By contrast, Victoria’s alternative side thrives in the funky Fernwood neighborhood east of downtown. In the last decade, neighborhood associations have spearheaded the transformation of the buildings around Fernwood Square. An old Methodist church became the multi-staged Belfry Theatre; the Fernwood Inn, a former dive bar, was reborn as a pub serving local ales and ciders. The once-rundown building across from the Inn now houses the Crossroads, an espresso bar that has become an unofficial community meeting place, and the relaxed Stage Wine Bar, where one can dine on small plates of cauliflower pakora, Salt Spring Island mussels, and gnocchi.
A stroll in the surrounding streets takes visitors past book exchange boxes outside century-old Arts-and-Crafts bungalows, a community garden on the former grounds of a schoolhouse, and an ice cream parlor called Cold Comfort offering “Hoyne’s Dark Matter,” an improbable but successful combination of vanilla ice cream and brown ale.
A 10-minute walk south of downtown is the tranquil James Bay neighborhood, site of the childhood home of Emily Carr. It has been turned into a museum commemorating the life of the author and painter, who returned from a trip to France to create striking, Post-Impressionist takes on northern Pacific landscapes. View Carr’s deeply Canadian canvases of listing Haida and Gitxsan totem poles in the nearby Royal B.C. Museum.
In the Rockland neighborhood, perched on the highest point within the city limits is Craigdarroch, a late-19th-century castle built for Scottish railway-and-coal baron Robert Dunsmuir. The Downton Abbey-style splendor of its parlors, paneled with Spanish mahogany and Hawaiian koa, give way on upper floors to unadorned walls and bare floor boards. Dubbed “King Grab” by a local newspaper, which cast him as more robber baron than genuine royalty, Mr. Dunsmuir died a few months before the castle was completed, and never lived there.
The fifth-floor turret, with a view of ocean breakers and snow-capped Mount Baker, looks out onto what is probably Victoria’s greatest urban asset: the tip of Vancouver Island on which it perches. Its location in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains means sunny and dry summers (windmill palm trees grow in local front yards), and access to spectacular north Pacific ecosystems start right from downtown.
An excellent way to explore those outdoor wonders is by rented bicycle. Heading west out of downtown on the Galloping Goose and the Lochside Trail, well-marked and level bike routes follow old railway right-of-ways. Along the way the outdoor terrace of Sea Cider provides a stop for a light lunch, with high-octane ciders produced from the 50 kinds of heirloom apples that grow in the surrounding orchards. Farther down the end of the trail is Victoria Distillers, a craft distillery in Sidney, 15 miles north of downtown. A tasting of Empress 1908 gin, infused with dried flowers from Thailand that make it turn from deep indigo to pink when tonic is added, is a welcome reward for a long afternoon of pedaling.
THE LOWDOWN // Exploring the Traditional and Trendy in Victoria
Getting There: The high-speed Victoria Clipper makes the three-hour-run from downtown Seattle twice a day in high season, clippervacations.com. Major U.S. airlines connect to Victoria through Vancouver; United offers a direct flight from San Francisco.
Staying There: The Inn at the Union Club, in a 1913 beaux-arts building located across the street from the Empress, offers well-appointed rooms, top-notch breakfasts, and access to its health club for nonmembers. From about $133 a night, unionclub.com. Abigail’s is a charming inn in an English Tudor-style building a 10-minute walk from the Inner Harbor. From about $204 a night, abigailshotel.com. The Fairmont Empress has rooms starting from about $274 a night, fairmont.com/empress-victoria.
Eating There: To sample the best of Vancouver Island’s farm-to-table food culture, try Agrius for foraged greens, fermented vegetables and sustainably sourced seafood. 732 Yates St., agriusrestaurant.com. For an alternative to high-tea at the much-frequented Empress, visit the White Heather Tea Room. Order the three-tiered Big Muckle, which features fresh-baked scones with lemon curd and crustless cucumber sandwiches. 1885 Oak Bay Ave., whiteheather-tearoom.com. Taco Justice, a popular Fernwood food truck (at the corner of Cook and Pandora) offers fusion delights such as the Korean Krippler, featuring bulgogi beef and Asian slaw.
Shopping There: Old Morris Tobacconist, which has been on its present site since 1892, sells smoking accessories and the best Havanas, and features a vintage “electrolier” of Mexican onyx for lighting cigars. 1116 Government St., oldmorris.com. The Milkman’s Daughter specializes in accessories, gifts, home décor and baby clothes, made with local materials and vintage fabrics. 1713 Government St., 250-590-5451.
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