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A tale of two cities
Gyppeswick Mansion and Japanese Shinto Shrine at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

As repeat visitors to both Victoria and Vancouver, we decided that on this trip we would dig a little deeper into the history and culture of these two beautiful cities.

Although we never tire of Victoria's Butchart Gardens or the lobby of the Empress Hotel, or those walks through Vancouver's Stanley Park or eating our way around the food market on Granville Island, we have always felt that we might be missing something.

Captains James Cook and George Vancouver, the 17th century navigators, were among the first Europeans to chart and chronicle their impressions, and the West Coast First Nations peoples have recorded their presence for millennia in art and song.

So on this visit - as well as shopping - we visited a mix of museums, galleries and other places which preserve the region's history, art and culture.

What better place to start than in a licensed 'art hotel'? The Swans Brew Pub is a short walk from Victoria's Inner Harbour and displays an art collection of approximately 1600 paintings, sculptures and other artworks. Most striking is a large painting of charismatic former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau in the Brew Pub. Later that evening, we enjoyed their beer of the day, and a fine salmon dinner in the restaurant.

Much of what is interesting in Victoria is gathered around the Inner Harbour and the imposing Royal British Columbia Museum beckoned. The museum's numerous galleries showcase the human and natural history of British Columbia and the First Nations People.

Other exhibits include the 18th century Spanish dagger which may have killed Captain Cook in Hawaii, a replica of Captain Vancouver's ship HMS Discovery, and intricate whaler's scrimshaw - sperm whale teeth engraved by 18th century American whalers.

After a lunch of spicy yam and pepita quasadillas at the Rebar Restaurant, we visited the nearby Maritime Museum. Exhibits portray the region's days of pirates, shipwrecks, exploration and discovery and documents on the visits of Cook and Vancouver. Navigation instruments of a type which assisted their exploration support the exhibit. Our home away from home in Victoria was the Parkside Resort and Spa, an excellent new apartment hotel just a couple of blocks from the Inner Harbour.

We walked through Beaconhill Park to Cook Street Village, a leafy residential neighbourhood. Small cafes, boutique breweries, bakeries and internet cafes line the avenue. We dropped into the comfy Moka House where locals were reading books or having dinner on the outdoor patio - which is what we did.

The next morning, we visited The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. The permanent Asian collection includes exquisite amber and ivory carvings and the Asian Garden boasts the only authentic Japanese Shinto shrine in North America. Of note is an extensive collection of paintings by the Canadian Expressionist artist Emily Carr.

My interest in colonial art was satisfied by a small gallery of works portraying the early days of the colony in landscapes, harbour scenes and portraits.

That evening, we hopped on a tiny rainbow-coloured ferry which bobbed us around the harbour to Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub and Restaurant where we dined on wild salmon fettuccini and sipped more boutique beer. Next morning, we hopped on another little ferry to Fisherman's Wharf and walked the floating streets of houseboats and cafes.

After four culture-filled days, we treated ourselves to an exciting 30 minute float plane flight across the Strait of Georgia to Vancouver Harbour, landing in a cloud of spray right in front of Canada Place. It was a short taxi ride from quayside up to Vancouver's "artful" hotel - Listel on Robson St (which is also Vancouver's serious shopping street). Listel features original art in guest rooms and hosts a gallery.

That afternoon, we visited the Vancouver Art Gallery and our timing was perfect. An exhibition, The Modern Woman with 90 works by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Manet, Pissarro, Redon, Seurat and Vuillard from the Musée d'Orsay in Paris was on show until September 6. There was much more to the gallery but this collection kept us occupied for hours.

After an appetising lunch at the Blue Horizon Hotel Coffee Shop, also on Robson, we walked back downtown to the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art. Reid (1920-1998) was a First Nations master carver, goldsmith and sculptor, one of Canada's greatest artists. Opened in 2008, the gallery displays Reid's brilliant paintings and carvings, gold and silver jewellery and an enormous bronze titled Mythic Messengers. A full-sized totem pole reaches the roof. This gallery is a must see.

That evening, we had dinner at the bustling Yaletown Brewing Company where we tasted their brew before ordering grilled halibut along with a delicate Okanagan Valley sav blanc.

Next day, our walk to the Granville Island ferry took us past the prominent Vancouver Public Library which looks like the Rome Colosseum.

Granville Island is five minutes by water on another 12-seat ferry boat. The Island is a centre for the arts with studios and galleries gathered in old warehouses and ships' chandleries.

In Maritime Mews, we entered the exclusive Eagle Spirit Gallery which displays strikingly beautiful First Nations art of carved panels, masks, totem poles and argillite - some of it large and expensive. Live theatre, a hotel and restaurants surround what is Vancouver's largest food market.

Of course, we did many of the things one does in Vancouver.

We walked in Stanley Park and admired the totem poles.

We strolled along the sea wall around English Bay. We saw the live musical Buddy and ate the best burgers at the Cactus Club Café in fashionable Shaughnessy.

>> For more information, see www.tourismvictoria.com, www.tourismvancouver.com, www.parksidevictoria.com, www.thelistelhotel.com.