Story by Kathleen Kenna
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Jeff Crane is getting ready to walk on water.
He takes off his shirt and shoes; snaps on a life vest; and plants his bare feet on a board, only minutes from downtown Victoria. Crane is soon paddling urban waters, flanked by kayakers and competitive rowers.
This is one reason Victoria is ranked as the most fit city in Canada.
Crane, 29, says he moved across the country for this, leaving his Nova Scotia home to pursue a Ph.D in kinesiology at the University of Victoria.
“This is why I’m here,” he says, motioning to friends, Aaron Fraser, 30, and Eve LeBlanc, 25, skimming their boards across Victoria’s Upper Harbour.
“It was 40 per cent school and 60 per cent location,” explains Crane, who is starting his second year of a three-year program at UVic. “It’s so active here, I can be out every day of the year, doing something different.”
That means mountains and ocean and greens within 24 hours, through every season.
“This is the only Canadian city where I can surf and go snowboarding in the same day,” says Crane, referring to beaches northwest of the city, and Mount Washington to the north.
“I’ve got friends who have done the trifecta — surf, ski, golfing, same day — but I’ve only done two in one day.”
Crane says he’ll add golf to his super-fit routine by heading to the driving range some night soon, after filling a day with water sports.
Water is Victoria’s most vaunted playground: The city, which is celebrating its 150th birthday today (August 3), curls around a waterfront busy with water taxis, tour boats, float planes, yachts, sailboats and big car ferries serving both Canada and US passengers.
At dawn, dragon boat racers train on waves in front of the provincial Legislative Buildings; by afternoon, kayakers and whale-watching zodiac boats share space near the seaplane terminal.
Yet amid all this traffic, there is still space for a quiet paddle.
“Just stay close to shore!” says Paul Cousins at Ocean River Adventures, where Crane and friends rented their gear.
No problem. I nose my kayak toward Songhees Point, where Upper Harbour and Inner Harbour meet. I’m shadowed immediately by a seaplane that descends so close I can see the pilot.
I paddle closer to shore, marvelling at dragon boat racers rowing furiously to cries of “Pull! Pull!” After doing some fast paddling of my own to avoid a harbour taxi — cute, mini-tugboat-style craft — I pause near the Salmon King fishing boat to watch a blue heron hunting for lunch.
She’s so intent on her prey, the bird isn’t startled by my arrival. The heron scoops up something long and skinny and still wriggling from both sides of her beak. She’s in no hurry, and I’m so thrilled by this private encounter that I just sit and watch for awhile.
No sign can be found of the injured seal that Ocean River staff urged me to watch for. Other kayakers reported seeing him wounded, with a fish hook in his side, and the staff wants to put up “Seal: Wanted” posters to get paddlers involved in his rescue.
Ocean River Adventures was founded by Brian Henry, who began building kayaks in the 1970s, then opened Ocean River Sports 30 years ago. It has grown to offer more than 40 programs from kayak camps in summer to in-the-pool classes in winter, overnight trips and even international tours.
Demand for SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) is so strong in Victoria, Ocean River Adventures launched three-hour, intro classes for beginners and will soon add paddleboard yoga, says communications manager Paul Beckman.
MORE ACTIVE PEOPLE THAN ANYWHERE IN CANADA
Victoria is rated “fittest city in Canada” because Statistics Canada shows more people walk, bike and work out than in any other city — 36 per cent of adults are active, double the national average.
It’s not just the mild weather year-round that’s the reason for this distinction. It’s the attitude.
Talk to locals and they’ll ask what you do to stay fit, rather than bother about your career choice. Like Crane, they’re keen to share their favourite green spaces, best trails, most popular view-while-in-motion, and best deals on gear. (I had serious kayak lust at Ocean River Adventures; the photographer exhibited severe gearhead symptoms, discovering new paddleboard accessories.)
At Cycle BC, you can wrap your legs around a Harley-Davidson, BMW, Suzuki or Honda motorcycle, or try a scooter. Bicycles are popular because there are 100 kilometres of paved paths in Victoria, and most don’t require navigating city traffic or hills.
