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CANADA COAST-TO-COAST

"We call them loonies," said the smiling sales clerk in a British accent. Counting out my change she continued: "All of our money has animals on it and this one has a loon."

And so, armed with a jingling pocketful of the gold-color Canadian dollars, I went forward to explore Victoria, B.C.

The city presents an elegant first impression, especially to the visitor arriving by ferry at its pocketsize inner harbor.

Guarding the east quay is the Empress Hotel, 420 rooms of French chateau charm designed to house parliamentarians and well-heeled visitors who arrived by train. Alas, railroad construction was stopped in the mid-1800s by gold rush activity in mainland Vancouver. The rails never spanned the Strait of Georgia to Victoria.

On the south quay is the Georgian-style Parliament building, the seat of government in British Columbia since 1858. These striking buildings create the aura of British tradition that gives Victoria its personality.

The city enjoys a balmy climate that has made it a mecca for Canadian retirees and tourists. Still, this "more British than Britain" community has an abundance of tourist attractions, running the gamut from tasteful to tacky.

A handsome waterfront building beckons as the Royal London Wax Museum - al-though the architecture belies its more noble former role as headquarters for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Co.

Nearby is Undersea Gardens, a modern houseboat-like structure that detracts from the quaintness of the harbor.

Victoria Harbour swarms with ferry boats, commercial ships, yachts and a parade of float planes landing and roaring for takeoff. Ferries from Washington State provide the most impressive arrival to Victoria, docking at the south quay an easy walk from hotels and shops.

For the tourist, there are six square blocks of shops east of Wharf Street. A stop at Murchie's cappuccino bar on Government Street is a great way to rest sore feet while admiring and maybe buying from the assortment of fine teas, coffees and chocolates.

The big department stores, Eaton's and Hudson's Bay, provide an overview of Canadian fads and fashions. At The Bay, you can even purchase one of their famous blankets in the Trading Post department. But you can also find Cowichan sweaters, Spode china, ceramics and crafts by Canadian artists, furs and sweaters from Iceland, and Waterford crystal in this cosmopolitan shopping area.

If you're traveling on to Vancouver, check with sales clerks to see if the store has a mainland branch where prices might be lower. Nearly everything comes to Victoria by air or sea, adding to the price.

Nightfall paints a gaudy pattern of reflections across the inner harbor, the most brilliant being from the Parliament building.

Our favorite dining experience was at Spinnakers Brew Pub on Catherine Street across the harbor in Esquimalt. The menu is reasonably priced (local chilled smoked salmon for about $5) and the food is complemented by five ales brewed on the premises. The combination of good food and ale creates an atmosphere of conviviality that puts the clientele in full voice with lusty Canadian songs.

The Empress offers high tea, but the event is so popular with tourists that the traditional afternoon service is held several times a day; reservations are usually required. Even without tea and cakes, a stroll through the Empress lobby and great rooms is an interesting trip.

Other worthy sightseeing stops in the downtown area are the Royal British Columbia Museum, a marvelous collection of natural and man-made history. A few blocks away is the Maritime Museum of British Columbia, with a fine display of historic ship models and marine artifacts.

A number of firms offer bus tours of Victoria, but having your own car is the ideal way to enjoy this city. Driving east from downtown brings you to Beacon Hill Park, a spacious area set aside by the Hudson's Bay Co. in the 1850s. On a sunrise stop there, we visited with two young men practicing martial arts in the park's summit pavilion.

The road becomes Beach Drive and winds along the shoreline past beautiful seaside homes and Victoria Golf Course. A little further is Oak Bay Marina, modest by Florida standards, with a cozy dockside coffee shop serving home-made sweet rolls and hot chocolate.

No Victoria attraction gets more attention than Buchart Gardens, and deservedly so. At the turn of the century, Jessie Buchart viewed her husband's 50-acre limestone quarry as an eyesore and decided to do something about it. She created a fantasy of horticultural landscaping that now draws more than half a million visitors a year.

Thanks to Victoria's climate and the vigor of the staff, flowers bloom in abundance every season of the year. Particularly stunning is the display of autumn color in the Japanese Garden and acres of rhododendron in bloom.

Jim Patterson lives in Largo.

IF YOU GO

Getting to and from Victoria can be enjoyable. With a car, you can leave Seattle on a morning Winslow Ferry and drive up the Olympic Peninsula to Port Angeles, where the Black Ball Ferry Line departs for Victoria at 7:30 a.m. and 2 p.m. Early arrival at the ferry dock is advised, especially in the summer. Many people park their car in Port Angeles and ride the ferry to Victoria for a pedestrian day trip, returning to Port Angeles in the evening.

For variety in your trip, you can leave Vancouver Island at Sidney for a cruise through the scenic San Juan Islands with arrival in Anacortes, Wash., an hour north of Seattle.

For a day trip or overnight stay without a car, the high-speed catamaran Victoria Clipper makes 2 1/2-hour runs from Seattle to Victoria and back several times a day.

B.C. Ferries provides service from Swartz Bay (15 miles north of Victoria) to Vancouver with 16 daily crossings during the summer months. These huge car ferries, the largest in the world, wend their way through the southern Gulf Islands during the 95-minute crossing.

On our crossing from Port Angeles to Victoria, we saw killer whales just off our beam, and a U.S. Navy Trident submarine crossed our bow.

Pick up a copy of Monday Magazine, which reproduces menus from about two dozen restaurants.

Empress Hotel: 721 Government St. (604) 384-8111.

Inn on the Harbour: at the ferry dock (604) 386-3451.

Spinnakers Brew Pub: 308 Catherine St. (604) 386-2739.

Black Ball Transport Co.: Port Angeles, Wash. (206) 457-4491.

Victoria Clipper: Seattle, Wash. (206) 448-5000.

B.C. Ferries: Victoria (604) 386-3431.

Washington State Ferries: Seattle (206) 464-6400.

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