Touring seaside cobblestone streets in a horse-drawn carriage isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. In fact, it was that very image that kept me from visiting Victoria, British Columbia, for so many years.
But almost immediately after my first visit, I moved there and stayed for more than five years. One or two touristy streets aside, it turned out that Victoria is much more than the little Britain I had so long maligned. Greater Victoria is, in fact, the Portland of Canada, home to thriving arts and music scenes, raging brewing and foodie movements.
Victoria is full of wonders to behold beyond the tourist trail. And those cobblestones? Look closely - they're not stones at all, but 100-year old cedar blocks.
I now live in Vancouver, but here’s what I miss most about my former stomping ground:
Vic West and Esquimalt: Venture across the historic Johnson Street or “Blue Bridge” into the heart of my former up-and-coming (read: gentrifying) neighbourhood and you’ll encounter 30ish hipsters, skateboarders and aging punk rockers rubbing shoulders with new urbanists and backyard farmers. Wander its wraparound waterfront edges and you’ll meet sea otters, seals, old-world brewpubs, LEED certified buildings chock-a-block with coffee shops, and expansive, craggy parks (Macaulay Point and Saxe Point are two standouts) with mind-blowing views of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.
The Surf Scene: The nearest break is 45 minutes away by car, in Jordan River, but surf culture permeates Victoria's downtown vibe. Pick-up trucks toting drippy boards, wetsuits and dogs round back into town mid-morning to crow or commiserate over coffee at Sitka (on Yates, between Government and Wharf). The Victoria chapter of the California-based Surfrider Foundation keeps the local beaches - Gonzales, Willows, Gyro Park and further afield, China, French and Mystic - pristine for the enjoyment of tourists and surfers alike.
The Pizza: In downtown Victoria, a good slice is as omnipresent as a good IPA. (Such a good pairing!) The battle rages on block by block, but the off-the-beaten-path Pizzeria Primastrada - with Cook Street Village and Bridge Street locations - retains reigning wood-burning champion status, with the ever-expanding Canadian Famoso chain recently slicing into the action.
The Shopping: Apart from a few brave chains, Victoria is delightfully devoid of corporate retailers. An indy shopping spirit to thrives along Lower Johnson (or LoJo) and Yates Streets. In the last decade, trendy, upscale boutiques have flanked longtime 'natural fashion' purveyors along these hip strips. Bookstores thrive in Victoria -- it's easy to spend an entire afternoon under the vaulted ceilings of Munro's or within the stacks of vintage finds at Russell Books. And even if carry-on space is limited, Victoria's fun home furnishing shops are definitely worth a browse. My pal Christina Stack's emporium, Only Human (616 Yates Street), stocks curiosities by Jonathan Adler, Alessi and Areaware, as well as larger pieces by Gus and Blu Dot.
The Swimming: Vancouver Island's coastlines -- from calm, pristine beaches to misty, mythical escarpments -- get all the play. But come summer, some of us just want to swim. Or swing from a 100-foot rope fastened to an ancient old-growth tree. The trip to Thetis, Durrance and Matheson Lakes require a car, but they're well worth the journey. Or bring a picnic lunch and experience the Sooke Potholes - deep, ancient caverns in the Sooke River, best experienced after an invigorating hike. Brrrr!
The Coho: Granted, you have to leave Victoria to experience the Coho. But in fact, it's easier to get to Washington's epic Olympic Peninsula from Victoria than the continental mainland, so it's beyond worth your while to grab your passport and board the iconic old ship for the 90-minute sailing to stateside Port Angeles (even if it's just to lunch on Bella Italia's mushroom ravioli, made famous by another Bella from the Twilight movies - Forks is just another hour down the road). En route, marvel at the Coho's nostalgic nautical decor, and be sure to seek out the "Barbra Streisand Room." Legend goes that the famous singer, seeking privacy during the crossing, was placed in private quarters near one of the ship's offices. Pride ensued.