A laid-back visit to elegant Victoria, BC
It’s easy to see why the Pacific Northwest city of Victoria is Canadians’ favorite retirement spot. A temperate climate, chill lifestyle, natural beauty and a favorable exchange rate make it a highly desirable destination for American travelers, too.
Last June, my wife Katherine and I had the good fortune to discover the charms of this elegant, laid-back city in a too-brief three-night visit. “Elegant” and “laid back” aren’t two terms you’d expect to describe the same city, but Victoria defies the contradiction.
Flowers and grand old buildings
The capital city of British Columbia, Victoria is located at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, about 100 miles off the west coast of Canada and less than three hours from Seattle by ferry.
Upon our arrival at our Airbnb condo in the heart of the city, I changed into a clean T-shirt, shorts and sandals for a stroll along the scenic waterfront. The weather was perfect: sunny and balmy, with a slight breeze wafting off the water.
Along the waterfront, colorful baskets of flowers hung from vintage lamp posts. We glimpsed the impressive, Colonial-era Parliament Building at the other end of the sun-dappled harbor, just a quarter mile away.
Between us and the Parliament Buildings was the world-famous Empress Hotel, its spacious lawn filled with flowers. It drew us like a magnet; we just had to check it out.
At first, I felt a bit out of place as we strolled in our casual attire through the corridors of gleaming brass, dark polished wood and crystal chandeliers.
We headed to the bar, a mix of modern and old-world elegance, with tall windows looking out over the harbor. The bartenders were anything but stuffy. Sizing us up as Americans (how could they tell?), they quickly put us at ease, exchanging witty banter and recommending casual, quirky restaurants that nailed our tastes and budget.
Before we left, we tried to make a reservation for high tea, a tradition closely associated with Victoria and the Empress in particular. Unfortunately, they were booked up, much to Katherine’s disappointment (and my relief). Instead, we would have to make do with long walks along the waterfront.
Day trip to Butchart Gardens
One Victoria institution we wouldn’t miss out on was Butchart Gardens, a 35-minute drive from Victoria. The focus of our first full day in Victoria, Butchart Gardens lives up to its hype.
On the site of an old limestone quarry, the Butchart family created a 55-acre wonderland that includes Japanese, rose, Italian, Mediterranean and sunken gardens surrounded by a lush, dense forest of tall trees.
The sunken garden was my favorite. Built on the main quarry, it turns what would have been an ugly gash in the earth into a colorful fairytale glen with flowers, lawns, ponds and a fountain that spouts choreographed arcs of water 70 feet into the air.
The gardens also include a coffee shop, gift store, visitors center, gelateria, cafeteria and a restaurant that serves dinner and high tea.
Walks with a view
We passed on high tea in favor of an inexpensive but excellent dinner at a pan-Asian restaurant called Brick Kitchen and Bar. It’s located just off Government Street, the pedestrian promenade that runs through downtown Victoria a block off the wharf.
On the way back to our apartment, we walked down Canada’s narrowest street, Fan Tan Alley, in the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest in North America. Then we walked along the wharf, admiring beautifully restored red-brick buildings glowing orange in the rays of the setting sun.
Besides flowers, high tea and great weather, Victoria is also known for its scenic walks. My favorite was a leisurely morning stroll along the Inner Harbour past Fisherman’s Wharf to Ridge Trail, a promenade and trail atop the sea wall.
With the return to downtown through the neighborhood of James Bay, the total walking distance was about four miles (add another mile if you walk to the lighthouse).
From the promenade, we could look clear across the Strait of San Juan de Fuca to the snow-capped ridges and peaks of the Olympic Mountains in Washington state.
We spent many minutes gazing at the view from one of the several benches along the trail. I could have easily spent hours if we had the time, but we had other destinations to explore.
Looking for something different, we headed to the town of Sooke in the afternoon, about an hour’s drive west of Victoria at the bottom of Vancouver Island. The town’s motto is “Where the rainforest meets the sea.” We were there to sample a little bit of both.
Our first stop was Sooke Potholes Provincial Park. The park’s main feature, as its name implies, are the natural, water-carved potholes along the Sooke River. From our viewpoint in the rainforest above the river, the potholes looked largely inaccessible to swimmers but provided a scenic tableau of tumbling water, twisty turns and rocky drops.
Our second stop was Whiffin Spit, a mile-long, narrow stretch of sand that extends across the mouth of Sooke Harbor, almost cutting it off from the Strait. The spit affords expansive views of open water to one side and the distant harbor to the other.
We capped off the day, our last in Victoria, with dinner at Il Covo Trattoria, an upscale Italian eatery near the entrance to the Inner Harbour. While not quite matching the sophistication of the Empress, it was fancy enough for me to exchange my usual outfit of shorts and a T-shirt for long pants and a collared shirt.
The following morning, from the top deck of the ferry that crosses the Strait several times a day between Victoria and Port Angeles, Washington, I watched the city slowly recede as we pulled away from the dock.
I recorded the scene in my memory: seaplanes taking off and landing in the harbor, boats lining the marina, grand historic buildings. But most of all, the vivid colors of the flowers, the azure sky and the deep navy blue of the water.
I may not get back this way again, so the memories will have to do.
If you go
Round-trip, one-stop airfares from local airports are in the $500 range on Alaska Airlines and Air Canada.
If you can afford it, The Fairmont Empress is the best hotel. Its location in the heart of downtown overlooking the Inner Harbour can’t be beat, not to mention the elegant luxury that permeates this grand dame of Victoria. Rates are about $400 a night.
Less pricey but conveniently located hotels include the Magnolia Hotel and Spa, the Victoria Marriott Inner Harbour, and the Victoria Regent Hotel and Suites. Rates are around $300 per night.
Where to eat: In addition to the Block Kitchen and Bar and Il Covo Trattoria, I also recommend the Tapa Bar in historic Trounce Alley for, you guessed it, tapas, and the Jam Café for humongous breakfasts.
For more information, visit tourismvictoria.com.