My kind a town…Victoria

If you ever visit Victoria, what you really need is an “insider’s guide” — trips to the best sights from someone who actually lives there. Here’s what the locals know about this beautiful city I call home, and what visitors take years to find out.

The climate: It’s not warm, sunny, tropical, or even Mediterranean — it’s moderate. Which means you can have much the same weather all year-round. A day in January can be much like a day in June — which while nice in January is a pain in the ears in June. My advice: bring warm clothing and a rain hat any time of year. We don’t get continual cold and snow in winter, but we often have remarkably cool days — and especially cool nights — in the spring, summer and fall.

The sites: Do visit Butchart Gardens. Sure, it’s a huge tourist attraction, the most popular in Western Canada. Sure, you’ll be fighting the crowds (tip, go in the morning). But it’s truly an oasis of beauty and tranquillity — flowers, fountains, trees . . . some say the most beautiful gardens in the world.

Drop by the Empress Hotel and watch other people taking high tea. Unless you’re much wealthier than I am, it’s not worth the pre of 39 bucks a head. If you’re looking for an alternative few tourists know about, try Point Ellice House on the Gorge, a 10-minute cab ride from downtown, where they serve tea on the lawn and include a tour of the 1860s waterfront home for $14.95. Call 380-6506.

Interested in native artifacts? Ask at the tourist information office in the Inner Harbour (953-2033), they’ll tell you the best place to find them is the Royal B.C. Museum.

The food: Okay, I’m prepared to get a ripe tomato in the side of the head from local restaurateurs, but this being a tourist town, it’s buyer beware when it comes to dining out. My advice? Ask around, choose wisely, and inspect those menus carefully. Get away from the tourist hub around the Empress and the harbour and eat where the locals do. Try Fort Street above Blanshard for the city’s best antique shops and a selection of good restaurants.

The streets: People-watching, shopping, taking in the sights, sounds and flavour of the city — this pocket-sized town is made for pedestrians. Or, if your feet aren’t what they used to be, try a pedi-cab or horse-drawn carriage.

Victoria by foot
Here’s a downtown walking tour I’m sure you’ll enjoy (with a money-back guarantee). From the Inner Harbour, stroll north on Government Street. You’re likely to be tempted along the way by street-vendors selling hot dogs, pretzels or ice cream, or buskers who vary from inspired to inebriated. This is the centre of Old Town and the heritage buildings all around you hearken back to the Gold Rush of the 1860s. Must-sees along the way: Roger’s Chocolates on your right, a delightfully-decorated old shop with high-end confections (my personal favourite, chocolate-covered brittle); On the left, Morris Tobacconists, where Americans stock up on the forbidden fruits of Havana cigars and the smell of good tobacco is a lure even to non-smokers (don’t miss the permanent gas-lit flame on the pillar for an instant light). And Munro’s Books, perhaps the most elegant bookstore in the country located in a former bank building — the only bookstore that ever took over a bank.

After about eight blocks you’ll get to Fisgard Street. Turn left under the Gate of Harmonious Interest and you’re in Canada’s oldest Chinatown. Lots of grocery and knickknack vendors here, with goods displayed on the street. About a third of the way down on your left is Fan Tan Alley, billed as the country’s narrowest street and home to curiosity shops and artist’s lofts. You can touch the brick buildings on both sides as you enter. Exit Fan Tan Alley on Pandora, turn right and walk down until you get to Store Street, which winds its way (and changes it name to Wharf Street) back to the Inner Harbour past pubs, restaurants, quaint retro-shops and galleries.

The great outdoors: This is why you came, or should be, because it’s the best this city has to offer. For a low-key outdoor experience, free of climbing gear or survival suits, walk through Beacon Hill Park, just the other side of downtown from the B.C. Legislature. Gorgeous flower beds, nesting eagles and herons, views of the ocean and Olympic Mountains in the distance and a match on the cricket pitch early most evenings. For something wilder, but still accessible in ordinary walking shoes, try Goldstream Park 18 km west of downtown, where you can see salmon spawning up the river in the fall and bald eagles gathering to feast on them in the winter.

Victoria…in a nutshell
Location and size:
Situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria is the provincial capital of British Columbia. The island is separated from mainland B.C. by the Strait of Georgia, and from the U.S. by the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Victoria is closer to the U.S. than mainland Canada). The city has a population of 77,000, although Greater Victoria’s population is over 340,000.

A brief history:
In 1790, the land was claimed by Spain. In 1843, the Hudson Bay Company built a fort on the Inner Harbour, now Bastion Square. Originally known as Fort Camosack, its name later changed to Fort Albert and eventually Fort Victoria. In 1852, a town was laid out around the fort and incorporated as a city in 1862, Victoria became the capital of the new province of British Columbia in 1868. A year later B.C. entered the Canadian Confederation.

Where to stay:
There are dozens of good hotels in Victoria, ranging from budget inns to the luxurious 5-star Empress. Ramada, Delta, Holiday Inn and other major chains all have a presence in the city.

How to get there:
There are regular ferry services for passengers and cars from Vancouver and Seattle to Victoria. The B.C. Ferry service offers hourly departures from Vancouver in the summer months, from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Victoria is served by Air Canada, Canadian Airlines and WestJet Airlines.

More information:
Write to Tourism Victoria at 812 Wharf St., Victoria, B.C. V8W 1T3; or call (250) 953-2033