In summer, Victoria’s Euro-narrow streets are crammed with tourists, hotel signs blinking “no vacancy” and impatient lines out restaurant doors — especially this year, the 150th anniversary of British Columbia’s founding. But why wait for summer? May offers an average of 267 hours of sunshine, coupled with cheaper shoulder-season rates and more room to maneuver a stroller through pedestrian-only routes. My family couldn’t resist checking it out.
Bugs and blooms
As soon as we step off the ferry, my children clamor for the Bug Zoo, currently celebrating its 10th year of “edutainment.” Entomologist Carol Maier scours Amazonian jungles and American deserts for kitten-sized tarantulas and glow-in-the-dark scorpions. My 2-year-old son loves holding swaying stick insects, while my 7-year-old daughter gets a kick out of the bug guide’s repartee, worthy of a stand-up comedian. “I encourage them to steal each others’ best lines,” Maier explains.
Visitors not in the mood for the Bug Zoo’s centipede lollipops can score a kid-friendly meal around the corner at The Noodle Box. Highchairs, no-spice noodles and an inexpensive menu all make for easy eating with tots. For braver palates, dishes such as the Malaysian free-range chicken curry bite back.
Ready to view insects in their natural habitat? The 55-acre Butchart Gardens is our favorite afternoon outing, great for running off energy on sweetly scented trails. Just off the main path, a small wooden hut acts as a kids’ playhouse above the thousand-bloomed Sunken Garden. Play “I Spy” with Butchart’s free flower guide in hand.
When bellies grumble, downtown Victoria’s Rebar offers family-friendly fusion. With crayons as bright as the restaurant’s Mexican oilcloths, kids have plenty to do until their peanut butter, banana and honey sandwich arrives. Penny-pinching parents can share with adventurous children, if ordering the platter-size yam-pepita quesadilla with chipotle sauce. Cookies and brownies round out the selection, and table-top toys are available upon request.
Breakfast and browsing
A Victoria-based foodie friend suggests the Cup of Joe Café for breakfast. Tucked away in the basement of a nondescript business building, employees sling morning meals from a witty menu. My kids go for the “Chuck Berry” pancakes for $7.95, a heaping stack of buttermilk goodness, served with berry sauce and whipped cream.
Down the street from Joe’s, the Royal BC Museum opens its wide doors at 9 a.m., perfect for early risers. Seemingly designed to silence protests of boredom, a thundering, life-size wooly mammoth intrigues toddlers, and dino poop interests even skeptical tweens. Through January 2009, the institution hosts the exhibit “Free Spirit: Stories of You, Me and B.C.,” a celebration of the province’s best, brightest and quirkiest people.
Children will appreciate the Fairmont Empress Hotel’s lunchtime tea, one block away from the museum. Served inside the 100-year-old, chateau-peaked Empress, this tea perfectly suits little princesses (or princes). Live piano music accompanies a three-tiered tray of scones, rich pastries and crustless sandwiches. The experience is expensive but rewarding ($44-$54 adults, $22-$27 kids ages 6-12, 5 and younger free). Jeans aren’t allowed in the tea room, but toddlers are welcome.
Next, hit the genteel streets of Victoria and scout out kid picks. Kaboodles packs an impressive number of toys into a shoebox-size store. Several streets over, preschoolers collide engines at the train table and create scary brews in the play kitchen at the appropriately named Scallywags.
Keep walking, because The British Candy Shoppe sells colorful masses of enamel-eating sweeties straight from bins. The 6-and-older crowd enjoys the mega-manga at Victoria’s comics corner, on the 600 block of Johnson Street. At Legends, Yellow Jacket or Curious Comics, kids can pick up Pokemon cards or figurines, plus Spiderman books for the ferry ride home.
Plan one more pit stop before loading the crew onto the ferry. Paradiso di Stelle’s mix ‘n’ match pasta dishes keep everyone content: Just choose your noodle shape, then pair with sauces such as tomato, Alfredo or smoked salmon. Eat outside with a full view of the harbor, while the kids feed plucky pigeons. Italian coffee and gelato provide a tasteful finish. A quicker pick is Sally Bun in Victoria’s Antique Row, selling rolls stuffed with ingredients such as spinach and feta or scrambled eggs and cheese. Perfectly portable and fuss-free, these sandwiches provide an instant dinner en route to home.
And then, give a royal goodbye wave to Victoria, and wish her luck. She’ll need it, with all the travelers arriving on her shores come summer.
Lora Shinn likes bugs and tea, but not together.
IF YOU GO
Bug Zoo: 250-384-2847, www.bugzoo.bc.ca
Butchart Gardens: 250-652-5256, www.butchartgardens.com
Royal BC Museum: 250-356-7226, www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca
Kaboodles: 250-383-0931, www.kaboodlestoystore.com
Fairmont Empress: 250-389-2727, www.fairmont.com/empress
Sally Bun (not open on Sundays): 250-384-1899
Paradiso di Stelle: 250-920-7266
The British Candy Shoppe: 250-382-2634
Cup of Joe Café: 250-380-2563, 230 Menzies St.
The Noodle Box: 250-384-1314, www.thenoodlebox.net
Rebar: 250-361-9223, www.rebarmodernfood.com
During shoulder season, the small Royal Scot is our pick, with one-bedroom, full-kitchen suites, a pool, and a board game room. From $169. 1-800-663-7515, www.royalscot.com
When the Scot fills, we turn to the Admiral Hotel’s suites. From $109; ask about discounts. 1-888-823-6472, www.admiral.bc.ca
From Seattle, the passenger-only Victoria Clipper sets sail twice per day in spring, with attractive hotel-and-transport package options. The two-hour ride deposits you directly in Victoria Harbor. 800-888-2535, www.clippervacations.com
Washington State Ferries offers boats from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C. Walk-on offered, reservations required for vehicles. 206-464-6400, www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries