What I did on my Summer Vacation

by | Aug 26, 2019

Laurie and I just finished up our summer vacation taking a week and driving up to Victoria, British Columbia. It is a city we love, but for “reasons” we haven’t visited since 2005, something that’s been annoying me for a number of years, and this year, everything finally aligned and we made the drive north for some quality time on Vancouver Island.

The drive from Silicon Valley to Port Angeles is just about 1,000 miles (1600KM) each way, which we can easily do in two days. The mid-way point is somewhere in Oregon and we typically stop in either Medford or Eugene as good waypoints along the way. In Port Angeles is our old friend the Coho, a vehicle and passenger ferry that does the 90 minute trip across the water and drops us off in downtown Victoria. It carries about a hundred vehicles and up to 1,000 passengers on a trip, and does 3 trips each way in summer and two in offseason.

So on Friday we collected up the cats and bird and hauled them off to the vet for boarding (itself often a Benny Hill caliber farce of an operation, but this trip, it only took 20 minutes), and on Saturday morning we pointed the Pilot north up the I-5 on our way to holiday.

A quick side note on driving vacations

I know from previous times writing about driving trips that about now I’ll get someone sending me a comment that boils down to some form of Why didn’t you fly? I hate all that driving! — and I do intend to write a longer piece on this soon, but in a nutshell: I dislike airports and flying as much as you seem to dislike driving. As side benefits, I don’t have to weigh my bags or limit what I carry, I don’t have to worry about my camera gear being stolen by a baggage handler or whether I can stuff it into the overhead, and when I’m there, I can explore as I wish without needing to rent a car to explore in.

I find the long drives relaxing (most of the time), and it allows me to unplug from distraction and spend time planning and organizing things in my head. I also have the ability to side-trip if I want and explore the lands I’m going through, rather than staring at them from 35,000 feet and wondering if there’s anything interesting down there (hint: there is). The journey is the reward.

And you know that last trip you were complaining to me about? The one where your flight was delayed 4 hours, then cancelled, then you were rebooked through Denver with a five hour connection that got delayed another 2 hours while your bags went to Cleveland by mistake? That one where TSA strip-searched your carry on and made you take off your shoes and ran you through the machine twelve times before it stopped beeping?

Yeah. that’s why I love driving.

Getting on the Ferry

If you’ve never taken a ferry with your car, you pay your fee, which is typically for the car and any passengers beyond the driver, then wait in the lot. At some point the ferry arrives and cars and trucks it’s carrying start exiting, and keep exiting, and cars keep coming out long after you start wondering how they can wedge so many cars in a ship that size.

Then the attendant points at you, you start the car, drive onto the ship and they tell you where to park. And when they’re done, they have you wedged in like a can of sardines, with JUST enough room to get out of the car and up the stairs to the passenger area. The Coho, like most ferries, don’t want you on the car deck during travel, in part for safety, but also, I think, over theft concerns. Besides, it’s got a terrible view.

Since we are crossing an international border, you have to clear immigration and customs just as you would on a plane. To enter Canada we have to show our passports to get into the parking lot, and on the Canadian side, we show them again to the immigration folks for final approval to enter. On the return trip, the U.S. clears you for immigration before letting you on the boat, and customs vets what you’re carrying after you land on the other side. For us, this was all quick and painless. When asked by U.S. Customs what we were bringing back with us, I answered chocolate and tea (which was true) and he waved us through.

This may seem pretty casual, but I think a better way to frame it is more laid back than airports seem to be, mostly due to lower numbers of passengers to process and a longer time to manage that because of the time between ferry trips. There have been some changes since my last trip on the Coho in 2005 where it’s clear they ramped up security some, but there are officers inspecting all the vehicles as they wait and looking for unusual behaviors or anything that seems odd. That’s always happened — the Coho is how Ahmed Ressam tried to come into the U.S. in 2002 with a plan to bomb the Space Needle.

This trip, it was all routine. Maybe 5 minutes delay entering Canada while our passports were scanned and my cars license plate put into the database, and about the same existing, plus maybe 15 minutes with Immigration getting approval to return, most of that standing in a line.

