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March 23, 2007
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Volume 35
Issue 12
 
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OUTBOUND: Lose the winter blahs with a weekend in Victoria BC
OUTBOUND: Lose the winter blahs with a weekend in Victoria BC
by Lorelei Quenzer - SGN A&E Writer

When will winter finally disappear? It seems like mean old Jack Frost has his claws firmly into Seattle and won't let go. Maybe it's time for a spot of vacation in Victoria, British Columbia! For me, Victoria's cobbled streets and stately architecture is a reminder of my time in England - it's like traveling to Europe without the pesky jet lag. Vancouver Island is practically in our backyard, and Victoria is not only a great weekend getaway; it's also a perfect place to send visitors who have started to stink like old fish. You can usually find fantastic hotel rates and off-season package deals, which technically isn't until Memorial Day weekend. As an island girl I feel especially at home in Victoria. Everyone is so friendly and helpful - I practically want to speak pidgin to them. I usually end up coming back with a quaint Canadian accent and a few coins in my purse. So get your parents out from underfoot for a couple of days! Or better yet: leave them your keys and treat yourself to a break from the winter weather.

GETTING INTO VICTORIA
You could take one of Kenmore Air's small seaplanes (shudder) from Lake Union. Or you could drive to Anacortes, stay overnight and park your car in the ferry lines. But why stress yourself out? Especially when you could be relaxing on the Victoria Clipper. US-born citizens don't even need a passport to take the Clipper - yet! It's still a good idea to get ready for that eventuality - although you will need photo ID and proof of citizenship, like your birth certificate. The Clipper will whisk you away from Pier 69 and deposit you in downtown Victoria in less time than it takes to drive to the airport, park and board your plane. Their snacks beat most airlines' cardboard meals, and you can even purchase Dramamine if you think you'll need it. I've traveled in choppy winter weather, and only the most sensitive passengers will find the smooth hydroplaning of the catamaran makes them sick. Get to Pier 69 early - an hour before departure at the latest - so you can claim one of the precious window seats, then sit right back and enjoy your comfy 3-hour cruise! The Clipper offers one departure (each way) daily through May 24; then prices go up, as does the frequency. Check out the sailing schedule and package deals at www.clippervacations.com.

LODGING AND RELAXING
The Magnolia Hotel & Spa (623 Courtney Street)

What makes the Magnolia a "boutique" hotel? Well, it might be that there are only 63 rooms, each with floor to ceiling windows and custom designed furniture. Then there's the personal attention from the staff, the fresh fruit and flowers in the lobby, the bottled spring water in the room and the complimentary breakfast each morning. I'm fond of the hotel's convenience to everything. You are literally minutes from it all. If you feel the need to drop a few Canadian dollars, the shops of Government Street are right around the corner. Want high tea at the Empress? Only one block - plus one reservation - away. The Inner Harbour, Parliament Building, Royal BC Museum? They're all within walking distance.

But why leave the hotel? Spa Magnolia has Aveda-trained therapists who begin with a consultation to create your personalized treatment. Facials, manicures, foot pampering, wraps and massage treatments are available in any combination, including two special men's packages for 2.25 hours. The spa continues in your own bath, as all of the hotel's personal products are by Aveda. Treat yourself to an Executive Room: the harbour-side suite views are spectacular, especially at night when the Parliament Building is lit up like a Christmas tree. Executive rooms also feature gas fireplaces. For availability and rates visit www.magnoliahotel.com.

Silk Road Aromatherapy & Tea Company (1624 Government Street)
Not only do they have the most impressive collection of loose teas - Sanuk Restaurant features their teas on their menu, as do many Victoria eateries - but there's an in-house spa, too! Silk Road manufactures 100% natural body care products, and there's an official Herbalist next door. Teas are loose and come in mini-tins (8-10 cups) up to mega tins (1500 cup size). By the way, if you're bringing back souvenirs I happen to love the Japanese sour cherry green tea and the lychee-infused Double Happiness black tea. One-hour facials start at $45 CA/$39 US, and packages range from the 2-hour "Floating Cloud" (spa massage and facial) to the 3-hour "Eternal Spring" (massage, scrub and wrap). There are also exquisite foot and hand treatments available. Check out the complete array of services before you book at www.silkroadtea.com.

