It’s easy to liken parts of Canada to places elsewhere. Quebec? A little corner of France in North America. Vancouver? A more cosmopolitan version of its American cousin, Seattle. Victoria? A tiny bit of Britain, but without the stiff upper lip.
Victoria, population 80,000, is the largest town on the island of Vancouver (not to be confused with the city back on Canada’s mainland). Where northwest United States meets southwestern Canada, a mass of land seems to have broken off and floated out to sea. The biggest chunk (about the size of the state of Maryland), forms Vancouver Island.
Parliament Buildings, Victoria BC. Pixabay
Victoria developed around the island’s scenic harbor, and as the arrival point for both ferries and seaplanes, it’s where most visits begin. As the capital of the province of British Columbia (Vancouver Island plus a wide strip of western Canada), Victoria’s landmark Parliament Buildings (501 Belleville St.; 250-387-3046) face the waterfront. The architecture takes cues from the neo-baroque style of Edwardian England, and iron lamp posts lining the harbor boardwalk only add to the feel of being in Britain.
Diagonally across the harbor is the equally evocative brick and ivy Empress hotel (721 Government St.; 250-384-8111). Dating from 1908, the Empress has hosted celebrities such as Bing Crosby and Shirley Temple, Harrison Ford and Barbra Streisand, Queen Elizabeth II in 2002, and her parents, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, back in 1939. To experience the grandeur without an overnight stay, head to the hotel’s Q Bar for a cocktail. Where else will you have the chance to sample a “North West Collins,” of Victoria gin, fir shrub and sea cider? There’s a nice selection of BC wines and mocktails as well.
Empress Hotel. Pixabay
But if you’re feeling a bit peckish, afternoon tea at the Empress is a legendary affair, and prices match the posh setting. An array of tasty tidbits such as “coronation chicken on brioche” and raisin scones with clotted cream is CA$75; it’s an extra CA$30 to add on a glass of champagne. Lovely as that may be, there are also plenty of budget-friendlier options on the island for a proper tea. The cozy Gatsby Mansion (309 Belleville St; 250-381-3456), at the Huntingdon Manor hotel on the southern side of the harbor, offers a generous afternoon tea for around CA$40 (there are also options for smaller appetites such as sandwich and salad or sweet treats only with your cuppa).
Over in the downtown core, don’t miss Roger’s Chocolates (913 Government Street; 250-384-7021) Canada’s first chocolatier, dating to 1885. Fittingly, the Victoria Cream is their signature creation. Nearby is Munro’s Books (1108 Government St; 250-382-2464), in a stunning 1909 neo-classical building. Founded in 1963 by James Munro and his then-wife Nobel Prize-winning author Alice Munro, the bookstore is now owned by a team of four employees. Not at all British, but well worth a visit anyway.
All that said, Victoria’s heritage is multi-layered and the city proudly celebrates it. Between the Empress and Parliament is Thunderbird Park, with its Kwakiutl house and collection of totem poles to remind visitors of Canada’s roots. Thunderbird Park is part of the 130-year-old Royal BC Museum (675 Belleville Street; 250-356-7226), a well-executed museum that highlights the history of the region, from the First Nations (indigenous Canadians) to British Columbia’s natural and modern history.
Inside the Royal BC Museum. (c) Amy E. Robertson
Farther along Government Street is the entrance to Victoria’s Chinatown, guarded by the ornate Gate of Harmonious Interest. Chinatown was once known for its maze of alleyways, and visitors today can thread through Fan Tan Alley, a sliver of a walkway lined with shops and offices — not for the claustrophobic! The neighborhood now barely encompasses two city blocks, but stands out as the oldest Chinatown in Canada, and the second oldest in North America (after San Francisco).
The Gate of Harmonious Interest. (c) Amy E. Robertson