Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 23, 2021
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Victoria's Secrets

Sneak a peek at the hidden treasures of BC's capital

I admit it. I'm an Anglophile. Maybe I've seen Howard's End one too many times, but I have an obsession with all things English. And since Victoria is the most British of Canadian cities, I've always had a soft spot for the seaside town. A wonderful balance between English sensibilities and the best of western Canada exists here: it's the only city in the country where you can take a ride out on a Zodiac to see a pod of killer whales and make it back in time for High Tea. Athough it's often referred to as a place for "the nearly dead and the newly wed" and has been criticized for clinging to its glory days as an English outpost, Victoria is undeniably charming. Much of Victoria's past has become something of a Merry Old England schtick. You'll still find Union Jacks, red double-decker buses, Harris tweed and tea houses on practically every corner, but once you get past the tourist traps, the city has lots to offer. So bypass the busloads packed in front of Anne Hathaway's Cottage, the Charles Dickens Pub and the Royal London Wax Museum and check out these other English and not-so-English sites.

What to see
Rudyard Kipling called Victoria "Brighton Pavilion with the Himalayas for a backdrop," and when you look out over Inner Harbour, the main vantage point of the city, you'll see what he meant. Old Town is set against the background of the harbour and was once the busy hub of the city's main businesses -- shipping, fur trading and legal opium manufacturing. Market Square and the surrounding warehouses were filled with exports like salmon, furs and timber bound for England and the US. It's now part of the downtown core and is still a great place to find imports from the UK. In fact, a good number of the shops date back to the turn of the last century.

Victoria's Chinatown purports to be the oldest in Canada (dating from 1858). Fan Tan Alley, off of Fisgard Street, is the narrowest street in North America and is the bygone gambling and opium centre of Chinatown. At the Government Street entrance is the beautiful Gate of Harmonious Interest, which is made of Taiwanese ceramic tiles and decorative panels.

The Parliament Buildings (501 Belleville Street; tel: 250-387-3046;, built between 1893 and 1898 and designed by Francis Rattenbury, are architectural gems. They're worth the trip just to see the intricate mosaics, marble and stained glass. There are guided tours every 20 minutes during the summer. Admission is free. Open daily, 9am to 5pm.

The Royal British Columbia Museum (675 Belleville Street; tel: 250-356-7226) is one of the best regional museums in the world and houses incredibly realistic dioramas and three-dimensional sensory exhibits on BC's tidal marshes, seabird colonies, aboriginal long houses and frontier towns. Guided eco-tours are available, including snorkelling with salmon, white-water rafting and whale-watching. Admission: $10.65, including temporary exhibits.

In 1882, the Hudson's Bay Company gave the 75-hectare Beacon Hill Park (Southgate Street to Dallas Road) to the city. Flower gardens, manicured lawns and ponds are scattered between Garry oaks, Douglas firs, Western Red cedars, birch, willows and maples. The top of the hill offers a great view of the Strait of Georgia, Haro Strait and Washington's Olympic Mountains. There's also a putting green, playground, wading pool, petting zoo, tennis courts and a picnic area. The 39-metre totem pole was raised in 1956 by renowned Kwakwaka'wakw artist Mungo Martin.

Gold Rush Magistrate and Commissioner Peter O'Reilly bought the Italianate Point Ellice House (2616 Pleasant Street; tel: 250-380-6506) in 1867, and the home stayed in the O'Reilly family for 108 years. It houses the best collection of Victoriana in its original setting in western Canada, including a Birks mantle clock, a Limoges tea service, a Wedgewood dome, a Doulton commemorative cup and a W.B. Cobridge earthenware pitcher. The colourful heritage gardens still have some of the varieties the O'Reillys planted, including lilac, summer jasmine, moss roses and English Hawthorn. High Tea, a lavish affair, is served in the gardens until 4pm and the price includes admission to the house ($15). Open daily, noon to 5pm.

Built in 1852, Helmcken House (10 Elliott Street Square; tel: 250-361-0021) was the home of pioneer doctor and legislator John Sebastian Helmcken. Helmcken was a surgeon with the Hudson's Bay Company and went on to become a statesman whose most important political accomplishment was helping negotiate the entry of BC into Canada as a province. The house is most noteworthy, however, not for its owner but for its contents: the largest antique medical collection in western North America, including the good doctor's 19th-century medical kit. Open daily, 10am to 5pm (May to September), noon to 4pm (October to December and February to April).

In 1904, Robert and Jennie Butchart decided to beautify a defunct limestone quarry on their 52-hectare estate. The endeavour resulted in the Butchart Gardens (800 Benevenuto Avenue; tel: 250-652-4422;, a 20-hectare expanse of Italian, Japanese, rose and sunken gardens. More than one million plants and 700 varieties are bedded each year to ensure uninterrupted blooms from March through October. Spend a leisurely afternoon wandering around, stay until dusk to have dinner at the Dining Room Restaurant and then roam through the illuminated gardens again after dark. There are spectacular fireworks displays every Saturday night in July and August. Admission: $14 from April 1 to May 14, $16 from May 15 to June 14. Open daily, 9am to 6pm (until 7pm between May 15 to 31).

