Look out to the left, the captain said, and you can see killer whales. Now that’s not the kind of invitation you expect when you’re on a car ferry, especially if you are more used to the hop between Dover and Calais, when there is normally nothing to see… except other ferries.
But this was Canada and I was on a 90-minute crossing from Swartz Bay near Victoria on Vancouver Island to Tsawwassen, about 15 miles south of the city of Vancouver on the Canadian mainland.
For me, the sight of whales is one of those things that always thrill me to my boots (like the sudden and occasional views of Concorde we used to get). But, clearly, they are no big deal to Canadians, since few of my fellow passengers bothered to stir themselves from their breakfasts to catch a glimpse of the passing pod.
People are just used to things being on an epic scale here, and not just the wildlife. Vancouver Island, for example, may look like a dot on the map – inviting comparisons with the Isle of Wight – yet it is nearly 300 miles long and some 50 miles broad at its widest point.
Standing out on deck, gazing east, I strained for my first sight of the Rockies. On the horizon is what looks like a sweep of steepling peaks but as you approach, these turn out to be modest foothills. Beyond lurk the real mountains. So, even on these first tentative steps towards the country’s heart, you begin to grasp that this is a place created on a vast scale. It’s the world’s second biggest country, roughly 36 times the size of Britain, but is home to 33million people – half the UK’s population.
I had arrived in Canada via the ‘back door’ after taking another ferry, the high-speed service from Seattle to Victoria. One minute I was in fast-paced America – Seattle is home to Starbucks, Boeing and Microsoft – the next, I was in Victoria, taking the five-minute walk from the sedate ferry terminal to the even more sedate Empress Hotel.
It’s a journey of just a couple of hours up from the US, but Canada is light years apart from the States in most respects. Victoria, the state capital of British Columbia, feels more like Torquay. Actually, given the ever-present Scottish heritage that surrounds you in Canada, you are reminded more of, say, Rothesay on the Isle of Bute.
In America, you never feel able to drop your guard but in Canada I felt instantly as if I had never left home.
At the excellent Empress Hotel, for example, they serve a regular lunchtime curry buffet as fine as anything you can find on a British high street. And at any time of day you can always be sure of a real cup of tea.
The Empress Hotel, by the way, provides a worthy introduction to the chain of magnificent ‘railway hotels’ – now under the Fairmont banner – that stretches right across Canada. Like the country itself, these hotels are built on a grand scale in a style described as ‘chateau-esque’.
By Frank Barrett, Mail Online, >>> continue reading