And then we drove the car onto the streets of Victoria and off to our hotel.

Victoria and Vancouver Island

Please enjoy the view from our hotel room patio. In our previous visits, we typically stayed at the Hotel Grand Pacific, which is a wonderful, higher end hotel that’s about as downtown and on the water as you can get. If you want to splurge a bit, especially offseason, I recommend it highly. This trip, since it’s high season and everything’s expensive, we opted for the Best Western Plus Inner Harbor, about half a block from the Grand Pacific, and opted for a more expensive room with a patio and a kitchenette and a view. (if you look at the picture on the Best Western site, the Grand Pacific is the hotel to the right and behind it in their photo). That ended up putting us on the 7th floor with a nice view of the harbor. The patio was big enough for a table and two chairs, and meant we could sit in the room and relax and enjoy the view and the fresh air.

I am a big fan of considering room upgrades these days, because for not a lot of money you can often get some really nice improvements. The patio here was a huge win, since it made it more comfortable and more fun to sit and do things in the room, plus we got a great view. My picture above shows the Fairmont Empress, the city’s destination hotel, which can be a great place to stay, but I’ve always preferred a room I can look at the Empress rather than one in it.

Oh, just for fun, here’s that view at night, too.

Even though this room wasn’t cheap (it is high season, after all), it was cheaper than any room in the Grand would have been, even without a view or patio, and as a Best Western Gold person, the points will likely pay for 1-2 nights this winter as I go off into the Central Valley for my Wildlife Refuge photography.

Any of these three hotels would be great places to stay in Victoria (most expensive: Empress. Least expensive, Best Western), and staying right on the harbor puts you in good walking distance to a lot of stuff and the core pieces of downtown along Government street. We liked the Best Western enough we’ve decided it’s our new base of operations here for all trips, not just during high season.

Oh, and here’s the view during twilight, just because I can.

Exploring the Island

We actually spent most of our time wandering the island and surprisingly little of it in downtown Victoria itself. Our first day we drove up into the Nanaimo area where I was able to have lunch with photography David duChemin and his wife Cynthia Haynes. David is someone I’ve long looked up to as a teach and mentor through his writing and books, and I’m currently in a year long extended mentor program of his. Cynthia is an accomplished photographer as well who emphasizes intentional movement in her photography, which is a technique really new to me but one I’ve been exploring a bit recently. We ended up having an extended lunch at the Cuckoo Trattoria in Coombs which is near the infamous Goat on Roof Old Country Market. Not an area I’ve explored much on the island, but I really fell in love with it, and Cuckoo was that kind of restaurant that you could pop into an expensive property in any city and it would a destination restaurant for that city. My chicken cannelloni were amazing. Even better was the conversation, which covered an extended set of topics, almost all of them having nothing to do with photography (which was awesome). David’s as nice a person in person as he is online, and it was great to sit down, break some bread and spend an afternoon with them.

We ended the day heading out to the coast and doing some birding, starting at Clover point and moving up to Oak Bay Harbor. It’s the time of year where nothing too spectacular is doing on with the birds. I did add a few species to my year list (Brant, Common Murre, Rhinoceros Auklet, Marbled Murrelet — the latter things here in the Bay Area that almost require a pelagic trip) but the only life bird I added this trip was Northwestern Crow, and I did that from the patio of my hotel room later. The one time I thought I had some Northwestern Crows on the hook was at Cattle Point, and it turned out to be a small flock of ravens hanging out to mock me.

Butchart Gardens

Day 2 was the day we drove out to Butchart Gardens and spent the morning walking through it and enjoying the flowers.

Butchart Gardens

Butchart Gardens is one of those wonderful tourist stops that isn’t a tourist trap. It was started in 1912 on the site of a former limestone quarry when Jennie Butchart envisioned it as a sunken garden and started the transformation. Today, the Gardens consist of five main garden areas, all heavily planted and wonderfully maintained. My watch tells me it was about a 2 and a half mile walk that we spent about 3 hours on.

