Victoria: Biking, Beer and British Columbia

I didn’t know what to expect when I boarded the ferry in Port Angeles, Washington for the 90 minute ride through the strait of Juan de Fuca heading for Victoria, British Columbia. My wife and I were planning a day of bike riding through British Columbia’s capital city but we were going at this without much of a plan. Normally, I like to plan things to a meticulous degree but this time the plans were essentially out the door.

I had read a little bit about Victoria online and I wasn’t really sure if there was enough to do there to make a full day trip out of it. My parents had gone here before and said they wouldn’t go back and actually declined our invitation to join us.  At a minimum, we thought maybe the bike ride would be nice as there seemed to be several decent bike paths throughout the city. So we decided to give it a try, booked the ferry fare, grabbed the bikes and went across the strait to see what happens.

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Bike racks on the ferry

As a starting point, Port Angles is not the most scenic way to begin the journey but it felt safe and there were lots of families around getting ready for the ferry.  The trip across took about 90 minutes and wasn’t particularly interesting until the final approach to the inner harbor of Victoria. As you approach the city, there is a lot to see, all at once. There are really cool (tiny) water taxis taking people from one part of the harbor to another, seaplanes are taking off and landing in the middle of the bustling harbor center, kayaks and paddle boards are all over the place, and all of this could be seen before the ferry even docked. Reasons to be encouraged? Yes!

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The Inner Harbour

Once we landed, bagpipes could be heard along the waterfront while totem poles and stately buildings could be seen on all sides. Although the area was busy, it definitely had a relaxed vibe that you don’t get in some of the larger cities and I felt comfortable here straight away. After a quick stop at the Visitor Information Center to get our bearings straight, we headed across the bridge to the Galloping Goose Trail and followed it for a couple of hours before turning back to the city. The trail system here is well maintained and there were many offshoot trails that could be taken in most any direction. Tempting yes, but we only had a short stay and had the city center to explore still.

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The Fairmont Empress Hotel

Next up for us, and it’s this way when I travel anywhere, is to sample a local brewery or two. First up and very near to the bike trail was the Canoe Brewery and Restaurant which had a great patio that overlooked the water and was a perfect spot to have a drink after being out on the trail (I had the Helles). While siting on the patio, seaplanes fly overhead, making this one of the more unique places to sit and have a beer that I’ve been to. After that was a short half mile pedal to Vancouver Island Brewing which is a little off of the main tourist route (but not by much) and was worth the extra time and effort. The brewery sits just outside of Chinatown which is the oldest Chinatown in Canada and was also worth the visit.  There was a greater selection of beers here and a flight was only $5, which made trying four different styles the way to go. I recommend the Twisted Stalk Blackberry Helles but all four of the beers we tried were very good.

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Great beer and a great logo!

Short on time, we made a quick detour into Chinatown to have a look at Victoria’s Chinatown and the world famous Fan Tan Alley.  I love strolling through city alleys (at least the safe ones) and this was one of the best ones I’ve seen. It was impossibly narrow and barely fit the bike down the narrow lane.  Even still, biking was definitely the way to get around the city.

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Fan Tan Alley, Chinatown

 

After Chinatown, it was back to the ferry for our late afternoon departure and we were regretting our decision to not spend more time here and we didn’t even visit the number one attraction in bike pathsVictoria, Butchart Gardens.  I am not in a position to say how much time you need to explore this beautiful city but I can tell you that one afternoon was definitely not enough. At least a couple of days next time!

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San Francisco – By Land

San Francisco has everything  you want as a tourist, but look a little deeper and you’ll also find a city that brings out the traveler in you.  All cities have the obligatory destinations that you really do need to see. New York has the Statue of Liberty, Miami has South Beach, Seattle has the Pike Place Fish Market, and so on. San Francisco has quite a few of its own: Fishermans Wharf, Pier 39, cable cars, and the Golden Gate Bridge.  All of those are a must see but I say get a bus pass and see the rest of the city…the real city and you’ll have an even better time.

Fisherman’s Wharf has some great restaurants and seafood is its greatest draw.  Perhaps the most authentically Wharf food you can get is clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl.  The city is legendary for its seafood and the sourdough is the best of any town around.  The Wharf can be very crowded with tourists and the street shows that accompany them.  If that’s your thing, you’re going to be entertained for hours with great food and live street entertainment. Visit the Wharf early in the morning before the hoards arrive, while the fog is still hanging around, and the sounds of seagulls and foghorns fill the air, while all of the seafood vendors are setting up for the day and the experience will be quite different…deeper. If crowds aren’t your thing but you’d still like to experience Fisherman’s Wharf, consider visiting Monday through Thursday before the vacationers arrive. It might not be quite as entertaining, but you will have more room to move around and take your time along the piers.

