See orcas during a whale-watching excursion. // © 2017 Getty Images
Feature image (above): The city’s Parliament building is lit up at night. // © 2017 Getty Images
With its striking Inner Harbour, resident orca whales and the narrowest street in Canada, Victoria, British Columbia, doesn’t have to work too hard to impress its visitors. But take a closer look at the city’s long list of must-sees, and a pattern starts to appear: Hot spots that have been known to attract grown-ups from near and far also offer all the makings for a fun family vacation.
Hanging Around the Harbour
Whether it’s day or night, Victoria’s Inner Harbour is always bustling. In the summer, flowerbeds explode with color, and clients will see seaplanes taking off and landing nearby. Artists show off their wares, and buskers perform for the crowds who come to stroll. Seaside views include historic buildings such as Fairmont Empress and the British Columbia Parliament. The latter is illuminated nightly with more than 3,000 lights and offers complimentary 45-minute tours to the public.
Though at first kids may not be thrilled by the idea of a trip to the neighboring Royal BC Museum, parents can expect a quick change of heart when they learn it’s also home to IMAX Victoria. The largest IMAX screen in British Columbia — at 61 feet high and 85 feet wide — IMAX Victoria also features one of only 35 IMAX 4K laser projections systems in the world. Along with Hollywood blockbusters, children can view shorter, educational films on the behemoth screen.
Up Close With Orcas and More
Whale-watching boats leave regularly from Inner Harbour and come with the perk of an at-sea view of the area. For families traveling with older children, Prince of Whales offers tours year-round on smaller, zodiac-style boats that are limited to groups of 12.
But for younger kids who tend to be wiggly — or for families who like the luxury of being able to move around a bit — a sailing on one of the company’s bigger boats, such as Ocean Magic, may be the way to go. Along with a glass-enclosed heated cabin, the 74-passenger boat offers multiple viewing areas, has airplane-style bathrooms and features crewmembers who serve complimentary tea, coffee and hot chocolate onboard. Excursions run daily from early spring through early fall.
Whichever tour families choose, orcas are the star of the show in these parts. However, they’re not the only wild creatures that call Victoria home. You might see harbor seals, bald eagles, seabirds and even deer roaming the coast of Spieden Island. My tip? Pack layers. Even on a nice day, weather can be blustery on the water.
And if families are pondering a visit to the internationally renowned Butchart Gardens, Prince of Wales offers a combination tour from late May through late September.
After a few hours of whale watching, the 94-passenger Salish Sea Dream drops passengers off at the quieter waterfront entrance to the gardens. Buses run throughout the evening to take guests back to Inner Harbour, so families can linger until closing. Be sure to check the activities schedule before planning a visit, as summer days are packed with fun events such as concerts and firework displays; seeing the gardens illuminated at sunset is also a treat. Don’t forget to save some time for the whimsical carousel, too, where little ones (and parents) can opt to ride a revolving orca whale.
Chinatown’s Fan Tan Alley
Fan Tan Alley — the narrowest street in Canada — is just a tad more than 35 inches wide at its narrowest point. This kid-size street is also one of Victoria’s most colorful. Be sure to look up as you wander in and out of the line-up of fun and quirky shops, including The Umbrellatorium & Canery and The Turntable record store. The alley’s notorious past — colored with gambling clubs and opium dens — only adds another layer to its eccentric curb appeal.
Roll through Victoria
Victoria is one of Canada’s most bike-friendly cities. There are hundreds of miles of bike lanes and paths from which to choose, but rolling through a new city on two wheels can be intimidating — especially with a family in tow.
Luckily, Bike Tours Victoria BC knows how to make exploring the city fun for families with kids of all ages.
The Highlight City Tour offers a great introduction to Victoria and its more popular sites, but Matt Oliver, owner and chief tour guide of the company, can also arrange custom tours for families that include spots such as Beacon Hill Children’s Farm. Along with a petting zoo, families will want to catch one of the goat stampedes that happen twice daily.
Tea at Fairmont Empress is a tradition that has stood for more than a century.
Tea at the Empress’ menu includes 21 loose-leaf teas, and past guests have included royalty and celebrities, along with local residents and tourists. But that’s not what the kids will care about. It’s the house-made scones, pastries, clotted creams and strawberry preserves that will have their full attention.