The Fairmont Empress Hotel takes the commanding position in Victoria's Inner Harbour. - MCT

Elegant Victoria, British Columbia, is a charmer

VICTORIA, British Columbia — There are few water arrivals in the Northwest more exhilarating than Victoria's Inner Harbour.

The venerable Empress Hotel commands attention front and center with the stately B.C. Parliament Buildings to her left. Water taxis, yachts and seaplanes all jockey for position in the small harbor, along with the two main daily water transports from Washington: The MV Coho out of Port Angeles and the Victoria Clipper from Seattle.

I recently took a day trip to Victoria to see what I could pack in — without packing a bag.

(Note: All prices are given in Canadian currency unless noted.)

It doesn't make sense to take your car if you are just staying in Victoria's city center.

Both the Coho (a car and passenger ferry) and the Clipper (foot travelers only) drop passengers off at the Inner Harbour. Most tourist stops are a short walk from there.

For my trip, I chose the 341-foot Coho ferry that crosses the Strait of Juan de Fuca in 90 minutes.

Why not Seattle-based Victoria Clipper? Sure, the drive to Seattle is much shorter but a same-day, round-trip purchase will set you back $149 compared to $34 on the Coho.

It's a 21/2 hour sailing to Victoria on the Clipper. That's five hours on a boat round trip compared to only three on the Coho.

I allowed myself 21/2 hours to get to Port Angeles from Tacoma for the 12:45 p.m. sailing. There's parking right across the ferry terminal for $10. I found a lot, two blocks away, for $6 a day. I've never had any auto break-ins but avoid bringing anything to Port Angeles you aren't planning to take to Victoria.

The 1959 Coho harkens back to the days of private ferries. It might look like it's from the 1950s, but the company keeps the Coho painted and well-maintained. I couldn't find a spot of rust on it. The ship has tables and single seating along with a coffee shop.

There's no avoiding the Empress. The grande dame of Victoria takes a commanding spot at the foot of the Inner Harbour. All other buildings bow and scrape before it. You don't need to spend the night to take a gander through its lobbies, shops, bars and ornate dining rooms.

The small, overpriced rooms aren't worth the money, but if you have $59.95 to spare, you can have its famous high tea service.

Mutlitiered plates of precious pastries and triangular sandwiches — with the crusts cut off, of course — will arrive with tea on fine China.

The attentive service is fit for a queen — or empress.

There's a lot of buzz around this seafood-centric wharfside eatery built out of repurposed shipping containers. When I arrived in the afternoon, 33 people stood in line.

The extensive menu offers an inventive and slightly Hispanic take on fresh seafood: tacones, cod dogs, fish and chips, fried oysters and chowder.

I started with a cup of Caesar-style gazpacho ($3.75). The cold shrimp-topped soup was a blast of tomato flavor — and salt. The salt theme continued with a half order of seafood poutine ($6). This version of the Canadian national dish of gravy-smothered French fries came with miso clam gravy topped with shrimp and smoked tuna belly bacon bits. It was a hearty dish, but the salt level made it almost inedible near the end.

More to my liking was the tacone — a tortilla filled with fish, slaw, pea shoots and lemon-pickled onions ($5-7.50).

From Chinese to cutting edge, there is no lack of tea shops in Victoria. But I always head to British-centric Murchie's. This is Victoria, after all. The old-fashioned shop is full of tea cups, accessories and an inexhaustible variety of loose-leaf teas and tea bags.

I brought home a "Royal Teas" combo. It contains Murchie's produced Diamond Jubilee, Golden Jubilee, Prince Charles and Queen Victoria blends. My British grandmother would have approved.

You can sample teas in the store — perfect to wash down an item from their dessert counter.

I'd never heard of Fan Tan Alley when I first stumbled upon it several years ago. I felt like I had entered a secret Harry Potter world, but in Shanghai instead of London. The narrow alley can only fit three abreast. Small shops selling Asian wares and fashion open off the alley along with mysterious unmarked doors. Nowhere else in the city is so much diversity packed into such a small space. On my recent visit, a yellow-and-red-robed monk passed me in the gathering shadows.

Around the corner from Fan Tan, I came across Cafi Bliss, an organic juice bar and "live food" restaurant. It's a bright and personality-filled spot. Each chair has its own name: glowing, spirited, beautiful.

The restaurant serves a variety of vegan food options, including a portobello burger ($10) with cashew "cream cheese" and avocado pizza with cashew "sour cream" ($8.50).

Finally, don't miss the Royal BC Museum. This natural and human history museum has extensive First Peoples' displays. The museum also contains one of my favorite historical displays in the Northwest: a recreated 1890s old town.

A 45-minute uphill walk from downtown will take you to a small hill with a very large home built on it. And from there, you keep climbing. Four stories later, you'll find yourself on top of Craigdarroch Castle. Pronounced "Craig-Derek" (Gaelic for "Rocky Oak Place"), it was built by coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. He was the wealthiest man in British Columbia when he erected his mansion in 1887. He died before its 1890 completion. The home is now run by a not-for-profit and is open to the public.

Including balconies and the basement, the mansion boasts 26,000 square feet. But despite its size, the mansion is very polite, very restrained — very Canadian. There's plenty of stained glass and wood paneling, but rooms are modest in size. Hearst Castle it's not.

Craigdarroch Castle gives a good impression of what life would have been like in the namesake city of the Victorian Era. Rooms are full of period furnishings and historical displays. Views cover the city and stretch to the Olympic Peninsula.

Beacon Hill Park: This park packs a lot into its 200 acres. It has both natural and manicured areas with lawns, gardens, ponds, playgrounds and a children's farm. Take Douglas Street south from the Inner Harbour.

Breakwater: From Beacon Hill Park, you can walk northwest along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Eventually, you'll reach a breakwater that forms the entrance to the Inner Harbour. Expansive views look south to Washington and the Olympics and north to the harbor where, on my visit, three huge cruise ships were tied up. The water is so clear, I watched a sea lion repeatedly swim through a school of apparently tasty fish.

With Victoria as Vancouver Island's largest city and a natural gateway for U.S. visitors, it might be easy to forget that the island stretches about 285 miles to the north. Mountains, rivers, forests and a stunning coastline could keep a visitor busy for days or even weeks.

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