DINING, COCKTAILING & SNACKING
Mo:Le (554 Pandora Avenue)

So it's your fourth visit to Chinatown and you're tired of dim sum and cheap noodles? Skip down Fan Tan Alley and head left on Pandora, where there's a hole-in-the-wall art gallery called Mo:Le. Don't worry, you'll find it by following the long line of foodies. I went raw with a Portobello-stuffed avocado, drizzled in tahini on a bed of wild greens. You don't have to go vegan, but it's sure to feel healthy; Mo:Le has a fab selection of gluten-free entrees. They're also known among the locals for their great breakfasts, especially the pesto hash. The house-iced tea is a caffeine-free concoction of blackberry, raspberry and black currant, lightly sweetened with honey and served with lemon. They don't take reservations, so if you want a weekend breakfast, prepare for a wait. A better bet is to "stumble" upon Mo:Le in the early afternoon. There are lots of tables for two, but larger parties may have a hard time getting seated. Average prices are $10-15 CA/$8.60-12.88 US, and the art installations change fairly frequently.

Re-Bar Modern Food (50 Bastion Square)
I have nothing against vegetarians. It's nice that they can congregate, hidden in the dark recesses of the foodie netherworlds, and be sustained amongst their own. Just as long as they don't try to convert me! If you're one of them, or if you want to spend quality mealtime with one, then the Re-Bar is the place to go. Of course they still have those noxious wheatgrass concoctions; the Re-Bar started its life as a juice bar. (Sorry, my carnivorous, white-sugar-loving prejudices are showing.) But there are also scrumptious baked goods and a tasty menu that includes - in a friendly, can't-we-all-get-along concession to us meat eaters - shrimp, smoked tuna and even anchovies. Where else could you order a starter of roasted garlic, matched with tomato-ginger chutney, cheese and fresh bread? Hey, if you both eat the garlic, it's cancelled out. There are also Mexican and Asian-inspired menu offerings. I'm in love with their smoked tuna salad, and I'm thinking of painting my walls in the same chartreuse. On the other hand, maybe it would be better just to visit my new favorite vegetarian restaurant. The Re-Bar is open daily from 8:30am, closing at 3:30pm on Sundays but open for dinner the rest of the week. The menu is seasonal and yummy. Entrée prices are très reasonable, compared with comparable Seattle restaurants, averaging $12 CA/$10.30 US.

Sanuk (623 Courtney Street, Magnolia Hotel)
The Magnolia Hotel is also home to one of the city's newest and hippest restaurants. You may miss the days when it was Hugo's Grill (relax! There's an abbreviated Hugo's Brewhouse two doors down), but you're crazy if you don't love the fresh ingredients and Asian flair of Sanuk, a Thai word that roughly translates as "pursuit of happiness." The menu is an intriguing blend of comfort foods from around the world: there are paneer dumplings in a masala cream sauce, yuzu-marinated tuna, and a New York steak barbequed in middle eastern harissa. I was impressed by the prawn lollipops, skewered on sugarcane and rolled in panko with a roasted cashew sauce, and the Prawn and fish laksa came with udon noodles in a yummy coconut curry broth. I'll have to go back for the Mu Shu Duck Confit! Cordon Bleu chef Patrick Lynch studied at the Chiang Mai Cooking School in Thailand, and his love of the flavors of Asia shows in the diversity of his dishes. Entrée prices range from $14-28 CA/$12-24 US. For wine dolts (like me) the daily menu has excellent pairing suggestions. If you'd like to feel like a local, après entrée, order a blueberry tea, which has nothing to do with blueberries and very little to do with tea: amaretto and grand marnier in orange pekoe tea with a cinnamon stick or an orange slice. Quite a Canadian nightcap!

White Heather Tea Room (1885 Oak Bay Avenue)
The Empress may have the most famous high tea service in Victoria, but ask a local and she'll tell you that the White Heather Tea Room is the best brew for your buck. Located in Oak Bay, every pastry and sandwich at the White Heather is made from scratch. There's a Wee Tea ($8.75 CA/$7.50 US), a Not-So-Wee Tea ($13.25 CA/$11.40 US), and the Big Muckle Giant Tea ($32.95 CA/$28.30 US) for two people. If you're not into scones and clotted cream, the White Heather also serves light breakfasts and lunches and Saturday brunch. Closed Sundays and Mondays, and reservations are highly recommended (250-361-9223).

