Harbor seals certainly know how to make an entrance.
This particular playful, silver-and-black mottled marine mammal unexpectedly pops up to say hello just a flipper length away from the left side of my kayak. Harbor seals are a friendly and curious sort and love to gracefully follow paddlers and have some fun gawking at our awkwardness on the water.
My daughter, Grace, and I are on a two-and-a-half-hour, Ocean River Adventures’ Harbour Kayak Tour in Victoria ($79, OceanRiver.com).
Harbour seals are billed as the stars of this tour in the capital of British Columbia’s famed downtown Inner Harbour and Middle Harbour.However, the city itself, the river otters, the sunshine and the mix of urban frenzy and ultimate open-water serenity are also highlights of this unique kayak tour.
Leaving from Ocean River’s dock at the bottom of Swift Street in the Upper Harbour, we’re quickly under the Johnson Street Bridge and into the Inner Harbour where all the action is. Guide Jon Badger makes sure we coexist nicely with arriving and departing seaplanes, water taxis, small ferries, whale-watching boats, all sorts of pleasure craft and other canoeists and kayakers.
The Inner Harbour is also where the eye candy of Victoria’s downtown pops, bookended by the iconic, Chateauesque-styled Fairmont Empress Hotel, circa 1908, named after Queen Victoria, and the circa-1898, Neo-baroque British Columbia Parliament Buildings.
Fun fact: both landmarks were designed by English immigrant architect Francis Rattenbury, whose fame extends to the mainland because he also designed the Vancouver Court House, which is now Vancouver Art Gallery. Once we get through the narrows between Laurel Point and Songees Park and past the colorful floating homes, shops and restaurants of Fisherman’s Wharf, the traffic dwindles and we’re into the peaceful Middle Harbor.
This is where our interactions with harbour seals amps up near the rocky outcroppings where they hang out.The seals are showoffs, following us at first, then darting under our kayaks, speeding ahead and then returning for another look. As if the seal fun wasn’t exhilarating enough, at the edge of the Middle Harbor we have another ah-ha moment, resting our paddles to stare over the open water to the snow-covered mountains of the Olympia Peninsula in Washington state. Before kayaking we had a lunch of sausage pizza on the huge and atmospheric patio at Canoe Brewpub, which was handy to Ocean River because it is also at the foot of Swift Street.
We round out our visit to Victoria by staying at the boutique Magnolia Hotel just a block away from the Inner Harbor.From there it’s easy to stroll everywhere, including Chinatown, the Inner Harbor walkway and the trail around Laurel Point to return by foot to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch at The Fish Store, sitting at picnic tables on the dock to devour our halibut and chips.
Dinner is seafood again, this time salmon, at 10 Acres Bistro right across the street from the Magnolia.