Novice Voyagers vs. Trip of a Lifetime: Victoria BC Edition
February 26, 2018 1:35 PM   Subscribe

We are planning a 30th anniversary trip to Victoria, British Columbia for a week or so in August. We have questions aplenty, mostly lining up along two fronts.

Front the First. We have never been there before, and we chose the destination as a more intriguing alternative to Vancouver. Is there any particularly good stuff we should know about?

Front the Second. We have never been out of the US before, or flown internationally. We are using the recent Fodor’s guide to help us through various ins and outs, but we’re naturally anxious about any points we may be missing. Example, currency exchange. Would we regret relying on credit cards for most of the trip? And what about the several prescription medications I’ll need to bring along—are they an issue when crossing borders?

Grateful for any help we can get.
posted by Flexagon to Travel & Transportation around Victoria, BC (14 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Would we regret relying on credit cards for most of the trip?
No, but you won't regret having a little cash, either. My bank sells foreign currency in the bigger branches as well as those close to the border and will buy it back. You can probably use ATMs to get local cash at a decent exchange rate. Some cards charge a flat foreign fee in addition to the exchange rate. Talk to the bank that issues your cards to ask them about the rates and to let them know you will be using the cards in Canada. Don't skip notifying them or your card may be frozen for fraud.

Make sure you carry your prescriptions in their original bottles with your name on them. You can decant OTC medication into another container.
posted by soelo at 1:53 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

I was very sorry to miss the Royal BC Museum. I loved Munro's Books! They are both right downtown.

If you can get down to Butchart Gardens you should do that, too. I wasn't able to do it.

If you are a history buff, From Classroom to Battlefield is a great book that I got at Munro's. An excellent read!

You might want to have high tea at the Fairmont Empress, also centrally located.

It was beastly hot the day I was there in 2015, and the tea was not air conditioned. Canadians I overheard in Friday Harbor were vacationing in the U.S. to cool off, although it wasn't really much better.
posted by jgirl at 1:57 PM on February 26, 2018 [4 favorites]

When I go abroad, I usually exchange a small amount ($50-$100 depending on how far that will get me in local currency) before I go, then use money machines and my debit card at my destination for the rest. Your bank can tell you more about the fees when you call them to notify them that you're leaving the country, which you should do. Basically I take enough cash to get me from airport to hotel, and some cups of coffee or a meal. I don't want to keep track of a fat wad beyond that.
posted by soren_lorensen at 2:04 PM on February 26, 2018

Lots of shops will take US cash, but the exchange rate won't be great, so if you want cash use an ATM or exchange at the bank once you are in Canada.

My sister lives in the US and her credit card is chip and signature (it might have changed on the last trip). If you have chip and PIN, that is better.

The last time I was in Victoria (my BFF lives there) we did a self-guided walking tour with brochures given out at the tourism office. That was interesting. The one we did was through Chinatown.

Feeding the seals in Oak Bay was a fun diversion.

Victoria isn't huge, so definitely plan for some out of the city adventures such as cycling the Galloping Goose or day hiking on the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail if you are active.
posted by TORunner at 2:05 PM on February 26, 2018

Get a little cash before you head out, but the bulk of any converting should be done in Victoria. ATMs will work too.

Visit the parliament building, but also make time to see it at night, because it is lit up, year round, like Christmas.

Eat Nanaimo Bars, or at least get the recipe while you're there. Nanaimo itself is a bit of a drive from Victoria.

The Coho Ferry, a 90-minute car-ferry from Port Angeles (Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca on Olympic Peninsula in Washington) will have 4 sailings daily in August, and each arrival and departure causes minor chaos around Victoria's showpiece harbor, so be ready for that. Likewise the Victoria Clipper (from downtown Seattle) sails twice daily most days of the week. Be prepared for both of them to dump a lot of people and, in the case of the Coho, cars. That said, if you want a day or overnight trip to Seattle or Port Angeles, that's an option. Another ferry (Washington State Ferry), at Sidney (about a 20 minute drive from Victoria, maybe longer) goes to Friday Harbor (US: San Juan Island) and Anacortes (same). Further up the road from Sidney is Swartz Bay, where the BC Ferry to Tsawwassen (and drive to Vancouver) lands. A fellow MeFite and I took that ferry during a summer sunset; we didn't plan the timing with the sun. It was really fantastic. Obviously the 3 ferries to the US will require passports and customs.
posted by Sunburnt at 2:14 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Victoria is a lovely smaller city, and there's a number of things there worth your time (Royal BC museum, Butchart Gardens, Munro's Books and Murchie's Tea if that's your thing). But I would strongly consider going up the island, which has some amazing gems. (I used AskMe for some tips a couple of years ago.) If you can make it to Tofino and Ucluelet, you should. It's about 5 hours drive one way, although the last third is on more narrow/twisty roads than you may be used to.

