The World’s Largest Ice Cave. Our St. Johan im Pongau Vacation. Part Two

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As you may remember from Part One of our August Austrian vacation in Sank Johan im Pongau, we tried to visit the world’s largest ice cave in one hour.  Maybe I should have paid a little more attention to the fact that this was the WORLD’S LARGEST ICE CAVE! After our failure on the first day, we decided to go back the next morning, because, I have to say it again, the world’s largest ice cave!  This was not to be missed, and even though there were several other things in the region that looked very appealing, and this was our last full day, I was determined to see it.  Now, my husband was still unsure that we should attempt such a feat with the kids.  Now, I know that I told you last time that you should listen to dissension among the ranks sometimes, but this was not the time.  Why was this time different than not listening to him before?  Because I knew he wanted to go see it too, he was just unsure the children would make it up to the top.  But, we now had the whole day, not just an hour.  And we’ve been through this debate before “Let’s just go next time. We love this place so much, we’ll come back.”  And then we never do.  So, knowing that the kids actually did fine on the 1st part of the hike we tried before, I was determined that today, with the whole day open ahead of us, we would make it up to the cave.

Brochure for the Eisen Welt (Ice World)

Brochure for the “Eisriesenwelt” (World of Ice Giants).

Arriving just 30 minutes after they opened that morning, we were already parking three phases further away from the entrance, unlike the evening before when we were in the first parking lot.  The weather was gloomy and supposed to rain that day, but the temperature was still mid 50’s Fahrenheit.  We were warned however that it would be much colder in the cave. But having done the first part of the hike the day before, I knew how hot you could get just on the way up.  So, we decided on pants and short sleeve shirts that morning and jackets that could be taken off and tied around the waist.  I knew the stroller was not a good choice to go up the mountain, but I couldn’t remember how far the walk was to the entrance, and that was already up hill.  So we took the stroller up and left it in the locker rooms that were available for rent. Though we just stashed it on the side as it wouldn’t fit.  A risk, but one we figured would be ok given the area.  We purchased our tickets again and started the walk.  This time, I kept it at a pace more enjoyable for all.  With the boys and husband walking along and my 18 month old strapped to my back in the Ergo, up we went.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

First leg of the walk up to the gondola.

The path started out wide and remained nicely graveled, and even paved in some areas, all the way to the gondola.  At the gondola entrance, there was a snack shop with some benches for a pit stop going up or coming down the mountain with drinks, packaged snacks, ice creams and a few hot snacks.  The best part was the bottled water.  The line for the gondola started further back this time, it took us 30 minutes to get to our turn.  The ride itself was smooth but startling if you look down as you get closer to the top.  At one point we were literally being pulled straight up rather than the gradual across and upward slope direction.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

The gondola to the top departing from the end of the 1st hiking trail.

Once at the top, we were greeted by a restaurant, which we noted as an ideal stopping point for the way back.  The 2nd trail of the hike up was more narrow than the first, but plenty wide enough for people to stand 4 by 4 across so you could go up and people could come down without a problem passing each other.  Some parts of the trail were covered with a nicely built awning.  The scary part was, you were winding up the side of the mountain, and it was steep up at the top.  There was a guard rail the entire way up to the mouth of the cave, however it was merely two wood logs between posts.  It was a good thing Madelyn was content with riding on my back, at one point she even fell asleep.  Our children, fortunately, are used to traveling and trusting in our guidance in new situations,  so when we’d tell them not to do something or where to walk, they listened.  But if your children are a bit more adventurous and don’t always like to stop climbing or running around when you tell them, this could be a more stressful or dangerous trip.  Just on the other side of the “fence” is a deadly drop over the side of the mountain.  This again reminded me of how lucky I was to have my husband for this experience.  Even with my daughter on my back, it was necessary to have those extra set of hands, and I hadn’t even saw what was in store for us INSIDE the cave!  After winding our way up the 2nd hiking path to the mouth of the cave, there were several terraced benches with a steep view of the valley below and surrounding mountains.  We were all happy to have a rest on the benches after the long hike.  There were a couple benches along the way to stop too.  But it was nothing like finally reaching your destination.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

2nd path to the top after the gondola ride.

