Island life

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 May, 2010, 12:00am

The Victoria-bound Spirit of Vancouver Island lets out a droning blast of its horn and turns hard to port. The ferry's decks shudder as the engines churn to get her around a tight bend in the channel. Then comes the echoes of another sonorous horn and the Vancouver-bound Spirit of British Columbia steams into view.

The ferries pass each other in the midst of the southern Gulf Islands, between the west coast of the Canadian mainland and Vancouver Island. Far below the top decks, in the green waters of the channel, sea otters pop through the surface to watch the ships sail by. Behind them rises the green mass of Galiano Island, the shade of its forest broken only where the pitch of the rocky hills becomes too extreme for trees to take root.

Victoria, the largest city on Vancouver Island and the most robust relic of Canada's British past, seems a world away from the mainland, whether you are in the city itself or thinking about it from downtown Vancouver. In reality, it is a 11/2-hour ferry ride away and, unlike the smoggy, claustrophobic trips between Hong Kong and Macau, the voyage provides half the excitement on a day trip to the provincial capital.

Ferries, leaving from Tsawwassen or Horseshoe Bay, cross the open expanse of the Strait of Georgia before winding their way through the Gulf Islands. From the Swartz Bay terminal, it's a short drive into the heart of Victoria.

Once in the city - one of Canada's urban gems - you're better off walking than driving. The central bus terminal is downtown and a short stroll from the Inner Harbour, where seaplanes glide in to splash down a short distance from the city centre. The harbour, encircled by a grassy bank and promenade, is flanked on one side by the Parliament Buildings and on the other by the Empress Hotel. It is these buildings, with their sprawling lawns and the rest of the city's turn-of-the-century architecture that recall the city's British past.

Captain James Cook became the first European to set foot on the mainland, in 1778, but it wasn't until 1843 that the Hudson's Bay Company, which dealt in fur, began to build Fort Victoria as a trading post. Victoria became the provincial capital when British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation, in 1871.

Thirty years later, building began on the chateau-style Empress Hotel. It was designed by Francis Rattenbury as a terminus hotel for Canadian Pacific's steamship line. The hotel prides itself on its Edwardian afternoon-tea service, complete with scones and cream. The Bengal Lounge serves heartier fare: curry and beer, which can be enjoyed while overlooking the gardens. The bar-restaurant was designed in an Indian colonial style, with overstuffed leather chairs and wood panelling, giving it a suitably anachronistic feel in its celebration of the British empire that once was.

Victoria is a quieter, more genteel alternative to Vancouver's hustle and brashness. With only 326,000 residents, it is a town-like provincial capital, yet it has a small but sophisticated selection of restaurants and art venues. The city is better known for its leafy neighbourhoods than for its nightlife but the popular phrase 'dead or in bed by nine', used to describe Victoria's decidedly mature population, is nonetheless harsh, given the number of clubbers that can be seen in the bar area around Government Street at midnight.

North of the harbour lies the oldest Chinatown in Canada, and the second oldest on the continent, after that in San Francisco. When gold was discovered in the Fraser Canyon, just east of Vancouver, tens of thousands of people flocked to the province to stake a claim to the riches. Among them were many prospectors from Guangdong province, who joined Chinese from California, where they had learned their trade in an earlier goldrush. Victoria was the gateway to the west coast of Canada and many of the Chinese immigrants either remained in the growing city or returned when the gold mines were exhausted. In the years to come, the building of the Canadian Pacific Railway would attract another wave of Chinese workers.

Chinatown became a dense neighbourhood of businesses, cinemas, schools, churches, temples and a hospital, as well as dark back alleys filled with shady characters. The opium factories, mahjong parlours and brothels that were clustered around Fisgard Street are described in detail in The Concubine's Children, by Denise Chong, a daughter of the city.

Today's Chinatown is a few short blocks of shops and restaurants and the old Chinese School, all clustered around Fan Tan Alley and the ornate Gate of Harmonious Interest, which was donated by Suzhou, Jiangsu province, Victoria's sister city.

While its history envelops Victoria, its classical-arts scene reveals a vibrant and living core. Few cities this size can boast a professional symphony, much less one of such high quality as Victoria's. The symphony occasionally leaves its home at the Royal Theatre to play outdoors, most notably in the Inner Harbour, for its Symphony Splash event, held every year on the first Sunday in August.

The city has more than its share of new and used bookstores. One of the best is Munro's Books, in the heart of Victoria's Old Town. It is owned by the ex-husband of Alice Munro, one of Canada's best writers and winner of last year's Man Booker International Prize. The store's selection is as good as that pedigree suggests, containing the work of many Canadian authors and hard-to-find titles. The store, a century-old neoclassical building that used to house the Royal Bank of Canada, has beautiful high ceilings that help make the interior an easy place in which to lose track of time, thumbing through books you're never likely to buy.

As the long summer evening begins, signalling the end of my day trip, I face a dilemma. I haven't had time to get my espresso at Serious Coffee, Victoria's home-grown chain of bohemian cafes, but, like many Vancouverites, I could buy a pound of beans to take back with me to the mainland. I was also hoping to take a look at the restored sailing boats in the harbour, including the North Star of Herschel Island, built in 1935 as an Arctic trading ship, and to toss back a pint or six at Irish Times, a pub that serves up great food along with its fantastic fiddle music.

Furthermore, if I stay the night, I'll be able to take a morning run around the harbour, to work off whatever decadence I encounter this evening.

It is not a difficult decision; whichever Spirit is pulling away from Swartz Bay tonight will have to do so with one less passenger.