It is seriously beautiful, and if you love flowers or gardens at all, it really is a must see if you’re ever on Vancouver Island. There are of course gift shops and restaurants, and you can also get high tea there (recommended, but we didn’t do that this trip), but the real heroes are the flowers.

This was the one time I hauled out the camera gear. This wasn’t a serious photography trip for me, but I carried my gear, in part to test a new bag setup I wanted to use for my Wolfe workshop next month (it passed with flying colors). The one day I did haul out a camera was the visit to Butchart Gardens, where I thought I might try some travel style stuff, but in a simple way: I carried my X-T20 with the 24-70 equivalent on it, the 70-200 in a bag (that I never used). No tripod, no filters, no more than 2-3 minutes deciding on a shot, really an attempt to see what I could do with casual gear in a run and gun situation (in the middle of a bright and sunny day, so glary light to boot)

I did some of that, but I quickly realized that the flowers were being visited by about 4 billion really happy bees, and so I decided to see if I could shoot photos of the flowers and bees that would look nice, rather than just travel shots or flower closeups. A few of them turned out pretty well, I think…

I think it was a good thing to relax, go light, set some simple goals and see what happened. That’s a place where you can do some serious work if you really want, but it’s also a fun location to experiment and play and relax…

I ended up with some nice travel style images of the place, and it was a lot of fun experimenting with trying to photograph the bees without a macro lens or a lot of gear, and I think overall I came away with some images I really like.

And it was a fun and relaxing walk that pushed my limits just enough, but not too much.

Happy Bees and Flowers

Off to Duncan

After the gardens we headed back to the room and hung out — have I mentioned how much I appreciate having a patio I can sit on with the iPad and write or just stare at the harbor pretending to do something useful?

And that evening, we got back in the car and headed up island again, because we had dinner plans.

The Old Firehouse Wine and Cocktail Bar

This dinner requires some history. One of the things Laurie and I used to do in our visits to British Columbia was scour the used bookstores, primarily for Laurie’s collection of hockey material — said collection today is close to 700 volumes of books, over 27 linear feet of hockey programs and other paper, and a bunch of other stuff. I have a smaller collection including hockey rule books that go back into the 1940s (where among other things the rules for train travel between games is spelled out).

One of the bookstores we haunted was in Duncan, called Gallowglass books, and it was run by Jeff and Alanah. Over repeated visits we got to know each other and we often spent extended time in the store talking hockey — Alanah has retired from it but she wrote extensively about hockey for various publications, not always under her real name because there are too many guys who won’t take a woman sports writer seriously.

When our regular B.C. visits ended we kept in touch. Along the way the internet happened for real, and they closed Gallowglass, and in its place, built out a new place, The Old Firehouse Wine and Cocktail Bar. Since 2012, Jeff has handled the bar and Alanah works behind the scenes and they’ve created a truly wonderful place for a nice meal with some amazing spirits.

When we decided to go back to Victoria the first thing we did was look them up and see if we could get together, and we set up a dinner date at their place. Laurie, Alanah and I sat in a corner table while Jeff tended the bar and wandered by when we could, and we spent a great few hours catching up.

What we hadn’t realized was in the years since we were last there, the Duncan area has grown up a lot, mostly in good ways (an exception is, of course, traffic). It’s become an emerging regional wine area that, given their climate, tends to focus on cooler germanic grapes and white wines like Pinot Gris. It’s also now the home of a number of cider houses and a few distilleries. It was fascinating to see the changes there and recognize how the area is building itself up in so many positive ways.

I ended up with a couple of exquisite sides from Sea Cider, one very crisp and dry (my preference) and one sweeter and honey infused (which I also loved). Laurie got served flights of local wines and pronounced them all very good. We were much impressed with the quality given none of that existed 15 years ago.

I won’t go into labels or wineries here, in part because I was having too much fun to write things down, but also because of a basic reality: if you aren’t in B.C., you won’t find any of these wines. Exports into other provinces has gotten a little better over the years, but B.C. wines are basically not available in the U.S. unless you go up there yourself and bring them back. It’s expensive to set up the legal parts of becoming an importer/exporter and the demand isn’t there to warrant the costs of setting it all up. I’ve talked to wineries and brokers over the years and they all would love to do this — and can’t justify it.

