We loved the San Juan Islands and carried on adventuring in every way, despite the clouds and rain and overall gloomy skies. As I told Julie, Welcome to the Pacific Northwest. But it’s a little early in the year for all the bluster we experienced… The ferry rides back from the islands – first from Lopez to San Juan then on to Victoria – were foggy (what my mom would call “pea soup”). But the fog cleared and blue skies came into view as we disembarked the ship to explore more of the city by foot. Then sunshine colored our day grateful.
At risk of sounding like a true travel blogger, I’m going to skim through the high points of our last 27 hours in Victoria because they were nothing short of delightful. The city is bursting with character. Next to Telluride, Colorado, it’s by far the loveliest city I’ve experienced on my journey (the only one in which I could see myself living). It’s quaint but not small, seaside but not fishy, and its British influence is painted all over its streets and sidewalks and eateries, giving it a true foreign feel without pretension.
But there was this… Folks said we had to do it, so we called to make reservations for royal (not high) tea (tuck that pinky finger, folks; raising it is actually rude and elitist!) at the famous Empress Hotel (the oldest in Canada…my friend Mindy’s family supplied the stone that built the place from their quarry). That’ll be $78 each, they said. What!? We’re going to have to drink (er, I mean think) on this…!
In 1885, even before the 1910 opening of the Empress, the doors were opened to a bank at the corner of Government and Fort Streets in Victoria. For 126 years the large stone structure housed one financial institution or another, and for some time one of them employed a man by the name of Robert Service, an Englishman, a wanderer, and a wordsmith. Service seems to have laboured (see what I did there?) at the workplace just to afford himself the free time to explore his true passion – poetry. For most of his life – in Europe and Canada – he penned and published verse, and he came to be known as the “Bard of the Yukon. This storied “bard and banker” is said to haunt the building, and the public house now occupying the space is named in his memory – Bard & Banker. The place looks just as I would imagine it to have looked at the turn of the 20th Century, with office space and teller windows replaced by booths and tables and a bar. The drinks – Julie’s Gewurztraminer wine and the Old-Fashioned that the guy next to me at the bar let me sip – were delicious (my Coors Light was spot-on, of course), and the pub felt filled with a spirit of time passed (and perhaps Mr. Service himself). We could have gone back again and again, especially to catch the live music featured nightly.
Julie wanted to visit the Craigdarroch Castle, a massive Victorian estate built by a coal baron in the late 1800s then converted to a military hospital in World War I. It later served as a college and music conservatory before being partially restored to its original estate condition and designated an historic site. I’m sure it was fascinating, and the pictures were lovely, but I decided to save $15 and check out the local library (because I love libraries). I can’t say this one had any particular “wow factor,” but I’m so grateful for spaces that provide me with WiFi and a [relatively] quiet place to sit and read and write and don’t require me to purchase goods. (I did learn the library offers a free app to members for reading magazines on-line. I’ll definitely inquire about this back at my home library!)
Since most everything we owned was wet from the incessant rain of the previous few days, we treated ourselves to an Airbnb (with washer & dryer) our last night in town, renting a room in a large Victorian home a few minutes from downtown. Owned by a Chinese family, the home was outfitted with Asian-style amenities – slippers provided at entry, a fancy bidet toilet, and peculiar but amusing color-shifting lights atop a canopy bed (which our kind and hospitable host suggested would be “more appropriate for lovers”). With a faux fireplace and balcony overlooking the water, the room provided us the perfect resting spot (though who has time for resting when there’s so much to explore!?)
For our last dinner in town, we visited Clive’s Classic Lounge at the Chateau Victoria. We were disappointed to find it attached to a hotel but reassured by its tasteful decor, ornate lighting, and swanky, comfortable seating. (And the Greek place next door had a great menu, so we were not without options). Clive’s won us over with a most delightful server, more amazing mixed drinks (for Julie), delicious tapas dishes (fried green beans – a first for me; beef sliders; ooey gooey grilled cheese “fingers”; and savory corn fritters) and an incredible white chocolate berry cheesecake for dessert. It would seem Victoria is something of a foodie town, and we couldn’t get enough, wishing we could spend more time eating (and drinking!) our way through the city’s mouth-watering establishments.
To top it off (and send ourselves off with a treat), we decided to splurge on Royal Tea at the Empress – and we have absolutely no regrets. What an experience! I’m reading a book set in England in the early 1900s, and the characters have daily tea… This didn’t make much sense to me, but I deduced it was afternoon snacks with tea, probably something high-society. Indeed, after some research, I learned that higher society English folks created tea as a “bridge” between lunch and dinner, which tended to be eaten later in the evening. Technically, the menu of cakes and scones and breads is afternoon tea, while high tea includes a bit heavier fair – often vegetables and meat – and is typically eaten at a table (while afternoon tea is more likely enjoyed in low, comfortable chairs or on sofas). As tea itself was expensive, high tea was dinner for lower-income (common) English folks, while afternoon tea remained more of a snack (and experience) for the higher classes. In fact, the “pinkies up” image comes from the observation that higher classes tended to eat finger foods with their thumb, index and middle fingers, while lower classes ate the same foods with all five fingers (perhaps because they ate more for hunger than socializing!?). I’ve since learned we broke a golden rule of tea by cutting our scones, which seemed dainty and polite of us… However, etiquette invites “breaking of bread” and spreading of jam on each bite. How embarrassing for us. Ha! Guess we’ll have to go back again someday and correct our foibles.
Victoria was glorious, and how appropriate we experienced some of the same culture I’m reading about in my book. Sometimes everything lines up just right. I’m grateful for the time Julie and I shared on the islands and in BC, and I’ll definitely return again someday, lovely Victoria. In the meantime, stay British. It fits you so well.