I was expecting tea and doilies. Isn’t that what you think when you imagine quaint Victoria, BC? We’re both wrong, as it turns out, and that’s the fun part. Vintage brick warehouses, hanging flowerpots and brightly hued awnings you’ll find in this Brit-inspired university town on Vancouver Island’s southern tip. But Victoria’s got an urban cityscape with a harbour feel, while still holding onto its old-fashioned, mom ‘n pop flair. It’s a real city with a raunchy underside, not a tourist Disneyland. We like.
One reporter declared recently that Victoria has morphed from “the newly wed and nearly dead” to “the fitness-led and gourmet-fed.” True, to a certain extent. The city is certainly at an interesting crossroads. I’d say it’s more a renaissance — from industrial harbour town to sustainable city of the future. The vibe is an intersection between old and new, gritty and green.
There are so many bikes whizzing by, you might think you’ve landed in Holland. SmartCars zip past at regular intervals and well-coiffed fashion plates clack on stilettos to work in toney warehouse studios. In between Lululemon’s natural fibres spin-off “oqoqo,” and art supply plus tea-and-acupuncture storefronts, you’ll find an embroidery shop, old-style camera store, a boat canvas maker and a sewing place with bolts of fabric and McCall’s patterns just like mom used to use. There are still cutesy retailers along the lines of Knightsbridge Gift Shop (623 Fort), with Tiffany lamps, tapestries, porcelain figurines and the like, but Victoria’s new persona is upwardly mobile, chic-unique.
In downtown, near deliciously seedy Chinatown, sits the mysterious-looking, derelict 1891 Janion building, a former hotel. As you admire its crumbling brick façade, you’ll hear the buzz of jackhammers and drone of construction saws. Just across the water, Dockside Green is a cluster of glittering green-glass condo towers. This is Joe Van Belleghem’s vision of a sustainable, live-work community — and, some think, a symbol of Victoria’s future. Here, it’s all about balancing job and play, enviro-friendly and creature comfort, outdoor with the in, urban with Mother Nature.
“The city’s really grown up,” says Heather McGillivray, Travel Media Relations Manager, US, of Tourism Victoria and a resident of 10 years.
Victoria is on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, BC. Pacific Ocean, rainforest and farmland frame the city. size: pop. 330,000 (Greater Victoria has 13 municipalities) vibe: A small town with big-city amenities. A walking, cycling town, proud of its roots, that likes to say it has “HeritEdge.” theme: Active, outside lifestyle vitals: Big sports scene — lots of elite athletes train here. Green, gay-friendly. Students, hipster 30-somethings and retirees.
Victoria has a rep for her inventive beers, which you can sample in groovy brewpubs set in historic, unusual locations. She’s had a lot of practice. Victoria’s been brewing beer since the early 1840s. Today, a troupe of distinctive microbreweries whip up art-size batches, most fewer than 15,000 barrels a year. We’re not talking Bud, but rather flavourful brews from the Old Country, plus exotics such as oatmeal stout, cherry blossom ale, ginger-ginseng cream ale and the like. And get this: British Columbia has 18 of some 50 brewpubs in all of Canada, so you’re in the heart of Beer Country. Resistance is futile.
Canoe Brewpub and Restaurant - 450 Swift St., 250-361-1940, www.canoebrewpub.com Award-winning, hand-crafted beer in an 1894 heritage building on the waterfront. Eats are just as stellar: seasonal, organic, local farm-raised and wild seafood. Brewmaster Sean Hoyne crafts beers onsite, including a special of the season (summer’s a Honeywheat Ale).
Hugo’s Grill and Brewhouse - in the Magnolia Hotel & Spa, 625 Courtney St., 250-920-4844, www.hugosbrewhouse.com Brewmaster Benjamin Schottle infuses his masterpieces with Eastern European flair. There’s Bombshell Blonde, Voodoo Porter, the Super G spiked with ginseng and ginger and Dragon Tail Pale Ale. Hugo’s emphasizes the brewery connection with colourful serving tanks behind glass above the bar. Your beer travels down an ornate chrome tower right into your mug. Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub & Guest House - 308 Catherine St., 250-386-2739, www.spinnakers.com Canada’s oldest licensed brewpub and a pioneer in the North American microbrew renaissance. A local legend, thanks to brewmaster Robert Monk. Nice views, right on the seawall in Esquimalt in a residential ‘hood. There’s a brand-new guesthouse. The focus is on locally sourced food (pickled octopus, freshly shucked oysters, grilled Port Alberni pork chop with organic asparagus and pearl barley with morel mushrooms and fresh herbs). Spinnakers also makes on the premises malt vinegar and its own sparkling mineral water, O de Vie, that bubbles 69 m (225 ft) up from under the brewhouse floor. Try chocolatier Crystal Duck’s artsy beer-chocolate pairing: sweet Hefeweizen Pale Ale and “Dragon Fire” (white chocolate with wasabi and ginger); the Unsinkable Molly Brown Ale with “Thymeless” (thyme and caramel-infused milk chocolate); Titanic strong stout with “Just a little Stout” (dark chocolate truffle with stout, sprinkled with barley).
