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Victoria, B.C.

Catamaran offers speedy trip from Seattle

By STEVE FRENZL

What if you could wave a magic wand and have the perfect getaway -- including exotic conveyance; deluxe accommodations, a beautiful, exciting and romantic destination, and all travel arrangements made for you -- materialize out of nowhere? Well — you can. Because there is such a wand -- although in the 21st century it's commonly known as a "mouse." And all you have to do is click it.

Where? On the numerous getaway packages featured on www.clippervacations.com, the website for Victoria Clipper, the Seattle-based cruise/vacation company that serves Victoria, Vancouver and the San Juan Islands. We did just that and in an instant created and confirmed all the details for a wonderful weekend in Victoria, BC. When you do the same, here's just a sampling of what you can look forward to.

Cruising the Victoria Clipper

Victoria Clipper's home port is Pier 69 on the Seattle waterfront. Arrive about 7 a.m. for check-in where a row of happy faces greets you and processes your tickets and luggage. Steaming cups of rich Tully's coffee (just 75 cents with unlimited refills) help awaken you as you settle into comfortable seats board the boat and watch while the crew scurries about taking breakfast orders and preparing for embarkation.

At eight o'clock sharp, the handsome Victoria Clipper IV backs quietly away from the dock, swings its bow westward and begins a two-hour-45 minute cruise to Victoria about 80 miles distant. The boat is a large catamaran with room for about 300 passengers, yet feels like a wide-body jet with wall-to-wall windows. It quickly reaches cruising speed — about 30 mph — and powerful 2600 HP engines leave a furious double wake hundreds of yards long behind. The Space Needle and the city's dozens of glass-skinned skyscrapers shimmer in the morning sunlight — a magnificent sight as the city appears to float on a temporal table of sparkling water-- then rapidly shrink and disappear from view as the boat turns north toward the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Water conditions en route are generally calm. Today, however, a strong wind is creating exceptionally large waves on the Strait and the captain elects to take a longer, more gentle course along the shoulder of Whidbey Island. Even then the swells are rolling rapidly across our path six feet high, but surprisingly, the boat with its deep double-hull design, doesn't seem to notice them and my Tulley's remains contentedly in its cup. About 11:30, after a tasty breakfast with bottomless coffee pot, pleasant chit-chat with other passengers, and close-up island sightseeing extraordinaire, we arrive at the docks in Victoria. I'm thinking, wow--already the boat ride was worth the price of admission. I don't need any more to make the trip worthwhile. But our getaway only got better as we stepped onto land.

Canadian customs is friendly and amazingly lenient. I had forgotten my birth certificate, so as an opportunity to prove my U.S. citizenship the customs official quizzed me about who created the first American flag. Of course every U.S. citizen should know that one, but my mind went blank and then after what seemed hours I blurted, "Betsy...uh...Whatserface!" to which the officer just rolled her eyes and let me pass through anyway. (For the record, you will need picture ID and at least a birth certificate — in late 2008 or 2009 passports may be mandatory.)

Enjoy the Chateau Victoria Hotel

After recovering from that red-faced welcome (I pride myself for usually having a solid grasp of historical factoids), we stepped outside the terminal and hailed a cab to the hotel. We had chosen the elegant Chateau Victoria in our Victoria Clipper getaway package. It is considered a medium-quality hotel among the many offerings through Victoria Clipper, so we were pleasantly surprised to discover how upscale and elegant it is. Plus, because it's just a two-minute ride from the dock and situated in the heart of the city, the hotel is easy walking distance from just about anywhere you want to go downtown. No need for cars or cabs to get around — the city is clean, compact and very pedestrian-friendly — and the Chateau Victoria makes a perfect home base.

The Chateau's lobby is impressive, inviting guests to relax in overstuffed lounging furniture, admire elegant art and enjoy the coddling of an extra-friendly staff. Guestrooms and suites are well-appointed, very spacious and comfortable. The rooms feature beds so cozy you wish you could sneak one home with you. Plus, if you decide to rent a car, you enjoy free covered parking, normally a $20-$30 per-day add-on at comparable hotels in most cities.

The hotel also offers a special treat for guests, the only top-floor eatery in Victoria which happens to be a quick elevator ride to the 18th story of the Chateau. It's the very popular Vista 18 Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge, which boasts an excellent menu of fine dining choices — for breakfast, lunch and dinner -- and absolutely the finest views in the city. Even your morning oatmeal tastes awesome in such an atmosphere!

