Once a rugged outpost, the serene and surprisingly balmy city of Victoria, British Columbia, is an island home to bicycle trails, whale pods and Native American culture.
Author Melissa Nix
VICTORIA IS QUIET. ALMOST TOO QUIET. Stand near the grandiose Parliament building at the Inner Harbor, and it’s impossible to imagine that this perfectly mannered island city was once a rough-and-tumble gold mining hub, a sprawling carnival of disorder populated by industrious native Inuit and Métis traders, miners, Chinese opium smugglers, thieves and all manner of accompanying riff raff .
But today, all that remains of those times are the First Nations, descendants of the area’s original tribal inhabitants. The carnival is gone, replaced by a town as charming and peaceful as it was once restless. As for the riff raff, let’s just say they retired. In fact, of today’s 78,000 resident Victorians, a disproportionately large number are seniors, drawn by the region’s remarkably mild weather, which allows for year-round gardening and golf. Some call Victoria “the Boca of Canada,” but anyone who expects swarms of battery-powered Rascal scooters and blue-hairs lining up for the early-bird special will be surprised. The city exudes youthful energy. Cyclists, kayakers and avid joggers abound. And if there is an early-bird special to be found, chances are it’s made with organic, locally grown produce.
Victoria still retains some of its frontier town DNA. Sure, the tempo is a touch more subdued, but First Nations people remain an integral part of Victoria’s community and cultural life, and the area’s roots can be seen in its raw, breathtaking surroundings: the jagged Olympic Mountains, the dramatic Strait of Juan de Fuca and the rolling Pacific beyond. There are still pioneers here; they’re just better fed and far more civilized.
The Inner Harbor, with
the stone parapets of
Parliament in the
distance1 | DAY ONE You awaken in your room on the top floor of 1 The Oswego , a sleek boutique hotel in the quiet neighborhood of James Bay. From the balcony you breathe in the warm air and scan the snow-crested Olympic mountain range and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a 95-mile passage that connects Puget Sound with the Pacific. In the O Bistro café downstairs, have a coffee and some fresh strawberries, then saunter down to the harbor and the core of Old Town.
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, a fact that’s impossible to overlook as you reach the waterfront. Towering above you, the iconic copper-domed 2 Parliament is an exemplar of Baroque and Romanesque architecture, so well wrought it could serve as the backdrop of a bodice-ripper. Francis Mawson Rattenbury, a star-crossed English architect, moved to Vancouver in 1891 and designed the legislature, which was completed seven years later. (Perhaps he should have retired in Victoria: His second wife’s lover murdered him in London in 1935.)
A quiet moment in
Beacon Hill ParkSeagulls scatter as you descend Parliament’s steps to the Inner Harbor’s long promenade. Hawker stalls sell First Nation–inspired feathered dream catchers and beaded jewelry and generally bad art. You do the right thing and walk on past it.
A century ago, steamships were tied up along docks now crowded with yachts. Back then, members of the British royal family visited regularly, arriving by boat and climbing the nearby steps to the grand 3 Fairmont Empress Resort Hotel. An ivy-clad classical chateau with turrets and other gothic touches, the Fairmont was also built by poor Rattenbury, whose ghost is said to haunt its hallways. (See “Ghostly Victoria,” page 83.)
Barking at the paragliders
along Dallas RoadFollow Queen Elizabeth’s footsteps up toward the Fairmont and then make your way down Wharf Street to 4 Willie’s Bakery & Café, British Columbia’s oldest bakery. Willie’s is often patronized by celebs taking breaks from film shoots in Vancouver— high-watt personae like Pamela Anderson, Colin Firth and Bill Nighy (who even has a special jar of jam kept for him under the coff ee counter).
Have a shot of espresso; you’re going shopping. In 5 Lower Johnson Street (a.k.a. LoJo), a hip enclave peppered with independent shops, you find Hemingway, a girly boutique filled with silky dresses, perfectly cut shifts and necklaces heavy with charms. A few doors down is Hemp & Company, which makes everything out of you guessed it, and beyond that is Flavour, a vintage clothier that’ll tempt you with such gems as $15 Doc Martens (a perfect gift for your nephew, the one who recently discovered eyeliner).
the regal Fairmont
by the same architect
who drafted ParliamentYou’ve done your family duty; now it’s time for some culture. Make a left at Government Street and step through the ornate Gate of Harmonious Interest and into the oldest Chinatown in Canada (and the second oldest in North America, after San Francisco’s). Bypass the bustling dim sum joints and head to 6 Fan Tan Alley, officially the continent’s narrowest commercial lane, to take in the locally produced artworks at Studio 16 ½. Next door on this wee thoroughfare is the highly esoteric Triple Spiral Metaphysical Store, the proprietor of which is a practicing Wiccan. It’s said that the city has more witches per capita than anywhere in Canada. Spooky.
To calm your nerves, you’ll want something hearty for lunch. Try Fort Street, home to several eateries and still more antique shops. 7 Choux Choux Charcuterie catches your eye, and the hearty pheasant paté sandwich with caramelized onions and tangy Dijon will set you back only $6.
Simple dishes at the
brewpub SpinnakersDouble back down Fort Street and stop in at 8 Silk Road Aromatherapy & Tea Co., where you can sip some hand-blended pu-erh tea while you wait your turn for a signature green tea facial. (You, too, guys. Good skincare knows no gender.) Then make your way to The Fairmont Empress for a predinner drink on the veranda. Try the Empress 1908 Cocktail, or, if you’re in the mood for something spicy, Rattenbury’s Bloody Caesar, made with housemade tomato and clam juice.
Hail a taxi to 9 Spinnakers, a brewpub opened in 1984—Canada’s first—and dig into grilled line-caught Pacific salmon. Spinnaker’s has a 280-degree view of the harbor and a lively after-dinner scene. After downing a couple of powerful Canadian brews with your festive new Victorian pals, it occurs to you gauzily that the remaining 80 degrees are taken up by the massive brewing vats.