A Weekend in Victoria

victoriachristmasharborI have always wanted to visit Victoria BC at Christmastime, and while Santa sure wasn’t listening when I asked for a third Cacao shop right next door to my house or when I asked for a magical Brita that turns tap water into grower champagne, I guess he was awake for the Victoria request, because that is where I spent Christmas week this year.

Every morning we got up at the crack of dawn and then spent the entire day eating and drinking, with the occasional detour to see some notable non-edible sights like Craigdarroch Castle and The Butchart Gardens and the flocks of preening peacocks that roam around Beacon Hill Park hoping Santa will make it rain breadcrumbs. (And yes, I did just now Google roast peacock and apparently that wasn’t technically a non-edible detour.)

Because I am a Type A traveler who has difficulty relaxing, I planned a very detailed itinerary for our trip, which I will now share with you, distilled into one weekend. Follow it to the letter or rearrange and pick and choose as you will, and during your travels if you come across anything that really should be included, please let me know.

FRIDAY

8am: Almond slice and a sausage roll at Fol Epi bakery, paired with a cappuccino or Japanese sour cherry hot chocolate at adjoining Caffe Fantastico. If the weather’s fair, sit outside on the patio looking out over the shipyard. (Fol Epi and Caffe Fantastico are in the Dockside Green development, about a 10-minute walk from downtown, so if you’re staying downtown and don’t want to walk to Dockside Green first thing, sub in one of the other brunch spots.)

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9am: Ch-Ch-Chinatown! Squeeze through famous Fan Tan Alley, try a truffle at Pure Lovin’ Chocolate shop, browse the interesting produce (everyone back home gets a durian!), and do some serious tea tasting and shopping at Silk Road Tea, which has tea samples galore and a neat system for bulk tea buying. Check their workshop schedule before you go in case they’re holding one during your visit.

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10am: Graze the Victoria Public Market. I think you should visit the market very early in your trip, because you might want to come back every day until you’ve tried everything. My favorites were Salt Spring Island Cheese Company and its gauntlet of cheese samples (I ended up with the Romelia and the basil and pink peppercorn chevre), the cioppino at Cowichan Bay Seafood, and the navy bean and kale curry at Sutra, a spinoff of popular Vij’s in Vancouver.

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11am: Browse downtown’s shops, walk down Government Street and around the Inner Harbour, and pop into lively Murchie’s for a pot of tea and an almond biscotti.

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11:45am: Beat the lunch rush at small, gracious, delicious Uchida. Get whatever the daily special is.

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12:30pm: Buy a half dozen macarons at Bon Macaron Patisserie (no tax if you get 6), and admire the macaron Eiffel Tower in the window. Don’t miss the pineapple basil macaron.

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1pm: Walk/drive up Fort Street to Craigdarroch Castle, which is basically Victoria’s Pittock Mansion but taller, bigger, darker, and with a better gift shop (not to be disloyal to my beloved Pittock Mansion or anything, but they don’t sell little jars of maple syrup and their own tea blend). Be sure to check out the regal dining room, when we were there it smelled just like roast turkey but maybe that was a fluke or I imagined it. From here, it’s a few blocks to the regal Government House and its lovely gardens and tea room, and for even more foliage and tea, visit the Abkhazi Garden about a mile and a half away.

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2pm: Walk/drive to sweet little downtown Oak Bay, pop into Ottavio Italian bakery and deli (the owner hangs out with our own Steve Jones of Cheese Bar so there’s an endorsement) for a sweet or savory snack. If you want a pint and some British charm, check out the cozy Penny Farthing pub (free wifi!). There’s also a fun candy shop down a side street called Sweet Delights, which has every kind of PEZ dispenser you could ever want. If you need postcard stamps, go to the bustling old-timey Oak Bay Pharmasave, there’s a post office in the back.

3pm: Walk/drive down to Clover Point Park, then stroll along the Dallas Road waterfront trail, which has several stairways down to the rocky beach if you want to cool off. (If you happen to have your dog along, this is a very popular off-leash area.) At the end of the trail, cut up through beautiful Beacon Hill Park until you come to the landscaped epicenter filled with pools and fountains, and start looking for a bunch of peacocks walking around. They’re very tame and will let you take thousands of pictures of them. Literally. My iPhone had a nervous breakdown at this point in the trip and I had to erase 200 pictures before it would work again.

