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Victoria's Secrets

Style, substance and surprises in a onetime frontier town that has cleaned itself up and learned to mind its British manners

May 28, 2000|CARL DUNCAN | Carl Duncan is a freelance writer based in Salt Spring Island, Canada

VICTORIA, Canada — Looking at genteel Victoria now, it seems impossible that this city was once a rough-and-tumble frontier town that catered to fur traders and gold prospectors with the kind of merrymaking that would make a well-mannered Brit cringe.

On a recent spring afternoon on the corner across from British Columbia's Parliament buildings, a kilted bagpiper played a Highland tune. In front of the ivy-draped Empress Hotel, tourists boarded a double-decker tour bus or passed by in horse-drawn carriages. Copper-clad spires, gables and domes, weathered green, enlivened the Victorian skyline, and every patch of available ground to the water's edge was carpeted in freshly mown grass or brilliant tulips.

It is all so elegant and so English--and so obviously an effort to attract tourists. But if Victoria is not subtle about its desire to please visitors, neither is it phony, unlike lesser destinations that pander with faux facades and tricked-up attractions. Victoria cleaned the frontier mud off its boots and, with an exception or two, remained true to its British roots.

This compact seaside city of 75,000 on the southeastern tip of Vancouver Island has a slow, retiring pace, more protected green space than any other Canadian city and more than 700 buildings and homes dating from the 1860s to the turn of the century. Downtown and Old Town, merging seamlessly into each other, are cradled by waterfront neighborhoods, giving Victoria the residential charm of an English country town. To experience it, pack your walking shoes, your best British manners and something to wear for afternoon tea.

My partner, Maria, and I did just that for a recent weekend respite. We know Victoria from many visits (we live just an hour away), but we had never spent time here as overnight tourists. In May we had the chance to return, using a belated birthday celebration as an excuse, and in doing so, we revisited some favorite places and discovered some new ones.

We stayed at the 92-year-old Empress, the mistress of the beautiful Inner Harbour. Romantically retro and refined, it has domed ceilings, stained-glass skylights and maze-like corridors, and wears its cloak of ivy like royalty. When the Empress opened in 1908, it had just 190 rooms. Today it has about 490 (with nearly 100 floor plans).

Our room had Victorian furniture, a slowly revolving ceiling fan and a great view of the harbor. After settling in and enjoying the bustling scene out front on the causeway (the granite promenade at the head of the harbor), we decided to try one of the double-decker tour buses parked nearby. We chose Royal Blue Line Motor Tours (tickets $12). The tops of these 1964 British buses have been chopped off so that passengers sit upstairs in the fresh air with nothing around them to obstruct the scenery.

The bus swayed slightly as it made its rounds, and it felt as though we were on a river cruise, with the breeze (and sometimes the low branches of the trees) in our faces. We floated through downtown and Old Town and beneath the 1882 Gate of Harmonious Interest in Chinatown.

We cruised east along Antique Row (a string of Tudor-style antique stores along Upper Fort Street) and meandered through the residential Uplands of Oak Bay. We hugged the scenic shoreline, driving past historic Ross Bay Cemetery. The bus finally drifted past Beacon Hill Park and landed us back at the harbor.

City Hall was built just 35 years after James Douglas and his Hudson's Bay Co. adventurers (mainly Scotsmen) erected Ft. Victoria in 1843 (two wooden bastions surrounded by 18-foot pickets), a new foothold on a daunting frontier. The real birth of the city was the Cariboo Gold Rush in 1858. Miners and entrepreneurs from the declining California gold fields funneled through Ft. Victoria, creating an overnight boomtown out of what was still just a fur and whaling port. In 1885 the transcontinental railway was completed, linking Vancouver to the rest of Canada.

As Vancouver mushroomed, Victorians watched, appalled, and decided they preferred their traditional rural charm and rose gardens. Soon well-educated and socially discriminating (and wealthy) Brits and Easterners arrived, building lovely retirement homes, many of which we glimpsed from the bus.

The motorized tour was good for an overview, but Victoria really is a walking town. During the day, Government Street is a parade of tourists and window shoppers. At Murchie's on Government (importers of teas and coffee), we ordered two cappuccinos to go and turned the corner into Bastion Square, the original site of Ft. Victoria. Thursdays through Sundays, the square hosts the "Festival of the Arts," and we picked our way among painters, carvers, jewelry makers and musicians. We ventured into the Maritime Museum, a three-story 1889 building that holds a fascinating collection of pirate, whaling and fur trade displays (admission $3.50).

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