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A view of the winding trail up to the mouth of the cave.

While the parking lot was crowded, the wait for the actual tours once you got to the top was not long at all.  We only had to wait about 5 minutes for our English speaking tour to begin.  As we gathered around to hear the rules before going into the cave, they handed out our open flame lanterns to light the way.  Only natural light is permitted inside the cave for preservation purposes.  The guides use magnisium strips to light certain areas once inside.  After the door was open to enter the cave, you experience a huge rush of wind.  Then with your open flame lanterns in hand, you proceed on a short path to the first flight of stairs.  We were ultimately about to climb up and down a total of 1,400 steps throughout the tour.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

Open flame lanterns made walking through the cave slightly hazardous with passing tours.

We had to climb two very tall flights of stairs in the beginning of the tour.  Then there were some flat trails along boardwalks around some of the sculptures.  The ice “sculptures” as they called them, were very beautiful and impressive.  There were about 5 different main formations along the way.  The hardest part was being stressed over the lanterns and making sure that however we held them that one of the kids didn’t turn slightly into the flame.  There are also a couple main areas along the tour where you and another tour group pass by each other on the way in and out of the turn around.  There is only a bar rail separating the path and not a full barrier and some of the other tourist would just carry their lanterns in the hand next to the rail so that it risked brushing up with the tourist walking on the other side.  Several times I had to step to the side so as not to get burned by their lanterns.  Besides the acute awareness you must have while walking up and down the stairs and along the paths of this 70 minute tour inside the cave, the ice sculptures themselves are breathtaking.  One the one hand, I was really sad that I would not be able to take pictures inside the cave.  I desperately wanted to catch the beauty and magnificants of this place.  But, I will admit, being forced to experience very second with wide eyes and not camera lense, did make me appreciate what I was seeing even more.  You really got to take it all in rather than worry about taking a picture.  And in the end, that was the best part.  It was like we were lost in an exciting underground world.  I did however purchase a couple of postcards from the gift shop to remember how amazing it was inside.  Here is one of the official postcards from the visitor’s center.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

This is a scanned copy of a postcard purchased at the Eisriesenwelt gift shop.

You might be wondering how the kids did trekking up and down all 1400 stairs?  Well, the 18 month old slept through half of it in the Ergo on my back, and when she woke up, I think she was so confused she spent the rest of the time just looking around trying to figure out where she was.  As for the 4 and 6 year olds, we didn’t get much complaints at all.  During the longest stair stretch of about 200 steps, there were one or two questions of how many more.  But they got a kick out of counting the stairs and that kept them pretty amazed on those parts since it was a new thing that year to count up to 100, and now they were past that!  Our 4 year old did complain of being too cold when we got into the deepest part of the cave, but other than that, they did great, especially with the promise of hot chocolate and kaiserschmarrn waiting for them at the restaurant we saw at the top of the gondola.  Once we got back to the mouth of the cave and returned our lanterns, we look one last resting break on the terraced benches to take in the view before the walk down.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

Terraced benches at the mouth of the cave provide an incredible view of the mountain range.

The walk back down the trail to the gondola decent post and restaurant was of course much easier and faster than going up.  We ducked into the restaurant just as we realized that we had left our umbrellas at the mouth of the cave where the tours meet (they were not allowed inside the cave and we wouldn’t have been able to carry them anyways).  Had they just been one or two cheap umbrellas that we bought at a drug store, we would have left them, but they had been gifts so my husband graciously agreed to hike back up to the mouth of the cave while I saw at a nice warm table in the corner of the restaurant.  It was very crowded and we just lucked into a corner booth table and chairs just before a big rush came in.  There were several tables with people that had reserved signs on them, so I think that you can make a reservation when you get off the gondola so that you have a table to come back to after the tour.  We did not do this and took our chances and it turned out nicely, that time.  But given the crowds, service was very slow.  In fact, it took my husband nearly 40 minutes to go up and get the umbrellas and come back and we had only ordered and received drinks.  But the kids got their Austrian, powder sugar dusted, crumbled up pancakes (kaiserschmarrn) and hot chocolate so they were all happy campers.