What to See & Do

Within easy walking distance of the hotel are more things to see and do than you can cover in a week. Be sure to walk along the inner harbour and ogle the marina of stately sailing and motorboats; admire the 19th century architecture of the Province's Parliament Building; visit the Royal BC Museum, one of the top three of its kind in North America; see an exciting movie on the eye-popping 60-foot screen at the IMAX theater; stroll along Government and Douglas streets where you'll find unlimited shopping choices; eat a fabulous meal in nearby Chinatown, visit the famous Fairmont Empress Hotel, and much more.

And be sure to join Ghostly Walks along Government Street any evening all year long. For a variety of reasons that will surprise even the most serious spook fans, Victoria is the most haunted city in Canada, and the stories the Ghost Walks guides regale you with will fascinate you — and maybe also frost your blood a bit. For you non-believers — yeah, I know you're out there — this stuff is for real. John Adams, a respected Canadian historian with a Master's Degree in Museum Studies, has spent many years investigating paranormal phenomena in Victoria, and his findings are accepted by colleagues worldwide.

On a chilly evening we joined a group of about 20 who followed Heather, a pretty 20-something professional guide, through Victoria's shopping district and listened somewhat anxiously (most of us sorta wanted to see a live spook — but not really — you know?) as she described the ghostly encounters many merchants still experience up and down the street today. One spirit still fixes pipes in a room above a tobacco store; two more ghosts, the original owner-husband and wife of the chocolate shop across the avenue, rock in their squeaky chairs many nights in the backroom where the chocolate is made, and thankfully have stopped throwing milk chocolate pieces on the floor, much to the relief of the present proprietors.

Another ghost, Sam (his real name; research learned that he lived in Victoria a century ago) recently has been smitten by Heather (our pretty guide) and she can now feel him gently grasp her hand when she enters the backdoor of a building that once housed a restaurant where he worked as a young man.

Yep — the stories can run chills up and down your spine. But they're all based on scholarly investigation and happenings that are still observed today by respected citizens. Want to learn more? Visit their website at www.discoverthepast.com, click on "Ghostly Walks" and see pictures, too.

There are so many more things you'll enjoy about Victoria, however I'll save them for future stories. For now we'll re-board the Victoria Clipper and head for home, satiated by several delightful days of sightseeing and sampling English-style culture. By the way, a money-saving tip: on the boat trip to Victoria I had noticed a list of duty-free products available onboard. Duty-free prices for name-brand spirits and perfumes are a fraction of those you'll find in local stores, so the cruise back to Seattle is an excellent time to restock and save a lot.

We also looked through the Clipper Vacations catalog stuffed in the seat pockets and found a treasure trove of great one, two and three-night getaway packages to fill future weekends. And if you just want to go for a day, Victoria Clipper also offers a variety of excellent one-day packages and excursions including Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel, a comprehensive city tour, a combo tour of the city and world-renowned Butchart Gardens. Keep the magazine; it's filled with great info about Victoria and you'll want it to plan future getaways.

AT A GLANCE

WHERE: Victoria is on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island. The Victoria Clipper travels between Seattle and Victoria and along other routes.

WHAT: A 2-3/4 hour cruise between Seattle and Victoria BC aboard the Victoria Clipper IV, a large and very comfortable catamaran operating daily service between Seattle, Victoria, Vancouver and the San Juan Islands. Includes a wide range of tour packages, including hotels, sightseeing excursions and events.

WHEN: Year-around. Go every season to enjoy a wide range of activities.

WHY: There's nothing like riding a powerful boat across rolling waves while passing verdant shorelines, ranges of snow-capped mountains, views of the San Juan Islands, then landing in "Little England" for a few days of exciting exploration. The experience will definitely change your outlook and attitude.

HOW: Victoria Clipper (206) 448-5000 or (800) 888-2535 ( www.victoriaclipper.com). Chateau Victoria Hotel (800) 663-5891 ( www.chateauvictoria.com). Ghostly Walks (www.discoverthepast.com) or stop by the Victoria Travel InfoCentre at Government and Wharf Sts near the Inner Harbour.

Photos, from top: Victoria Clipper offers comfortable and fast way to get from Seattle to Victoria; Chateau Victoria is one of Victoria's many high-quality lodgings; guests get spooked on their ghostly tour of Victoria.

OTHER DESTINATIONS: If you're looking for other Northwest travel ideas, be sure to check out other Northwest Travel Advisor articles on Salish Lodge, Skitchine Lodge, Lake Chelan and the Rocky Mountaineer.

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