What do you do when you've clawed your way up from servant to coal baron and become the richest man in BC? You build a castle of course. Robert Dunsmuir's four-storey, 39-room Craigdarroch Castle (1050 Joan Crescent; tel: 250-592-5323; is located in the highlands above Oak Bay. Dunsmuir promised to build the castle for his wife on the condition that she'd leave Scotland and come with him to BC. She did, but unfortunately he died before the castle was finished. The exterior boasts stone turrets and chimneys and the interior is filled with detailed woodwork, Persian carpets, stained-glass windows, paintings and sculptures. Tours are self-guided but there are volunteers on each floor to answer questions. Admission: $8. Open daily, 10am to 4:30pm.


Where to stay
The 474-room Fairmont Empress Hotel (721 Government Street; tel: 250-384-8111; opened in 1908, and has aged gracefully, with beautifully restored Edwardian decor alongside modern amenities. Even if you don't stay here, be sure to stop in for a look around the Bengal Lounge, the Palm Court and the Crystal Lounge, which, with its Tiffany glass dome, is the most opulent part of the hotel. It is, after all, a Canadian Pacific institution. Doubles start at $159.

The 51-room Oak Bay Beach Hotel (1175 Beach Drive; tel: 250-598-4556; is a family-run, Tudor-style inn beside the ocean. The rooms are decorated with lots of antiques and many offer excellent views of the gardens and islands in Haro Strait. Try to book one with a gas fireplace and large soaking tub. Doubles start at $165, including breakfast.

The white clapboard, Queen Anne-style Gatsby Mansion (309 Belleville Street; tel: 800-563-9656) is reminiscent of a 1920s seaside resort, with frescoed ceilings, crystal chandeliers, wood panelling and stained-glass windows. The 20 rooms are sunny and filled with antiques. Some offer views of the Inner Harbour and several have private parlours. Doubles start at $95, including breakfast.

Where to eat
The Marina (1327 Beach Drive; tel: 250-598-8555) is the place for seafood in Victoria, and offers a 180í view of Oak Bay.

Don Mees (538 Fisgard Street; tel: 250-383- 1032) has been around since 1923 and still serves the best Cantonese food in the city.

Located at Fisherman's Wharf, Barb's Place (310 St. Lawrence; tel: 250-384-6515) is the local favourite for fish and chips -- wrapped in newspaper, of course.

A popular spot for Sunday brunch is Herald Street Caffe (546 Herald Street; tel: 250-381-1441). Lunch and dinner menus, which change seasonally, always list fresh local cuisine, daily fish grills, inventive pastas and good vegetarian selections.

Re-bar (50 Bastion Square; tel: 250-361-9223) is vegetarian heaven. It's famous for its 80 different juice blends -- grapefruit, banana, melon and pear with bee pollen or blue-green algae -- but also serves great veggie burgers, salads, omelets and quesadillas.

Roger's Chocolates (913 Government Street; tel: 250-384-7021), with its original Tiffany glass and old-fashioned counters, regularly delivers its addictive confections to Buckingham Palace.

All books should be so lucky as to have a home at Munro's Bookstore (1108 Government Street; tel: 250-382-2464). The shop is housed in a 1909 Rattenbury-designed building with heavy brass lamps, murals and a mile-high ceiling. There are more than 35,000 titles, including a great selection of books about Victoria and ones by local authors.

Although Faith Grant's Connoisseur Shop (1156 Fort Street; tel: 250-383-0121) is the farthest from downtown, it's still the best. The 1862 heritage building is filled with everything from Georgian writing desks to English flatware. Furniture is its strong suit, but you'll also find wonderful ceramics, prints and paintings.

Tea Rooms
Those in the know head to one of these tea rooms instead of the much-hyped but mediocre Empress Hotel.

The usual afternoon tea fare is served at Blethering Place (2250 Oak Bay Avenue; tel: 250-598-1413) amid hundreds of toby jugs and royal family memorabilia. If you prefer to take yours by the sea, try Windsor House (2450 Windsor Road; tel: 250-382-8282). James Bay Tea Room (332 Menzies Street; tel: 250-382-8282) is filled with lots of knick-knacks and portraits of English monarchs. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Murchie's Tea & Coffee (1110 Government Street; tel: 250-383-3112) isn't a traditional tea room, but a favourite for its herbal, flavoured and blended infusions, as well as pure teas like green, black, Formosa Oolong and Darjeeling. You'll also find a wide selection of coffees, spices, cakes, cookies and preserves.

Originally installed on an ocean liner, the Sticky Wicket (919 Douglas Street, in the Strathcona Hotel; tel: 250-383-7137), with its beautiful wood interior -- including dividers, glass and long teak bar -- was taken to a new home in Dublin. The pub was later packed up and shipped to Victoria, making it about as authentic an Irish bar as you can find.

Spinnaker's Brew Pub (308 St. Catherine Street; tel: 250-384-6613), which overlooks the harbour and Parliament Buildings, did it first and did it well, setting standards other pubs had to match. All of the ales, lagers and stouts are brewed on the premises.

Swan's Pub (506 Pandora Avenue; tel: 250-361-3310) has a huge raftered ceiling and a wraparound sidewalk-level greenhouse. The eight house beers are brewed on-site.

Try the taster option at the Canoe Club (450 Swift Street; tel: 250-361-1940) -- six small glasses of different brews for about the price of a pint. There's live jazz on weekend nights


This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.


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