In early September, my partner and I visited Vancouver to explore British Columbia. While there I insisted that we travel to the elegant city of Victoria to retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life to be embraced by the breathtaking beauty of the Pacific Coast.
Victoria is a quaint town with only 82,000 people, but don't let that fool you. There is an abundance of art, culture, shopping, architecture, food and more to enjoy. And it's all within walking distance. No wonder Victoria was named Canada's fittest city and the cycling capital of Canada as well. Victoria is a perfect getaway or romantic honeymoon destination for the LGBT community.
Rooted in rich British heritage, Victoria is influenced by many outdoor activities, luxury resorts and Asian traditions. There are many contrasts to the town and yet there is a sublime harmony and ease that makes it one of the most charming locations I have ever visited. Plan to stay longer than you think when you come. Your pace slows down ( it's island time here ) and there is much to see and do!
To make the trip, people either come up from Seattle or down from Vancouver. I recommend Harbour Air Seaplanes as a quick easy way to fly to Victoria from Vancouver. In fewer than 30 minutes, you have gorgeous views, and you don't lose any precious time on the island. Plus, it is North America's first carbon-neutral airline. ( See www.harbour-air.com . ) As an alternative, ride the ferries over if you have plenty of time to relax.
As you land, grab lunch at One Fish, Blue Fish ( 1006 Wharf, on Broughton Street Pier ) for amazing fish and chips right on the water's edge. Locals come down to this hidden spot for a quick lunch. Enjoy Pacific halibut, wild salmon, albacore tuna, Fanny Bay oysters and more.
We stayed at the tranquil Inn at Laurel Point ( 680 Montreal ) where east meets west with its spacious modern rooms, Japanese gardens and displays of Japanese art and kimonos. Aura, the award-winning hotel restaurant run by Canadian Chef of the Year Brad Horen, showcases delicious options for breakfast, lunch and fine dining. Try the tempura prawns and savory soups of the day. Complimentary Wi-fi provides convenience if you must stay connected with the real world. And boys, don't miss gorgeous Paolo or Jason at Check In. The motto for the hotel is "Stay Different" and they embrace the LGBT community with flair. See www.laurelpoint.com .
Take a short walk along the Inner Harbour to enjoy the local and First Nation artisans selling pottery, crafts and art along with street performers and musicians. Then find yourself in downtown Victoria. Stop by Rogers Soda Shoppe and Chocolates for ice cream or world class chocolates that have been a staple in Victoria since 1885. Then saunter over to Bastion Square and the local street market of food, jewelry and more.
In the downtown area, be sure to explore two areas, Johnson Street and Chinatown.
Johnson Street and "LoJo" ( Lower Johnson ) Shopping: Johnson Street is really the boutique area of downtown. Most store owners are who you will meet behind the registers and stocking the shelves. There is an emphasis on local, the stores truly showcase their merchandise, and all are great resources for the town. Here are few to check out!
Still Life ( 551 Johnson ) : This boutique for guys and gals boasts easy-to-wear fashion such as Stella McCartney plus snazzy footwear from Tretorn and other accessories for men and women.
Smoking Lily ( 569a Johnson ) : This 4' x 11' space is Canada's smallest retail store. Even though there are other locations in Vancouver and other cities across Canada, this location is the flagship store where it all began and truly is something to see. Clothes created locally with global appeal and institution since 1996. www.smokinglily.com
Cusp ( 102-561 Johnson ) : Stop in this chic shop and meet owners Alyssa and Nicole to get not only stylish suggestions to update your wardrobe, but also tips on where to eat and shop while in Victoria. They are happy to be tour guides as you try on their amazing selection of shoes, locally made jewelry, purses, and clothing. It was voted Victoria's #1 boutique this year.
Victoria boasts the oldest and smallest Chinatown in North America and the narrowest street in Canada. Once home to opium dens and gambling halls, the area still echos of an earlier time gone by. Fantan Alley which runs directly through Chinatown is a must see. On some parts of this alley street it is so narrow you cannot walk side by side with another person. Duck into some of the shops along the alley or around Chinatown, people watch, and enjoy delicious food.
Whirled Arts ( 105-3 Fantan ) This tucked away shop features local artists and world-wide treasures 7 days a week with Tibetan prayer shawls, handmade paper, jewelry, yoga wear and more.
Silk Road Aromatherapy & Tea Company ( 1624 Government ) Stop into this inspired shop and enjoy aromatherapy products and an all-natural line of incredible skin and body care products with an award-winning in-store spa. Then continue on to their extensive selection of teas ( green, black and herbal ) , plus the first tea tasting bar in North America. Ask Owner Daniela Cubelic, a Tea Master, to sample teas. Plus serve yourself to create how much tea or bath salts you want to buy according to differently sized containers and create your own labels. Luckily they have a website to replenish your favorite teas after your visit. See www.silkroadtea.com .
Victoria's most quintessential tourist stops are the Butchart Gardens and afternoon tea at the Empress Hotel. Normally anything that "tourists" do, I avoid. But these are really exceptional experiences not to be missed on any visit to Victoria. Truly the best the town has to offer.
The Butchart Gardens
Take a 20-minute drive out of downtown Victoria and be transported to 55 acres of awe-inspiring beauty year-round with the Butchart Gardens. Victoria is one of the mildest climates in Canada and also one of the driest, so these gardens can truly be enjoyed 12 months out of the year. The Sunken Garden will make you gasp as it is revealed and the traditional Rose Garden feel straight out of England. Just steps away be transported to the east with a lush magical Japanese garden where peeking through a hedge provides a secret view to the Pacific. www.butchartgardens.com
Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel
Since 1908 the Empress Hotel ( 721 Government ) has been serving tea to visitors and locals in its grand turn-of-the-century foyer. Our server, Yosif, had been serving tea there for 30 years. The signature Tea at the Empress blend is the main pour and handles milk quite nicely, although there is a handful of other blends. It is a "must-do" while visiting! Enjoy fresh fruit; scones; sandwiches of curried chicken, carrot and ginger and egg salad; and pastries such as lemon curd, rose petal shortbread, green-tea cheesecake while overlooking the water.
Listen to Windy City Queercast #385, which showcases Victoria; visit www.windycityqueercast.com . Resources for any travel to Victoria can be found at www.tourismvictoria.com and http://www.gayvictoria.ca.
Also, Tourism Vancouver wants to bring you and five of your friends to Vancouver with its "Take A Party of 5 to Vancouver Pride 2011 Sweepstakes." Enter to win at www.tourismvancouver.com/five. It is free to enter through Dec. 31. And then you can plan your own trip over to Victoria as it is Not-To-Be-Missed! Hope you win or plan your own trip soon.