Swans Brewpub - 506 Pandora Ave., 250-361-3310, www.swanshotel.com Andrew Tessier at Swans’ Buckerfield’s Brewery is an award-winning brewer. Swans nabbed the prestigious “Best BC Brewpub” and “National Brewpub of the Year” from the Canadian Brewing Association in 2006. Slurp a “taster nest,” a flight of up to six different ale samples. The brewery is onsite. The schtick: naturally carbonated ales; no syrups, sugars or adjuncts in grain mashes. Brews include mild and hoppy Arctic Ale, creamy oatmeal stout, London-style brown ale and malty Buckerfield’s Bitter.
The brewpub’s in the Swans Suite Hotel, a charming 1913 brick heritage building and former granary and feed store warehouse. (Canadian Pacific Railway cars filled with grain chugged right inside Swans’ main entrance). Today, the airy space is packed with the late owner’s eclectic, local art collection: oodles of Northwest Coast First Nations’ masks and cedar carvings, old railroad ties, granary pull ropes. There’s a homey feel. Live bands of jazz, blues and classic rock play nightly, but it’s not a bar scene. It’s got a cozy pub feel. Swans was “Victoria’s ugly duckling” until visionary and philanthropist Michael Williams saved it from demolition, transforming it first into residential apartments, then finally, a hotel and “swan.” (For more, see Swans Suite Hotel.)
Café Brio - 944 Fort St. (near Quadra), 250-383-0009, www.cafe-brio.com Chef Lawrence Munn is back for this celebrated spot’s 10th birthday. The new charcuterie (cold cuts) room processes whole hogs from the island for the restaurant’s own prosciutto. There’s in-house sausage, spicy Italian pork and now available, pancetta and dry-cured sausages.
Lady Marmalade - 608 Johnson St. (at Government), 250-381-2872, www.ladymarmalade.ca Settle into a mismatched, vinyl swivel chair at a Formica table for healthy bohemian. Salt Spring Island coffee, tomato-couscous soup, Kung Foo organic tofu scramble (breakfast all day), huevos rancheritos, salads with plenty of sunflower and sesame seeds, club sammies and chicken, bacon ‘n blue cheese on baguette. The setting is university-groovy/garage sale-70s in avocado-green. Full bar. On the stereo: Stevie Wonder, “You are the Sunshine of My Life.”
Mo:Lé Restaurant - 554 Pandora Ave., 250-385-6653, www.molerestaurant.ca ¡Viva la local! But it’s not just local — organic, vegan and raw are at home here, too. In an artsy, bustling brick warehouse with panache, it’s hard to choose between the Wise Guy Hash (poached eggs atop sausage, peppers, onions, sun-dried tomatoes and potatoes tossed in grainy Dijon), the hearty huevos rancheros or the sage-roasted yam omelette. Pesto hashbrowns are a must. And then there’s lunch and dinner. New kid on the block and already muy caliente!
Pig - 749e View St., 250-381-4677 Newcomer Pig’s got refreshingly low-brow BBQ: pulled pork, beef brisket and smoked chicken sammies, coleslaw, cornbread, BBQ beans, pickles on a stick. Good for takeout on the fly. Cheap!
Rebar - 50 Bastion Square, 250-361-9223, www.rebarmodernfood.com Feels like Frida Kahlo meets Gaudí: green-papaya walls, magenta floral vinyl tablecloths, mosaics, Godzillas and globes, a homey collection of bundt-cake pans dangling overhead. The menu and juice bar channel wellness as lifestyle: wheatgrass shakes, shiitake-tofu potstickers, almond burgers and shrimp quesadillas.
