I lucked into a monster adventure off Canada's Pacific Coast. I call it happy hour on the Salish Sea.
Victoria, British Columbia's capital, is known for its charm and beauty. The Vancouver Island city also gets rave reviews for the abundant marine life just offshore. I couldn't wait to get a look for myself; perhaps I'd even see a black-and-white killer whale, also known as an orca.
My three-hour boat tour explored the Salish, a network of coastal waterways that connects southwestern British Columbia with the northwestern edges of Washington state. The voyage began as a scenic interlude with snow-capped Mt. Rainier in the distance, sparkling waters glinting in the afternoon sunlight and forested hillsides as far as the eye could see.
As we raced across the water, I pictured where I might be if I hadn't gone to sea. Perhaps in Victoria, drinking tea and eating warm scones at an afternoon tea party at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.
As we passed San Juan Island, on the U.S. side of the border, I thought about the yachties who were celebrating cocktail hour there, drinking sidecars and gin fizzes while they lounged on their sloops and power boats at Roche Harbor Marina.
And then someone yelled "whale," and my attention tuned to the blue waters ahead of our boat. There wasn't just one orca, but four, a few hundred yards in front of us.
On the port side of the boat another man yelled, "Whales," and three more appeared, swimming together. "Over there," a woman sang out, and we saw two more killer whales behind us.
There were tail slaps and breaches, spy hops and dives. There was so much going on I couldn't follow it all.
Who needs afternoon tea or a cocktail on the yacht when there's so much to see in the water?
The whales were having their afternoon playtime, said Jennifer Dickson, a naturalist and marine biologist who accompanied the Prince of Whales tour boat (adults $87, children ages 5 to 12 $62).
"The salmon are here now, on their way to the Fraser River to spawn," she said, "and the orcas are literally eating it up."
Dickson estimated we saw 20 to 30 orcas frolicking in the Salish, including resident killer whales that stay in the area year-round and transient pods that visit occasionally.
She pointed out whales named Oreo and Little Angel as they leaped and dove.
Then as suddenly as they appeared, they were gone. Seven boats had gathered to watch the fun; now they split up and went their separate ways. We turned back toward Victoria.
It had been a special afternoon, but I knew I had other memorable activities on my itinerary. I'd visit Butchart Gardens, a series of bold and beautiful gardens that is considered one of the region's top attractions. I'd tour Victoria's colorful Chinatown, and I'd take a bike tour that would take me to some of the city's top sights.
But I'd never forget happy hour with the orcas.
A boat ride by the Butchart Gardens
Most people spend an afternoon at Victoria's famous Butchart Gardens admiring the pansies and peonies.
Not me. I fell in love with the boat tour.
Yes, you read that right. I went to a garden to ride in a boat. An electric boat, to be specific, that silently powers its way through the waters of Saanich Inlet and Gowlland Tod Provincial Park, adjacent to the 55-acre floral gardens.
Don't get me wrong, I'd never recommend skipping the gardens. They're magnificent.
Butchart, founded in 1904, has a stunning sunken garden, formerly a limestone quarry, that is surrounded by special areas, such as a rose garden that features more than 250 varieties of roses. You'll also find a Japanese garden that dates to 1906, a Mediterranean garden and an Italian garden, plus restaurants and a gift shop.
Admission prices depend on the season and range from $15 to $24 for adults ages 18 and older and $1.50 for children ages 5 to 12.
The gardens are so well developed that it takes an army of 70 gardeners working full time in peak season to keep them in shape.
Strolling through the grounds is a wonderful way to spend a few hours.
But after focusing on all that intensely colorful beauty, walk down the pathway toward Brentwood Bay and take a seat aboard one of the garden's small, silent boats, where you can zone out and decompress on a 45-minute tour of the waters surrounding this Victoria suburb. The trip is offered from mid-May through mid-September. Tickets cost $13.50 to $18.50.
The scenery is as beautiful as that in the gardens, but the tones are muted and natural: soft blue water, rugged brown shorelines, green pine forests. It offers a relaxing counterpoint to the bright colors in the garden.
Here's an insider's tip about Butchart: If you plan to visit during July and August, check the schedule for the garden's open-air concerts. They're held nightly, along with a fireworks display on Saturday nights.
Victoria's Chinatown is only about two square blocks in the center of the city but offers a vibrant mix of shops, markets, restaurants, temples and bakeries.