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

Delicious kaiserschmarrn (special Austrian pancakes).

By time we got back to the car, we had been gone for 6 hours.  I couldn’t believe we had spent that much time on one attraction, and I had no regrets, including the 2 hours it took to have “snack” at the restaurant before going back down the gondola.  I was so proud, not just of my kids, but of us as a family.  We endured a fairly physical activity, supported one another through it, and got to experience a “once in a life-time” sight with the five of us all together!  It was a good day.

Austria’s Saint Johan im Pongau. Truly a “kinderparadise” and a Family Vacation Gem! Part 1

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My husband loves Austria, and I don’t blame him.  The entire country is full of beautiful landscapes and marvelous cities.  While I’m a little more of a fan of places like Vienna and Salzburg, Austria is one place that a city girl can enjoy the outdoors with her adventurous husband without having to hike 10 miles with mountain gear on your back.  Maybe a 20lb toddler instead.  Here is our arrival and day one in this beautiful part of Austria that turned out to be one of our BEST family vacations!

Burg Hohenwerfen in Werfen, Austria.

Burg Hohenwerfen in Werfen, Austria.

For this trip, our destination was determined by what was available through our timeshare exchange that would sleep five people (a majority of European properties are for two to four people).  There happen to be an exchange with a hotel in Sankt Johan im Pongau.  It was a large sports hotel, next to a mini shopping “mall” and across the street from a lovely park with a playground.  The Alpine Sports Hotel lived up to its name.  It had its own racquet ball courts, a large swimming pool and a group fitness/dance room.  The staff was incredibly friendly and offered tour and vacation planning services as well as housing two restaurants within the hotel.

Immediately after hitting up the tourist pamphlet stand for the whole Pongau area, I wished we had planned for longer than three days.  Our reservation was just for three nights and four days (Monday through Thursday) as that was all that was available when we booked through RCI.  Our plan was to go into Slovenia on Thursday for two days before returning to Munich.  After our late arrival in Austria on Monday night, I came up with a proposed plan for how to spend our few days in the Pongau region.  As it turned out, the world’s largest ice cave was located just 20 minutes north of our town!  It immediately became a priority for our trip.  Across the highway from the mountain with the ice cave was a hill top castle as well.  The Tuesday morning goal was to feed the kids then head to the castle followed by an afternoon tour of the ice cave.  On the drive to the castle, I happened to read the brochure for the ice cave again and it said to allow for 6 hours! It also said that the last gondola up to the top of the mountain was going to be at 4:45 p.m. that day.  Still, I was not discouraged!

We arrived at the castle with the threats of rain looming over us and about an hour behind schedule.  To get to the castle, there was the choice of a 15-20 minute walk up to the top or quicker option, the gondola.  To save time, we took the ride.  The castle, “Burg Hohenwerfen” turned out to be a gold mine for the kids! It was well kept, had the feel of walking into a knight’s strong hold, and had marvelous programs and activities specifically for kids!  At the ticket office we were given a story book map for each of the kids.  There were stations around the castle that you have to answer the questions for to solve a puzzle at the end.  When you got them all correct, you could take your booklet to the office at the exit for a little treat.  This immediately captured the attention of our two boys (6 & 4 years old) who had grown accustom to walking around Castles and Palaces that sometimes got boring.

The ride up to the castle.

The ride up to the castle.

In order to go into the interior rooms of the castle, you had to meet in the courtyard for an official tour.  Fortunately for us, the English guided tour was to start about 15 minutes after we arrived and the line was much shorter than the German one.  In addition to the guide, we also had the electronic wands that gave added information about each room.  The kids got their own special wands with a unique children’s program that highlighted more interested points for them in a fun story book kind of way.  I listened to a few and had wished we all just got the children ones!  While there were not elaborate rooms with lots of furniture in this castle, we did get to go up into their working clock/bell tower.  It should be noted that this included some narrow and steep stair passages.  I had my 18 month old on my back in the Ergo.  Had I been alone on this particular tour, it may have been difficult to guide the two boys and balance myself with the baby on my back up and down the stair cases in very tight quarters.  One parent who had carried their child in their arms, even accidently whacked the poor little one’s head on a wood beam while trying to descend. I was thankfully with my husband on this part of our trip so we managed, and the view from the top of the bell tower was worth it!