Sanuk Infusion - at the Magnolia Hotel & Spa, 625 Courtney St., 250-920-4844, www.sanukinfusion.com A new It spot. Sleek Asian-fusion. Kick off with the Kamasutra*, then begin with a refreshing green papaya salad (tangy and crunchy, tossed with cilantro, mint, spiced peanuts and lime-chile dressing). We clashed chopsticks over the Chinese beef and three-broccoli noodle bowl and the Thai peanut prawns and veggies in creamy coconut-peanut sauce. Prices are surprisingly modest and the tapas helpings grande. The sultry ambiance — posh black-leather banquettes, curvy polished wood, hot-pink orchids — seemed to get steamier as the evening wore on. Was the Venturi Schulze Millefiori** to blame? *Pomegranate liqueur, mandarin vodka, soda cocktail **Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island — crisp, dry, organic white
Artists and hipsters meet on the fringes of the oldest Chinatown in Canada. Welcome to “LoJo,” the new shopping district in the blocks 500 and lower of Johnson Street. Heritage buildings and a bit boho, this is a hub for local designers with edge. It feels young, irreverent and optimistic. You’ll find comic book stores, yoga wear, home décor and shoe repair — all on the same block. About 40 businesses in all, most locally owned, many first-time proprietors. Hit Smoking Lily (sassy Asian in a closet-size window stall, Fibre Options Naturals (recycled, organic, ethical, stylish, hemp!), Salt Spring Soapworks, Graciela’s, Gloss Beauty Bar, North of Wednesday. Meander around Market Square, a cathedral-like courtyard of brick studios set off with bright flags. www.marketsquare.ca + Shops in the LoJo district
Button & Needlework - 614 View St., 250-384-8781, www.buttonedup.com Embroidery, anyone?
Cleopatra’s Bedroom - 654 Fort St., 250-370-2537, www.cleopatrasbedroom.com Wow! Bangled belly-dance getup, mini King Tuts and pharaohs, dangly earrings, pendants, curvy parfum bottles, even silver, red and blue hukahs.
+Flavour - 581 Johnson St., 250-380-3528, www.madflavour.com Stylish vintage, American Apparel and Ts. Cowboy boots, caps, handbags.
Footloose Shoes - 637 Fort St., 250-383-4040, www.footlooseshoes.com Camper, John Fluevog, London’s latest.
Irish Linen Stores - 1019 Government St. (at Fort), 250-383-6812, www.irishlinenvictoria.com Since 1910. Tweed patchwork caps like guys in the Emerald Isle wear, lace hankies with embroidered lavender sprigs, Aran sweaters, quirky tea cozies. We picked up Irish linen damask hand towels, dainty handmade Belgian lace and an Irish linen dress shirt for grandpa.
Munro’s Bookstore - 1108 Government St., 250-382-2464, www.munrobooks.com A real bookstore like they used to make ‘em. An institution. Just go.
Not Just Pretty - 1036 Fort St., 250-414-0414, www.notjustpretty.com Hemp, organic cotton, bamboo, recycled fabrics and materials. Vegan, eco-friendly, sustainable and ethical manufacturing. Not Just Pretty is filled to the brim with Canadian-designed, Canadian-made clothing: Nicole Bridger, Myco and Anna, Twice Shy, Twigg & Hottie, Thieves, Chloë Angus, Ripe clothes for moms and Love, Deming, to name a few. There’s also a few of the hottest American sustainable labels, such as LA’s Loomstate and couture-esque Eudn, created by U2’s Bono and wife, Ali Hewson. You won’t ever feel guilty making purchases again.
+Outlooks - 554 Yates St., 250-384-2848, www.outlooksformen.ca For the dapper, dandy male, Paul Smith does Victoria. Paisley “ginch” (that’s Canadian for men’s underwear), snazzy cufflinks, blue pinstripe dress shirts and mod ties.
+Paradise - 613 Johnson St., 250-386-6968, www.paradiseboutique.ca Locally designed swimwear, 50s-era dresses, accessories, vavoom for ladies.
+Polished Home Décor - 1410 Broad St., 250-383-5500, www.polishedhome.ca “Love, laugh, live, dream” is the tagline. Modern with warm and cozy retro accents.
+Rebel Rebel - 585 Johnson St., 250-380-0906, www.rebelrebelfashion.com PF flyers hightops, appliqué owl, painted skeleton carnations, plus duds and jeans.
She She Bags - 616 View St., 250-388-0613, Matt & Nat vegan bags, cassette-player bag, Breakfast At Tiffany’s 50s style in kelly-green leather, Coca-Cola courier pack, Paul Frank flip-flops.
+Silk Road - 1624 Government St (near Pandora in Chinatown), 250-704-2688, www.silkroadtea.com Zen while sumptuous, this tea-tasting bar opened in summer ‘07 for public tea tastings and seminars. Your source for premium, exotic loose-leaf teas, plus “natural” spa, aromatherapy and tea equipage. Onsite day spa, plus the lady proprietors make their own line of natural body-care products. Workshops, recipes, Japanese tea ceremonies, breathing seminars — more experience than store.