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4pm: Taking pictures of peacocks works up an appetite, so stop for a snack at 10 Acres bistro, about a 10 minute walk from Beacon Hill Park. Monday through Friday from 4-6pm they offer their Pint + Pie special; get a pint of local craft beer and a pot pie for $10. Or, check out posh Veneto Tapa Lounge in downtown’s Hotel Rialto—Monday through Friday from 4-6pm they roll out “The Unwinder” happy hour, with drink specials and half price appetizers (we liked the baby back ribs with dijon-ancho chili glaze and the secret burger and fries).

5pm: You’re never too full for oysters, so take advantage of the Monday through Friday buck-a-shuck hour (5-6pm) at cozy Ferris’ Oyster Bar.

6:30pm: Dinner at Foo Ramen or Foo Asian Street Food if you want Asian food/cheap eats, Cafe Brio or Il Terrazzo if you want pasta in a supremely cozy setting, or Camille’s or Brasserie L’école for a bit of swank.

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9pm: Nightcap and a second round of dessert at Little Jumbo cocktail bar. Definitely try the panna cotta made with Silk Road’s Philosopher’s Brew tea, it was something special.

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SATURDAY

8am: Walk or bike the scenic Galloping Goose Trail for 20-25 minutes until you pop up at Fry’s Red Wheat Bread bakery. Get the mutton sausage roll and a pear cardamom Danish and a few croissants. There’s a flour-dusted three-person standing bar to eat at and that’s it, so you might need to get your gluten to go. If the weather’s nice, big grassy Banfield Park is right across the street.

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9am: Brunch downtown at Blue Fox Cafe (classic brunch fare, long line included), Be Love (mecca for healthy types, it’s Victoria’s Prasad/Harlow), Clay Pigeon (good, inexpensive breakfast sandwiches on fresh rolls from neighboring Bond Bond’s Bakery) or La Taquisa (delicious little no-frills taqueria that serves a succinct weekend brunch menu and has A+ tacos on homemade tortillas).

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10am: Pick up snacks at Choux Choux Charcuterie, The Little Cheese Shop, and/or Chorizo & Co, all of which are within two blocks of each other along Fort Street. If you’re a tart lover, also go ogle the window display at Crust Bakery. You could even pop inside for a passion fruit meringue tart if you want.

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10:30am: Onward to Cook Culture kitchen shop and their excellent chocolate collection, for a Sirene bar. This was the only bean-to-bar Victoria chocolatier I found and I loved the inventive packaging—it’s a gorgeous yellow packet with two different bars and tasting notes folded inside, so you can have a mini chocolate tasting on your own. Eee!

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11am: Drive out to The Butchart Gardens, about a half hour from downtown. If you get hungry while there, they have a giant and pretty decent cheese biscuit for sale in the coffee shop for only $3.50, which seemed like very humane pricing for a large tourist attraction.

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1pm: Head down the road to Sea Cider Farm and Ciderhouse for the “long flight” of nine ciders. Pick a table with a view and either break out your picnic provisions, or buy their artisan lunch plate of local meat, cheese and chocolate.

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3pm: Put on your spats/best bonnet, polish your pinky finger, and indulge in Afternoon Tea at The Empress. Be sure to make a reservation (you can use OpenTable), and when you do, request a window table on the right side of the dining room if the skating rink tent is still up–it will block your view if you sit on the left side.

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5:30pm: Cocktails and/or Dinner No. 1 at Little Jumbo (if you didn’t get there last night, or want to go again)

7pm: Cocktails and Dinner No. 2 at Ulla (get the tuna and all the desserts, they are excellent).

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9pm: Beer folk, time for pints and scintillating conversation (I’m assuming you’re scintillating) at downtown’s Garrick’s Head Pub and/or its brother bar, The Churchill, which share the same block of Government Street and each have 50ish unique taps, so you have 100+ beers (tons of them local) within a 25-foot-or-so radius. Wine folk, take a cab or walk to Stage Wine Bar (a 5-minute-drive, or a 15-minute-walk that felt quite safe to me). I know you’re full, but get the grilled Sooke trout with pierogies anyway.

