VICTORIA WAS ONCE a sleepy British enclave, but not anymore. Thanks to a recent technology boom, the city is bursting with energy and now more well known for brewpubs and neighborhood coffee roasters than for tea and crumpets. While it still has vestiges of its British charm, there are even more compelling reasons to plan a trip, including convenient direct flights from SFO, access to the outdoors, and a vibrant local food and cocktail scene. Best of all, you can easily enjoy it without renting a car.
A Regal Stay
Dating back to the early 1900s, the Fairmont Empress is the most iconic hotel in Victoria. The building is undergoing a $50 million renovation, and the upgraded rooms are more comfortable than ever, while still managing to retain plenty of old-world allure. The halls are now decked with old black-and-white photographs documenting the hotel’s illustrious history and famous guests. Even if you don’t stay here, you’ll want to stop by for a drink at the Q Lounge, which offers great views of the harbor and terrific cocktails; it’s a regal setting dominated by splashy murals of Queen Victoria.
The city’s parks and waterfront are ideal for families and are bike friendly to boot. While the Fairmont Empress provides bikes free of charge to President’s Club members on a first-come- first-serve basis, you can also rent a bike. The Pedaler offers bike rentals as well as guided or self-guided tours that allow you to explore neighborhoods and sample local food and craft beer, or take the opportunity to bike back to town from the famous Butchart Gardens.
Beacon Hill Park is easily accessible from downtown by bike, foot or horse-drawn carriage. Its 200 acres include landscaped gardens, ponds, a large totem pole, a waterfront trail and a petting zoo for kids. Watch out for peacocks crossing the road.
For a longer trek, either on foot or bike, consider the Galloping Goose trail, a 34-mile greenbelt that runs from Victoria to Sooke and begins at the Johnson Street Bridge. It’s a converted rail line, and after the urban section with views of the ocean, it meanders through forests and farmland.
A visit to the Royal BC Museum is one of the best ways to experience the rich diversity of the region in a fully immersive way. The museum is divided into galleries, which show natural history, modern history and first peoples history in the province. The exhibits are presented in engaging ways with video, artifacts and dioramas and the building is surrounded by one of the first native plant gardens on the West Coast.
Eat and Drink
One of the top new restaurants in all of Canada is Agrius, self-described as a “contemporary regional restaurant inspired by French cuisine.” It offers a versatile menu of small and large plates as well as a tasting menu and focuses on locally sourced ingredients often prepared in imaginative ways. The luscious lamb tartare is quickly becoming a signature dish and changes with the seasons, served with sumac, sorrel and pear one week and with turnips, greens and croutons the next. Creamy rice from Abbotsford in British Columbia is another favorite dish, often presented with local wild mushrooms. The charcuterie and breads are outstanding and are made in house.
Victoria has a thriving cocktail scene and one of the best places to indulge is at Little Jumbo. The beverage menu changes every six weeks and the location set back from the street adds to the speakeasy vibe. The most popular drink is the Spurs and Saddles made with Bulleit bourbon, Cointreau, house-made root beer syrup, lime juice and Angostura bitters, served in a glass with a hickory-smoked bourbon rinse. The food is also quite good and the menu often includes seasonal items such as seared ling cod, accompanied by baby potato chips, mustard greens, brown butter and cider vinaigrette.
Shop Till You Drop
Downtown Victoria is particularly enjoyable for strolling and shopping, even if you’re just browsing. Meander down the major artery, Government Street, to check out the boutiques, and be sure to visit the legendary Munro’s Books, set in a majestic neoclassical bank building from 1909. It’s easy to get lost in the stacks or lose track of time admiring the tapestry banners and stained glass.
Nearby Fort Street is lined with antique shops but also home to several terrific casual restaurants and gourmet shops. A must for tea connoisseurs is Terroir Tea. The owners source primarily oolong and black teas from around the world and offer tastings from a newfangled machine that brews four cups at once.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Carefree and Car Free”.