A Tale of Three Cities: San Francisco, Victoria and Boston
Butchart Gardens, Victoria
Here, three cities and one goal: to make the most of a long weekend.
“Hey, man!” shouts out a squeaky voice in the form of a friendly greeting. There’s a group of us, and we all turn in unison to watch the source of the voice make her way up the street. She’s clad from head to toe in psychedelic tie-dye and sequinned Converse sneakers, a waif with flowing dark hair and even darker glasses, a near-ringer for Yoko Ono’s beauty regimen circa 1969. She’s Izu, and she’s who we’ve all been waiting for.
“Wow, did the guys at Cha Cha Cha give you a good table?” she asks of our travel director if the Mexican restaurant we’d had lunch at had been accommodating. They had. Turns out, Izu had put in a good word for us before we had arrived. Being a local really does have its privileges.
We’re standing near the corner of Haight and Ashbury, the San Francisco neighbourhood that’s known for peace, love and grooviness, the home of hippies, all starting with a simple edict: turn on, tune in and drop out. This counterculture phrase was made famous by Timothy Leary at 1967’s Human Be-In, a gathering of 30,000 hippies, who did just that. (Leary would later admit that it was Canadian communication theorist Marshall McLuhan who had first said it to Leary over lunch in New York in 1966.)
It was around that time when Susie – as was her name before she changed it to Izu – and her “New Yawk” City parents moved out to San Francisco, so that Susie could experience the movement and, boy, did she ever. From 1967’s Summer of Love to travelling back to her home state for 1969 Woodstock, Izu has lived in the hippie moment. Today, voted a top guide in San Francisco, Izu takes us on a walking tour of her life. She was happy to show us the Grateful Dead’s home in Haight-Ashbury. At 710 Ashbury St., Jerry Garcia and the boys lived peacefully across the street from a Hell’s Angels club and, today, they have been immortalized through graffiti artist Bansky’s portraits, which grace the sidewalk out front. Janis Joplin lived in the bright pink house, just down the way at 635 Ashbury. And the boutique Legs, on Haight, was one of her favourite fashion haunts.
To buy a house in this Victorian-era neighbourhood now would cost a fortune, but the communal spirit of those heady hippy days lives on. Pot dealers start food co-ops; local farmers markets are a regular event.
A personality like Izu embodies what Trafalgar Tours’ Gavin Tollman believes is key to the travel experience: local guides that live it. “Even five years ago, it was still about the nuts and bolts of buses, etc.,” he says. Then, Tollman and his crew canvassed customers and fellow travellers. What do people take away most, he asked? “The memories.”
A memory of someone’s true-life experiences, like Izu’s, brought back to the here and now, provides a history and a sense of the evolution of the place you’re experiencing. But why San Francisco? Why not something more far-flung, exotic? Haven’t many of us been there, done that? I myself had made the pilgrimage as a 20-something way back when, but still long after Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin were gone, searching for a semblance of what transpired in their heyday.
While the first day of spring finds many Canadians still digging out from a brutal winter, it’s not unusual for Victoria to have already logged its annual flower count. Last year’s tally was about a billion blossoms at the beginning of March, thanks to the profusion of cherry trees in full bloom. And even though, like so much of the rest of North America, the city has had its share of winter weather this year, its botanical abundance is just one reason it’s a tempting retreat.
For a true floral immersion, and plenty of photo ops, take the time to wander Butchart Gardens, whose location in a sheltered valley gives it a Mediterranean-like climate. Earlier months see witch hazel blossoms and bright berries, and the time between mid-March and May has 300,000 bulbs blooming “in a carefully orchestrated symphony of colour” sure to drive away any remnant of the winter blahs. This may play to the notion that Victoria is the staid city of flower gardens and traditional high teas, but the area has undergone something of a renaissance in the past decade, cultivating an impressive foodie culture and lifestyle made possible by its fortuitous geography and inviting temperate climate.
With fertile farmland to its north providing a diverse range of produce, from asparagus to kiwi, a commitment to ethically raised animals, and an abundance of seafood, several locally focused restaurants have prospered, landing on multiple Best in Canada lists. Ulla, located at the edge of Chinatown, is earning renown for its contemporary cuisine crafted from locally sourced ingredients. And to disabuse you of the notion that Victoria is all-things British, consider Brasserie L’École, the perfect little French restaurant housed in a former Chinese schoolhouse.
For the budget conscious, try the gourmet burgers at The Pink Bicycle, which also has a hyper-local menu; the sharing-sized brunch entrees at Jam Café, the home of no less than six eggs Benedict combinations; or the delectable selection of Ocean Wise seafood at Red Fish Blue Fish, which operates out of an “upcycled” shipping container on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
It was 1995, and a friend and I were in Boston for a Blue Jays road game. He insisted I try the best seafood joint in town. We sat at a table, and someone slapped down a piece of boiled white fish with a boiled white potato. It might have had a boiled white piece of cauliflower and maybe a sprig of parsley (hey, colour!). It was tasteless and dull and utterly lacking in imagination. Fast forward 18 years, and I’m on a culinary tour of a city I wouldn’t have recognized. Toast topped with whipped goat’s milk feta, honey and caramelized orange peel at Tavern Road, an arugula salad with watermelon radishes at the Fairmont Copley Plaza hotel and a luscious risotto with Vermont cheese, faro and tomato at Puritan and Co. in Cambridge. My head spins. My stomach fills. My notebook erupts with praise.
One of the great ways for a foodie to see a city is a walking tour. I did one of Boston’s South End with Bites of Boston, a fabulous mix of history, architecture and, of course, food. Over the three-hour walk, I learned the area’s history and sampled recipes from a half dozen top chefs for US $52 plus tax.
Before I get to the food, a note on the South End’s architecture: the townhouses are stunning, often with small parks in front or large urban squares for nature and dog lovers. The homes were in such bad shape in the 1970s that they sold for as little as $500. The same homes, now restored and gleaming, can go for $1.5 million – that’s what I call a tidy return on your investment.
At Parish Café, I nibbled on meatloaf club sandwiches with a spicy aioli. At Orinoco, I sampled a date with almonds wrapped in a strip of meaty bacon. At a cookie spot aptly called Flour Bakery, I scarfed down scrumptious offerings with bittersweet chocolate, coconut, oatmeal and pecans. I tasted exotic cheeses at Formaggio, including offerings from Spain and Ireland.
The best restaurant I sampled outside the Bites of Boston tour was Tavern Road. It’s in a former industrial area that’s been given over to new condos and artists’ space; a bit like Liberty Village in Toronto or Yaletown in Vancouver. I had fluffy rolls with rosemary and Parmesan served with maple orange butter, thinly sliced lamb salami and a warm ricotta with tomato jam and green pepper served in a beautiful, ceramic bowl. And Mexican-style chocolate ice cream with chilies and caramel.