To many Vancouverites, it’s a home away from home. A fusion of both city life and some of Canada’s most beautiful natural sights, Victoria carries a rich history you can almost taste in the food, feel in the breeze, and see in the ocean.
Christmastime in particular brings Victoria’s most magical elements to the brink. You find yourself skipping to the beat of a different instrument for every block you walk. Locals exude the yuletide cheer, so much that you make friends with them through simple chance encounters. Then there’s the cuisine – a different spice entices you to take another bite of food, no matter how full you already are.
We live the good life in Vancouver, but sometimes we crave a great escape. We want to run away from reality with little effort – so where better to go than the illustrious island city you can fly to in roughly 30 minutes? It’s nearby, yet far enough away that you can reap the rewards of a West Coast vacation without any stress.
Eager to escape Vancouver, I set off to Victoria with a weekend itinerary, aiming to do what any thrill-seeking millennial would: have fun.
Helijet is one badass way to start off your itinerary. Get the orange ear plugs in check and make sure your phone is handy for pictures – just make sure to put it in “helicopter mode,” as the pilot prefers to call it. This is totally different than flying in a plane, especially when it snows, because Helijet hovers above the ocean at about 500 feet. It’s the perfect height for getting photos as you watch Vancouver disappear from the sides of the quelling ocean. The foggy coastline slowly recedes and you’re on your way.
The speedy trip kind of messes with your mind because you go from Vancouver to Victoria in about 30 minutes – compare that with the amount of time it takes to drive to different places within the Lower Mainland and you feel like you’ve just participated in a travelling heist.
Find somewhere cool to stay. One option is the urban boutique Oswego Hotel just steps away from the Inner Harbour and downtown. What immediately attracts your eye to the hotel before you’ve even shown up is its personal description as “a chic destination for the discerning and adventurous traveler.” Perfect. Given its location you get a hip urban vibe while experiencing the city’s natural surroundings. When you’re done exploring for the day you can put on one of the fuzzy robes – lined with fleece, they make you feel like you’ve died and gone to heaven.
Eating at Bubby’s Kitchen is sort of like eating at your actual grandma’s. In other words, the food is awesome and the staff is incredibly welcoming. The small open concept kitchen means you can see the staff at work – but Christmastime presents additional opportunities.
You’ll find seasonal bottled beers and zany cocktails like the popular Hot Apple Rum Cider, the Earl Grey Hot Toddy or even the Baby, it’s Cold Outside Martini – vanilla vodka, Baileys, Peppermint Schnapps, cream, and chocolate. But one of the popular attractions at Bubby’s Kitchen is the brunch – the West Coast benny will have you drooling at first sight. You can get all types of food here during different times of the day, so you won’t run out of menu options for a while.
During December, The Butchart Gardens go Nutcracker style, and it’s something you need to see. You’ll witness thousands of lights strung throughout the brilliant gardens during what can be up to an hour and a half walk – it just depends on how fast you choose to go. You’ll hear people repeatedly gasp throughout the garden – the only unfortunate part is that photos just don’t do the lights justice, so it’s something you won’t really understand until you see them for yourself in person.
What most people don’t tell you about The Butchart Gardens is that it’s also a village in itself. There’s an ice rink where you’ll find kids figure skating or just milling around, a restaurant for a dining experience, and a gift shop with tons of different stuff to look at.
Ferris’ Upstairs Oyster and Seafood Bar is a top stop for seafood in Victoria – and you know because people tell you. Seafood is a great conversation starter anywhere you go in the city, and a few different people are bound to lead you in this direction. Of course, most people go for the oysters – fresh, cool, and tasty. You can try them with all sorts of different flavours, including the spicy mango cocktail sauce, black pepper mignonette, and Japanese ponzu.
If you’re ready for some carb loading, then don’t skip the clam linguini – fresh local clams steamed with lemon, pernod, diced tomatoes, cream, with linguine and grated parmesan. Oh, and don’t forget some red wine.
