Visiting Vancouver and Banff in British Columbia has been on my husband’s wish list for as long as I’ve known him.

Russ in Butchart's Sunken Gardens. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Russ in Butchart’s Sunken Gardens. photo by Karen Kuzsel

His original thought was to journey through the Rocky Mountains of Canada by train, whistle-stopping through some of the most touted scenic landscapes of North America.

This summer it would finally be possible. Russ had meticulously researched for months, reading through consumer reviews and studying guidebooks. Although many train options exist, about three months before our scheduled departure, he switched gears. Our decision to rent a car, follow a similar route, and stop/eat/rest when we pleased for a fraction of the cost overrode the plan to ride the rails. Russ instead researched hotels, locations, car rentals, routes and must-see attractions.

Most of our trip exceeded our expectations and I will tell you about those glorious occasions soon in another post. This story is about one of the worst vacation experiences either of us has ever had, the misinformation we were told, how it was preventable, and how it may save you headaches in your own travels.

Our day of disaster began with the decision to visit Butchart Gardens, an idyllic setting near Victoria on Vancouver Island. Russ had read and heard from others how gorgeous the gardens were and that we could also visit in the same day, Victoria, a city of architecturally beautiful buildings and design. Through his research, we knew touring companies would pick us up from our downtown Vancouver hotel, visit those two sites, and return in the late evening.

Cost: $200 a person. No meals included.

Our hotel concierge offered to arrange such a trip with their preferred touring company vendor. Pickup would be 8 am and return about 9 pm. Transportation each way was about three to three-and-a-half hours, depending on traffic. Never one to make such a hasty decision, Russ said we should visit the Vancouver Visitors Centre (VVC) to see how this touring company’s offerings varied from others so we could make an informed decision on which touring company to book.

The VVC representative assisting us literally talked us out of taking the tour and into finding our own way to the Gardens and Victoria. As she repeatedly advised: “It’s very easy to get there on our public transportation. It will take less than four hours and will cost you less than half the money.”

Hey…. We’re self-sufficient travelers. We (and I actually mean my husband here) are great at following directions to a location, even when out of country. Bonus–we get to save money we can spend elsewhere? How could we pass up this opportunity?

She gave us a map and written directions published for the VVC. All we had to do was walk to the Sky Train, jump on a bus to the BC Ferry and hop on a bus to Butchart Gardens. Victoria wasn’t far from there, about 20 minutes, so we could take a bus from the gardens to Victoria, return to the ferry, a bus and the Sky Train. Easy, she kept emphasizing.

The next morning, we set off about 9 am. Walked to the Sky Train, about 15 minutes away. The rain did nothing to dampen our mood. We had smartly brought umbrellas.

What we weren’t told is that the Sky Train runs by zones. We don’t know what zone we’re in, let alone how many zones we pass through to get to our stop. There are no maps on the station’s walls, nor is there a ticket box or human ticket taker to explain how to buy tickets for multiple zones for multiple people.

Cost: $5.50. (Note: all money cited will be in Canadian currency and be configured for the two of us and our age.)

A Canadian local came to our aid. We again sought her aid to know which train to hop aboard and which stop to get off to catch the bus. Mind you, the ferry is a destination, yet there are no posters or materials telling how to get there. No one takes our tickets nor is there a slot to enter them. When we inquired about that, someone said undercover police monitor that people really buy the tickets.

I should also point out that nowhere in the train station or on the train do I spot any restrooms, or as they’re called in Canada, washrooms.

We get off at the correct stop, Bridgeport Station, which happens to be alongside a casino. We hurry to find the correct bus, unsure how often they come but everyone seems to be moving at a quickened pace, so we do too.

Our printed instructions from the VVC say which numbered bus to take. We see that number, but by the time we get in the queue, the bus is filled. The driver says the next bus goes to the same location and we should all board that one.

What we are never told by anyone is that there are always two buses with the same designated number, but only one has an X attached. X for express. The next bus is X-less. Having a few minutes before it arrives, we scurry inside the casino’s building to find a washroom.

The bus arrives and we board, only to discover (because there’s nothing to indicate this) that only coins are accepted. No paper money. Even though we are hardly the only non-locals boarding unaware of this, it makes for a frantic departure by Russ and all of them to hurry back to the station’s money changing machine so we can all board the bus before it leaves.

Cost: $5.50.

Because we are not on an express bus, we wind our way through neighborhood back streets, stopping 17 times. (I think I correctly counted them.)

We finally reach the ferry. It departs at 11 and will arrive in Swartz Bay about 12:30 pm.

Cost: $65.

Before boarding, Russ double checks with the ticket agent about the departure time for our return. All literature says there is an 8 pm return ferry on Fridays and Sundays. All other days there is just a 7 and a 9 pm ferry, but Russ wants to verify. She assures us there is an 8 pm return ferry.

What is written nowhere is that the ferry from Vancouver can only arrive in Swartz Bay, a half hour bus ride to Butchart Gardens (if you’re on the X bus), but if you travelled by ferry from Seattle, WA, the ferry can dock directly at Vancouver Island and then it’s a very quick trip to the Gardens.

Still unaware of the X bus designation, we hop on yet another numbered bus as noted in the VVC’s literature for the Gardens. It is also X-less.

