Exploring Victoria

Victoria is a popular spot for gay honeymoons and weddings

Dignified, historic, studded with parks, and packed with some of the nation’s most notable cultural attractions, Victoria offers the perfect recipe for a short getaway in western Canada – it’s also easily reached from Vancouver or Seattle by way of regular ferry service. At the southern tip of Vancouver Island, this leafy capital of British Columbia has also become a popular spot for gay honeymoons and weddings since Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005.

Great Britain’s first colony on the Pacific Coast of North America, Victoria was established in 1849 as a trading outpost. By the end of the century, when the now much larger city of Vancouver was still a mere blip on the radar, Victoria had become B.C.’s capital. The city remains an important political center, but tourists definitely butter the bread these days. The formal, London-inspired Parliament buildings and the Fairmont Empress Hotel edge the harbor, set against a commanding backdrop of snowcapped mountains.

With its low skyline, downtown is compact and user-friendly, and fine shopping and cafe-hopping abound. The south end of the Inner Harbour contains Victoria’s provincial government buildings as well as the imposing Fairmont Empress Hotel, which is famous not only as a place to stay but for its regal afternoon high teas. Few museums in Canada are more fascinating than the Royal British Columbia Museum, whose artifacts and exhibits document life 12,000 years ago in what is now Western Canada. Around the corner, the Crystal Garden Conservatory contains more than 65 endangered species that make their home in this re-created tropical forest.

Just south of here, off Douglas Street, the 185-acre Beacon Hill Park is typically filled with joggers, strollers, and sun-worshipers soaking up the atmosphere and the floral aroma. Nearby you can visit the Carr House, which affords a glimpse into the life of British Columbia’s most beloved painter, Emily Carr.

Walk 15 minutes or drive a short way east of downtown along Fort Street, which is lined for several blocks with fine antiques shops, to reach one of B.C.’s greatest house-museums, Craigdarroch Castle. From the top (fifth) floor you’re treated to outstanding views of the city. Just west is the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, one of the top art museums in Western Canada. Once you’ve exhausted Victoria on foot, consider tooling around the city and its environs by car. A favorite excursion is so-called Marine Drive – not the name of any one street but a scenic coastal circuit extending from Ogden Point, which is southwest of the Inner Harbour, to Cadboro Bay.

Victoria and the surrounding area are also ideal for outdoorsy activities – in fact, it’s been named Canada’s fittest city, owing to the high percentage of residents who regularly participate in outdoor recreation. Favorite activities include diving, kayaking, fishing, mountain biking, and hiking. A number of local outfitters lead tours through nearby old-growth forests, up rugged mountain peaks, and on whale-watching expeditions – visit Tourism Victoria’s helpful website (www.tourismvictoria.com) for a full list of providers.

Victoria lies at the southern tip of the Saanich Peninsula, a fertile strip of land dotted with family farms and a growing number of esteemed wineries. It’s worth spending an afternoon exploring this region, whose most famous attraction is Butchart Gardens, a half-hour northwest of the city. The Butchart family made its fortune manufacturing cement in the late 19th century; when they finished mining their quarry, they transformed it into this magnificent collection of gardens. Among the 55 acres you’ll see every imaginable flower, and there are concerts as well as Saturday-night fireworks displays in July and August.

From Butchart, there are several wineries within an easy drive. As you motor around the countryside, keep an eye out for farm stands and roadside markets, many of them selling fresh jams, baked goods, flowers, and produce. They often operate on an honor system – pick out your goods, and leave behind payment. Dragonfly Hill Vineyard is located alongside one of the original wagon trails through the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver and Muse Winery is a family owned & operated Boutique winery.