The Papery - 669 Fort St., 250-382-1669 Luscious paper as art, and all the related supplies and accoutrements.
The Legacy Art Gallery & Café - 630 Yates St., 250-381-7670, www.swanshotel.com In an interesting and ground-breaking collaboration with University of Victoria, late Swans founder Michael Williams’ art gallery opened in July ‘07 in one of the philanthropist’s historic buildings. Williams’ vast collection of unconventional artwork and antiques graced every wall of Swans when he suddenly passed away in 2000, and he donated it all to the university. (At 1,600 pieces, the Williams collection is one of the largest privately owned art collections in western Canada.) The hotel now reports to a board, the first arrangement of its kind in Canada. Along with historical and contemporary Northwest Coast First Nations’ artwork are pieces by Roy Henry Vickers, Noah Becker, Glen Howarth and George Rammell.
Swans Suite Hotel ~ Victoria’s Art Hotel - 506 Pandora Ave., 250-361-3310, www.swanshotel.com “Unique” has got to be the most overused adjective in the tourism biz, but that describes the late Swans founder Michael C. Williams’ fantastical penthouse suite at this historic boutique hotel. Williams lived here for many years, and it’s got that personal flair, infused with his palpable passion for local art that can’t be fabricated. A 3.6-m-high (12-ft) “octopus red cedar house post” (by Roy Henry Vickers) dominates the 280 sq m (3,000 sq ft) Penthouse Suite, flanked by dozens of original canvases on every wall. There’s an enormous kitchen, dressing room, fireplace, Jacuzzi tub and plenty of overstuffed leather armchairs.
Take in the graceful Parliament buildings and Victoria’s Inner Harbour lit up at night from the 10-person hot tub, or just savour the sea breeze off the Sooke Hills and Olympic Mountain range as you laze on the rooftop terrace. Because the airy, three-level suite boasts $250K of artwork, obviously, the hotel is selective about clientele. It goes both ways. With its aging brick warehouses, train stop, harbour and Chinatown nearby, the ‘hood in historic Old Town is still in gentrifying mode; street noise can be loud. But this beloved place, still a locals’ favourite, is special and original. Swans isn’t for everyone and that’s its beauty. * If you can’t book the penthouse, at least sign up for the tour of the brewery and hotel – tours available upon request. ** See Swans Brewpub
Oswego Hotel - 500 Oswego St. (at Kingston), 866-602-1447, www.oswegovictoria.com Just across the street from a worn purple-and-pink Victorian is a handsome, contemporary brick, stone-and-glass tower. Birds are chirping. Streets are leafy and tree-lined. It’s quiet, but within shouting distance of downtown, the Inner Harbour, plus the Helijet and seaplane terminal. New in the James Bay residential neighbourhood, this 80-room boutique hotel is your modern alternative to a Victorian B&B. It’s Victoria’s first contemporary boutique hotel. Sexy!
Victoria is the country’s fittest city (36% active adults, double the national average), says Statistics Canada. Having Canada’s mildest climate helps. It’s also the cycling capital*. Don’t be caught without wheels. * In some ‘hoods, 20% commute by bike; overall, 6% of commuter travel is cyclists in Greater Victoria, more than any other city in Canada. Ottawa came in second (2%), Vancouver third (1.7%) and Toronto fourth (.75%). Source: Statistics Canada
Rent a bike: www.cyclingvictoria.com We tried Cycle BC Rentals, 747 Douglas St., 250-380-2453
The new Seaside Cycling Route has got to be one of the most enjoyable ways to take in the waterfront, flowery residential lanes, golden fields, sandy beaches and green golf fairways. If you do a round-trip, you zip through the city and scenic Oak Bay Village neighbourhood on the way back. Or connect with the Galloping Goose Trail or Lochside Trail (ocean, farmland) cycling paths for a real workout.
Galloping Goose Regional Trail, a 57-km (35-mi) out-and-back route, built on abandoned railway tracks and trestles (its name comes from a 1920s railcar) from Victoria to Sooke. Part of the Trans Canada Trail, it’s a wide, flat, multi-use trail of coves, lakes, forest, oaks, farmland, waterways and urban back streets. www.crd.bc.ca/parks/galloping_goose.htm
Victoria info Tourism Victoria, www.tourismvictoria.com
www.bcferries.com Air Canada: 1-800-667-1729, www.aircanada.com Air Canada Jazz: 1-888-247-2262 WestJet: 1-888-WEST-JET, www.westjet.com