August 25, 2017

Victoria rules again


How the Vancouver Island city kept its cool while embracing its past

By Joanne Sasvari

Getting there, they say, is half the fun. But it’s rarely true. These days, getting there is almost always a miserable journey into un-fun. Unless, that is, you’re travelling to Victoria, where the journey has become just one of the things that makes visiting B.C.’s capital city such a joy.

It is a beautiful morning, sunny and warm. As we stroll aboard the new V2V ferry in downtown Vancouver, smiling staff whisk our bags away so we barely have to lift a finger before setting into seats that are actually comfortable. For one thing, they have tables, so when the servers bring us our food and drinks, we don’t have to balance them on our laps. Did I mention: Servers bring our food to us. We don’t have to race, Hunger Games-style, to join a lineup for cafeteria fare.

Already it’s been a great trip and we’re only halfway across the Salish Sea.

Once we get to Victoria, things get even better. Like the Clipper from Seattle and Harbour Air’s floatplanes from Vancouver, the V2V lands right in Victoria’s Inner Harbour. We simply grab our bags and amble over to our hotel.

Right away, we notice something’s changed. Oh, sure, there are still the same horse-drawn carriages lined up waiting for passengers, the same hawkers selling native carvings and beaded bracelets, the same tourists posing for pictures in front of the B.C. Parliament Buildings. But everything looks brighter, somehow. Perhaps it’s just because the ivy’s gone from the Fairmont Empress at the very top of the harbour. Or perhaps it’s the shiny optimism that seems to have infected the city.

Victoria, you see, is happening these days.

It still retains its historic charm with those grand Edwardian commercial buildings, quaint Victorian homes and voluptuously rambling gardens. But everything’s got a polished sheen, buffed up with thoughtful renovations and stylish new construction, making it a draw for young businesses that range from culinary artisans to innovative tech startups. It’s a place where bookstores are cool, and so are craft cocktail bars, where the arts can still draw a crowd, where kayakers paddle in the Inner Harbour and cyclists join the Pedaler’s craft beer tours.

And yet it could all have gone in a very different direction.

In the 1850s and ’60s, prospectors stopped here to load up on permits and supplies for the Cariboo gold rush. In the process, they turned Victoria almost overnight from a sleepy village into a thriving commercial boomtown. What’s now known as Old Town, the neighbourhood around Market Square, teemed with hotels, saloons and brothels. At one point, 10,000 people lived crammed just in the few blocks of Canada’s oldest Chinatown, which was also home to opium factories and fan tan parlours.

By the 1960s and ’70s, though, Old Town had become rundown and derelict. The city discussed tearing it down, but decided instead to revitalize. How fortunate that they did.

It’s a place where bookstores are cool and so are craft cocktail bars, cycling and paddling the Inner Harbour

Chinatown has had a rebirth, with stylish condos and chic boutiques like La Roux patisserie. Even Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, once riddled with gambling dens, is now filled with independent boutiques. Nearby on Lower Johnson Street, nicknamed LoJo, gaily painted storefronts that once sold pickaxes and work boots now display handcrafted soap, home décor and designer clothing. Market Square, once so dark and foreboding, has had a facelift, too, and is open for business. Still, as we pass through pedestrian-friend alleys, we catch mysterious glimpses of the past: here, a metal rim designed to protect a sidewalk from carriage wheels; there, a road surface made of wood blocks, unchanged in 100 years.

Meanwhile, up on busy Douglas Street, the Belle Epoque beauty that once housed the Hudson’s Bay department store has become stylish condos and a public market. Everywhere we go, we find exciting new eateries and wine bars, cocktail lounges and pubs.

And then there’s the recent renovation of the Fairmont Empress. The grande dame has had a massive $60-million makeover. Gone are the twee rose-patterned carpets and all the trapped-in-the-’80s pink and green. Instead, it glimmers with cool silver and regal purple. The tea lobby still serves an afternoon cuppa with finger sandwiches and scones, but the room is newly glamorous and elegant. The new Q Bar not only features grand Warhol-esque portraits of Queen Victoria, but views of all the action in the Inner Harbour.

Perhaps most remarkably, modernizing the hotel has somehow managed to reveal the beautiful heritage features that were lost before in all the chintz and dark oak. It could be a metaphor for this whole city: The younger and more vibrant it becomes, the more gracefully it seems to age.

It’s something to ponder as we sip award-winning Sea Star rosé on our return trip via V2V. (And yes, the ferry serves local wine and craft beer.) Aging well is something Victoria has mastered. If only we all could do the same.

if you go

Getting there:

BC Ferries sail hourly most days from Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay, while major airlines serve Victoria International Airport in Sidney. If you want to arrive right in or near the Inner Harbour, however, opt for Harbour Air’s floatplanes (harbourair.com), the HeliJet (helijt.com), the Clipper if you’re coming from Seattle (clippervacations,com) or the new V2V passenger ferry from downtown Vancouver (v2vvacations.com).

Staying there:

For grand historic luxury: The Fairmont Empress Hotel. fairmont.com/empress-victoria/

For opulent boutique charm: Magnolia Hotel. magnoliahotel.com

For value and vividly hued fun: Hotel Zed. Hotelzed.com

Dining there:

Victoria restaurants are all about farm-to-table goodness. Just a few places to try include: Agrius (agriusrestaurant.com), Spinnaker’s Gastro Brewpub (spinnakers.com), Zambri’s (zambris.ca), 10 Acres Kitchen (10acreskitchen.ca), Stage Wine Bar (stagewinebar.com), Veneto (venetodining.com) and the new Fox Whisky Tango cocktail lounge in the DoubleTree by Hilton (FTWbar.com).

For more information:

To plan your trip, visit
tourismvictoria.com.

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