Where there are wineries, there are virtually always wonderful restaurants, and Victoria is no exception. Probably the most gay-popular of the city’s up-market restaurants, Cafe Brio is a sophisticated little chef-owned bistro that’s an absolute delight for romantic, intimate meals. The contemporary West Coast cuisine has Tuscan overtones – you might start with crispy roasted sweetbreads with poached rhubarb, followed by tomato-and-molasses-braised lamb shank with fresh-mint-potato gnocchi. For some of the best modern Italian food in town, including fantastic wood-fired pizzas with such creative toppings as smoked ahi tuna and marinated artichokes, dine at Il Terrazzo, whose airy dining room resembles a cloistered courtyard. It’s steps from the diverting shopping along Johnson Street and features one of the city’s best wine lists.

With a memorable setting inside a former schoolhouse in Canada’s oldest Chinatown, Brasserie L’Ecole is the domain of talented chef-owner Sean Brennan, who utilizes local produce in his innovative regional fare, such as local trout with escarole and Jerusalem artichokes. Well-seasoned, imaginatively prepared vegetarian fare is the specialty at Re-Bar Modern Food, an offbeat spot on downtown’s Bastion Square, where you might dine on shiitake-tofu potstickers or Thai coconut-cashew prawn curry.

For lighter dining and snacking, grab a latte or cappuccino at gay-popular Bean Around the World Coffee, a Chinatown java joint that uses organic coffee beans. Or nosh on eggs Benedict, hefty burgers, and other short-order fare at Rosie’s Diner, a downtown cafe with a festive ’50s-inspired retro look. The city’s sizable Asian community ensures a wealth of first-rate Chinese, Thai, and Japanese restaurants. For sensational Thai fare, try Siam Thai.

Victoria is by no means a major hub for gay nightlife, but the popular Paparazzi Nightclub (formerly the Prism Lounge) draws the city’s alternative crowd – gays, lesbians, and plenty of others. It is located on the north side of downtown and has a large dance floor, show stage, and bar areas.

In Victoria, there’s no fancier lodging in town than the Fairmont Empress Hotel. This 1908 Edwardian hostelry is the most sumptuous grand dame on Vancouver Island, and its Empress Room is a superb restaurant. Newer rooms are larger than those in the original section but keep with the hotel’s tradition. Celeb spotting is not uncommon. The hotel is also notable for its beautifully decorated Bengal Lounge, which serves traditional Indian cuisine in an old-world Colonial ambience.

Abigail’s Hotel is a great bet, in part for its enviable location – it’s at the end of a quiet, residential lane, yet it’s just three blocks from the Inner Harbour. The 23-room gay-friendly hotel consists of two Tudor-style buildings, one with more traditional decor, and the other with more modern-feeling units. Many of the accommodations have wood-burning fireplaces and Jacuzzi tubs, and rates include an extensive full breakfast (enjoy it on the sunny patio, overlooking the English gardens, when the weather is cooperating).

Set inside a former warehouse near Victoria’s Market Square and within walking distance of downtown attractions, Swans Hotel has been refitted into a distinctive all-suites accommodation. Groups of friends traveling together will find Swans a bargain – up to six people can easily fit into its huge rooms. Each has a dining nook, a patio or a terrace, and many have skylights. There’s a microbrewery and an excellent restaurant, Wild Saffron Bistro, on the premises.

Also worth consideration is the Magnolia Hotel and Spa, a snazzy and modern boutique hotel with a first-rate spa and a great location in the Inner Harbour neighborhood. There is plenty of sunlight in the rooms due to the floor-to-ceiling windows and views of downtown and the waterfront.

If you’d rather stay out in the country, but still within striking distance of Victoria, consider booking into the swank yet low-keyed Sooke Harbour House, which is a 45-minute drive away. This is the ultimate luxury hideaway, complete with 28 imaginatively decorated rooms, many with views of Washington’s Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

There’s also a splendid restaurant serving fantastic four- and seven-course dinners, complete with wine-pairing options. One signature dish is the trio of garden-inspired sorbets (which might include quince-lemon-verbena or rhubarb-fennel). Indeed, this perfectly tended inn is surrounded by some of Vancouver Island’s most beautiful gardens – a night or two here will leave you totally refreshed and relaxed.