Monday August 6th is a holiday in BC; this can mean larger crowds at recreation areas and on the highway (over the whole holiday weekend), but in most cases (except some provincial government things like the legislature) everything should be open. Sunday is Symphony Splash, which is an open air symphony concert concluding with the 1812 Overture & fireworks. The inner area of Victoria will be packed for this; your own preferences will dictate whether this is a highlight or something to be avoided at all costs.

Speed limits are in km/h. Prescriptions are fine; the official advice is to bring them in their containers from the pharmacy, but I've almost never had those looked at (and I fly with a gallon bag of meds) and have gotten away with using a pill container on short trips. Pack them in your carryon if they're really important to take. The only thing I'd worry about more (get a doctor's note) is if they're something "fun" like vicodin that people traffic, as opposed to acid reflux pills or something.

If you're flying to Victoria from the US (eg connecting in Seattle), you'll do Canadian customs and immigration when you land in Victoria. If you're flying to Victoria via another Canadian city (eg Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Montreal), you'll clear Canadian customs and immigration when you land in the first city, then fly domestically the rest of the way, so avoid a tight connection (I'd allow an extra hour, although it's likely to take less). If you're flying into the US directly from Vancouver (eg connecting in Seattle), you'll do US customs and immigration when you first land in the US, so you'll need to allow time in the connection. If you're flying home via a major Canadian city (eg the ones above), you'll do something called "customs preclearance" where you clear US customs and immigration in the Canadian city, then when you arrive in the US you'll be treated as if you got off a domestic flight.
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 2:23 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

Mr K and I dream of taking the Washington State Ferry one day to Victoria to visit the World's Largest Miniature Museum, located in the Empress Hotel (the basement, I believe). It has the World's Smallest Operating Lumber Mill - I mean, how often do you get to see something like that!

And then you can go all grown-up fancy and have High Tea at the Empress. I wouldn't want to do it regularly, but once is fun.

If you have the time and inclination, seconding that Tofino and the coast in general are magnificent. There are lots of places to stay in the area, but it is a drive to get there.

Personally, I find SeaTac Airport (and most of Seattle) a nightmare these days. If you have to fly into it to transfer to go north, you might as well fly out from there. But flying into Canada is much, much easier from Bellingham. It's small and friendly, but it IS International because ... Canada. If you're driving from the south, use Chuckanut Drive instead of I-5 -- unbelievable beauty.
posted by kestralwing at 3:13 PM on February 26, 2018

Fishhook in downtown is a delicious casual spot for dinner with novel Indian/French seafood.
posted by vespabelle at 4:03 PM on February 26, 2018

Hey, I live in Vic. August is a good choice, it's the most reliable for good weather. It gets hot but not too hot - like 35c/95f, and the steady ocean breezes keep it from feeling very stifling.

Since it'll likely be nice out, you should def get out and enjoy nature, it's one of the best features around here. In town you can walk along Dallas Road where everyone walks their dogs and kite surfs and generally lazes around on the beach sipping beers. Right next to that is Beacon Hill Park, there's a petting zoo and peacocks all over the place and guess what!? In August only they screen free movies on weekend nights (Free B Movie festival). If you have a car to get out of town, Thetis Lake or East Sooke Park are 20-40 minutes away and are really nice, easy strolls. If you want more of a hike with a crazy view at the end of it, try Mount Finlayson or Mount Work.

What else ... Food! We have food. 2nd highest number of restaurants per capita in North America, after San Francisco. A few of my personal favorites:

Hanks - tiny hole in the wall right in the middle of dt; no set menu, they just do whatever they feel like every night, if you're there late they'll probably start drinking with all the regulars; wild atmosphere, killer food (eg recent menu)
Brasserie Ecole - high end French food for a reasonable price; no reservations, first come first serve (it's the kind of place people line up early for)
Part and Parcel - also super high quality for reasonable price; started by some chefs from fine dining restaurants who wanted to open a casual neighborhood eatery; slightly out of the way but worth seeing a different part of the city, and has the best sandwiches in town imo
Prima Strada - because you have to have some wood fired pizza while here, right?
Cafe Brio - in case you want to have a real fancy, expensive date night out; but imo this place has gone down hill a bit the last couple years (we go once a year, when my mother in law is in town); if you do go out to East Sooke Park, I'd combine that with dinner at Sooke Harbour House

Pretty much everywhere takes credit cards - restaurants, stores, even the parking meters. Probably not a bad idea to have a bit of cash for things like a coffee to go, but I think it would be possible to get by with just your cards.

