Vancouver – Victoria, False Creek

Our journey from Seattle to Vancouver was one of the most exciting days of my life ever. Husband having been told that Victoria, on Vancouver Island, was a must-see town, he arranged for a clipper to take us there. The folk I had mentioned this plan to were all highly complimentary of Victoria, describing it as the most British town in Canada, and very supportive of our plan to pop by.

Popping by was literally all we would be doing, since the clipper was arriving at 10.30am and our transport out of town would be a mere seven hours later, so we had a very short time in which to enjoy this scenic place.

(We almost missed the entire experience thanks to a non-existent Seattle taxi cab – we were up at 6am and standing out on the pavement with our considerably hefty luggage, waiting for this booked cab. It never showed.

We headed disconsolately for the light rail, hoping that by some miracle the train would get us to the harbour on time. If it hadn’t been for a lovely yellow taxi making his way into the city for his day’s work, passing us as we crossed the road to the station, that miracle would never have come to pass. Oh! He was the miracle!)

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Anyway, we made it to the harbour. The journey out of the Puget Sound was a beautiful one, with the Seattle seafront receding into the distance, dark skyscraper shadows looming up from a blindingly sparkly sea. And across the sea were the mountains of the Olympic National Park, still topped by snow, and matching the skyscrapers for height and grandeur. It was something of a choppy ride, so we all downed Stugeron, allowing us to enjoy the beautiful views and the table service, which was more than could be said of the lady across the aisle, who palmed off her toddler onto the grandmother and sat back, as still as she could, with grey skin and hands clutching the arm rests.

(Seasickness is great though, in that it lasts only as long as you’re on the water – once we’d pulled into Victoria harbour her skin went flesh-coloured again and she started speaking.)

First thoughts of Victoria: it isn’t really very British.

Apart from the British Columbia Legislature building, which is one of the first you see looming over the harbour area, and which is of a traditionally British Victorian architecture. Interesting story about this one: an architectural competition was held in 1893 to decide who would design the legislature building; Francis Rattenbury, using the pseudonym “A B.C. Architect” won. Pants! There was another really interesting bit about the pseudonyms of the other applicants but I can’t find any info on them! You’ll just have to go and do the horse-and-carriage tour, from where I gleaned what little information I have. (Also, blimey, in my attempt to fact check this information, I discovered a whole lot more about Mr Rattenbury, who it turns out had a very colourful life. Look him up.)

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Victoria is somewhere I would happily move to, with a bustling town centre full of independent retailers, boutiques, restaurants and the most amazing bookshop, Munro’s, which is housed in a huge church-like Victorian building with high ceilings and stained glass windows; and also that proximity to the sea (well, yes, it being a seaport), which is always a draw for me. The harbour doesn’t look or feel industrial, a centre of trade. It is clean, and pretty, and obviously very touristy.

And many of the houses further inland are exquisite little multicoloured clapboard homes, of the Heritage variety, which we learned when we took a horse-and-carriage guided tour.

(At one point we passed an advertisement board for the carriage rides with “free the horses” graffitied over it. Later a woman cycled past us and called out, “I love your horses and I love you! You’re doing a great job!” Wow, we said to our driver, these horses seem to divide the community. “Oh yeah,” she said, “Last week someone told my colleague to kill herself. But I wouldn’t do this job if I didn’t know that the horses are happy and well cared for. I just wouldn’t.”

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I’m of two minds about this tourist attraction: on the one hand, I do understand the worry that the horses are being forced to do something against their will, or might be ill-treated; on the other, I had a close encounter with Matthew our horse, and he was in such good shape, and clearly well fed and watered, standing under the shade of a tree when not out on rides… The driver explained that their horses work a half-day shift and live the rest of the time in a field outside Victoria.

I hope this would somewhat placate those animal lovers among you – to be honest it looks more as though I’m trying to placate myself.)

So. The Heritage houses. These (though not all) are the original buildings of Victoria, whose conservation is enabled by the bestowal of grants, and certain “designated” properties are protected by City bylaws. There are three basic criteria for a Heritage home (along with a number of other complications):

  • Architectural: Is the building’s style representative of the City, or notable?
  • Historical: Does the building have a direct association with a person, group, institution, event or activity that is of historical significance to the City?
  • Evangelical: Does it denote the teaching of the Christian gospel?

I’m kidding, the third criterion is Integrity: How would changes to the building affect its style, design, construction or character?

They are pretty, and well-tended, and full of character.

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The carriage ride over, we wandered through the town, discovering Munro’s the bookshop, and also the Best Hat Shop Ever*, where I bought a trilby sun hat and tried to persuade husband to buy an Indiana Jones fedora. He said no.

We stopped off at a beer hall – where naturally I asked for a glass of wine – for a final refuelling before leaving Victoria, and then returned to the harbour to check in for our seaplane.

Yes! I know! A seaplane! A seaplane!!

My knowledge of seaplanes was gleaned as a child from Gentle Ben, that TV show set in the Florida Everglades. I thought then that they looked terribly exciting. And now we were getting to ride in one! Oh my actual goodness.