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11pm: Stumble home, or make new friends at one of the big boisterous pubs on Government Street, like Irish Times or Bard & Banker.

SUNDAY

9am: Revisit Fol Epi bakery for one last almond slice or if it’s in the case yet, a wedge of the ethereal tangerine, berry and pomegranate seed topped lemon tart, I’m still thinking about it.

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10am: Brunch at Jam Café

11am: Revisit the Victoria Public Market and peruse their year-round Farmer’s Market (11am-3pm, Wednesday, Saturday & Sunday), and stock up on cheese/tea/olive oil/etc. I’m not exactly sure what you’re allowed to bring back home, they only asked us if we had booze during the customs check, so I didn’t mention my cheese. But I actually ended up eating it in the car waiting to board the ferry, so I have a clean conscience.

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12pm: One more walk down Government Street and around the Inner Harbour and then, farewell, sweet Victoria, it’s been a jolly good time!

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OPTIONAL ADD-INS

Explore Victoria’s craft brewing scene the best way, via a long and thorough pub crawl! There are 9 breweries and brewpubs that you can walk to in a big crooked loop that spans two bridges. It’s not necessarily the most picturesque trek in some parts, but if you want to avoid driving, it’s easy walking. Here’s a link to the map I made. Of all the spots we went, I liked humble, eccentric and super friendly Phillips Brewing Company the best. (Note: The breweries have limited hours and several are closed on Sundays, so double check opening times before you start crawling.)(Another note: If you do the whole loop, you’ll pass by the aforementioned Fry’s bakery when traveling between Moon Under Water and Lighthouse; a good opportunity for a mutton sausage roll pit stop.)

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If you start from downtown, the trajectory is Swans, Canoe, Phillips, Vancouver Island, Driftwood, Hoyne, Moon Under Water, Lighthouse, and Spinnakers. (Not within walking distance are Four Mile Brewing Company and brand-new Category 12 Brewing, which just opened in late December.) If you end at Spinnakers and it’s a weekday, their “Hoppy Hour” runs from 3-6pm Monday through Friday, and involves dollar oysters, and there’s free pool as well.

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If you prefer massages and mani-pedis to pub crawling, book yourself into the mineral pools at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel’s Boathouse Spa & Baths. It’s $30 ($50 in the high season) to soak for as long as you like in the three oceanfront mineral pools and tubs, and you can hang out in the eucalyptus-scented steam room and drink cup after cup of the spa’s signature Silk Road tea blend while reading Real Simple too. Beer and wine is quite reasonably priced, and the poolside service was tip-top. One word of caution—it’s not a large spa or pool area and if it had been any more populated than when I went (about 30 people), I wouldn’t have liked it as much. So maybe go first thing in the morning if you’re demophobic. After your soak, go have a drink in the hotel’s The Snug pub, it’s very charming and has brilliant views.

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A FEW NOTES ON LODGING…

On previous visits to Victoria, we’ve stayed at the Fairmont Empress because it’s so central and elegant, but this time we rented a beautiful condo in the Dockside Green neighborhood. It was immaculate and roomy with great views, a fully-stocked kitchen, excellent bathrooms, a washer/dryer, and garage parking, with the tradeoff being that you had about a 10-minute walk into town. Here is the link on VRBO. I almost always stay in the very heart of a city when I travel, but the location didn’t bother me in the least, especially since Fol Epi bakery is in the very same condo complex so your bakery commute every morning is approximately 45 seconds. If you don’t mind being a ways from downtown in the opposite direction, I’d stay at the Oak Bay Beach Hotel, it’s a grand hotel with gorgeous views in a tranquil neighborhood perfect for long, peaceful walks (or long walks to the Penny Farthing pub, whichever).

AND TRANSPORTATION

We took the Black Ball Ferry from Port Angeles because we had a car. Be sure to get a reservation, it’s so much less stressful. If you don’t have a car, the Victoria Clipper from Seattle is the way to go. Like Portland, Victoria is very walkable, and everything in this guide, with the exception of The Butchart Gardens, is easily accessible on foot, although Oak Bay is a few miles’ walk so at some point you might want to take one of Victoria’s excellent buses (fare was $2.50).

And that’s a wrap. Have a magnificent trip and send me a chocolate/cioppino/curry-smudged, tea/cider/beer-soaked postcard, please!

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