Visiting Canada was primarily about catching up with friends, although we did tour and explore a few sites.
Beautiful British Columbia (BC), Canada’s western most province, is bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the USA state of Alaska on the west, Canada’s Yukon and Northwest Territories to the north, the Province of Alberta and the Rocky Mountains to the east and the USA states of Washington, Idaho and Montana on the south.
BC has a current population that slightly exceeds 5 million residents. Sizewise, BC is similar to the size of France, Germany and the Netherlands combined. Another interesting comparison is that the country of Spain is approximately five hundred thousand square kilometers while Canada is approximately 10 million square kilometers. The population of Spain is slightly more than 47 million and the population of Canada is less than 40 million.
The best way to travel to the city of Victoria, located on Vancouver Island, is by ferry from the mainland of British Columbia.
Our first stop after disembarking from the ferry on the outskirts of Victoria, was the small charming town of Sidney. (part of the greater metropolitan Victoria area) Sidney is located along a part of the pacific coast that is referred to as the Salish Sea and is a popular whale-watching, bird-watching and scuba-diving destination.
Sidney is home to the southern Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, the Shoal Harbour Migratory Bird Sanctuary and adjoining Sidney Channel Important Bird Area. Museums include the Sidney Museum and Archives and the British Columbia Aviation Museum. We spent a couple of hours enjoying the art installations along the boardwalk and wandering through the town with friends.
The city of Victoria was founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1843 as a trading post. It was named Fort Victoria in honor of Queen Victoria. In 1858, after the discovery of gold on the Fraser River on BC’s mainland, Fort Victoria quickly transformed into a boomtown as a port and supply center for miners on their way to the gold fields. With the burgeoning population, Victoria was incorporated as a city by 1862.
We liked Victoria’s optimistic motto “Semper Liber”, meaning “Forever free”.
We were surprised to learn that the current population of Victoria is only 92,000 and when you include the greater Victoria area, the population is just shy of 400,000. This smallish city is the capital city of the province of British Columbia. (The largest city in British Columbia is Vancouver on the mainland, with a population of nearly 3,000,000 residents.)
We spotted a number of Victoria’s historic buildings throughout the city and two, in particular, stand out. The first is the monumental Parliament Buildings that were built in 1897. Framed below using colored holiday lights; during most of the year, the lights are pure white.
The second landmark building is the Empress hotel, which opened in 1908.
The Jungle Book was written in 1894 by the British/Indian novelist, short-story writer and poet Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). He was a frequent visitor to Victoria, wrote complimentary impressions about the city and reportedly stayed at the Empress Hotel during his final visit.
As we strolled around the Empress hotel, we admired a few wonderful paintings by Emily Carr (1871-1945) a Modernist and Post-Impressionist Canadian artist and writer who was inspired by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Emily Carr House, the house where the artist was born, is today a beautifully restored provincial and national historic site in Victoria. The building and gardens are a vibrant cultural center.
We came across numerous carved totem poles both inside the Empress as well as out among the parks and city streets. Tony Hunt (1942-2017) a Canadian First Nations artist carved this stunning 25-foot tall red cedar totem pole. On top is qwawina-the raven, then sisiutl-the double-headed serpent and then nanis-the great grizzly bear holding a halibut. Between the serpent’s two heads is a human figure.
We found other interesting sites as we explored the streets of Victoria as well. On Johnson street we came across one of the incredibly art deco inspired John Fluevog Shoe stores. John Fluevog (1948-) is a Canadian shoe designer and businessperson with Fluevog shoe stores in Canada, the USA, Australia and Amsterdam.
On Government street we discovered the first Rogers’ Chocolate shop which opened in 1903 and is still operating from its original location. The founders, Charles “Candy” and Leah Rogers, moved to Victoria in 1885 and opened a “green grocery”. Charles’ very first chocolate creation, the Victoria Cream, quickly became a local favorite and thus began his career as Canada’s first and finest chocolatier.
The Victorian era building has a Queen Anne Revival shop front, highly polished wooden features and outstanding stained glass lamps.
Still privately owned today, there are eleven retail stores in British Columbia. Buying and tasting a Victoria Cream chocolate may be the perfect way to share in Victoria’s chocolate history.
We discovered the 3-mile (5 km) David Foster Harbour Pedestrian Pathway that winds around the inner harbor. It is named after Victoria born, 16 time Grammy Award winner, musician, composer and music executive, David Foster.
Meandering the streets in downtown Victoria we came upon Fan Tan Alley, described as the narrowest street in Canada. Fan Tan Alley is located in Victoria’s Chinatown. First settled in 1858, Victoria’s Chinatown district is the oldest Chinatown in Canada and the second oldest in North America, after San Francisco’s. The attractive district is filled with narrow alleys and passageways. The buildings have flared temple-style roofs, wrought-iron balconies, interior courtyards and brightly colored tiled overhangs. The hanging Chinese lanterns and massive gates added to the distinctive character of the neighborhood.
Another alley we walked through was named Dragon Alley and we found a commemorative plaque that read – “During this district’s boom of 1881-1884, 16,000 Chinese established themselves within this area of Victoria. Thus emerged from six blocks of businesses, theatres, a hospital, schools, churches, temples, opium factories, gambling dens and brothels: creating a cultural enclave for Victoria’s Chinese community, Canada’s first and largest Chinatown.”
We cannot write about Victoria without including the world renowned Butchart Gardens. Victoria’s nickname is the Garden City, in part, because of the spectacular, 55-acre Butchart Garden filled with fountains, sculptures, streams and waves of glorious colorful blooms. We have visited countless gardens and parks in Spain, France, Italy, Germany and Portugal and to date none have compared to the floral displays and magnificent landscape at Butchart Gardens.
In 1904 Jennie Butchart began turning an abandoned limestone quarry into a dramatic Sunken Garden. Successive generations of the Butchart family have retained much of the original design and continue to seasonally change the outstanding floral displays. During the holiday season the gardens were filled with lights and our evening tour was magical. This last holiday season, the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ was the decorating theme used in the gardens. You will be able to spot the ‘5 golden rings’ below.
It has been well over 3 decades since we spent any amount of time in Canada. Returning always holds fond memories and it was a delight to explore Victoria once again.
Cheers from these Victorians,
Ted + Julia