I’ve lived on the West Coast for more than a decade and always wanted to visit British Columbia, but never seemed able to plan a trip north of the border.
When Kevin, inspired by a new team of Canadian co-workers, suggested we turn our planned weekend getaway to Seattle into a trip to Vancouver Island, I jumped at the chance to hop to Canada instead. After all, B.C.’s capital city, Victoria, is just a short ferry ride over from Seattle. It’s perfect for a weekend trip.
The city of Victoria, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, is called the “Garden City” for its lovely gardens and mild winters. Locals proudly exclaim that it has the “best weather in all of Canada!” Victoria is one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, settled by the British back in 1843. It was named after England’s queen at the time, Victoria. The city has maintained a number of its historic buildings, pubs, and a walkable downtown business district. Double decker city transit buses still run regularly, just like the quintessentially British ones you’ll see in London.
But Victoria has more history than that was brought by the Brits. Victoria’s Chinatown is the second oldest in North America, after San Francisco’s. The city also celebrates indigenous (or as they are called in Canada, “First Nations”) cultures through public art–we never seemed to be more than a stone’s throw from a totem pole.
We visited Victoria at the end of our Vancouver Island road trip. After being completely off the grid on one of the gulf islands and enjoying nature around the beach town of Tofino, one of the draws of Victoria was the shopping–the U.S./Canadian exchange rate is very good for Americans right now. When we were there it was $0.80 US to one Canadian Dollar, and checking today, it’s even better at $0.75 US to the Canadian Dollar. That means everything there is a serious discount for American visitors. We stocked up on loose leaf tea, and I spent a little too much time at Downtown Victoria’s lululemon store trying on fancy yoga pants figuring that they were almost worth their grotesque prices at this currency-driven discount.
Here are some of the highlights of our weekend getaway to Victoria, BC:
Empress Garden Tea
For a taste of the city’s British heritage, you shouldn’t miss the famous afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress. For more than a century, the hotel has hosted visiting royalty, celebrities, and luxury and tea-seeking travelers at this traditional English tea service.
The Empress tea selection includes a long list of pure and flavored teas, and a loaded tray of sandwiches and decadent sweets. I forgot to call ahead and request vegetarian sandwiches, but they were able to accommodate my diet at the last-minute, giving us a mix of veggie sandwiches in addition to their standard fare.
I picked a Darjeeling tea, though at the time, I was disappointed I couldn’t try the teahouse’s historic Empress Blend of black tea. Lucky for me, though, they give all guests gift boxes of that very tea to take home.
Chinatown Walks Tour
San Francisco and Victoria are intimately tied in West Coast History. Chinese migrants were drawn to San Francisco in 19th Century during the Gold Rush. When the Northern California gold supply started to wane, the Chinese community headed north in search of new opportunities. Many of those NorCal migrants landed in Victoria, the business center for British Columbia’s Gold Rush.
The tour company Discover the Past organizes small group, historic walking tours through the city. We joined their Chinatown Walks Tour led by local resident and neighborhood historian, Chris Adams. On his morning walking tour, Chris led us through the neighborhood, sharing his favorite spots and the history of the city through the Chinese community–influential families, benevolent associations, local schools, businesses, and temples.
The trip ended with a visit to Chris’s favorite Chinese bakery for samples of their famous honey buns. We had to leave for our afternoon tea appointment before we got there, but took down the shop’s name and made it back there later that day: Wah Lau Bakery. You’ll thank us.
Royal BC Museum
Probably my favorite place to spend the day was the Royal BC Museum, the province’s award-winning natural and cultural history museum.The museum has a large collection of indigenous First Nations art and artifacts, as well as natural and environmental displays from across the country. Highlights include the giant Wooly Mammoth and a terrifying exhibit on the projected effects of climate change on Western Canada’s ecosystems. There was no downplaying this here. It was a refreshing departure from way institutions often treat this issue here in the US.
The exhibit, “Gold Rush” included dozens of sparkling pre-Columbian gold relics on loan from Bogotá, Colombia’s Gold Museum. By exploring the exhibit, we learned much more about the how the pursuit of this mineral shaped the development the of the Americas.
Markets & Food Adventures:
Traveling foodies shouldn’t miss the Victoria Public Market at the Hudson, an enclosed public market space for craft food artisans and small culinary businesses. We arrived at the market late in the day, so some of the stands had already closed. We did take the opportunity to grab some chocolate goatmilk ice cream (!) and goat cheese from Salt Spring Island Cheese.
Continuing our tea-themed tour of Victoria, we made a stop at Silk Road Tea to stock up on organic Chinese teas, to bring a taste of Victoria back home to California. My friend Arnette had recommended I book a facial at the shop’s on-site spa–their products include natural botanicals and plants, including freshly brewed teas and herb extracts. It was a relaxing way to end the afternoon.
Beacon Hill Park
On our final night in Victoria, we spent the evening walking through the city’s grand public park, Beacon Hill Park.
Beacon Hill Park has 200 acres of forests, ponds, streams, and gardens along with a popular coastal trail network. It was a lovely place to spend an afternoon and walk at sunset.
Where to stay in Victoria:
We stayed at the Albion Manor, a truly unique bed and breakfast just a few blocks from Victoria’s ferry terminal. The house is owned by a pair of lovely and eccentric artists, and it’s a treasure trove of surprising and bizarre little works of art.
I’ll be sharing a post and photos that tell the story in our next post–> A Quirky B & B in Victoria, B.C.
Our visit was hosted by Tourism Victoria and the Albion Manor. Opinions and photos are my own.