A special kids guide in English for the tiny tourists.

A special kids guide in English for the tiny tourists.

After the tour of the castle, back in the courtyard, we played with several old fashioned games they had set up in different stations.  There were walking stilts, wooden unicorns that you tossed rings over the horn, and then a ball pendulum that you tried to knock over pins with in a circle.  All three of the kids had a wonderful time playing the games.  It was tough to drag them away, but I was bent on getting to that ice cave before the last tour and their booklets with the scavenger hunt puzzle was a nice incentive.  We didn’t sit to watch the hawking show because we wanted to finish the kids’ hunt and go to the ice cave.  This I regret.  Even though we spent about 4 hours at the castle, I felt we could have spent the entire day!  But, it was time to get on over to the ice cave in my mind.  Despite me being in a hurry, the kids wanted to walk down to the car through the trails, so we did.  It provided a nice conversation about why we stay on the path at historic and natural sites and a brief lesson in soil and root erosion.

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Top of the bell tower.

Back at the car we headed the short distance across the highway to the road up to the next mountain for the ice cave.  I didn’t know what to expect as we approached the parking lot stages.  We arrived at a place to park rather close to the “entrance” and had one hour before the last tour was going to start.  We weren’t sure if we should take the stroller or just the ergo.  Since we were in a hurry, I thought we’d try the stroller.  By time we got up to the ticket counter, we had 50 minutes left to make it to the cave entrance and they told us it was a 20 minute walk to the gondola and then another 20 minutes to the cave entrance from the top of the gondola. The whole time my husband kept telling me that we should just wait till the next day, that they kids couldn’t do it, that we wouldn’t make it.  But my stubborn self would not listen.  I knew the kids could do it, and just felt he didn’t know them as well as I did and I would “show him” that he was wrong.  So we purchased the tickets after asking if a full refund was possible if we didn’t make it.  They said yes, the ticket had 2 parts, one for the gondola and the other for the cave tour and they tear off a piece of the ticket at each stage, so which ever wasn’t torn off, we’d get the refund.

View of the castle from the ice cave mountain side.

View of the castle from the ice cave mountain side.

With tickets in hand, we started up the mountain.  Now, one would think, knowing that it was a mountain we were going up, that I would have anticipated just how steep the walk was going to be.  However, as gradual as the path up looked, it turned out to be pretty exhausting to push the stroller up the path with a toddler in it!  We pushed on, panting, and my husband incredibly annoyed at the speed I was trying to push everyone.  After 18 minutes, we made it to the gondola station, only to find a really long line.  I was still optimistic that we would make the last tour, until 5 minutes went by and no one moved.  Then 10 minutes and the gondola had then come 2 times and we barely made progress.  I’m ashamed to admit I was in a full 2 year old pouting fit.  It was clear we weren’t going to make it up in time for the tour.  I was so mad and even blaming the ticketing counter for selling us a ticket when they clearly must have known there was no chance that we’d make it.  “If they had just told us there was no chance to make it, we wouldn’t have suffered through the first leg of the hike for nothing!” I reasoned.  But in fact, my husband told me this, and the ticket counter told us what the hike times were.  Even without a wait at the gondola, we only had a 5 minute window for error on the hike times alone.  I learned a tough lesson that day, actually a few tough lessons and reminders.  1. Your attitude effects everyone on the trip. 2. Sometimes your spouse IS right. 3. Don’t rush your experiences, quality rather than quantity is going to give you the better outcome and memories on a vacation.  Had I just resided myself to the fact that we were going to just do the castle that day, we could have also learned more about the birds and scene the falcon and hawk show and, if something (like the ice cave) is important enough to visit, you will make time for it.  As we did the next day of the trip.  With so much to see and do in that area, I was so set on getting to try out as much as I could.  But the thing is, you won’t really miss getting to do the thing you don’t see, but you will miss getting to do the stuff at the place you do visit and rush through.  So, learn from my mistake and take your time!  And check out the next post coming soon about our big day in the ice cave!  We did make it, the following morning, and from parking lot start to finish, it was a 6 hour adventure that was well worth the wait!!!

