British Columbia’s capital charms

by JOHN LEE·
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When Winter Olympic host Vancouver hogged the international spotlight in 2010, many people around the world believed they were seeing images of British Columbia’s capital.

But across the water, confusingly located (unlike Vancouver) on Vancouver Island, Victoria has been the west coast province’s official chief city since the 19th Century. And in August 2012, the city will step out from under the shadow of its mainland sibling to celebrate its 150th birthday.

The historic waterfront capital – often defined on postcards by its landmark ivy-covered Empress Hotel -- is sometimes dismissed as a twee colonial outpost where afternoon tea is de rigueur and fish and chips are a daily staple. But Victoria has quietly undergone a transformation in recent years, and although many visitors still stick to the touristy Inner Harbour area, savvy travellers are striking out to join locals in the distinctive surrounding neighbourhoods.

Funky revival

Fernwood, northeast of downtown, has become the city’s funkiest neighbourhood, as artsy Victorians restock the old buildings with cool eateries, piercing salons and micro-galleries.

Highlights radiate out from the Gladstone Avenue and Fernwood Road intersection, home to the Belfry Theatre, a former clapboard church that stages contemporary plays, and the Fernwood Inn, a revitalized old-school pub where locally-brewed Driftwood Ale and Phillips Chocolate Porter jostle for attention with live bluegrass nights.

Nearby, candlelit, brick-lined Stage is a tapas and wine bar favourite – try the risotto made with local scallops – while a few blocks away is hole-in-the-wall Fernwood Coffee, where young hipsters gather to guzzle the city’s best java and munch on the addictive cookies. 

Knick-knacks and top burgers

A 20-minute walk south of Fernwood, Cook Street Village has transformed a once-drab enclave into a vibrant stretch of independent shops and patio-hugging eateries, colouring both sides of Cook Street between Southgate and Chapman. The low-rise thoroughfare’s side streets are studded with attractive gable-roofed wooden houses and vintage blue- and green-painted apartment blocks.

It is hard to resist nipping into Kay’s Korner (337 Cook Street; 250-386-5978) to peruse its carefully curated treasure trove of period trinkets, from ironic Vegas shot glasses to renovated furniture.  Handily, Kay’s is just a few steps from the area’s tastiest draw, Big Wheel Burger. The restaurant is an ideal spot to slide onto a plastic chair, sink your teeth into a top-notch, sustainably-sourced burger and watch the streetscape pass by.

Heritage homes

To work off that extra order of poutine (a Canadian favourite of fries topped with gravy and cheese curds), the labyrinthine James Bay neighbourhood is a short stroll away. Between the rear of the handsome Parliament Buildings and the open, wave-whipped Pacific Ocean, Victoria’s oldest residential neighbourhood is striped with brightly-painted, shingle-sided 19th-century houses -- perfect for some on-foot heritage home spotting.

Look out for sparklingly preserved Italianate, Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts residences here, and do not miss the canary-yellow, antique-filled Emily Carr House, where British Columbia’s favourite artist lived. Built in 1863, it is open to the public from May to September.

Pick up a local history tome and a latte at James Bay Coffee and Books and make for the area’s expansive waterfront, facing down hair-whipping ocean breezes at clifftop Beacon Hill Park or perusing the bobbling houseboats at Fisherman’s Wharf. From here, hop a bathtub-sized Victoria Harbour Ferry to the Reeson Landing stop near the foot of Lower Johnson Street.

Shopalicious

Monikered “LoJo” by enthusiastic marketers, Johnson Street is Victoria’s old town heart, the spot where 19th-century north-bound Gold Rushers geared up and indulged in the strip’s gritty saloons and gambling dens. In recent years LoJo’s hulking, candy-coloured facades have been preserved, repainted and populated with the city’s best indie stores.

Must-sees include Rebel Rebel, for its co-ed hipster duds; Salts, for its locally-made hooded sweatshirts; and Saltspring Soapworks, for its kaleidoscopic bath treats. The edible-seeming wild rhubarb bars are definitely recommended, but save your appetite for nearby restaurant  Lady Marmalade and its Mexican meatball rice bowls.

Alternatively, just sink into one of the restaurant’s sagging, mismatched sofas and raise a celebratory mug of gunpowder Moroccan mint tea to BC’s birthday capital. It is not Vancouver, and that is why the locals love it.