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BC's capital is forever old, but also pretty young
Victoria is not easy to pigeonhole. Sure, it’s the only Canadian town that’s more “British than Britain.” But these days outdoor pursuits like whale watching, cycling and kayaking have given its colonial airs a certain eco-cache. You’ll spot as many tourists on self-guided walking or biking tours as you’ll see snapping photos from London-style, double-decker buses and horse-drawn carriages. Independent brewpubs, cafés and seafood-heavy eateries are popping up everywhere — this once-stodgy, old-folks’ town has that earthy, youthful feel you’d normally expect only in Vancouver.
To understand the real Victoria, have two cups of tea. One at Silk Road (1624 Government Street; tel: 250-704-2688; silkroadtea.com), a cheery teashop set up by two young women who originally trained in China to become tea masters. The shop runs tea tastings on Saturdays and Sundays along with the occasional workshop. If you prefer to have your tea rubbed into your skin, order an exfoliating massage at the shop’s small basement spa.
Your other cup must absolutely be taken at afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress Hotel (721 Government Street; tel: 250-384-8111; fairmont.com/empress), which has been serving its specially blended tea, pastries and scones in an opulent old-world setting for nearly a century. It’s an expensive cup of tea (the listed price was $47.95 from January 1 to April 30, 2012), but exquisitely unforgettable.
Pound the cobbled pavement
Spend an hour or more walking the scenic oceanfront paved trail called Dallas Road. Start at the Empress Hotel, walk south past the boat-lined Inner Harbor along Government Street and go as far as your feet desire. Dallas Road stretches from the Ogden Point Breakwater to Ross Bay and includes Mile 0 (of the Trans-Canada Highway and the official start of the Trans-Canada Trail), Holland Point Park, Beacon Hill Park and Clover Point Park.
If you’d rather soak in some history while walking, Old Town is lively, compact and perfect for strolling. Architecturally, what Vancouver bulldozed, Victoria preserved. Take a self-guided walking tour of the buildings — mainly dating from the 1870s to 1890s — along Douglas and Government and Wharf and Johnson Streets by following the plaques. Market Square (560 Johnson Street; tel: 250-386-2441; marketsquare.ca) is one of the city’s most admired landmarks: now home to a 45-shop complex, it once housed shipping offices and warehouses.
On a raining day, head over to the Royal BC Museum (675 Belleville Street; tel: 250-356-7226; royalbcmuseum.bc.ca), which has a mandate to showcase the land and people of coastal BC. When it comes to the Royal BC Museum, guidebooks and travel sites repeat the same mantra: it’s the best small museum in the world. Stop at the adjacent Thunderbird Park, instantly recognizable by the impressive forest of totem poles dating to the early 1900s and famously restored by Kwakiutl artist Mungo Martin.
A walk in the wild wood
Once your work in Victoria is all wrapped up, the rest of the island offers plenty of day-long possibilities — especially for folks heading back to the still-blowing winds and snow of the east. For an afternoon or full day of biking or walking, there’s the new Galloping Goose Trail (gallopinggoosetrail.com), a rail-to-trail abandoned CNR line that’s now part of the Trans-Canada Trail. It’s 60 kilometres long and runs from Victoria west to Colwood and Sooke and all the way to the ghost town of Leechtown. You’ll find toilet facilities along the route and several public transit stops that accept bicycles.
CycleTreks (1000 Wharf Street; tel: 877-733-6722; cycletreks.com) is normally closed in early March, but the owner will open his downtown shop to cycling MDs on March 5, 6 and 7. He’ll rent you a bike and provide a helmet, map and a one-way drop off to Sidney on the Galloping Goose Trail, where cyclists cover about 50 kilometres of bird sanctuaries, farmlands and train trestles to get back to Victoria. You’re promised views of the Coastal Mountains, including the massive Mount Baker Volcano. Call for full details and prices.
CycleTreks will also drop you off at the famous Butchart Gardens (800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay; tel: 250-652-5256; butchartgardens.com) where the flowers truly bloom year-round. The Butchart family first opened the gardens in 1904; today it displays over a million plants every year. When you see the attention poured into these amazing floral presentations, you won’t be surprise to learn the gardens are still in the family.
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