Courtesy Butchart Gardens
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Courtesy Hello BC
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Courtesy Hotel Zed
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Courtesy Hotel Zed
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Victoria, British Columbia’s capital on Vancouver Island, tends to run under the radar. But glossing over this historic and outrageously scenic city is a mistake. This year, the prim and proper city has upped its cool factor with the opening of new cocktail bars, delightfully kitschy hotels, and an eclectic Pacific Northwest-meets-San Francisco food scene. Plus, it has the mildest climate in all of Canada (you can expect SF-like weather year round) and is the country’s most bike-friendly city, with seemingly endless paths that loop you through the city center and along the craggy shoreline.
Foliage:The Butchart Gardens is one of those rare breeds of tourist attractions that isn’t overrated. A meandering path takes you through gorgeous exploding bouquets of florescent hydrangeas, vibrant fuchsias, and soft peonies while bald eagles soar overhead. Linger in the sunken garden, stroll the manicured rose bushes, and trace the streams babbling throughout the Japanese garden.
Whale (and “Sea Bear”) Watching: This isn’t anything like that whale watching Groupon tour to the Farallones you may have been disappointed by. Around these parts you’re pretty much guaranteed to see whales. Lots of them. And at the down-to-earth Eagle Wing Tours, your captain will narrate on the pods orcas and grey whales that pass through or reside in these frigid waters. You’ll also canvass the nearby rocks and tiny islands for other walks of life, including the grandiose and terrifyingly large steller sea lion—basically a grizzly bear with fins (the males can grow to bee 11 feet long and weigh 2,500 pounds).
Oysters Galore: If you only eat one thing in Victoria, let it be the baked oysters at Ferris’ Oyster Bar. Served in small rectangular ramekins, these go beyond your standard over-sauced Oyster Rockefellers. Each comes slightly crisped along the oyster’s wavy outer edges, while the center stews in one of the eight different broths: For spicy, try the Sante Fe (smoked chili and bourbon barbecue sauce), for rich, the Downtown (fresh sage, mushrooms, leeks, garlic, and butter), and for a balance between the two, the Sherkan (curried Japanese mayo).
Tacos Al Fresco: We know, this is a lot of seafood. But you don’t come to Victoria for Italian. Located on a pier in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Red Fish Blue Fish is a bare-bones production selling what are possibly the best fish tacos you’ll ever have, out of the window of a former shipping container. The tacos come in the form of tacones—meaning, a hand roll-style cone—with slaw, pea shoots, lemon-pickled onions and your choice of salmon, halibut, or cod. Tip: if you’re feeling adventurous, try the Jerk Fish tacones, with all three fish simmered in a Carribean jerk sauce and splashed with sriracha.
French Country Cooking: Brasserie L’Ecole is a sophisticated farm-to-table restaurant, without the stuffiness. Serving up mid-summer dishes like trout with a beet-cucumber relish and mustard greens with a horseradish cream, the food reflects the interior’s homey vibe. Refer to the chalkboard above the sleek bar for the day’s fresh oyster and mussel options.
Feisty Cocktails: Newcomer Little Jumbo easily has the best—and most adventurous—cocktails in town. Case in point: the Afro Samurai with Johnnie Walker Black, plum wine, lemon juice and bitters. Not strong enough? Not to worry—there’s an absinthe fountain behind the bar. And, for good measure, there’s the Handshake—a pint of beer that’s paired with an accompanying spirit, served straight. The space is small, and mostly filled with tables devoted to the restaurant, but the bar is the true highlight here.
Scenic Cider: Tucked away just beyond Victoria proper, is a picturesque cottage home to Sea Cider, a traditional English-style cider house that presses over 50 varieties of heritage apples into crisp, effervescent goodness. Visit them for a light artisan lunch of charcuterie and cheese paired with a cider flight, and tour their 10-acre orchard.
Harbor Views and Brews: The sprawling patio at the completely renovated restaurant and bar, Lure, has the best waterfront real estate in Victoria. Get there at least an hour before sunset to secure a prime spot overlooking that harbor, where you can watch the fishing boats mosey in for the day and the seaplanes coast from the sky to the water. They have an extensive list of British Columbia whites and reds, as well as local beers.
Stay Kitschy: Following the budget motel-turned-kitschy fun motel trend that SF-based Joie de Vivre popularized, the brand new Hotel Zed is Victoria's version of The Phoenix Hotel. The motel was flipped with tactile experiences in mind: the lobby is primed as a hangout spot with a record player, neon couches, and old typewriters, while the rooms have comic books in the bathrooms and 1970s radial phones. The best surprise? A deck that extends into the parking lot, with beverage service and—get this—a waterslide. Bicycles are available to rent for cruising the epic flat 37-mile Galloping Goose Trail. Bonus: They have a renovated VW Bus that serves as a complimentary shuttle.
Swanky: For views of the Inner Harbor and sleek rooms, the Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort and Spa just completed a renovation of their expansive property. But the twofer is the solarium pool (it’s basically like swimming inside a greenhouse) and the cedar sauna. Bonus: you’re in walking distance to downtown.
Fly: United Airlines and Air Canada offer nonstop flights from SFO to Victoria. Flight time is approximately two hours.
Drive: Black Ball Ferry offers daily car ferry service from Port Angeles, Washington to Victoria.