So if you’re not in British Columbia, you won’t find these wines and ciders. And if you are in B.C., stop by the Firehouse and ask Jeff to turn you on to his current favorites.

Wandering and Exploring

After those three key destinations, we spent the rest of the trip wandering and exploring, doing some shopping and generally taking it easy. We took the 14 out to Port Renfrew and back, about 2 hours each way, just because it’s a fun drive along the coast and sometimes there’s some nice birding out along the way — not this time, it was all gulls hunching down in the wind.

And we finally hit the core of Victoria and explored the city itself. We hit a few of our favorite places: Munro’s Books, Roger’s Chocolates and Murchie’s Tea (see, I wasn’t joking to the Custom’s guy). Three of the four galleries I used to buy from were still there, and in the second I found the piece I decided to buy. Alcheringa Gallery is the higher end gallery and caters more to the serious collector than some of the others, where they might stock more lower priced pieces for the cruise ship visitors.

I was only planning on buying if I found something I really liked that was different than what I already own. In Cowichan Traders I saw three pieces that really caught my eye but all of them felt like extensions of what I already had (and two were by artists currently on my walls). When I entered Alcheringa I pretty quickly saw a number of pieces I might want. After spending some time talking to the owner I grabbed a nice piece of etched glass by Joe Wilson, a Cowichan artist who carves in the Coast Salish style. I’ll talk more about this piece once I get it — I’m having it shipped for safety rather than trying to haul it home myself. (The third gallery I recommend up there is Eagle Feather. Since I had my piece, I didn’t visit, but I’ll visit them first next trip).

Homeward Bound

We spent a total of five nights in Victoria. We drove extensively around the southern half of Vancouver Island meeting friends both old and new and seeing how things have changed. We’d originally considered going all the way up to Campbell River and put that off to a future trip. Ditto my though on (finally) going out on a Whale Watching boat, something in all our years in Victoria we’ve never done — and still haven’t.

Saturday morning we got back on the Coho and sailed back to Port Angeles. From there we drove to Salem, a bit shorter drive but gave us a chance to explore it a bit. And Sunday we made the somewhat longer trek down I5 back to the house, where we arrived late enough to order dinner for delivery but early enough to get it aired out and habitable for sleep.

A thousand miles driven to and fro. 350 miles driven around the island exploring. We ate well. We slept well. Sometimes we sat on the patio in our room and just enjoyed not doing anything — why is this so often the thing we forget cramming stuff into our vacations? I bought art. Laurie bought chocolates and teas.

And we both remembered exactly why we love British Columbia so, and why we have really wanted to get back their for years. So glad we finally did.

Food and Sleep Recommendations

A few other things not mentioned above worth a quick recommendation.

  • Medford, Oregon: Best Western Horizon Inn. Pretty much our default stop in southern Oregon, clean, comfortable and a Black Bear Diner next door so we don’t have to travel far for food after the drive.
  • Salem, Oregon: Best Western Pacific Highway Inn: Nice hotel but we’ll go back to Eugene/Medford in the future
  • Salem, Oregon: Acme Cafe. We went looking for something non-chain and non-generic. We were really happy with what we found here.
  • Victoria, BC: The Keg. A regular with us. Good steaks at a good price. I did at one point say to Laurie “I hope nobody tells me this is just the Canadian Black Angus“. I think, actually, it’s the Canadian Outback (but better).
  • Victoria, BC: Milestones. Easy to get to from the hotel and less of a walk than going to Earls, we always like this place, but this trip we felt it was better than we remembered it was from previous trips.
  • Victoria, BC: Steamship Grill and Bar: Relatively new and in the custom’s house at the water that used to house the wax museum, we tried it because it looked interesting and was really close to the hotel. The food was quite good, the views are amazing, and we considered it one we’ll visit regularly on future visits.
  • Victoria, BC: Santiago’s Cafe. Kind of literally a hole in the wall and very near the hotel and attached to Huntingdon Manor, it turns out it’s been there since the 1990’s and the food was quite good.