Victoria: Old World traditions, New World experiences
By VICTOR JUDD
An opportunity to experience “the most haunted city in British Columbia” has to be one of the best reasons to visit Victoria on Halloween weekend. We enjoy hearing ghost stories wherever we go, and Halloween in Victoria seemed like the perfect occasion for ghost overload. Although the Maritime Museum of British Columbia in Bastian Square might be able to boast the most hauntings, just finding any building near Victoria’s inner harbor that isn’t haunted may be the real challenge. From the Museum’s “Hanging Judge” Begbie, to the Empress Hotel’s Lizzy McGrath to Ross Cemetery’s multiple apparitions, there is no shortage of ghost stories within walking distance of any downtown hotel. Luckily, no one in our tour group was startled by any sudden ghostly appearances. However, near where Judge Begbie’s gallows stood, I did watch as a very nervous woman, realizing that she might be standing on a dead criminal’s grave, silently scooted away.
The well-maintained old world ambiance that attracts so many to Victoria provides the perfect backdrop to any ghost hunt. However if the inhabitants of the afterworld don’t interest you, Victoria still has plenty to offer. In fact, I borrowed the subtitle above from Victoria’s own tourism slogan because it seemed the best way to sum up the variety of enjoyments Victoria has to offer. From old world buildings to modern IMAX shows, from afternoon tea to organic culinary feasts, from horse-drawn carriage rides to wild jet boat rides, Victoria offers a wide range of traditional and modern.
Any first-time visit to Victoria should always include some of the city’s renowned sites and experiences. It is with good reason that the Parliament building and the Fairmont Empress Hotel are the two most photographed buildings in British Columbia. If you spend any time on the waterfront, you can’t miss them. Both buildings were designed around 1900 by architect Francis Rattenbury. Their aristocratic presence dominates the harbor. Parliament is especially spectacular as evening approaches; its entire façade is outlined with 3,300 lights and creates a wonderful spectacle as it reflects off the still harbor waters. The illumination is a tradition that started in 1897 with the celebration of Queen Victoria’s diamond Jubilee (60 years on the throne). The majestic Fairmont Empress Hotel invites you inside for afternoon tea, cocktails, dinner, or even a few nights – stay. Walk through the lobby, marvel at the rich appointments and easily imagine kings, queens and movie stars walking the floors. If you’re a camera buff, be sure to bring a tripod for great nighttime shots.
To really see Victoria, a tour on a double-decker bus or in a horse-drawn carriage is definitely in order. Either of these is a great way to get quickly oriented, find neighborhoods you might like to explore further and get a thumbnail perspective of the city’s history. Watch as everyone races to get to the upper level of the bus and then ducks when low hanging limbs brush against the windows. For a terrific alternative perspective, get back out on the water with Victoria Harbor Ferry, the way-too-cute miniature ferryboats you see plying the harbor. An afternoon aboard one of the harbor’s sailing schooners offers an even more authentic experience. Or, for a truly New World experience, fly around the harbor, the city and the island in a floatplane. Few experiences equal the thrill of taxiing down an open shipping lane, accelerating out over the open sea, then swinging up and over the city, viewing Victoria laying along the edge of the island framed by the sparkling ocean and snow capped mountains.
To get to know Victoria, visits to the Royal British Columbia Museum and to the Craigdarroch Castle are pretty much required. At the Royal B.C. Museum, spend time in the best First Nations exhibit you are ever likely to see and learn the island’s history. At Craigdarroch Castle, you will marvel at the opulent lifestyle made possible by early business ventures on Vancouver Island. The quintessential Victoria experience must be taking Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel. Although there are many tearooms in Victoria, the most famous is at the Empress. For value, enjoy your tea at Murchies downtown. Finally, one shouldn’t miss world-famous Butchart Gardens or the Royal London Wax Museum, because when you get home everyone is going to ask you if you went – and you will be glad you did.
