Writing coach written out

Vivian Smith, the Times Colonist's resident writing coach, has had her contract cut short. In an interview with Public Eye, Ms. Smith - who also wrote a biweekly Sunday column for the newspaper - said she was notified about the sudden decision on Wednesday morning by editor-in-chief Lucinda Chodan - "who is a person who I was thrilled to work for, who is a fine manager and journalist. And I have a huge amount of respect for her." Ms. Smith added an explanation for her early departure hasn't been forthcoming, noting "I have never had a negative word said to me by a manager about my column in the past...And if I made an error, I never heard about it."

But, in her most recent column - which encourages out-of-towners to explore Victoria's no-charge attractions rather than its more pricey tourist spots - the former Globe and Mail editor pointed out she did misstate the Butchart Gardens ticket price for children five and under. At the time, the columnist wrote the cost of those tickets was $2.50 - which "reflects the interest toddlers have in flowers." A front page correction ran on Wednesday, noting that youngsters "are admitted (to the attraction for) free. The Gardens also offer numerous activities for children including live entertainment, fireworks and skating in winter." Such corrections usually run on page A2.

When Ms. Smith asked Ms. Chodan whether advertiser complaints had anything to do with her contract being cut short, the former columnist says "It was made known to me that the publisher does not base editorial decisions on advertisers. That was an emphasis that Lucinda put on our conversation."

For her part, Ms. Chodan declined to comment on the reason for Ms. Smith's depature. Nor would she say why the Butchart Gardens correction ran on the newspaper's front page. But she did say she "continues to think that Vivian is an excellent training coach. And I've written a letter of recommendation to that effect. And I have no doubt she will continue to have a positive influence - not only in general but with TC reporters and editors." The following is a complete copy of Ms. Smith's column and the subsequent correction that ran in the Times Colonist.

***

In dear Victoria, the best is often free

'The best things in life are free' might not be Tourism Victoria's first choice for an advertising tag line.

The idea is to get tourists to leave as much of their money here as possible, thus stimulating the local economy, which means we can afford to put up mammoth hanging baskets of flowers for the tourists.

Good plan, and it seems to be working. Year after year they come, often staying at my house, typically wanting to "do" the attractions they feel they ought to.

Every once in a while, of course, some American tourists take a pass on visiting Victoria. This year, it could be because of the strong Canadian dollar and confusion about proposed passport regulations. But not to worry, others will still arrive bearing cash, from Nanaimo or Nagasaki.

Last year, we did our bit, welcoming our Danish friends from Arhus and a few drooling Torontonians. (Drooling at the views, not from having poor social skills, despite being from Toronto.)

Now here it is, Canada Day weekend again. Summer is here, school is out and those poor tourists are about to stretch their credit cards to the max.

I say this in a low voice, but I say it. I feel kind of sorry for them.

Imagine, if you will, that you are a tourist. You will have already spent $70 to fill the minivan and sprung a C-note on B.C. Ferries to get the family unit across the strait, plus fries, Cokes and teen magazines.

You may be bunking with relatives (cheap, but strings attached) or in a $200-a-night hotel.

Let's say you've been seduced by the premier's talk of provincial pride, and want to have a B.C. Experience in the morning. Next, you'd like tea at The Empress, and then spend the later part of the day at the Butchart Gardens.

For a family of four, with two kids over 12, you'd be dropping nearly $350, and that is without breakfast or snacks or souvenirs or transportation or supper. The Empress tea was $48 until yesterday, when it went to FIFTY-FOUR DOLLARS per person for the summer.

Good thing I was sitting down at home with a cup of tea when they told me. To tour Butchart, you'll pay $23 each, no senior rate, teenagers $11.50. Kids five and under are $2.50. This last figure reflects the interest toddlers have in flowers. Bring shin guards for when they start kicking to go home, right after you get there.

The new B.C. Experience "interactive" attraction costs $35 for a family, or $15 per person. I long ago gave up trying to find a solid working definition for "interactive," but I believe it means you push buttons and things move on a screen. I do this about eight hours a day at work already.

Perhaps I will not tag along to the "Experience" with whoever next inhabits the guest room.

Don't tell the chamber of commerce I say so, but I am not sure that spending about $500 a day is absolutely necessary to have a B.C. experience that is memorable. I think we should let tourists have fun for free, or at least cheaply. Maybe for just one day.

People who never see marine life are thrilled to be taken to the dock by the Oak Bay Marina to see the resident harbour seals, for instance. The seals appear so well fed that you don't even need to spend a toonie to toss them frozen fish. You can enjoy watching other people do it.

We like to include the seals on our family-run Victoria Classic Tour, which requires only that passengers keep quiet while I expound on fascinating facts. Otherwise, absolutely free. This tour could easily be done without a droning know-it-all, however. Just pick up a map, hop in the car or even the bus, and off you go, your $350 safe in your wallet until you once again approach the ferry booth.

If you start at Mount Tolmie, you can park at the top gratis and get a

360-degree command of the space: downtown, the near and far communities, the distant Olympic Mountains, Saltspring and the San Juans. Fantastic.

Down the road lie the no-charge Finnerty Gardens at the University of Victoria, where you can meander among the sun-dappled blooms, with absolutely no kiosks. The adventurous might even take to the UVic trails, which include the Mystic Vale, a deep-green woods kept in prime condition by UVic forestry students. Cost: zero.

Stop and dig your toes into the lovely sand at Gyro Park on Cadboro Bay. Do the same at Willows Beach, which has tables for your homemade picnic.

It's summertime, dear tourists. We welcome you with open arms. Open your wallets if you want. But some of the best things in Victoria life are free.

***

CORRECTION

Butchart Gardens kids' prices in error

A column on Sunday misstated the admission prices for children to the Butchart Gardens. Admission is $2.50 for children between the ages of five and 12. Children under five are admitted free. The Gardens also offer numerous activities for children, including live entertainment, fireworks and skating in winter. The Times Colonist apologizes for the error.

4 Comments

I read her article and thought. Hey this is sort of like Rick Steeves who almost always mentions the freebies in the place he visits.And he covers most of Eurpoe and the Biritsh isles for starters. Some folks with kids find some venues get expensive. Give the tourist a break and they will come back and spend their bucks. The T/c is rather strange some of the time

The fact that Ms. Smith was fired is shocking, but what is even more shocking is the lack of reaction on the part of journalist organizations in Canada and the lack of coverage of the firing in the national press.

I always recommend that tourists get out of town and it's tourist traps entirely. Rent a car, drive to Port Renfrew, stopping at the beaches on the way...Ian

As a former University of Victoria student and three-year resident of the city, I can only say that Vivian's article struck me as long overdue. For all of its good things, Victoria is surprisingly lacking in affordable recreation. Beacon Hill and the other parks are nice, the city is easy to travel by bus or bicycle, and the UVic rabbits are adorable, but the city's restaurants and tourist attractions are prohibitively expensive. While the city might be nice to visit for a day or two, the cost of eating in the city and enjoying it makes it an unlikely place to return to time and again. For me, this latest scandal means that I will never buy a Canwest paper.

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