From Vancouver’s Tsawwassen Ferry terminal I join the throng of people, cars, RVs, trucks, and bikes taking the 1.5-hour BC Ferries trip across to ‘The Island’. From the deck of the ferry, I almost feel like I’m on a cruise to a tropical destination. A pod of orcas escorts us briefly for part of the way. Landing at Swartz Bay, my first impressions of Victoria are that it’s more British than Britain.
Victoria’s British ancestry
The city on the southern tip of Vancouver Island is British Columbia’s capital. It’s also Western Canada’s second oldest city. Victoria is a curious blend of old world charm and new world experiences, set against the backdrop of Washington State’s Olympic Mountains and the Pacific Ocean.
Here heritage architecture and traditions such as high tea, mix seamlessly with soft adventures including kayaking, fishing and hiking.
Victoria, Canada was born in 1843 as a fort for the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was named in honour of England’s Queen Victoria. Victoria’s British ancestry is apparent in its double-decker buses, horse-drawn carriages, kilted pipers and formal gardens.
My first stop is the impressive 1908-built Fairmont Empress Hotel, the iconic grand dame of Victoria that rises regally over Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
Not just a hotel, ‘The Empress’ has become a destination in her own right, and renowned for her elegant afternoon tea. Vancouver Island is a destination with one of the mildest climates in Canada. According to statistics from the Canadian Government, Victoria is the fittest city in Canada, and the most walkable.
West Song Walkway
I decide to test this out and head off on the West Song Walkway, a two-kilometre long paved pathway that lines Victoria’s Inner Harbour from downtown to West Bay Marina.
The local tourism bureau has created a series of themed self-guided walking tours called ‘Secrets of the City’, in order to show visitors another side of this intriguing city.
The ‘Forbidden City’ walk, takes visitors back to when Canada’s first Chinatown was born; ‘Law and Order’ presents stories of Victoria’s lawmen and criminals; while ‘Fools Rush In’, showcases the rollicking times of the Gold Rush era.
From the natural to the supernatural Victoria’s other claim to fame is that it is believed to be haunted. I join up with John Adams, one of Victoria’s foremost historians and story tellers, who has been conducting public tours of Victoria’s haunted places since the 1970s.
John leads me on a tour of some of the city’s most haunted sites including Bastion Square. Almost every building here has a ghost story or two. The most haunted building currently houses the Maritime Museum and was where Victoria’s jail and gallows once stood.
There are many theories why Victoria is said to be Canada’s most haunted city. Experts believe that the cracks (or ‘ley lines’) in the earth’s surface beneath Victoria radiate magnetic energy that attracts spirits and magnifies their presence.
Ghosts of Victoria
Ghosts are everywhere in Victoria. The ghost of the architect who designed the Empress Hotel has been spotted wandering the halls of the hotel’s lobby.
The Rogers’ Chocolates shop on Government Street is home to a pair of ghosts.
We wander down the hidden alleyways of Chinatown, the oldest in Canada. Once abuzz with opium dens and gambling halls, the area is now filled with contemporary home decor and furnishings stores.
It’s also home to the historic Fan Tan Alley – the narrowest street in Canada. Sufficiently spooked, I decide it’s time to take in some of Victoria’s other pleasures and take a rest amongst the heady aromas of the Butchart Gardens. The garden is one of the world’s best, so it’s no surprise Victoria is known as the ‘City of Gardens’.
Other reasons to visit are the array of natural experiences available, such as whale watching on the harbour. And it’s a cosmopolitan island destination with world-class designer shopping, accommodation, spas, food and wine.
Lower Johnson Street (better known as ‘LoJo’ by the locals) defines the new buzz word ‘HeritEdge’. Funky boutiques stores feature locally designed fashions, with names such as ‘Smoking Lily’ and ‘North of Wednesday’.
Fashionable North Fort at Upper Fort Street between Douglas and Cook Streets, long known as Antique Row, has been given a fresh feel with hip new fashion boutiques.
Winery tours, gourmet farm tours, culinary tours, microbreweries, cooking classes, gourmet dinner cruises, mushroom hunts, visits to cheese-makers, and indigenous arts and culture — it’s all on the menu on Vancouver Island.
Kris Madden travelled courtesy of the Canadian Tourism Commission and Tourism Victoria.
For more things to do in Canada see Best of Canada.
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