The multi-level Bard and Banker Public House is a popular drinking location in Victoria, and if you walk in during December, it’s easy to see why. The whole place is decked out with exquisite Christmas decorations – big red bows, lights, banners, the works. But a great bar in this city isn’t the same without its people, and here, that means they’re friendly and they make you feel at home. Try going in for awhile without leaving with friends. The music is nice and rowdy on a Saturday night – don’t be surprised to see someone playing the piano with lots of passion. There’s a bit of everything for everyone – some people are dancing, many are sitting at several convenient tables, while others opt to socialize by the bar.
Olo is a dinner and brunch location that’s bright enough to liven up even the most hungover individuals. The people who work here are passionate about the food they serve, and you can see it in the way they treat their visitors. The apple cider is an idyllic way to get some much needed Sunday morning electrolytes, but the menu might distract you for the first bit. The savoury souffle pancake is a heavenly creation, decorated with bacon, mushroom, leek, and cheese fondue. Olo uses lots of BC ingredients including island raised animals, fish from local waters, and produce from the area’s farms.
Keep with the Christmas spirit and walk through the Fairmont Empress’ Festival of Trees where you’ll see some pretty zany creations. One tree, crafted by the Times Colonist, is made of curled up newspapers while you’ll also find some classic Christmas favourites.
Whatever you do, don’t forget about Victoria’s art. You’ll find lots of history at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria – not only from places around the world, but the city itself. You can’t miss the work of one of the city’s and world’s most renowned artists, Emily Carr. Walk past each painting to witness her insane varietal style – from sketches to paintings of Victoria’s wilderness, it’s fascinating to see the city through the eyes of such a creative mind.
There’s lots of mystery at the gallery. Abstract art eludes you from several different walls, perhaps their most intriguing detail being that several of them were taken by an unknown photographer, dating back to the 1950s and beyond.
If you want to see Fisgard Lighthouse, which was the first on Canada’s West Coast, you’ll have lots of fun along the way. Cruise along Ocean Boulevard and make your way to Fort Rodd Hill where you’ll climb down a tame descent to the beach of the lighthouse – viewing the chilling sights of the West Coast artillery fortress along the way. Soldiers were on active duty here from 1895 to 1956, ready to defend Victoria and the Esquimalt Naval Base. The lighthouse sits on mossy rocks, the sides being lapped by the foaming waves. One pleasant surprise is the lighthouse’s heated interior packed with historical information, complete with a curved staircase. Remember to bring your camera to this cryptic national historic site.
Imagine going to school at a campus that has a castle. Hatley Castle is perched on the green hill of Royal Roads University, where you’re greeted by colourful peacocks and outgoing bunnies munching the grass. The Edwardian castle is surrounded by different gardens that bloom with flowers when it’s warm. But with the island’s mild winters, the castle is a landmark worth visiting all year round.
Fish Hook is located on downtown Victoria’s Fort Street. You can gather from the name that you’ll be eating lots of seafood, but perhaps not in the form of original tartines that make you say wow over and over again.
It’s a nice surprise to have curried cauliflower pakoras in front of you, and next, the sablefish pakoras. The consistency of the deep fried batter is amazing, one crunch in and the rich taste of fish floods your mouth – not quite complete until you’ve paired it with the coconut mint raita dipping sauce. Whether you’re a vegetarian or not, you’ll love the tender pickled veggies – the flavourful diced beets are especially unbeatable. They also go well with the savoury smoked tonatta sauce for dipping.
Take a stroll downtown Victoria and you’ll walk by Garrick’s Head Pub in the historic Bastion Square. It’s one of the oldest English pubs in Canada and has been a fixture in the city since 1867. Apparently some things never get old – stand outside as people enter and exit the doors and you’ll be overwhelmed with excitement, especially if you’re feeling a little rambunctious. There’s lots of laughter, music, and scores of people having fun as they sip on their big glasses of beer. But there’s lots more where that came from – the pub has 55 craft and import beers on tap.
Alas, the time has come to head home. You’ll find yourself staring at the city as the propellers speed up, the waves are frothing as the helicopter lifts off the ground. A packed itinerary gives you a well-rounded experience, but you find yourself planning another before you’ve even landed.
Look at your photos within the next week and chances are you’ll see Victoria differently than before. Yet you can still sense mysteries beckoning you from every corner of the city – a reminder that there will always be more.
Disclaimer: All opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Travel, accommodation, and meals provided by Tourism Victoria.