By STEVE QUINN
The Associated Press
VICTORIA, British Columbia -- A blue haze crowns the Olympic Mountains as the Victoria Clipper plies Puget Sound, heading from Seattle to Victoria, on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, Canada.
It's a three-hour trip that is as memorable as its destination. Along the way you might see a pod of orca whales, or a bald eagle swooping down to catch a fish, or a sail arcing in the breeze. You'll pass islands, forts and lighthouses that were settled in the early 1800s.
And when you arrive, you'll find yourself in a port city where flowers bloom year-round, and where small delights -- from a tiny store to a three-block Chinatown -- are worth seeking out.
My journey begins after dawn, with the clipper pulling away from a Seattle pier just as the sun hovers over the city's skyline, landmarked by the Space Needle.
The Clipper first passes Bainbridge Island and Point No Point -- home of the oldest lighthouse in Puget Sound. To the east, it passes 46-mile-long Whidbey Island, a former trading post used by the Spanish, the British and the Russians. Today it is a community of artisans.
With Whidbey still on the east, the boat approaches Marrowstone Island on the west, with Fort Flagler on the island's north end.
Next it passes Port Townsend, the only Puget Sound town that didn't start as a sawmill town, then Point Wilson, home to Fort Worden. Fort Worden is the second of three forts -- along with Whidbey's Fort Flager and Fort Casey -- that were constructed in a "triangle of fire" defense pattern during the Spanish-American War.
Ninety minutes into the trip, the Clipper bears northwest and enters the open Strait of Juan De Fuca, aiming straight for Victoria's port.
The city, founded in 1843 by the Hudson Bay Fur Trading Co., is best seen and appreciated on foot or on bike. Some tourists will opt for a double-decker bus, horse-drawn carriage or bike-drawn carriage. Still others may want to tour by air or sea -- from a seaplane, chartered boat, high-speed water cruise or even a quaint water taxi that resembles a child's toy as it sits alone in the middle of the harbor against the backdrop of a mountain peak.
Victoria attracts 3.6 million overnight visitors yearly, thanks in part to mild weather. While summer can top out at 90 degrees, temperatures usually stay in the 70s.
The city's signature attractions include the ivy-covered Fairmont Empress Hotel, known for its traditional afternoon tea, and Wharf Street, where you'll hear tourists and residents alike speaking a myriad of languages -- from Chinese dialects to Spanish to German.
Inhale slowly and taste the salty air from the harbor, or get a whiff of seafood cooking in a harborside restaurant like Barb's Place on Fisherman's Wharf. The guestbook at this fish-and-chips eatery shows diners include locals as well as those who've come from as far away as Texas, Wisconsin and Australia.
I nearly overlooked the Smoking Lily store on Johnson Street, advertised as the world's smallest store. What appears to be a display window is really the entire store -- part of an old elevator shaft about 6 feet wide, 4 feet deep and 12 feet high -- stocked with clothing and handbags bearing silkscreen designs.
Victoria is also home to Canada's first Chinatown, dating to 1882. It's one of North America's smallest Chinatowns, about three blocks long, and includes Fan Tan Alley, which claims to be the nation's narrowest street, at about 4 feet wide. The Gate of Harmonious Interest, an entry that spans Fisgard Street, is as inviting as its name.
The city's James Bay section is one of Vancouver Island's oldest residential neighborhoods, featuring restored Victorian and Queen Anne-style homes, including one that once belonged to early 20th century poet and artist Emily Carr. Walking south through James Bay leads to a series of waterside bluffs, and a 2,500-foot breakwater jutting out from a seawall. I take the Clipper to Victoria on average once a year, and James Bay is always my last stop.
From there, it's back to the pier, for another pleasant ferry ride across Puget Sound and home to Seattle.
If You Go...
THE CLIPPER: http://www.victoriaclipper.com/victoria-... or 800-888-2535. Oct. 23-March 16, ferries depart Seattle at 8 a.m. and arrive Victoria at 10:45 a.m.; and they depart Victoria at 5 p.m. and arrive in Seattle at 7:45 p.m. Check schedule for other times of year. Fares are $69 one-way, $116 round-trip.
SEATTLE: http://www.seeseattle.org or 206-461-5840.
VICTORIA: http://www.tourismvictoria.com or 800-663-3883. Upcoming events include Skate Canada International, Nov. 2-5, a figure-skating competition, http://www.skatecanada.ca and "Baroque Masterworks" show including works by Rembrandt and Rubens, Dec. 15-Feb. 25, at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, http://www.aggv.bc.ca.