Cost: $5.50.

Some of the vivid flowers of Butchart Gardens. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Some of the vivid flowers of Butchart Gardens. photo by Karen Kuzsel

Forty-five minutes and many windy back streets through parts of Vancouver Island we had no wish to see, we finally arrive at the Gardens.

We have now travelled four-and-one half hours! Hardly the “roughly same time as a touring company,” as we had been advised.

Cost: $65.

It is raining, but we dare the day to rain anymore on our parade than it already has and miraculously, 10 minutes later is ceases.

It is now around 2 pm. We’d eaten a light breakfast at 7 and are hungry. We opt for a quick lunch at Poppyseed Café, assuming that following our trek through the Gardens, we’ll head to Victoria and dine there. My yam salad with feta cheese, cranberries and toasted hazelnuts was quite tasty but I wish there had been more of it. Russ had a tasteless egg salad sandwich. Can you see how this did not lighten our mood?

We meandered through Butchart for about two-and-a-half hours. The design and beauty of the flowers was a true testament to Jennie Butchart, who began reshaping the abandoned limestone quarry into the Sunken Gardens in 1904.

Russ is anxious to get to Victoria. An avid photographer and lover of historical architecture, he’s eager to see what the guidebooks have described: a city of preserved and recreated Victorian architectural beauty. He couldn’t wait to tour the legendary Fairmont Empress Hotel.

We ask which bus to board and are finally informed of the difference between an X designation and one without. We wait a few minutes extra to board the X bus.

Cost: $5.50.

This a 50 minute journey. We arrive at nearly 6 pm. Not much time to tour Victoria if we’re to catch another bus back to Swartz Bay so we can catch the 8 pm ferry. We decide instead of eating dinner there, we’ll eat something on the ferry. They have a full café, buffet dinner venue, and even Starbucks. Before we can dash off for a fast trip straight to the hotel two blocks away, I decided that after all that’s happened, I should check the posted bus schedule. The only X bus for the rest of the evening is at 6:20. Russ takes three fast pictures of the hotel with a telephoto lens and we have no more time except to jump on the bus back to the ferry. Are you sensing how distraught we were by then?

The ferry and the Victoria bus schedule aren’t coordinated. Wouldn’t you think in a city dependent on tourists and locals who will board the ferry that they would be?

We arrive back at Swartz Bay at 7:05, just in time to see the 7 pm ferry pulling away from the dock. We race to the ferry ticketing booth.

Cost: $65.

I am desperate for a washroom. The ticket clerk says the next ferry won’t be until 9.

Nine??? What are you talking about? We were clearly told there would be an 8 pm ferry. Yes, there usually is… just not tonight. Nowhere is that posted. No signs at the ticket office. Nothing on the ferry. Obviously even the clerk we spoke to earlier in the day was unaware. We were not the only passengers upset at this unexpected announcement.

We are both disappointed, frustrated, and irate.

If we had been told the truth, we would have skipped Victoria and gone from the Gardens straight to Swartz Bay. We’d have skipped an additional hour of bouncing in a bus. We could have made it back to Vancouver and had a lovely dinner.

We’re very hungry and unless we want to wait to eat until the 9 pm ferry, we have only two options. Take a taxi to a restaurant or we can eat at the café next door to the ferry, which is owned by the ferry. Did I mention the 9 pm ferry is the last of the evening and if we miss it, we are SOL? Would you take a chance catching a taxi, having the restaurant’s service be fast, the food great, and that getting another taxi to return would be prompt?

Yeah. We didn’t think so either.

We ate at the café. I won’t bore you with the abysmal food choices available at that time of night and that it was so horrid that we barely ate any of it. Oh, and there’s no booze there, so we couldn’t even drown our sorrows.

We boarded the ferry, arrived back in Vancouver around 11:30. By the time we boarded an X-bus ($5.50), took the Sky Train ($5.50) and then walked back to our hotel through the mobs of young people out for late-night dinners and partying, it is 1 a.m.

So, here’s what you should take away from our dreadful experience.

Contrary to the guidebooks and the VVC, Vancouver Island’s Butchart Gardens is not an easy day trip from Vancouver even by arranged tour… at least not if you actually want to enjoy the venues at a leisurely pace and would rather spend more time visiting those venues than travelling there.

Stay overnight or save visiting those spots when vacationing in Seattle.

Do not listen to the VVC that taking public transportation is uncomplicated.

Make sure you always have Canadian coins on you.

Do not count on published schedules being accurate.

Do not take a bus that isn’t X-marked unless you just want to see how locals live.

Butchart Gardens is lovely, but hardly worth spending seven to nine hours getting there, nor is it worth spending hundreds of dollars. You can visit equally gorgeous gardens elsewhere in the world.

Though we saw just a few minutes of downtown Victoria, it in no way resembled the glorious Victorian beauty depicted by guidebooks.

The one truth we were told is that taking public transportation would cost less than taking a tour. It did. We still spent roughly $200, not counting meals. Was it worth what we experienced? Absolutely NOT!

I promise that my next post on our Canada trip will be much more positive and rife with praise for stellar natural landscapes, fantastic restaurants, and our personal perspective.

Til then….

Karen Kuzsel

Karen Kuzsel

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com; @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady.

 

 

 

 

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