The boys checking their final answers from the scavenger's hunt.

The boys checking their final answers from the scavenger’s hunt.

Victoria, B.C. Europe In My Backyard.

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Now that we are back in the Seattle area, we can’t just drive 2 or 3 hours in any direction and end up in 4 or 5 other countries. Thankfully, we have at least one that can be reached in such a short amount of time and it has a small slice of European flare too!  The city of Victoria, British Colombia.  The capital of Canada’s western province, Victoria is just as posh as any European city with more of a small town feel.  The historic downtown is very walk-able and full of friendly Canadians.  Plus it is also a great “training ground” for young children to practice walking and using their manners while going through an ornate hotel, a parliament building, a castle and museums.  There are loads of outdoor opportunities as well!

Playing on the Emily Carr monument in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Playing on the Emily Carr monument in front of the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

GETTING THERE FROM THE U.S.

We’ve traveled to Victoria two different routes, but both by ferry.  Remember, you and your children will need a passport to enter Canada.  The first several times we took the Victoria Clipper, a high speed, passenger only ferry that departs from downtown Seattle and takes you straight to Victoria’s inner harbor in just a little over 2 and a half hours. It’s reasonably priced for a ticket, but tickets have to be purchased for each passenger over the age of 1 year old. For more information about the Seattle-Victoria Clipper, click here.  The one time I took our kids on the ferry I was traveling with a German friend and our 5 children collectively, no husbands. While the Clipper is fast and direct and provides children with a chance to move around, there are not play structures on board.  The boat can get slightly choppy sometimes due to the high speeds so people with motion sickness might feel it more than a regular ferry.  But we did have luck getting our whole party together around a seat section with a table and tried to keep the kids occupied with tablets, crayons and coloring books.  If you are only going to Victoria for the weekend, the Clipper is a nice option.  The other choices are Washington State Ferries from the U.S. to Vancouver Island or drive to Vancouver and take the ferries from Tsawwassen to Nanaimo area. Here are some helpful links regarding ferry travel https://www.ferrytravel.com and http://www.bcferries.com/schedules/mainland/

The 2nd time I took the children to Victoria, we went as our whole family of 5 and we decided to drive since we’d be spending a week up in Canada.  We drove to Vancouver and took the BC ferries from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay/Nanaimo.  Just note that you then have to drive about 30 minutes down into Victoria from Swartz Bay I couldn’t have been more pleased with the B.C. Ferry trip.  It did cost us the gas to drive to Vancouver and then $95 U.S. to cross each way ($190 total), but that was still cheaper than the $425 it would have cost our family of 5 to go round trip via the Clipper.  And again, we were going to be gone a week so it was worth it to have our car with us.  The ferry had a decent food selection and two nice play/climbing areas for the kids!  Older kids could also enjoy spending their parent’s quarters in a video arcade. The trip went by so quick with the kids completely entertained by the playgrounds.

One play structure on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

One play structure on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

Another playroom on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

Another playroom on a B.C. Ferry from Vancouver to Victoria.

WHERE TO STAY

We’ve only stayed in two places in Victoria.  The first time, without kids, my husband and I stayed at the Hotel Grand Pacific.  It was a nice hotel and less than 5 minutes walk from the Clipper Ferry terminal, but more on the higher end side of accommodations and price.  However, two doors down is a Days Inn, offering rooms around $80 compared to the Grand Pacific’s $280 price. But I have NOT stayed at the Days Inn.  I can only speak to it’s price and convenient location to the historic city center and Clipper Ferry terminal.  Both the Grand Pacific and Days Inn are another 5 minutes walk to the Parliament building and the Fairmont Empress hotel.  The rest of our stays in Victoria were at the Worldmark by Wyndham condos.  Part of a timeshare we owned.  They are about a mile from the ferry terminal, all walk-able side walk access.  It is about a 15 minute walk from these condos to the downtown.  There are several other small and large hotels and bed and breakfasts in this area, so you’ll have plenty of choices at the price you need,

SOME OF OUR FAVORITE ACTIVITIES:

  • Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.  I’ve done this twice with our kids all between the age of 6 months old and 6 years old.  They put together a lovely stacked tray of goodies just for kids as part of their Prince/Princess Tea service that also allows them to choose either hot chocolate or other non caffeinated fruit teas to choose from.  At the end, they get a special certificate with their name on it. Moms and dads can also enjoy a traditional afternoon tea that is just as good as ones I’ve had in Britain.  We chose this location to celebrate my daughter’s first birthday.  It was just the 5 of us, but it was a special occasion to see her sitting like a big girl in such a fine room enjoying such a grown up tradition. My sons even enjoy it, mostly for the sweets and hot chocolate!  Do make sure you book a reservation in advance if you are planning to visit in December or the Spring and Summer time.  They can accommodate for food allergies if you give them advance notice.  I myself had a lovely gluten free meal myself.  Click here for more information on reservations, menus and prices.
Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

  • Just walking around the main marina and the immediate surrounding areas of the Empress Hotel and the Parliament house is what gives this city a European flair.  There are plenty of shops and little museums to wander into by foot.  The Parliament building is beautiful on the outside and provides some charming rooms on the inside as well.  We took the kids on the self guided tour of the inside and walked the lovely grounds.
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Royal B.C. Museum within walking distance around the inner harbor.

  • Visit the Royal BC Museum.  While it’s been several years since we’ve been to this museum, it tells an impressive story of the rich history of native inhabitants as well as large exhibit for natural and human history about the region.  There is also an IMAX that offers regular and children’s programming.
  • Visit a modern castle.  Craigdarroch Castle isn’t from medieval times, but it will definitely remind you of the refinement of Victorian England, which is the time period in which the “castle” home was built by Scotsman Robert Dunsmuir between 1887 and 1890.  The castle isn’t in close walking distance to the tourist city center, but you can access it with public transportation from the corner of Douglas and Fort Street using bus numbers 11, 14, 15, or 22.  Or if you brought a car, you can just drive there.
  • Another charming feature of the city is the horse drawn carriage tours.  While this is rather touristy, it is also a very common touristy thing you will see in the likes of Vienna and London.  We’ve only done the tour at night and with no children, but have frequently been told by the solicitors and drivers as we pass by their stands they they can fit strollers up in the carriage for families that want to ride but have some extra gear.
  • East of the inner harbor is the Fisherman’s Wharf with several cute boat houses and floating food shops.  There is also a nice park with a decent playground for the kids to explore.  One year, there was a harbor seal that would pop up and you could buy some raw fish from one of the vendors to feed it.  But I have not seen one our last 2 trips to Victoria in 2013 and 2014.
Big slide at Fisherman's Wharf Playground in Victoria, B.C.

Big slide at Fisherman’s Wharf Playground in Victoria, B.C.

  • Of course a trip to Victoria wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Butchart Gardens.  It is not within walking distance from the other major downtown sights, it is a bit of a drive, about 45 minutes, dependent on traffic.  You can go it alone if you have a car or book a tour bus through your hotel or the visitor’s information center at the marina.  Even though you are surrounded by all the beautiful gardens that will make you feel like you are on palace grounds, you can still be more relax with your kids here.  We have only been in the summer time, but I’ve seen online and been told by friends that they have story book scenes set up during the winter leading up to Christmas.
The children exploring Butchart Gardens.

The children exploring Butchart Gardens.

These are just the main things that we’ve done in the immediate Victoria city center, minus the Butchart Gardens outside of town.  Here are however, some of the things that we really want to go back and do that we have yet to experience.

  • Beacon Hill Park.  Located within walking distance behind the Royal BC Museum and Parliament, this is one of Victoria’s biggest parks complete with a petting farm for children.  I really look forward to another visit to spend the better park of the day just wandering this space.  The reviews sound great and it’s so close to the rest of the city!
  • We keep telling ourselves that we will also one day go into the Bug Museum and Miniature world, both around the Empress Hotel.
  • And of course, we still need to book a whale watching excursion one day!

The list could of course go on and on with more things to do in Victoria and the rest of Vancouver Island, but I hope this has at least shown a little why I call Victoria my “Europe in my backyard!”