They’re called “the holidays” for a reason: a lot of us have time off at the end of December. The kids are out of school, many offices are closed, and friends and relatives visit. But while much is made of the Christmas frenzy, the truth is that after the big day, there’s often a big lull. That’s when people can start to go a little stir-crazy.
A day trip gets everybody out of the house and doing something out of the ordinary. It’s up to you whether you pack up the relations or escape them entirely—and if you can swing a night away, even better. Here are some ideas to entertain everyone in Victoria and Seattle, with transportation options geared to various budgets and broods.
The provincial capital is charming all dressed up for the holidays, and you don’t need a car to enjoy it. Bonus: the ferry to get there is now a wee bit cheaper since B.C. Ferries eliminated the 3.4-percent fuel surcharge on its fares this week. Still, consider leaving the vehicle behind to avoid both holiday-season lineups and the $53.25 car rate (plus $16.25 for the driver and each adult passenger; all prices one-way). Instead, park at the Tsawwassen ferry terminal ($16 for 24 hours in the long-term lot) and walk onto the vessel ($16.25 per adult). It’s also possible, though time-consuming, to take public transit from downtown Vancouver to the terminal; see the Translink website.
When you arrive at Swartz Bay, catch the Number 70 B.C. Transit double-decker express bus, which connects with the ferry outside the terminal; the $2.50 trip downtown takes about an hour. Alternatively, Pacific Coach Lines offers a pricier but faster and more streamlined journey from downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria for $30.95 per B.C. resident adult one-way, plus the $16.25 ferry fare.
Remember that this excursion is supposed to be fun, so if it makes sense for your party, shell out for the convenience of driving. Consult ferry and bus schedules at the BC Ferries website and the Transit BC website. Or, for a real scenic treat, consider a 30-minute Harbour Air seaplane flight from downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria. (See prices at the Harbour Air website.)
Once you’re in downtown Victoria, wandering around picturesque Inner Harbour and Government Street can easily occupy an afternoon. The B.C. Legislative Assembly buildings are aglow this time of year with over 5,000 lights, and it’s always lovely to walk through the Fairmont Empress Hotel’s Festival of Trees, with over 50 Christmas trees on display. This year, the hotel (721 Government Street) boasts an 18-by-27-metre covered public skating rink on its front lawn, with skate rentals available. For hours and details, see the Fairmont Empress website.
Afternoon tea at the Empress is, of course, iconic, or you could sit down for a martini in the hotel’s swank Bengal Lounge. Craft-beer lovers should stroll over to the Drake Eatery (517 Pandora Avenue) and check out the local brews on tap. The rustic brick space opened last August.
If you’re staying the night and are up for something spookier, Discover the Past runs holiday-themed Ghost of Christmas Past walking tours through OldTown. Tours run rain or shine and don’t require advance reservations; for meeting spot and schedule, see discoverthepast.com.
For families venturing out with youngsters or seniors, the Butchart Gardens are a crowd-pleaser. You’ll want a car to get there as they're located about 20 kilometres south of the Swartz Bay ferry terminal at 800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay, rather than downtown Victoria. The Magic of Christmas light display runs through January 6 with the Twelve Days of Christmas displays tucked around the garden, a carousel for kids, ice skating, carollers, and more.
For additional holiday activities in Greater Victoria, see the Tourism Victoria website.
Get going early if you decide to head to Seattle for a day trip. While the city is 230 kilometres south of Vancouver, or about a three-hour drive, heavy holiday traffic due to cross-border shoppers can make border waits unpredictable. Before you set off, check with the Canada Border Services Agency for current and forecasted wait times at the Canadian Border website and listen to radio reports on News1130 and AM730. Don’t forget to ensure that everyone has their documents in order (i.e., valid B.C. Enhanced Driver’s Licence, EIC, or passport). Then pack snacks, make sure everybody hits the washroom before buckling up, and cross your fingers.
Taking the BoltBus greatly reduces the uncertainty of the border wait, since the bus bypasses the vehicle lineup and passengers disembark to clear U.S. customs formalities. Ditto for the Amtrak Cascades train, which pre-clears passengers in Vancouver and speeds right past the Peace Arch bottleneck in a very satisfying manner. Fares for both bus and train vary based on demand; I've written more about the BoltBus experience here (the bus now stops in Bellingham) and the Amtrak Cascades experience here.
Once you’re in downtown Seattle, there are plenty of festive activities happening. Pike Place Market is the obvious draw, as it’s all decked out for Christmas and the Pike Place Fish Market provides ongoing fish-throwing entertainment. (The holidays mean more customer orders, which translates to more airborne fish as the mongers toss them to one another to wrap.)
Right downtown in Westlake Park, there’s a cheery holiday carousel with A Christmas Story theme through January 1; rides are by donation. From there, take the monorail to Seattle Center, where Winterfest runs through December 31. Expect light installations, an outdoor skating rink (until January 4), and ice-sculpting and live music on weekends. Inside the Armory, an exhibit features a model turn-of-the-century village and miniature train. And if you’re thinking of a New Year’s getaway, look for fireworks at the Space Needle.