Victoria, BC: One Seriously Scenic Port of Call
Halyards clang against sailboat masts along the peaceful stone seawall of Victoria’s inner harbor, gently awakening guests at the majestic Fairmont Empress Hotel, whose stately presence looms high above the pier. Consider it a nautical snooze alarm, as soon the bagpiper will skirl in, the red double-decker buses will queue up, the whale-watching excursions will depart and another day of tourists and tea will commence at the Empress, “the grand old lady of Government Street.”
Welcome to the edge-of empire port city and capital of Canada’s British Columbia province.
Once little more than a mud flat on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, now-stately Victoria got its start as a raucous jumping-off point for the Alaskan Gold Rush in the mid-1800s. Though the Canadian Pacific Railway would eventually stop short and terminate at Vancouver, the province chose Victoria as its capital, despite its improbable location 50 miles offshore and considerably south of the 49th parallel that separates the U.S. and Canada west of the Great Lakes.
Quite befitting its stature as one of the world’s loveliest ports of call, Victoria is a polyglot of British descendants, Pacific Rim immigrants, Bering Strait nomads and First Nationals. You’ll find a little bit of everything in this dim sum city on the western Pacific, all neatly tucked into roughly a dozen square blocks of old world charm.
Should events or sheer adventure find you in Victoria, here are 10 memorable ways to savor the flavors of this pearl of the Pacific.
Tea at the Empress: Despite current and ongoing renovations, tea at this 1908 world-renowned hotel remains at the top of Victoria’s must-do list. My last tea featured smoked salmon, cucumber and egg salad finger sandwiches, Empress scones, homemade strawberry preserves and a clever pianist who insisted on segueing between Chopin and Elton John. Little wonder the Royals dropped in with the kids this fall to begin their Canadian tour.
Butchart Gardens: Located 20 minutes north of the city, this 50-acre horticultural masterpiece, created in 1906 by Jenny Butchart on the site of a limestone quarry that supplied her husband’s cement plant, draws worldwide crowds to its Italian, Japanese and rose gardens, as well as its breathtaking Sunken Garden. Open daily, with music nightly in summer.
Garrick’s Head Pub, Bastion Square: Even teetotalers would enjoy dinner and an Arnold Palmer at one of Victoria’s – and indeed, Canada’s – oldest public houses, established in 1867. Shepherd’s Pie, bangers & mash, cod and chips, homemade mac and cheese; what’s not to like?
Chinatown: Canada’s first Chinatown is still one of its most authentic. Shimmy your way down Fan Tan Alley, little wider than a hockey stick, where former gambling venues now house artist studios and cubbyhole shops. Small but filled with charm.
Rogers’ Chocolates, Government Street: I first learned about these devilishly addictive confections from American pals who would smuggle trunk loads across the border to send as holiday gifts. If you have any self-discipline at all, I urge you to window shop only at this, the original of 10 stores founded by Canada’s first chocolatier in 1885.
Victoria Bug Zoo: Really? An insect zoo? Yes, really. And what’s more, this two-room (how large would it need to be, right?), hands-on celebration of the invertebrates among our arthropod phylum not only fascinates young people; it brings out the child in all of us.
SPLASH with the Victoria Symphony Orchestra: One of the better full symphony orchestras in Canada draws huge crowds to its annual midsummer outdoor concert, performed with guests on a floating stage on the inner harbor. And yes, each concludes with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, complete with fireworks!
Rebar, Bastion Square: In a town filled with great eats, this unassuming downtown diner manages to draw locals and visitors alike with its fusion of pub grub, Asian and vegan fare, including smoothies. Added plus: you can’t possibly be underdressed here.
Miniature World: Another favorite with families, this bizarre diversion, tucked into the back of the Empress, fittingly bills itself as “The Greatest Little Show on Earth,” filled as it is with 85 miniature dioramas, from Olde London Town 1670 to the world’s largest Victorian dollhouses with more than 50 rooms. Selfies? I should say so!
Trounce Alley: Once Victoria’s red-light district, this charming alley lit by 125-year-old gaslights is a heady hodgepodge of hip street-side eateries, vintage clothiers and a mecca for footwear and handbag aficionados.