Picture of gastown We arrived in Vancouver just after rush hour on Friday evening. After a brief rest in our Burnaby hotel, we walked to the skytrain - Vancouver's public transit system - and went into the city centre. The dining and nightlife district in Vancouver is a somewhat historic area called Gastown, shown in this picture. Vancouver naturally has the tall pointy structure which is mandatory in all major Canadian cities. The tower at Harbour Centre is actually attached to the top of a hotel though so it's not quite as scenic as the towers in Seattle, Calgary and Toronto. We have no skyline pictures of Vancouver due to a general lack of time in the city but it is truly a picturesque setting. This is one of the few streets downtown that you cannot see mountains at the end of. Grouse Mountain just north of town features night skiing apparently well into April.
Picture of beluga The next morning we visited Stanley Park which is a massive chunk of land attached to one side of downtown Vancouver. A maze of trails and roads separate different areas of the park and the average visitor would be hopelessly lost forever without the frequent signage. A highlight of the park is the Vancouver Aquarium, whence we took this picture of a beluga whale (or its tail at least) engaged in morning aerobics.
Picture of sea_otter Naturally, there were also otters lest you think you might get through one of our trips without the obligatory otter pictures. However, this time we feature sea otters which unfortunately had to be photgraphed through not-so-clean plexiglass.
Picture of sea_otter2 Along with several outdoor pools, the aquarium has a couple large indoor exhibits featuring the Pacific Northwest, coral reefs, and the Amazon. It's hard for us to tell definitively what else was in the park since there's doubtless much more than we saw. There are at the very least a couple large gardens, bike and rollerblade rentals, and some fairly aggressive geese.
Picture of sea_otter3 Wending your way through suburban Vancouver is scenic, time-consuming and mostly necessary as very few major roads service downtown. Canada 1 and other major routes skirt the edges of the city so if you can't take the skytrain into town allow plenty of time to cover even small distances. We went south to the semi-unpronounceable town of Tsawwassen which mostly consists of a very large ferry terminal and a few cows.
Picture of ferry Our ferry ride from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island was definately our best ferry experience in the Puget Sound area. The boat was very spacious with plentiful and comfortable seating. We actually partook of the buffet in a nice lounge near the stern of the ship, which allows for a decent view and unlimited food and drink during the 90 minute crossing. The route winds through some surprisingly narrow passages amongst the islands off the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. We should also note for those unfamiliar with the area that the city of Vancouver is located on the mainland of British Columbia, whereas Vancouver Island, across the straits from the city is home to Victoria and several smaller towns.
Picture of butchart_2 Our next stop was allergy central - Butchart Gardens about 20 km (12 mi) north of Victoria. The gardens are quite popular (the parking lot is truly enormous), perhaps a bit on the expensive side but definately worth seeing in the right seasons. April is the right season as every section except the Rose garden had something blooming.
Picture of butchart_melanie Butchart gardens originated in 1904 as a cement factory. Robert Butchart founded the factory, but his wife Jenny followed along behind him turning depleted portions of the quarry into formal gardens. By the 1950s all that remained of the cement factory was a chimney and the garden has been growing ever since.
Picture of butchart_david Here David sits taunting his allergies which would take it badly and avenge themselves with vigor. In the summer Butchart Gardens puts on firework displays in the evenings from a large grassy hill.
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Picture of empress_hotel Victoria sits at the extreme southwest corner of Vancouver Island on a spectacular natural harbor. This impressive structure is the Empress Hotel built around 1900 by the Canadian Pacific Railroad group (also responsible for the Chateau at Lake Louise). It has been a focal point of Victoria's upper-class social life since then hosting numerous dignitaries. For the jaw-dropping sum of $40 (Canadian) you can enjoy afternoon tea and snacks in an admittedly grand setting.
Picture of parliament Victoria is the capital of British Columbia and this is the eye-catching parliament building located directly at the head of the harbor. The harbor itself is C-shaped so that the downtown area is somewhat protected. We spent a little time driving along the coast on the other side of town and found it, on that day at least, to be blustery and frigid and shockingly different from the peaceful air that permeates the harborfront.
Picture of otter_sculpture Here is Melanie with - you guessed it - two bronze otter sculptures. This is one of a slew of monuments in the general vicinity of the parliament building. This is not actually paying tribute to otters so much as to early explorers and the importance of the fur trade to the area.
Picture of parliament_night Parliament also lights up impressively at night, seen here from across the harbor. The next morning we arrived at the Coho Ferry to Port Angeles, Washington at 9:00 AM. The ferry was scheduled to leave at 10:30 AM and we were shocked to learn it was already full. The only other trip of the day left at 4:00 PM and we were told to be back before 1:00 PM. Finding ourselves with some extra time we headed west along the coast. Once out of the suburbs of Victoria there is really only one town of note (Sooke) before the sign warning you that you've just passed the last gas station for some 200 km (120 mi). The road ends several hours' drive away at Port Renfrew.
Picture of french_beach We didn't go quite that far though. We stopped at French Beach Provincial Park instead which is supposedly an excellent place to see migrating gray whales. Especially, claimed the interpretive signs, during the month of April. Of course we've already mentioned the alternate title to this trip so it won't come as a surprise when we say that we saw absolutely nothing. Well, we saw loons, a lot of birds, and some enormous kelp strands washed up on the beach, but certainly no whales. Despite that, the beach is a lovely remote getaway only a little more than an hour from Victoria.
Picture of victoria We returned at 12:30 and parked for the ferry. Needless to say, if you're taking the car ferry get there very early. After parking you can wander about the city centre until you need to be back at the boat. This an overview of Victoria from the ferry as we departed. The seaplane in the foreground would be a shorter (albeit more expensive) way to get to Vancouver or Seattle and helicopters are also an option.
Picture of car_hold The Coho ferry is not nearly as spacious as those run by British Columbia. Furthermore you're not allowed to visit your car during the trip so take everything you need from the start. This trip also takes about 90 minutes. Normally the Olympic mountains would be aproaching impressively as you close in on Port Angeles but the cloud ceiling was very low and we only got a couple glimpses of the snow-capped peaks as we neared. This is a picture of the car deck shortly before we docked in Port Angeles. Athletic ability may be required to get in and out of your car.
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