TO-DOs & MUST-SEES
Grand City Drive Tour (Gray Line West, buses depart in front of the Empress Hotel)

No matter how many times I've been to Victoria - six at last count - I like to start each visit with this 90-minute city tour. Not only does it re-familiarize me with the city's layout, but it gives me a unique opportunity to startle my fellow tourists. Gray Line Tours (1-800-663-8390) begins all of their excursions in front of Victoria's Royal Highness, the Fairmont Empress Hotel. As the Empress is directly across from a statue of Captain James Cook, I have the dizzying pleasure of announcing to other passengers (who are unaware of my Hawaiian heritage), "We ate him." I'll admit, the pleasure I derive from this statement may be disproportionate to its volume - I don't want to be mobbed - but man, it's still fun to watch their eyes pop out. I'm usually asked to make a clarification: "Like chicken." But I digress. Victoria is proud of its status as Canada's garden province, and for good reason. Even in winter, Victoria is picturesque. Your city tour will take you through some exclusive neighborhoods, replete with manicured lawns and luxuriant flowerbeds. A highlight of the tour is the Oak Harbour Marina, one of two stops the bus will make. The Marina has some especially fascinating residents: a family of endangered harbor seals. Someone on your bus, like me, won't be able to resist buying the seals a snack at the Marina's gift shop (frozen halibut bits for $1.95 CA/$1.70 US, yum!) so you'll get a chance to see them up close and personal. If you're the sucker& uh, I mean generous benefactor, remember: drop the fish in the water from a distance, because seals really do bite. And for gawd's sake, wash your hands before your get back on the bus! If you forget to grab a tour ticket online you can still purchase your tour packages on board the Clipper, or drop in to Gray Line's kiosk at the Empress Hotel. Check out all of Gray Line's Victoria offerings at www.graylinewest.com/victoria.

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (1040 Moss Street)
I just discovered this gem, which is tucked away in the swanky historic Rocklands neighborhood. The museum is home to BC's largest public art collection and features an authentic Japanese Shinto Shrine in its garden. In addition to its permanent collection of paintings, writings and historical artifacts of the province's premiere landscape artist, Emily Carr, the Art Gallery offers diverse presentations of Asian, European and Canadian contemporary and historical works. A Rodin exhibit will open at the Gallery in April, while this past winter there was an excellent collection of Baroque masters. The Gallery is a short walk from Fort Street, which provides great shopping opps for the antique lover in your family. You can easily make a day of it: take a bus up Fort Street (numbers 11 or 14 will stop at Moss Street; the fare is $2 CA/$1.70 US) and drop in at the Gallery. The walk back to the waterfront is just over a mile, and you'll find dozens of shops to entertain you. Visit the Gallery's website for upcoming exhibits at www.aggv.bc.ca.

Butchart Gardens
In the land of all things gardened, Burchart is Queen; all others are mere posers. If you've a hankering for this kind of thing, you'll find these 50 acres of flowers, fountains and footpaths are fascinating and fucking fabulous. You know who you are. True, the 2,500 roses won't be in their prime until June, but I wouldn't wait. The Japanese Garden, its entrance flanked by red-lacquered "torii," is beautiful year-round, and the Sunken Garden is always spectacular. If you like that sort of thing, of course. And if you do, you'll probably enjoy taking high tea in the Dining Room Restaurant (reservations required, 250-652-8222; price is $24.75 CA/$21.25 US per person). You'll also get a $2 break on the $25 CA/ $21.50 US admission if you go before June 14 (restaurant services are extra, and admission to the Gardens is required for admission to the restaurants). The road to the Gardens is well marked, but you can also arrange for a package tour through Gray Line that includes transportation. For more about Butchart Gardens, visit www.butchartgardens.com.

Royal British Columbia Museum (675 Belleville Street)
Victoria is so cozy, it's easy to forget that it's the capital of British Columbia. The province's premier museum, across the street from the Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel, is a remarkable place of discovery, housing a collection of more than seven million items. My favorite among the permanent collection is the First People's gallery; there's also an IMAX theatre and a tasty coffee shop. If you missed the Titanic Artifact exhibit at the Pacific Science Center a few years ago, the RBCM gives you one more chance. This traveling exhibition features 281 artifacts recovered from Titanic's undersea resting place in a series of galleries that trace the life of the "unsinkable" ship, from its design and construction through to its discovery, recovery and conservation. There's an additional admission for the special Titanic exhibit, which opens April 14, but the $25.50 CA/$22 US is well worth it. The museum is open daily from 9am-5pm; go to www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca for online ticketing (recommended for the Titanic experience).

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