Hipness has infiltrated picturesque Victoria, where wine bars and pot now mingle with Edwardian manors
Source: The Wall Street Journal, by
THE VIEW of Victoria’s Inner Harbour hasn’t changed much since Rudyard Kipling described it as a mix of Sorrento, Hong Kong and the Isle of Wight “with some Himalayas for the background,” during his lengthy sojourn at the grand Empress Hotel in 1908. Ships still dock beneath the massive columns of the Canadian Pacific Railway terminal, though the steamships have been replaced by high-speed ferries on the three-hour run to Seattle.
For years, mainlanders dismissed the city on Vancouver Island’s south coast as a picturesque haven for honeymooners and retirees, “the newlywed and the nearly dead.” But lately, Victoria has developed a hipper side. Tech companies now occupy brick warehouses, craft distilleries share streetfronts with traditional tea rooms, and marijuana dispensaries are popping up among the old Edwardian mansions. At times it feels like a Portland North, set amid the architectural glories of a one-time imperial outpost: a mashup of traditional and alternative, with a sneak-up-sideways charm.
The historic heart of Victoria’s walkable downtown is Bastion Square, where the city was born as a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post in 1843. Now lined with pubs and home to a popular Sunday farmers market, the square’s oldest buildings date to the 1860s, after the discovery of gold on the Fraser River transformed little Fort Victoria into a boomtown thronged by American miners and outfitters.
The Cantonese migrants who followed them from San Francisco founded Canada’s first Chinatown, and on Fisgard Street, the neon signs of the Don Mee Restaurant and the Fantan Café continue to lure patrons to old-school feasts of Szechuan seafood and sweet-and-sour pork. Fan Tan Alley, whose three-foot-wide entrance forced the local constabulary to enter single file when raiding its louche gambling and opium dens, now houses vendors of used records, handmade chocolates and Dr. Martens boots.
The streets around Lower Johnson, a strip where prospectors once spent their gold in saloons, brothels, and outfitters’ shops, have undergone a similar transformation. In the district, redubbed LoJo, brick facades are now home to chic boutiques and specialty shops like Silk Road Tea, a mix of day spa and high-end tea room. Off Yates Street, Little Jumbo restaurant channels the district’s past with a down-the-hall entrance and speakeasy vibe, where an aperol-and-absinthe cocktail makes a bracing prelude to delicate local oysters and lightly grilled lingcod.
Change has come even to the venerable Fairmont Empress hotel. After a two-year, $40-million-plus renovation, the trademark ivy has been stripped from the facade—the family of raccoons who called it home had to be relocated—transforming its former flag deck into a terrace with a privileged harbor view. A rooftop garden now yields the herbs and edible flowers on the menu at Q at the Empress, and four beehives on the grounds hone the honey served with scones and clotted cream at high tea.
There is still plenty of old Victoria to savor. The hotel’s unapologetically colonialist Bengal Lounge has been left untouched: punkah fans still sway from the mahogany-inlaid ceiling over murals of dhows and elephant-borne rajahs on the Ganges. And the corridors of the sixth floor—where guests continue to report sightings of the ghost of a chambermaid who plunged to her death in the 1930s—are still as crooked and atmospheric as ever.