Near the Wharf is another must see attraction especially if you’re a first-timer, Pier 39.  Pier 39 is quite similar to the Wharf but differs in that its emphasis is not as much on seafood as it on more traditional tourist fare like crepes, fresh fruit, and candy stores.  The biggest and best Pier 39 attraction is without a doubt the sea lions that rule the docks near the end of the pier proper. The sea lions compete for space on the platforms and the competition between the males will end up making you feel sorry for the smaller ones. They continually keep getting knocked off by the big bad dominant male.  I’ve seen significantly more sea lions there in the winter months than in the summer. In the early morning when the city is still just waking up you can hear them ‘barking’ from blocks away. If you’re a morning person and a runner, you can find dozens of people running along the Piers as well as people swimming in the Bay across from Ghiradelli Square near an ancient looking sail boat. Not for the faint of heart as the water is freezing.

After taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Pier 39 and Fishermans Wharf, a stroll southward along the Embarcadero will get you some exercise and a bit of elbow room as well.  From here, and many places from within the city, you can see the landmark of the Coit Tower at the top of Telegraph Hill.  If you’re up for it, head to the Filbert Steps which lead roughly from Levi’s Square 600 steep steps up to the top.  The garden lined pathway is definitely steep but there are many places along the way to stop and catch your breath while looking back and seeing some great views of the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, and the Ferry Building below.  Continuing up, quads burning, lungs bursting, notice the intricate gardens of fruits, flowers, palms and herbs that distract you from the pain of the climb, as well as some beautiful multi-million dollar homes. You literally walk right by them. At the top, you’re rewarded with one of the finest views in the city and you can now see the Golden Gate Bridge and Alcatraz Island in the distance.

If you walk down the opposite side that you walked up, you’ll continue through the neighborhood known as North Beach towards Chinatown.  Along the way stop by the Beatnik era bookstore City Lights Bookstore and check out this famous city landmark and maybe even buy a book.  Just across Jack Kerouac Alley is another Beatnik hangout, Vesuvio, which is an eclectic place to hangout for a couple of drink and imagine Jack Kerouac having a drink, or two or three there.

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As you continue walking in a generally southern direction, you’ll eventually end up in Chinatown.  There is something about Chinatown in San Francisco that just draws us in every time.  The place is always buzzing with cheap souvenir shops, interesting restaurants, unique grocery stores, and more Chinese being spoken than English. After all of that walking and stair stepping, we were hungry for a snack and stopped at Delicious Dim Sum, a low budget, slightly adventurous looking restaurant. We decided to take a chance though and went in for some dumplings. The old lady working there spoke almost no English but with the help of another customer, we were able to order three pork dumplings which were outstanding…and only $2.50. Across the street, we saw what looked like an ‘interesting’ alley that also looked like something worth checking out. As we were admiring an alley coming down from the Coit Tower we walked past a bicyclist who saw me taking a picture and offered “the best part of San Francisco is the alleys” so when we saw this one we decided to take his advice. We were rewarded by stumbling into the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Company where they still make the cookies by hand.  They also, for $5 a bag, sell X-Rated fortune cookies which is something that can be tons of fun 😘!

For the last part of our walk through Chinatown, we stopped by the Eastern Bakery for some traditional Chinese pastries. We tried a butter cream pastry, so good and a sesame black bean moon, good but we liked the butter cream the best. All for just $2.95!?!  Fun but it’s time to move on! Up next is a cable car ride and another walk, this time to the hippie district of Haight-Ashbury.

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Butter Cream Pastry – Eastern Bakery

So is riding the world famous SF cable car a “tourist” thing to do?  Hell yes it is but it is so fun.  Hanging out the side of the cars feels like getting to do something you shouldn’t be allowed to do, which makes it even better.  Never mind that it’s just a great way to get around, it’s fun too.  We happened to be on the cable car while the driver was in training which made it even more interesting, especially when he didn’t apply the brake when he should have.

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The touristy but still fun, cable car

After finishing that ride we walked a few blocks to Haight-Ashbury and spent some time walking around hippie ground zero before strolling over to Golden Gate Park.  This park surely ranks up there with New York’s Central Park as far as great urban open spaces go.  On this day, instead of walking the miles of trails through the beautiful park, we stumbled on a collection of food trucks and live music. Now, San Francisco is legendary for its great food truck culture so why not give that a go too? We tried one called “The Chairman” which served Coca Cola braised pork with a couple of other sides that I couldn’t pronounce, let alone write.  The food was so unique and tasty that it was hard to believe that it came from a truck.

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Food truck culture alive and well in Golden Gate Park

With daylight fading, we hopped on a Muni Bus and tried to get over to the area around Lands End to take in an ocean sunset. We made it with a few minutes to spare and we were able to take in a great sunset from Point Lobos. The area around the point is worth exploring while you’re there.  The ruins of the Sutro Baths are there to check out and the Cliff House, a restaurant and bar with an incredible view of the Pacific is nearby. We then hopped back on another Muni Bus to our hotel and can honestly say that we squeezed every bit out of the day you possibly could but we had a blast.

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Rocks and surf off of Point Lobos

We experienced so much of what makes this city so diverse, and have been to San Francisco numerous times. This time we didn’t go to the Golden Gate Bridge, Lombard Street, or the Ferry Terminal.  As you can see, San Francisco is a city that takes several days to explore, maybe even a lifetime.