Victoria was feeling the cold.
Winter had unexpectedly hit emptying the streets except for a few brave souls, rugged up against the wind. You could see their breath rising toward the Canadian sky as people scurried to get back indoors, to the warmth of a log fire or electric heating.
Victoria historically has Canada’s mildest climate. It is the place Canadians move to if the want to escape the cold.
But this year, just before Christmas, a southbound polar vortex changed all that, bringing with it bitterly cold temperatures that caused a dramatic spike in energy consumption.
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia. Conde Nast Traveler describes it as the best island in North America. Travel + Leisure magazine says it is one of the 10 best islands of the world.
According to Government of Canada statistics Victoria is the cycling capital of Canada, the fittest city in Canada, and the most walkable. Ten per cent of the city’s workforce walks to the office each day.
You can travel the 100 kilometres to get there from Vancouver by air or sea and you will find it on the map located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. With a population of just over 80,000 it offers everything you need from a city, but still manages to stay true to its quaint old fashioned British roots.
Named after Queen Victoria and established in 1843 as a fort for the Hudson’s Bay Company, Victoria still has many touches of the old country. Even today you will see double decker buses, formal gardens, tea rooms and the odd horse-drawn carriage.
The locals love to celebrate Christmas in style in Downtown Victoria. There’s a ferris wheel in Centennial Square where the annual Christmas tree light-up occurs; there’s Canada’s National Gingerbread Showcase; the annual Bear Wear festival; carollers roam the streets singing up a storm; and of course _ the jewel in the crown is Butchart Gardens.
The 110-year-old gardens were started by Jennie Butchart in an attempt to beautify a worked-out quarry site on her family’s 130-acre estate. Today there are 55 acres of stunning colour all season gardens and it has been declared a National Historic Site of Canada.
From December 1 to early January the gardens are intricately transformed into a light show that brings the magic of Christmas to life through an unusual telling of the English carol, The Twelve Days of Christmas. Because it is an old quarry, the gardens are spread over several levels. The light displays tend to unveil themselves as you turn every corner or crest every hill.
Of course it starts with a partridge in a pear tree but by the time you get to the maids a milking and lords a leaping I guarantee that you will be swept up by the Christmas spirit. By the way, it’s not just about the gardens. There is a beautifully restored merry go round, an ice skating rink, carollers, a fine-dining restaurant, and a cafe that sells the sweetest hot chocolate ever made.
At $25 per head for adults, $12.50 for youths, and $3 for children even Ebenezer Scrooge would find this experience worth the money.
The next day we continued our Christmas journey through Victoria with historian John Adams. He runs themed walking tours that usually involve stories about ghosts, murders and salty seamen. John meets us in front of the Maritime Museum in Bastion Square for our 90-minute tour wearing a ankle length black coat, top hat and carrying a cane. He was easy to find.
His $14 Christmas in Old Victoria tour (www.discoverthepast.com) unlocked the secrets of this part of the city’s history and was also an excellent way for us to get our bearings in the downtown area. When John found out we were interested in First Nations’ art he walked us to Eagle Feather gallery and gift shop introducing us to Chris MacDonald. The shop had a wealth of Francis Dick art and is well worth a visit.
We then head back to Oak Bay where we are staying to join Karma Brophy from Feast Concierge (www.feastconcierge.ca) for the Epicurean Christmas in the Village tour. It’s another walking tour but this one involves eating and drinking. Two of my favourite things.
Karma has planned and hosted these tours in Victoria for more than 20 years. She has a wealth of knowledge about local produce and starts her tour by telling us that the seaside village of Oak Bay used to be a farming community. Today the trendy main strip _ about a kilometre in length _ is like a gourmet treasure hunt with tasty little finds available at almost every other door.
Our tour starts at Whole Beast Sulumeria where chef Cory Phelan and his team offer a vast collection of nose to tail products that include blood sausage, liverwurst, head cheese, cotechino and corned lamb or pork tongue. I know it is not to everyone’s taste but here you can not only eat, but discuss everything from how the cut of meat is made to where the beasts come from. These days we all want to know more about what we are eating and these guys are a font of information.
Next stop the Penny Farthing Pub for some smoked duck and a local beer tasting. The cosy pub offers 10 beers brewed within three kilometres, live music, and an extensive bar menu. This is definitely worth a return visit.
As we make our way down the street we stop at Sweet Delights for some Christmas candy, Ottavio’s for a cheese tasting and then the Marina Restaurant for a crab smash. Thank heavens for the apron. Once I started with the hammer there was crab meat flying everywhere. We even saved some to feed the local seals.
Our three-hour journey finished at the recently rebuilt Oak Bay Beach Hotel (www.oakbaybeachhotel.com) for some dessert and local spirits.
The hotel overlooks the Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Juan de Fuca with 100 waterfront rooms, a pub, a fine dining restaurant, a cafe, a theatre and an overall sense of old fashioned elegance meets modern practicality. The highlight for me where the outdoor heated spa pools which offer direct views of the ocean _ although it was very cold out of the water.
The author was a guest of Destination British Columbia and The Canadian Tourism Commission.