After a short wait in the terminal, we filed out to the plane – I was inordinately delighted to see that our pilot was a woman, and a very no-nonsense, super-cool woman at that. I asked her how many woman airplane pilots there are in the region and she said, “Four. Out of gazillions! But we’re getting there.”

And then I climbed into the seaplane. At risk of sounding like a stuck record, I HAVE CLAUSTROPHOBIA. This is a photo from inside the plane. (I am sitting in the back row (though, to be honest, there is also a small luggage hold behind me)).

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The pilot conducted the safety demonstration on a tablet. One of the passengers was sitting in the co-pilot seat. At this point I think I must have basically lost all my fear of small spaces, mislaid it somewhere on the journey, or thrown it in a bin by accident. Because I did not freak out one little bit.

That seaplane journey was the best and greatest and most exciting and wondrous thing I have ever done.**

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Our flight over Saanich, Lulu Island and other parts of British Columbia (I have Google to thank for knowing where we were) took only 40 minutes, the atlas views below us taking my breath away, and then we landed with a sploosh in Vancouver Harbour. I felt so euphoric I could have kissed everyone.

A nice man approached us and our masses of heavy luggage at the harbour and said he was the driver of the complimentary seaplane transfer bus to whichever hotel we were staying at. Which was nice.

First impressions of Vancouver: clean, bright, small enough to walk most places. [Snort: I’ve just looked at a map – it’s small enough to walk to all the places we walked to. It’s hardly a village.]

And of course it’s designed along the grid pattern, so easy to navigate, and also Canada has (roughly?) the same road traffic rules as the US, so cars were ceding to pedestrians and there were plenty of cycle lanes. Bloody love the North American road traffic system, I do.

So, on our first full day in Vancouver, off we set for the dragon boat race husband had signed us up to. Oh yeah! Funny story. Husband had been to this conference in Seattle, right? And one of the companies that had been there is based in Vancouver, and they had organised a post-conference dragon boat race for anyone in Vancouver who had been in Seattle. So in a masterful move to network with potential business contacts and spend time with his family, husband brought us along, too. (In essence the point of the entire trip.)

[By the by, and apropos of nothing, on the way to The Village Dock where the race would take place, I and the children passed an underground fountain… At least, son, for whom fountains are like nectar to bees, spotted some LED-lit water, and we all, Hamlyn’s children to the fountain’s piper (mixing my metaphors, yes, whatever), walked bewitched down the spiral staircase, only to find ourselves in the reception area of Henriquez Partners Architects, gazing through the glass panelled walls at rows and rows of architects hard at work. We scuttled back up the stairs again. P.S. It was a nice water feature.]

The rest of the walk to Olympic Village Square was hot, and necessitated ice cream refreshment. The views around us were of grey and glass towers sandwiched between pale blue water and sky – it is an open, airy city, with room to breathe among the skyscrapers.

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Yes, yes, the dragon boat race. I’m coming to it. So we were greeted at the Creekside Community Recreation Center by the Smiths IP team who would be training us. Several of the IP consultants do dragon boat racing in their spare time, so were well-equipped to take us out on the water. We were teamed up in pairs of roughly equal heights (difficult for son and daughter, as the only two children there. They were put on separate boats, too. 🤷‍♀️). We were armed with paddles and lifejackets, and then descended gingerly into the boats.

I have done some rowing, so I wasn’t too overawed. (Over-oared?) (I say “done” – I went out with the local rowing club two or three times and failed miserably to keep time with the rest of the crew, and persisted in “catching crabs”***, i.e. failing to raise my paddle out of the water and thus being clunked on the head by the paddle handle and slowing down the boat.)

Once we had paddled out into the middle of False Creek, sometimes uncomfortably close to the wake of other, frequently passing, river traffic, we were shown a variety of paddle strokes, and taught the basics of how to move which parts of the body while rowing. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the water was blinding in its reflections, the passing aquabus passengers watched us with not-at-all concealed amusement… It was wonderful.

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After an hour or so of training, the two boats lined up against each other and completed two races, one for 30 seconds, the other over 200m; it was frenetic, powerful, exhilarating and really rather wet. Son, sitting in stroke position at the front of my boat, made a valiant effort, but it was daughter and husband’s team that won both races, but only because the age and strength of their male team members was markedly lower and greater (respectively) than our team members’. If it had been a handicap race we would have won. We basically won morally.

As husband went with his business acquaintances to an evening reception, the children and I, soaking wet, tired but very excited, caught an aquabus back to the Plaza of Nations ferry dock, and walked back to our hotel.

I have no idea when or where you might be able to experience dragon boat racing but I can thoroughly recommend it. It’s terribly fun.

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*According to me

**Yeah, whatever, giving birth too, yada yada

*** From Wikipedia: “A rowing error where the rower is unable to timely remove or release the oar blade from the water and the oar blade acts as a brake on the boat until it is removed from the water. This results in slowing the boat down. A severe crab can even eject a rower (colloquially an ‘ejector crab’) from the shell or capsize the boat (unlikely except in small boats). Occasionally, in a severe crab, the oar handle will knock the rower flat and end up behind him/her, in which case it is referred to as an ‘over-the-head’ crab.”

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