It‘s the first time a mermaid has ever winked at me but wink she does.|
Legend has it that in 1967 ferry passengers travelling from Victoria in Canada saw a mermaid with long blonde hair sitting on the rocks at the entrance to Active Pass in the Gulf Islands. But I see my mermaid in Victoria‘s Inner Harbour tourist precinct.
She has green hair, a gorgeous smile and plays a short burst on her accordion every time a passerby drops a dollar into her top hat.
For she is one of the many buskers adding creative colour to this beautiful Canadian city. Other notables include "the Frenchman," a musician decked out in red, white and blue, and "Plasterman" who in his frozen state looks just like he is made of plasterofParis.
Victoria has an Old World charm typified by the quaint little ferries that take visitors on tours of the harbour, though the views are often more modern. These include marinas, floating homes, Fisherman‘s Wharf, the Coast Guard station and Olympic Mountains, with seabirds and often seals or otters seen along the way.
Old World transport is provided by the horsedrawn carriage rides around this heritage area. We ride with TallyHo, the name reminding us that this was once a very British colony.
Our rides takes us through the historic neighbourhood of Beacon Hill, past the totem poles of Thunderbird Park and the wharf where the huge cruise ships are berthed, before returning to the area opposite the British Columbia Legislature Buildings.
There, our draught horse Archie (one of 21 owned by TallyHo) has his own parking spot with a sign making his rights clear: "Horsedrawn vehicles only."
In contrast to the totem pole known as the Knowledge Totem, carved by First Nations (indigenous) carver Cicero August, the power of the empire cannot be more clearly expressed than by the impressive Legislature Building designed by English architect Francis Mawson Rattenbury and opened in 1898.
Rattenbury also created the chateaustyled Empress Hotel from 1904 to 1908, and it has been an icon of Victoria ever since. In 1965 the Fairmont Hotels company resisted pressure to demolish the old hotel. The view of one newspaper of the day that "without this splendid relic of the Edwardian era, literally tens of thousands of tourists will never return" prevailed and the hotel underwent a massive refurbishment.
One other thing has remained unchanged since 1908 that totally British concept of afternoon tea has prevailed at the Empress throughout its history. Today during the summer season as many as 800 people a day are said to take tea there. And the prices back then¬ In 1908 tea was $1 and a room with a harbour view was $7.
But if tea is too quiet a pastime, head down to the harbour in search of something else for which Vancouver Island is famous, the orcas, or killer whales as they‘re sometimes called.
We go with Prince of Whales for our whalewatching adventure as they are located at the town end of the Inner Harbour wharf and have frequent departures. There is also the choice of the 18 metre Ocean Magic luxury cruiser (which we take) or the more adrenalincharged experience of the Zodiacstyle open boats.
As we leave the harbour, Nicola, our naturalist, explains that resident orcas feed primarily on salmon, eating up to 180 kilos each day, and that this southern community comprises more than 80 whales divided into family groupings or pods labeled J, K and L. The matriarchs of two of these pods are about 95 years old.
After 40 minutes we reach the main viewing area and wait. "There!" someone cries, as one surfaces momentarily. Then another appears and it‘s on. As we watch there are at times five or six moving together. When one breaches the crowd on board goes wild, while those of us with cameras kick ourselves for having missed that elusive photo yet again.
Returning to the Inner Harbour, visitors can see even more marine life, as the Pacific Undersea Gardens offers a perspective from beneath the surface. There are all sorts of creatures to be seen, from Pacific salmon making their way through the ruins of a sunken ship to wolf eels and the world‘s largest octopus. Scuba divers with communications gear narrate an underwater theatre so that patrons gain a greater understanding of what they‘re seeing.
Calling them "gardens" was probably something the undersea venture‘s marketing people just couldn‘t resist, for Victoria markets itself as the City of Gardens.
Every February gardeners count their blooms in the Victoria Flower Count as part of a charity fundraiser and in recent years the count has been well over a billion. Another seasonal floral tradition is the placing of more than 1600 flower baskets on the city‘s lampposts each spring.
But for garden lovers the world over it‘s the Butchart Gardens for which Victoria is most famous, having welcomed more than 50 million visitors in just over 100 years.
In 1904 Robert Butchart, a successful manufacturer of Portland cement, exhausted the limestone in the quarry near his house, thus giving wife Jennie a creative opportunity. Ordering tons of top soil from nearby farms, she transformed the floor of the abandoned quarry into what is known today as the Sunken Garden.
This is an Edwardian style garden, on the far side of which can be seen the Lombardy poplars that Mrs Butchart originally planted to hide the cement factory from sight, and where the only relic of those days has been preserved. one tall chimney from a longvanished kiln. Some of the features I enjoy most are the Sunken Garden Lake, where the reflections take on a beauty of their own, and the Ross Fountain.
As we stroll beyond that main garden other highlights present themselves. Vividly representing Canada are the ornate totem poles carved by First Nations people, while the fountain of three sturgeons sculpted in bronze in Italy provides quite a contrast. The last garden before the caf茅 and gift shop is the Italian one, where a bronze sculpture of winged Mercury overlooks a formal pool with floating water lilies.
Back in town by evening there is still one tour on the agenda, a Ghostly Walk with John Adams, which reveals the darker side of Victoria‘s history. Now I really shouldn‘t tell all of his stories, but maybe just the one about that English architect mentioned earlier.
Following John to the old carriageway entrance of the Empress Hotel, we hear how a couple staying there some years ago had been looking at historic photographs when a man appeared behind them and remained there despite their glaring at him. As the husband was about to speak, the figure apparently disappeared into thin air.
Their description was of a man with the moustache in the brown check suit Francis Rattenbury, Victoria鈥檚 most famous architect of the early 20th century and creator of the Empress Hotel, who was murdered in England in 1935 by his wife鈥檚 lover.
John shakes his head sadly as he concludes his tale, "But as we can see, Rattenbury‘s ghost still craves recognition to this day."