If you have any other questions closer to your trip feel free to message me, I'll answer the best I can.
posted by mannequito at 5:07 PM on February 26, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding mannequito's advice to walk along Dallas Road: start in Cook Street Village and walk from there. Nearby, Beacon Hill Park is beautiful in a frilly landscaped way.

Two of my favourite spots in the city are cemeteries. Ross Bay is beautiful – Emily Carr is there – but the true hidden gem is the Chinese Cemetery.

Check out the odd secret doorways in Chinatown. There are some interesting bazaar-like passages leading from one store to the next.

If you like used books, Russell Books has become Canada's answer to the Strand or Powell's. (Disclaimer: I am an alumnus.)

If you're vegetarian and well-off, check out Be Love. If you're vegetarian and hard up, go to the Lotus Pond lunch buffet at 2:30 because it's half price till 3:00.

The Noodle Box is good fast food, but beware that their spicy is scorching.
posted by Beardman at 6:47 PM on February 26, 2018

Victoria in August will be great! It's a wonderful place to visit.

Lots of great suggestions above, but I will add that if you are comfortable driving a rental car this may be worthwhile for a few days. The Island in general is beautiful, but I am especially fond of the south west coastal road through Sooke and then up to Port Renfrew and back around thru Cowichan. It's a 'real road' now (for years was logging roads) and perfectly driveable for all but the most nervous novice. Stop at Shirley Delicious for coffee and snacks. Don't forget your re-Phil (The owner Phil, is a great guy!). A brief stop to see if anyone is surfing at Jordan River, Then stop at China Beach where you are literally facing China. The walk down is worth it there. Port Renfrew has a few options for meals in the summer, as does Lake Cowichan. From there you come over the Malahat and back to Victoria. It's a full day trip, but gorgeous! Have a wonderful trip whatever you choose to see!
posted by Northbysomewhatcrazy at 7:26 PM on February 26, 2018

I second miniature museum in the empress hotel. Skip the bug zoo, it's really more of a place for kids. If you do like bugs, the butterfly gardens near the ferry are lovely. Take a boat tour by the harbour, and see the city by water. I also love the food. Lately I go with kids, so the goat stampeded and petting zoo at beacon hill park is popular, but the park itself is really lovely.

If you do go up island, that port renfrew / cowichan lake road is rough, but port renfrew is amazing. Look up the tidal schedules, so you can go at low tide. You will have to walk on a trail for about a km.

Also, Canada is pretty easy going for US tourists. Credit cards are fine (but not AmEx, for some reason it's rarely accepted in Western Canada. Visa or MasterCard). Say thank you, you're welcome, please and excuse me way more than you think is necessary. Eat all the seafood!
posted by Valancy Rachel at 9:51 PM on February 26, 2018 [1 favorite]

My sister lives in the US and her credit card is chip and signature (it might have changed on the last trip). If you have chip and PIN, that is better.

Don't worry about not having chip + PIN (because you almost certainly don't*). I've had the occasional waiter or cashier in Canada be surprised by the machine asking for a signature, but not confused by it. Just avoid credit cards at self-checkouts.

Check what fees your bank charges for using foreign ATMs, as they're all over the map. Wells Fargo is outrageous, B of A has some deal with Scotiabank (I think), CapitalOne is/was free. I usually change cash in the US and don't use ATMs, but, aside from bank fees, I don't think it matters.

A number of credit cards have started dropping foreign transaction fees recently. How angry such fees make you, if your card has them, may weigh into how much cash you need. Occasionally somewhere might ask you whether you want your card charged in USD or CAD (as a service offered by their card processor, not that the shop has two sets of prices). Even with a foreign transaction fee, picking CAD is likely advantageous.

*There are some cards that support falling back to a PIN if a machine doesn't support signatures, but actual chip + PIN is a unicorn. It can't hurt to check if your card supports falling back, but it's likely your bank won't even know what you're asking. I have a card that can do this. It has never fallen back to the PIN, including at a self-checkout.
posted by hoyland at 4:28 AM on February 27, 2018

Response by poster: I want to thank everyone for all the very interesting answers. These are going to be a great help to us.
posted by Flexagon at 6:21 AM on June 1, 2018

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