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British Columbia is one of the most beautiful provinces in the country. Mountains do that to an area.

While Vancouver may be an exceptional city to visit, Olympics or no Olympics, a short ferry ride takes you to a much more tranquil city.

It once was, and to a much lesser extent still is, a retirement city.

But it is also a modern city with lots to see and so.

On our last visit I penned the following story. With all the attention focused on Vancouver and Whistler for these next two weeks, I hope you enjoy my tribute to the capital city, Victoria, British Columbia.

On the Far Side of the Sea
Victoria & the Islands

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ON THE FAR SIDE OF THE SEA…

VICTORIA AND THE ISLANDS!

After a few days in Victoria, three things become abundantly clear. There are more restaurants per capita here than anywhere else in Canada. There are more Tilley hats being worn on the streets per capita than anywhere else in the world. And as a walk along the inner harbour in the early morning will verify, there are likely more dogs on leashes in Victoria than any other place in North America. What that simple observation signifies is the fact that Victoria has become a favoured destination for people of all ages and lifestyles.

For the shopping crowd, the Victoria shopping core is large and varied. While the usual cast of characters representing the chain brands all seem present, it is in fact the many one-of-a-kin art and craft shops that attract most of the attention. From specialty soaps to native carvings, from woolen goods to crystals, and from tacky souvenirs to high fashion outfits, the serious shopper can spend days going up and down the many one-way streets, dropping into store after store capturing the diversity of what has increasingly become a quiet, but nevertheless, cosmopolitan city.

For decades Victoria was just a sleepy old town, peopled firstly by retirees whose demands were simple and whose lifestyles opposed change, and secondly, by government employees who served the mainland with some disdain for its lack of appreciation for the simple things Victoria had to offer. But as a disposable income shifted more to travel and tourism, the natural attractions of this lovely city could not be denied.

Even as it has grown, Victoria has retained its quiet demeanor. The impact of the sea and the inner harbour create a usually calm harmony within the seemingly endless development of condominiums taking place along the waterfront. A vast array of trails enable residents and tourists alike to enjoy a waterside walk while watching the harbour seals, which can frequently be seen surfacing to examine the joggers and foreigners who delight in photographing them.

The Gatsby Mansion.
With its British history so richly woven into the fabric of Victoria life, it is worth thinking differently about accommodation in this city. There certainly are fine hotels to choose from, but the bed and breakfast options are many and impressive. Stately homes, once the headquarters for high-ranking politicians, judges, and magistrates dot the entire region. The Gatsby mansion, now owned by the former Winnipegger Rita Roy, is an imposing example of traditional wealth, now available by room nights for lesser mortals like us.

The rooms are quaint, the staff is exceptional, and the breakfasts are not only well made and well presented, but a diverse menu allowed patrons to select from a wide range of breakfast options. In the evening, the Gatsby Mansion offers a full dinner menu and is one of the most patronized tourist dining establishments in the city. And no much wonder, considering its strategic location of Belleville Street, which runs along the inner harbour.

To visit Victoria and not partake in at least one genuine fish and seafood extravaganza is to have not lived the complete island experience. Oyster Bars are everywhere, while fresh B.C. salmon is available in most of the quality restaurants, and good old fish and chip shops will evoke memories of a bygone era.

As pleasant as a stay in Victoria is, a day trip to the interior or the islands is a must. The BC Ferries run frequently and are relatively inexpensive, making an island trip very economical. Two of the most popular destinations are Galliano Island and Salt Spring Island.

Rent a car, cross the channel on the ferry and enjoy a day or two of spectacular scenery and quaint shopping and dining, which is quite different from Victoria’s. Those who thought Victoria was laid back will be pleasantly surprised after disembarking onto the islands. Rich business tycoons who drive themselves at the office buy into the lazy day attitude of the island where they have created their million dollar escapes. Craftspeople who have escaped the world of hustle and bustle from the British Columbia mainland present their wares to an ever-expanding tourist market. The islands present a mixed blend of people and personalities.

Travellers would be well advised to time their trip on a day that the outdoor markets are in full swing, which is usually on Saturdays. Sightseers will notice a discernable difference in the merchants. From young hippie-like ladies, to the older leftover hippies from a past generation, to savvy business types, a walk past the usual boot offerings will keep visitors alert, interested and sometimes even amused. It’s all Canada, but those who haven’t gone beyond Vancouver are missing a unique and vital link in the Canadian identity.