It's an interesting contrast to the city's charming Inner Harbour area, where horse-and-carriage rides clip-clop through the streets, potted flowers bloom with abandon, street performers entertain and visiting yachts tie up during the summer.
I spent a morning poking through Chinatown's crowded streets with historian and author John Adams, whose Discover the Past tours ($10 for adults, $5 for children ages 6 to 11) focus on the city and its ghosts.
In terms of age, Victoria's Chinatown is second only to San Francisco's in North America. At one time, 4-foot-wide Fan Tan Alley, Canada's narrowest commercial street, was home to brothels, opium dens and gambling joints where the Chinese game of fan-tan was played.
Chinatown was born after the Fraser River Gold Rush of 1858, Adams said. Many Chinese immigrants spent their summers working in gold and logging camps and in salmon canneries in the interior of British Columbia.
They came to Fan Tan Alley to gamble. Many stayed.
It continued to grow in the 1880s when the city became the main entry point for an estimated 15,000 Chinese workers who arrived to help build the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Eventually, it became one of the largest Chinese settlements in Canada.
Today locals and visitors alike browse through its souvenir shops and markets and eat at its restaurants. Chinatown is touristy but adds another dimension to this colorful island city.
Victoria by bike
Victoria is compact and easy to navigate, a highly walkable city. Those qualities also make it a fun place to go for a bike tour.
My hotel, the Magnolia, made things easy by providing bikes and maps, but bicycles are easy to rent in the city if you're staying elsewhere.
Here's a roundup of some of the places on my tour:
Art Gallery for Greater Victoria, 1040 Moss St.. The Art Gallery, with almost 20,000 works of art, has the largest public collection in British Columbia.
Check out the Gallery Shop upstairs for pottery, crafts and other unique gifts to take home.
Craigdarroch Castle, 1050 Joan Crescent. A short ride uphill takes you to this baronial-style Victorian mansion that reigns over the city. This National Historic Site is called Canada's Castle and was built for industrialist Robert Dunsmuir in 1890.
If you have time, a volunteer guide will show you around. There are wonderful views of the city from the upstairs rooms.
Government House, 1401 Rockford Ave.. Here's another house to wow you. Visit the gardens and grounds of this 36-acre abode, which serves as the official residence for the lieutenant governor, the queen's representative in British Columbia.
Royal BC Museum, 765 Belleville St.. Explore the world of British Columbia at this excellent museum, which is celebrating its 130th birthday. A highlight of any visit to Victoria, the Royal BC Museum is Canada's most-visited museum.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO VICTORIA, CANADA
From LAX, Air Canada, WestJet, Delta and Alaska offer connecting service (change of planes) to Victoria. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $246, including all taxes and fees.
To call Victoria, from the United States, dial 1 (long distance), 250 (the area code) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY
Magnolia Hotel & Spa, 623 Courtney St., Victoria; (800) 916-4339 or (877) 624-6654. Quietly elegant hotel in downtown Victoria near shops, restaurants and scenic Victoria Harbor. Some rooms with fireplace and harbor views. Bikes and guides to shopping and bike trails. Doubles from $197 per night.
Hotel Rialto, 653 Pandora Ave., Victoria; 383-4157, (800) 332-9981. Downtown hotel is centrally located and nicely furnished. Doubles from $153 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
10 Acres, 611 Courtney St., Victoria; 220-8008. This downtown bistro-bar advertises that the menu features seasonal favorites "from our farm to your plate" and boasts that everything is made in-house. The menu changes frequently, but the night I was there, wild B.C. salmon was featured for $19. Entrees from $10.
Little Jumbo, 506 Fort St., Victoria; (788) 433-5535. If you like unusual cocktails, this popular restaurant and bar is your place. Try Pimm My Ride (gin, cucumber and honey) or I Am Broot (roots, bark, herbs and honey), both for $9.50. Diners will enjoy the squash risotto, $16, or a burger for $13.
Cafe Brio, 944 Fort St, Victoria; 383-0009. Tuscan flavors and atmosphere have kept Cafe Brio in business for more than 20 years. I like that you can get half orders of most dishes. Entrees from $9.50 for spaghettini with fresh tomatoes (full order $16). Or try the pan-roasted halibut, $13 (half) or $25 (full).
TO LEARN MORE
Tourism Victoria: 953-2033, or (800) 663-3883