Being a typical North American, given the choice, I would probably have chosen Europe over the Canadian west coast. What a mistake that would have been. I went to Victoria , the capital of British Columbia on Vancouver Island and saw the light. Real light, bright light as I looked over the Pacific Ocean and now I feel converted- a re-born again Canadian with great affection for that city steeped in Canadian history.
After visiting Victoria, I now understand why my friend Professor Peter and his artist wife Joyce, have enthused about this city after living in the really big city, Toronto. So much so, they renovated a huge 1911 Arts and Crafts house and turned it into a Bed and Breakfast. My head still spins at their new personae but then the unhurried Victoria residents are not as staid as we would imagine. The active cultural scene adds credibility to this. Peter and Joyce are involved in the performing arts from mainstream to fringe theatre, cathedral music, jazz and the Pacific Opera. I believe when they tell me they are never ever bored. Driving along the majestic Pacific coastline lined with large houses which could easily be called mansions, gave me yet another insight. And unlike many of us downtown Toronto residents, they have equally large gardens in this city with a population of 77,000. While we Torontoians are still shoveling snow in February, the Victorians are counting the number of blossoms in their gardens. Little wonder that Victoria is known as the City of Gardens. It has the mildest climate in the country.
On my first day, I walked off my hearty lunch which I ate at the heavy duty Victorian architecture styled, The Fairmont Empress Hotel’s Bengal Restaurant. This stroll included most of the main street, Government Street, where window shopping was my sport. Besides seeing Scottish tartans, English bone china, Irish linens, fine chocolates and designer coffee shops, I was captivated by the Cowichan sweaters and original First Nations vibrant art which I continued to see at numerous art galleries and displayed even at the airport. It’s in Victoria in 1843, that the Hudson’s Bay Company established the first British fur trading post. The namesake department store still is one of the most prominent buildings on the main street.
Through an intricately carved gate, I strolled into Chinatown reputed to be the oldest in Canada. I was surprised it wasn’t larger.
Victoria is a city for walking and I patted myself for being clever enough to wear my most comfortable shoes. Although there are other means like cycling, bus tours and even horse drawn carriages, walking is the best way to get to see the small alleys and streets. The bustling Market Square is filled with a lot of artsy type specialty shops and a great outdoor courtyard, quite a departure from the Gold Rush Years in the late 1800s where on this site, there was a plethora of saloons and small hotels.
Cadborosaurus, the legendary sea monster, said to have been spotted in the waters around Victoria for over a century, was no where in sight although I admit to only spending a few minutes looking for the “sister to the Loch Ness Monster”.
I had longed for the elegantly served tea back at The Empress Hotel, so I partook of very civilized tradition, which has been elevated into an art form. This grand old queen of hotels is intricately linked with the city and mention Victoria and the free association is The Empress. And with good reason. Looking around, I don’t think there was a local in this grand hall. But the line- up for those foolish enough not to have made reservations, was indicative of its renowned popularity. Those marvellous smoked salmon sandwiches, those tasty cucumber rolls all preceded the mouth watering scones and devon cream and the perfect fruit tarts. The service in this heavy with molding, large space, was as expected, formal and very dignified. However, breaking my ethereal mood was the loud fire alarm. I continued to munch throughout. If I was going down, it was with the perfect pastry and cup of tea in hand. And in fact, thankfully, it was a false alarm.
That evening, I saw the Parliament buildings differently. It was outlined with tiny lights which I thought was totally undignified for this domed and towered stately building which houses British Columbia’s legislative assembly.
When I was in high school, one of my westcoast born teachers, took a few interested students to Montreal’s Musee de Beaux Arts and introduced us to the works of Victoria-born artist Emily Carr. I couldn’t have been happier or more nostalgic than when I visited the substantial permanent collection of Carr’s work at The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.
After Niagara Falls, Victoria’s privately owned but open to the public The Butchart Gardens, is the most visited tourist attraction in Canada. Over one million guests come to see the 70 hectares estate. Once a quarry for limestone and clay, Ontario born Robert Pim Butchart became a very wealthy man from cement manufacturing. His wife, Jennie who apparently and hard as it is to believe, originally knew nothing about gardening but her by- product is a great monument. There is a Japanese Garden, an Italian Garden once the tennis court, the sensational Sunken Garden which was the quarry, a profusion of colourful and annuals, biennials, perennials with always blooming flowers or shrubs and even though past the season, the amazing Rose Garden still had some flowers. Some of the roses had been named after Dolly Parton, Karen Blixen and even a pink Sexy Rexy. With the terrific Vancouver Island climate, rhododenroms begin about April in addition to the daffodils and tulips. Just for mere detail, they import more than 135,000 additional tulip bulbs from the Netherlands, each year. As I walked around with one of the 55 staff gardeners, it was difficult to decide which was my favourite area, until I came to the Ross Fountains. After dark, it is lit with a variety of coloured lights. At the end of my tour, I stopped at the shop where everything a gardener ever wanted is available.
Although small in comparison to many of the California vineyards, I happily joined a few people for a private tour and lunch at the Venturi-Schulze Vineyards in Cobble Hill, about 17 kilometres from downtown Victoria. Marilyn and Giordano (respectively,) are keen to keep this as private as possible that even our knowledgeable driver missed the entrance gate off the Trans Canada Highway, RR1. Established in 1988 on only five acres, Marilyn Schulze-Venturi walked us through the meticulously tended vineyard and the state-of-the- art winery. All the wines are bottled on the property and the grapes grown are of the highest quality, without having any pesticides or herbicides. Due to the various government restrictions, they can’t sell their wine everywhere across Canada, but you can find a great selection at The Fairmont Empress Hotel and various other B.C. outlets. Giordano cooked up an epicurean lunch, each course served with a different wine. They are one of the great winemaking teams on the island. And if you have the inclination, perhaps the hotel concierge or a local friend may be able to set up a wine tasting and tour, no promises for lunch.
Boating, scuba diving, fishing, golfing whale watching, totem tours, are all available in this west coast oasis of beauty, splendor, antiques, majestic architecture and even a Bug Zoo and Butterfly Gardens.