Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 13, 2017
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Victorian charm

BC's capital city keeps a stiff upper lip while dipping its toes in the wild Pacific

To anyone east of the Rockies, British Columbia's famously picturesque capital of Victoria can sometimes seem a little un-Canadian. For one thing, there's its extremely balmy setting on the Pacific shores of southern Vancouver Island. Separated from the BC mainland and the city of Vancouver by a 90-minute ferry ride across the Strait of Georgia, Victoria boasts the mildest climate anywhere in the country.

Visit in March and the spring blossoms overwhelm you; return in October, and you'll find the same flowers blooming after months of summery skies. Peoples' lifestyles reflect the weather, too. Hockey gear is rarely sighted, but you will spot plenty of golf clubs and tennis racquets, and enthusiastic walkers and web-footed locals frequent the area beaches year-round.

More British than thou?
Other things about Victoria are eccentric by most Canadian standards. While Vancouver Island is closer to the US than any point on Canada's mainland (Victoria looks across the Juan de Fuca Strait towards Washington State), the city's predominant cultural influence seems to come from further away. Try riding a city bus -- odds are that it's a double-decker, plying a route with a roundabout. Need a public phone? It's in the red booth next to the Christmas store called "Ye Olde Yule Tidings."

Hungry? Take in high tea at the famous Empress Hotel (721 Government Street; tel: 800-257-7544; www.fairmont.com/empress; reserve a week in advance: 250-389-2727) on the scenic Inner Harbour. Served in the restored Tea Lobby, it's a majestically nostalgic affair featuring endless banquet tables of bite-size pastries and crustless sandwiches, accompanied by traditional scones with clotted cream.

Or else, there's Murchies (1110 Government Street; tel: 250-383-3112; www.murchies.com). This century-old tea merchant has a large shop and tearoom dedicated to serving the finest teas, coffees and cocoa. They serve a proper High Tea twice each afternoon.

Once you consider the city's sidewalk racks of foreign newspapers, its wax museum filled with effigies of royalty, and the rugby games in the park, suddenly the common sound of a plummy non-North American accent doesn't seem as out of place as it might in Flin Flon.

And yet, Victoria's English roots are considerably deeper than touristy lapses into tweeness suggest ("twee" is a specifically and particularly British word referring to all things "too cutesy").

The original Colony of Vancouver Island was a Hudson's Bay Company enterprise, lorded over by "Factors" with the licence and largesse to act like English gentlemen. When the British crown took over in 1849, waves of bona fide minor English gentry arrived, eager to try building estates in the virgin wilds and mild climes of another verdant island.

Although garden farms and Arts and Crafts-style houses turned out to be the norm, an adherence to all things English was emphasized (partially to withstand an influx of Americans from the south).

In spite of its bustling, central location, Victoria's Inner Harbour is still reminiscent of the layout of an English seaside town. Horseshoe-shaped, the harbour is ringed by a promenade with a grand cornice. Wide steps descend to a sunken esplanade running past wharfs of yachts and sailboats. I once saw Prince Philip strolling here behind a cordon -- his hands were clasped behind his back, royal style, as he squinted up at the Empress Hotel, which dominates the waterfront.

Green Acres
Just adjacent is the suitably imperial Provincial Legislature, built in elaborate fashion in 1897. Like the Empress, flowers and immaculate lawns surround it, a testimony to the English love of gardening visible throughout the city. A stone's throw away, the 80-hectare Beacon Hill Park (www.beaconhillpark.com) recreates the ambience of London's great urban parks, complete with cricket pitches, peacocks, horse hestnut trees and a landscape of manicured flowerbeds, graceful trees, duck-filled ponds and bridges over streams.

Just outside the city is Butchart Gardens (800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay; tel: 866- 652-4422; www.butchartgardens.com), 20 hectares of endlessly spectacular petals and blossoms twining through a selection of formal gardens. May focuses on tulips and flowering trees, June is all about roses, and mid-summer is peak time for annuals.

If you like architecture mixed in with the greenery, there are ivy-clad, turreted manses to visit, the sorts of places to which you can lure offspring by telling them they're like homes out of Harry Potter.

Turret Territory
Craigdarroch Castle (1050 Joan Crescent; tel: 250-592-5323; www.craigdarrochcastle.com) is an eight-minute drive due east from the Inner Harbour. Built in 1889 for coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, BC's first millionaire, its 39 rooms now house a museum. In 1908, Dunsmuir's son James built the equally imposing Hatley Castle (2005 Sooke Road; tel: 250-391-2666; www.hatleycastle.com), 25 minutes from downtown, also a museum with a large formal garden inside a 238-hectare estate. Point Ellis House (by the Bay Street Bridge) was once the home of one of Victoria's most prominent families; it offers summer tea service in a heritage garden along with house tours. West of the city lies an actual British-built fort, Fort Rodd Hill (603 Fort Rodd Hill Road; tel: 250-478-5849; www.fortroddhill.com) complete with ramparts, gunnery towers and stoppered cannons.

Ultimately, Victoria's Englishness has given the city a character all its own, a fact easily recognizable whenever you see a horse-drawn carriage halt by a totem pole or see an eagle perch on a statue of Queen Victoria.

But in preserving and enjoying its heritage, the city is onto to a good thing: Victoria is consistently rated as one of international tourism's top draws, and a genteel spot of tea with crumpets far away from home may be the reason why.

 

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