Victoria comes out of its shell

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Posted July 25, 2012 by Kathleen Kenna in British Columbia
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Public art like this mosaic orca and mini-shuttles near the Empress Hotel, the ivy-covered icon of Victoria’s Inner Harbour, are part of the city’s enchanted scenery. (Hadi Dadashian photo)

Story by Kathleen Kenna
Vacay.ca Senior Writer

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The hottest new restaurant in the Inner Harbour is The Oyster, with its relaxed atmosphere and “buck a shuck” happy hour. (Hadi Dadashian photo)

VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — The Oyster is rocking, standing-room-only, so I’m intrigued by the very amorous couple drinking champagne and slurping raw ones at the window table.

All those tales about bubbly and oysters being aphrodisiacs must be true.

These young lovers prove we’re not in staid, old Victoria anymore.

Some visitors rave about the cute little sandwiches during high tea at The Empress (NBC’s The Today Show gushed about it); others come for the horses and carriages with top-hatted drivers.

It’s all so quaint.

Yet The Oyster shows what locals love most about Victoria in this century: It’s a foodie city celebrating its watery heritage.

Chef Umut Cetin serves mostly local oysters, from both sides of Vancouver Island (Barkley Sound on the west; Fanny Bay on the east), and the mainland (Powell River and the Sunshine Coast.)

He serves them raw, roasted, grilled, pan-fried and even baked. Oysters Pescatore features Fanny Bay oysters, shell-roasted, with bacon and leek cream, for $9.

The Oyster is especially busy from 5 to 7 pm, when featured oysters are “a buck a shuck.”

Others, like the Black Pearl oysters from Quadra Island, are top-of-the-line, $2.50 each or $25 a dozen.

These are described as “very mild, with a hint of brininess” and light, cucumber finish.

Distracted by the happy, kissing couple, I can’t decide between the Phantom Creek oysters from Cortes Island or the Summer Breeze from “up island”, near Denman Island.

As that woman in Harry Meets Sally said, “I’ll have what she’s having.”

DISCOVER THE 21st-CENTURY VICTORIA

I’m playing tourist in a city where I used to work, so bypass the Parliament Buildings, although there are free daily tours.

The 1890’s buildings look like a fairy castle at night, all decked out in white lights. During the day, the castle-like main building and lovely grounds are still one of the most-photographed spots in BC’s capital city, possibly because that bronze statue of Queen Victoria on the front lawn is so imposing. (It’s 4 metres; in real life, the queen was only about 1.5 metres, or 4 feet, 10 inches.)

The waterfront in “Canada’s most walkable city” is good for watching people and marine traffic, from the toy-like shuttle boats to the massive car ferries linking Victoria with Port Angeles in Washington.

One of the thrills of staying at any of the waterfront hotels is seeing float planes taking off and descending, next to cruise ships; tall ships anchoring alongside luxury yachts; and kayakers flitting among ferries, sailboats, and whale-watching catamarans.

There’s always something hopping next to the harbour too: The day I visited, cyclists were warming up for the annual Jump Ship contest. This free annual event involves a lot of air.

Wandering the waterfront is the best way to meet local artisans, selling handmade jewelry, prints and “recycled”, red cedar sculptures.

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A large US ferry dwarfs an Inner Harbour shuttle boat and dominates the skyline. (Hadi Dadashian photo)

“It’s a great place to meet artists, learn where they come from, and who they are,” says Adrian Xavier Sampare, Gitxsan artist and Victoria art teacher.

International visitors seem especially interested in First Nations artists because “they want to take a personalized piece of art back to their countries” after watching the creators at work, he adds.

Sampare joins about a dozen First Nations artists at the harbourfront in front of the Parliament Buildings, in the shadow of traditional totems.

Buskers like one-man band Dave Harris play at the waterfront, mixing banjos and guitars. Sampare sings and drums here too, sometimes playing bass guitar.

His art ranges from $3 print bookmarks to $100 basswood carvings to $350 framed originals.

Visitors linger over all the bronze plaques honouring Victoria’s marine heritage, and the statue of Captain Cook (here in the 1700s, searching for the Northwest Passage);  Ogopogo mini-donuts and fresh-squeezed lemonade are still popular at outdoor stands.

The Pacific Undersea Gardens, that once seemed so kitschy on the waterfront, draws the curious with its aquariums and divers, five metres below the surface.

The gardens show there are sleek salmon and ugly wolf eels in the harbour, pretty anemones and seastars too. The pile of crabs lurching along the bottom might be the next meal for the giant octopus, climbing the underwater window in front of visitors.

Divers do several shows a day here, explaining the habits of some 325 known species of marine life in these waters.

Most interesting fact of the day: That octopus has three hearts and about 1,600 suction cups — 200 for each arm.

He’s starting to sound a lot like the clingy lovers at The Oyster.

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First Nations art dominates the Inner Harbour. This totem commemorates the Esquimalt and Songhees nations. (Hadi Dadashian photo)

MORE ABOUT VICTORIA’S INNER HARBOUR

HORSES: They’re old-fashioned (Tally-Ho Carriage Tours began here in 1903), but still romantic for couples and especially popular with families. Tally-Ho has a 15-minute jaunt around the harbourfront for $50; Victoria Carriage Tours offers a 30-minute, “by the sea” trip for $90; and Black Beauty Carriage  is the first to offer a wheelchair-accessible, horse-drawn trolley, starting at $10 for children, $20 for adults.

BIKES: Some hotels have bicycles, but Cycle BC boasts the largest selection of rental bikes, scooters and motorcycles, starting at $7/hour for a Norco hybrid. Victoria has 100 kms of bike paths.

WHALES, ORCAS, PORPOISES AND MORE: Three resident pods of orcas in Victoria-area waters almost guarantee sightings, which explains the commotion of whale-watching boats and Zodiacs. Five Star Whale Watching is the longest-running tour company in Victoria, operating for 25 years. Its website has great footage of orcas spyhopping (vertical pose). Check there for humpbacks, Dalls porpoises, elephant seals, harbour seals, and California sea lions, all filmed on Five Star trips. And bald eagles too.

Prince of Whales appears to have the most red, water-slickers on the water, and its ads are everywhere.

HOTELS: There are about a dozen big hotels at the harbour, ranging from the 1908 Fairmont Empress (rates not quoted online) to the Days Inn ($130.05). Most have harbour views; the highly-rated Grand Pacific (starting at $189) has a private balcony with every room.

The Inn at Laurel Point ($174 to start; terrace suites, $354) is British Columbia’s “only carbon-neutral hotel” and the only one with an expansive, Japanese garden. Originally designed by architect Arthur Erickson, the inn features local and organic cuisine at AURA Waterfront Restaurant and Patio. Bonus: Its Silk Road toiletries are all-natural, handcrafted in Victoria. (Available only at the hotel; the Silk Road store doesn’t carry these Air, Water, Fire and Earth products.)

WATERFRONT DINING: The Oyster, 614 Humboldt Street; Telephone: 250-385-5562.

MORE ON VICTORIA: Visit Vacay.ca’s webpage on the city and the Tourism Victoria website.

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About the Author

Kathleen Kenna
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Kathleen Kenna is an award-winning writer who has traveled the world, and tells everyone British Columbia is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. She has traveled from the Arctic Circle to the South Pacific; worked in some of the most dangerous places as the Toronto Star's South Asia bureau chief; and finds peace, always, kayaking the Pacific Coast. She blogs with her husband, photojournalist Hadi Dadashian, at http://tripsfor2.wordpress.com.

 
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