town, on Tod Inlet, is Butchart Gardens, a place worthy of a visit any month. Robert Pim Butchart began quarrying limestone there for use in making cement in 1908. As excavators moved from an area, his wife, Jennie, began hauling in dirt and creating gardens. Today, it attracts about a million visitors a year. From experience, I recommend having a picnic dinner served on the lawn by the garden staff and then walking to a blanket on a sloping green for a spectacular display of fireworks at dusk.

But our trip was to be more hedonistic than cultural. We wanted to shop, particularly for the red mittens worn by volunteers working for the Vancouver Winter Olympics. That was the first assignment for Gwen, Sheila, and Ellen. Meanwhile, the guys went exploring chandleries and sporting goods stores. I managed to steer my way twice to Murchie's Tea and Coffee, a world-famous purveyor of fine brews. (If it isn't world famous, it should be.) It's notable for displaying and selling nearly every kind of tea and coffee known—and all the necessary accessories for brewing and serving—as well as mixing absolutely wonderful cups of cappuccino. There's seating for 100 or more inside, and coffee is served around small tables on the sidewalk in the summertime.

At the Hudson's Bay Company store, the logical place to look for Canadian souvenirs, the women found a huge display of red Olympic mittens—but all were "youth" sizes, and a sign said no others would be available. They eased their disappointment by continuing to shop.

We lunched at Canoe Brewpub, Marina & Restaurant after exploring Chintz, a home furnishings and accessories store. It has an eclectic offering of goods, some of which left me declaring (mentally) "not in my house," but many items won raves from those with better taste. Canoe is in a refurbished warehouse just above the harbor on Swift Street. I find Canadian beer from store shelves to be somewhat blah, but Canoe served us an exceptional Habit espresso stout and a fine red Canoe lager. In the evening, we followed Yale and Sheila to their favorite dining place, Il Terrazzo, a memorable northern Italian restaurant in another beautifully restored old building. A courtyard with fireplaces offers seasonal service—but we were inside, dry and warm.

Off season, close-to-home cruises can be fun (and filling, too). Victoria, only a few hours from Anacortes, is a natural destination. It's probably too far for a quick trip from Seattle, unless you take the fast passenger ferries that run regularly from waterfront to waterfront. Kenmore Air provides regular floatplane service between the two port cities.

We made it a doubly rewarding outing by stopping in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island, on the way home. The San Juan Islands, long a retirement and vacation center, have been severely mauled by the nation's financial crisis. Home prices have plummeted, and some stores have closed permanently, not just for the winter. A favorite brewpub was shut for renovations, but no work was being done. About three weeks later, on another winter weekend, I noted that the no-work condition continued. Too bad. It served tasty beer made on-site and succulent oysters. Despite the downturn, Friday Harbor still offers good food, good art, a marine chandlery, and another marine supply store and grocery business (King's) that unloads its stock of outdoor clothing at huge discounts beginning in February.

Radiant Star cleared U.S. customs in Friday Harbor, and we all were mildly amused by the government's doubling up on us. While Alan read passport numbers into the dock phone (the office is several hundred yards away), a CBP officer eavesdropped long enough to pick up some names and then asked permission to come aboard. "Welcome to America," he said. Huh? was our reaction. He asked for Yale by name and asked the usual questions, but threw in a strange one by asking where he had gone to high school, and then the name of his high school. "East," Yale replied. The officer then asked for the name of the other high school in Yale's hometown. "North," he answered. Turns out the agent's wife had attended the same school. Yale passed his inquiry without effort, and we cruised in on his reputation.

Dinner at The Bluff was memorable for its New York strip steaks and a waitress who could give-and-take with a smile. (A couple weeks later I was back with a group of nine guys. Most tried hard to impress her with hints that tips depended on filling martini glasses to the brim. No fair, putting olives into the glass to make it look full! )

The program for this close-to-home cruise ended easily the next morning as Radiant Star wound through the islands, crossed Rosario Strait, and pulled into Skyline Marina on the necessary rising tide. We had cruised 65 or 70 miles, paid winter rates for moorage (restaurant bills, of course, recognize no such seasonal pricing), enjoyed renewing ties with classy Victoria and her shops, and relaxed in neighborly Friday Harbor. I just wish the ice cream store had been open. And that red mittens had not been sold out.