Vancouver Island's biggest city – Victoria, British Columbia – gets a positive knee-jerk reaction for those who've been, usually talking about its coastal beauty, retiree-filled hotels and a very very English air. But with that, the story too often stops.
Yeah, there's plenty more than that. On a recent stop, I decided to take in Canada's fittest city on two wheels, and found a city – hilly but manageable – that's simply more fun when seen by bike. Here's a few things to consider on how to bike in Victoria.
Central sights, like the Inner Harbor, the wee Chinatown or the totem collection at the Royal British Columbia Museum, are easily handled by foot. But the best comes outside of the center.
For a leisurely, full-day counter-clockwise loop around town, skip (the comparably ho-hum) James Bay and Ogden Point (just southwest of the Inner Harbour), and take Douglas Street south a handful of blocks past Beacon Hill Park to the 0-Mile marker of the Trans-Canadian Highway.
A short, sometimes climbing, ride east along the seaside, you'll reach the tightly arched Gonzales Bay (aka Foul Bay), past the long Ross Bay (and after a bit of a climb). This is where your (ritzy) dream Victoria home sits hillside looking over the sea (and Washington mountains in the distance). The small brown-sand beach usually has a couple sun-bathers, or a family at one of the picnic tables, but keeps pretty quiet most days. Bring your breakfast or lunch from the center – you'll not find anything (water or food) nearby.
The road snakes east, up and around more homes, and onto McNeil Bay, with some rock outcrops you can amble over from the beach – some with chairs that make ideal places to sit and stare.
Just east, the road curves north, inland through the seaside Victoria Golf Club. You can stop at the cafe at the Marina Park near the sailboat docks, but if you're hungry, keep winding your way along Oak Bay here to Estevan Village (reached by Estevan Ave).
Two blocks in is Willows Galley Fish & Chips (2559 Estevan Ave; closed Tuesday), the best in Victoria – and a bit of a secret outside this area. The in/out corner spot brings in a mix of locals ('the burgers are real good,' a suit told me), but the draw is take-away battered cod wrapped in newspaper ($5.25). There's only a few seats, but it's best to take it to go two blocks back to the water, where you can sit on the brown-sand or in the seaside Willows Beach Park.
Return to Victoria center inland via Oak Bay Ave, a few blocks south of Estevan. Oak Bay Village is lined with shops; best is the Grafton Book Shop, with a well-organized collection of antique and new books.
Several blocks west, turn on Rockland Avenue, past leafy streets of big homes behind English-style stone walls and the occasional glimpse out over the distant water. After half a dozen blocks its passes the Government House (1959). Previous incarnations on the site were more impressive – this version, after a fire, is a rather staid official building, but the appeal is the surrounding gardens: a gorgeous scene of grass, flower, trees, ponds – all free to wander.
Nearby is the Craigdarroch Castle, a 39-room, very Victorian mansion built in 1890 with panoramic views of the city and beyond from the castle top. The $13.75 ticket is steep, but it really illustrates, in its lavish glory, how much coal could get you – even if the coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir, died shortly before his house's completion.
Afterwards coasting back into central Victoria – mostly downhill now – consider detouring south a few blocks on Cook St to the student area (I saw ukeleles hoisted by tattooed locals) for Victoria's best wood-fired pizza made with cheese from local water buffaloes at the seriously good Pizzeria Prima Strada, run by a family from north of Naples.
--> If that seems like too much work – and it is a fair share – you can always go by scooter. If it's not enough, brace yourself for fun paths out of the city: Lochside Trail (to Sidney) and the Galloping Goose Trail (to Sooke). There are a couple central places to rent bikes or mopeds, including Cycle BC Rentals, a block east of Inner Harbor. The simple free map from the visitor's center is enough to navigate the trip.