So you’re taking the ferry across Puget Sound to Canada? Going to see Vancouver?
No? Oh, over to Victoria. Butchart Gardens, then…
Wait–not the Gardens? Just Victoria?…well, gee… what’s in Victoria?
I don’t mean to cast aspersions on Vancouver. It’s a lovely city, and I’ve been there twice, cycling around Stanley Park, walking through Gastown, and so on. Butchart Gardens, I’ve seen three times, with and without children, with and without lesbians, just two years ago, in fact. You should come up here just to see them, if you like gardens and I do.
But Victoria, BC has its own vibe worth delving in deep, and we decided on this trip to grant it our full and complete attention. It reminds me of Seattle and San Francisco–very walkable, very picturesque, full of eclectic vibrancy that ranges from the swankiest of hotels to the kitschiest tourisma, pubs, coffee houses, little theaters, modern office buildings, with everything from pierogi bars playing heavy metal to high tea served under a dress code. The culture is spread thickly, but genteelly, on the most delicate of multi-grain, Himalayan sea salted toast.
I’ll prove it to you.
Parliament and Hipsters
Where else do real estate developers clash with skateboarders? Where banks from the turn of the century are transformed into elegant wine bars? Where penthouses sell for a record ten million Canadian and the street plaques laud the Hudson Bay Company, the oldest company in North America, that used to own everything. Where the bike lanes take up a full third of the streets downtown.
This is where Parliament meets, in one of the most elegant waterfront buildings ever designed. It’s the first place I’ve visited since the Bay Area that has not only recycling but composting! (Was that so hard, Texas? Even the Canadians can do it!) Here’s a Zero Waste grocery store, take home everything without packaging. There’s another coffee house, dimly lit, concrete exposed walls, raw wood tables–oh, sorry, that’s a hipster barber shop.
Victoria even has its own Chinatown, second oldest to the one in my San Francisco. It has its own Gates of Harmonious Interest, complete with fu dog statues you can pat for good luck. This street is three times the width of Grant in SF, and much more sanitary, although nearby Fan Tan Alley suggests a darker history, when the community kept secrets from the local constabulary. Our Taste of Victoria food tour guide, Andy, said that most Chinese today have moved elsewhere, so the neighborhood is an eclectic mix of cultures. Most unlike the Chinatown near where I worked in SF, which is cramped, dirtier, with tourist goods crammed in shop windows next to grocery stories full of aggressive little old ladies, haggling over the exotic fruit and mushrooms. Victoria’s Chinatown seems positively gleaming in comparison, and it made for a lovely walk.
Can You Handle a Food Tour?
I’m a tad afraid to write this part because I’ve already made so many references these past few posts to French Toast, nanaimo bars, and bacon. I have a little bugaboo about turning this into a food blog. But I am on vacation and Victoria is one of the foodiest towns I’ve ever visited. Plus, we started with a food tour.
We started at the Victoria Public Market which, while a little overpriced, had better choices and fewer crowds than either Chelsea Market in NYC or the Ferry Building in SF. Our tour dove straight in to some meatballs in a bolognese with a dash of salsa verde, from Roast, a meat lover’s restaurant. The rotisserie chickens that the burly, bearded fellow with the hard hat is looking longingly at are rotating above potatoes and vegetables, so that the meat drips right onto the …oh my… Roast carries a daily flavor of chicarron, and as I remarked to my companion that I had never actually eaten pork rinds, I dipped mine in the bolognese. I am now corrupted. Chicarron virgin no more.
I can’t go on like this. Oh, but that was just the first stop. After a palate-cleansing sip of lemongrass and bergamot tea, we headed for Chinatown for French macarons. I told you Chinatown was becoming eclectic! As the Irish owners explained, macarons are difficult because they need to be light and chewy. Too meringuey and they dry out, or if they are frozen, they become brittle. Among their spread were salted caramel (the most popular), lime, nanaimo bar stout, and espresso. I left the salted caramels to the (other tourists) and enjoyed the last two.
Shanzee’s Biscuits had eight different kinds of biscuit and gravy combinations to choose from. Just Matcha performed a little tea ceremony for us and explained why Starbuck’s is not the place to get matcha. Roger’s Chocolates is the favorite of HRH Elizabeth II–Queenie has been partial to the vanilla creams since 1951. In La Tana Bakery, the smell of focaccia bread drew us out of Fan Tan Alley, and the owner explained the distinction between focaccia, ciabatta, and brioche. We taste tested to understand it better. We may have bought some, too, although god knows when I’ll be un-full enough to eat more. But there is more. The Pierogi Bar.
My pics of Sult pierogi bar are a little too dark and grainy; perhaps some of the bacon confit was smeared on the camera lens. There was heavy metal music blaring away while the chef was making the dumpling of the day, a Monte Cristo Pierogi in honor of the upcoming Canadian Thanksgiving. (Turkey, ham, cheese). I have written about pierogis before, since they are the one dish I remember fondly from Grandma Chmaj, so I do know a little something. The dough on these was freshly made, and they were properly boiled then fried. But the potato/cheese inside was not as interesting as Grandma’s, and the $45 custom-made Sult baseball caps for sale put me off a little. Still, pierogis!
Miniature World–You Know You Want To
Then we walked and walked and walked, all around the waterfront, in and out of Bastion Square, Market Square, Every Other Square. Although we went over to the Royal British Columbia museum, I just didn’t feel up to looking at native artifacts, so we cheated and trolled through the gift shop. The tiny Maritime Museum down the street was half the price, and, although it was just a hole in the wall, had a fascinating display on the Great Garbage Patch, how to tie knots, the technology of anchors, and the wreck of the Princess Sophia.
Still, there was one especially touristy place, the kind with big billboard advertisements on the incoming highway, designed to attract children like a Venus FlyTrap. KK couldn’t stomach it and went off to have a coffee, but I went in. I’d traversed this way on my own before. Miniature World!
Who can resist the battle of Saratoga with 450 25mm high-soldiers? Look, that one’s even lost his hat! The battle for Normandy… Gettysburg… Napoleon… they had everything but cavemen duking it out. I’ve seen attractions with miniature dioramas before (see the end of posts about the Chicago Art Museum and Roadside America). This was right up there–or down there?–with impressiveness.
There was an extra added bonus. Miniature World was having a scavenger hunt; if you could find pumpkins hidden in the dioramas, you could win free annual passes–to Miniature World! I hunted diligently. I even helped my new little friend to hunt, and “we” found four together. Out of thirteen. Those little suckers were well hidden! No annual pass for me. I had to text KK to tell her to keep shopping, I would be a while longer.
There was a whole wing just about King Arthur. Much of it was the Hollywood brand of Arthur, rather than the Celtic/Avalon version (by the way, there’s an excellent 25 lecture Great Course audio series by noted Arthurian scholar Dorsey Armstrong, look in your local library)…anyway…look! The lady of the lake, her hand clad in the purest shimmering samite, brought forth from the bosom of the waters the sword Excalibur!
Listen, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government.from my favorite movie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail
But maybe, in Victoria, you could wield supreme executive power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you… I mean, look at the buildings! Clearly, there’s still magic here.