When I first visited Victoria, I was 12 years old which was several decades ago. In planning my recent trip, I was curious to see how a 21st century experience would compare with what I remembered as a kid – and I wasn’t disappointed. What had stuck in my memory were Victoria’s old world charm, the horse drawn carriages and the fantastic gardens throughout the city. As the ferry MV COHO pulled into the inner harbor, the stone and copper edifice of the Parliament building loomed as large in the foreground of today’s harbor as it did in my memory. And the rich wood and polished brass of the Bengal Room in the ivy covered Fairmont Empress still conveys a tone of elegance and culture from another era. Amazingly, Butchart Gardens actually seems larger now than in the memories of my youth. The figures in the wax museum are as life-like as I remembered – but there are many new personalities represented.
Returning in October with my wife and her parents, we determined to retrace old paths and then explore new territory. On our first day, as we wandered the bustling streets of China Town – as historical a neighborhood as any – I was struck with how much energy there is today. I realized that everywhere I had walked, there was a pleasant mix of the old, historical Victoria and the new, fun, living Victoria.
Later that night, the ghosts of Bastian Square where unable to compete with the sounds of music and laughter coming from the pubs and restaurants located on either corner. From one direction we heard the lilting tune of an Irish fiddle, from nearby came the clink of wine glasses and a burst of laughter and from the bottom of the hill came the rousing notes of modern dance tunes as costumed guests waited to enter a party already in full swing. Earlier, we had lunched at Spinnakers, the oldest brewpub in Canada and enjoyed its original beers, excellent food and superb view of the harbor. Noticing that there was also a guesthouse, I made a note to look into that before a return visit. Prior to boarding the Graylines West bus that would take us in search of Victoria’s haunted past, we had sipped martinis in the martini bar of Victoria – the Bengal Lounge at the Empress.
As a culinary experience, my visit to Victoria was an eye opener. I don’t know what I had expected (tea and cucumber sandwiches perhaps) but I was delighted again and again with each new restaurant we discovered. When traveling, I generally ask everyone I meet to recommend a favorite dining establishment. Since Topo’s Ristorante Italiano received several high recommendations, my party decided to try it for an Italian dinner. Stepping down into a large open room, we were greeted by a breathtaking view through a 25-foot wall of glass. In an old saloon building, quiet and elegant but not pretentious, the restaurant proved to be a fitting destination for an anniversary dinner celebration. The wonderful view was surpassed, however, by the delicious, expertly prepared cuisine. I use that word because “dinner” just doesn’t seem to do our meal justice. My childhood memory of fish and chips in Victoria has been replaced by “veal piccata al a Topos.”
A visitor with just a long weekend getaway will be hard pressed to experience all thatVictoria has to offer. Fortunately, we discovered the Royal Scot Hotel and Suites. One of Victoria’s first all-suites hotels, it proved to be an excellent home base for a longer stay. A luxurious hotel, just blocks from the ferries, it also offers many of the conveniences of home including Internet access. Its one- and two-bedroom suites also have cozy little kitchens that are just right for saving a few dollars by preparing meals at “home.” Washers and dryers are also available. Even better for vacationers was the heated pool, the hot tub, dry saunas, pool and shuffleboard tables and game room.
On a three-day visit, we barely scratched the surface of Victoria. What will we do on our next trip? Well, Victoria is often called the City of Festivals. In every season, there is something special being celebrated. For me, maybe the Floating Boat Show in the spring and a visit to a couple more of the restaurants in town that came highly recommended – like the Swans Brewpub and Restaurant. But after that, we will leave the inner harbor and explore further – west to Sooke, north along the Saanich Peninsula to Sidney. Of course, there will be another visit to Butchart Gardens, this time in springtime splendor. In the fall, we will see the salmon run at Goldstream Park or visit the Sooke Potholes, where many of the locals spend their time. Also kayaking – the coast is rife with places to kayak. That’s the great thing about getaways; there is always something exciting to see the next time.
The famous Empress Hotel, photo by Victor Judd