Within minutes from downtown, I was cycling around the green lawns of historic St. Ann’s Academy, then the flower gardens, ponds, playground and zoo at Beacon Hill Park, Victoria’s oldest city park. It took a minimum of effort on a 21-speed Norco (and I’m not a cyclist) to ascend a hill to the park’s viewpoint, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
I met a couple kissing on the hilltop, and watched another couple timing each other, jogging up and down the hill. Over and over and over.
Climbed off the bike to talk to dog owners, who were comparing breeds along an off-leash walkway tracing the water. We all gawked at two paragliders soaring overhead, and watched sailboats and catamarans below. A beachcomber had a pocket of beach all to himself.
After cycling for an hour along the cliffside trail, and being awed by the snow-tipped Olympic Mountains across the strait, I returned to Beacon Hill Park to see the same couple still racing each other up and down the hill, and — this is a fit city — still laughing.
I also stopped in the park to admire the “Mile 0” and the memorial to the late Terry Fox, as well as the “world’s tallest totem” (erected in 1956 by First Nations master carvers Mungo Martin, David Martin and Henry Hunt as a “memento of the nation’s infancy and monument to a rare native art”). Mile 0 is the start of the Trans-Canada Highway, which is celebrating its 100th year in 2012.
Hint that you’re not in Kansas anymore: Discovering peacocks, at random, preening under shade trees at Beacon Hill Park.
More Victorians cycle to work — three times as many — than in any other Canadian city, Statistics Canada estimates.
Victoria is also home to the 90-kilometre Tour de Victoria (former Olympian Seamus McGrath is a director), and the 270-kilometre Gran Fondo each summer, drawing elite cyclists from all over the continent. So visitors trying any of the well-marked trails can go home bragging they cycled like an Olympic athlete.
Gold medalist triathlete Simon Whitfield, 37, trains here, having moved his family from Kingston, Ontario. Whitfield, flag-bearer for the Canadian team at the 2012 London Olympics, competes August 7.
Victoria calls itself “Canada’s most walkable city” because of its Mediterranean climate and accessible neighbourhoods. It’s tied with Kingston, Ontario, for workers who walk to their offices — 10.4 per cent of the workforce.
Visitors cram harbourfront sidewalks and downtown walkways, yet it’s only a 15-minute walk from the central Royal BC Museum to neighbourhood cafes in James Bay (between the cruise ship terminal and downtown); shopping for the old and offbeat along Government and Fort Streets. (“Antique Row”); or checking out houseboats at Fisherman’s Wharf.
Seven walks and five running routes are included in the “Walk + Run Downtown Victoria” map, ranging from 5.7 kms to 12.5 kms, return-trip.
Caution: The scenery is so awesome, suggested times for these walks and runs are far too conservative for visitors who want to pause and enjoy the sights.
MORE ABOUT VICTORIA
Where to stay: Hotel Rialto, 1450 Douglas Street; telephone: 250-383-4157; website: hotelrialto.ca. High season rates: $139-189; suites are more expensive; discounts for AAA/CAA members. The 1911 building has just reopened after a major renovation.
Where to eat: In a city of single origin, fair trade, shade-grown and organic coffee, Discovery Coffee Roasters is one of the best. It has a cafe in Oak Bay, and supplies many others, including the airy Café Veneto at Hotel Rialto.
Veneto Tapa Lounge at the Rialto has six “tapa trios” ($16-$20) with crab, seafood, duck, beef, lamb, and vegetarian. Pick one, and you’ll get three versions at once. Sample spicy Thai coconut crab tower with mango and plantain chips; crab and langostino with portobello mushrooms and butter chicken sauce over jasmine rice; and spicy crab cake with edamame puree and sriracha aioli, all on one platter.
A leafy patio at the front and art-filled space inside Cafe Brio (944 Front Street; telephone: 250-383-0009) make it a locals’ favourite for wild salmon, island-raised meat and fresh, seasonal vegetables from local farmers. Order the “contorni” ($18) for four different preparations of a local vegetable; venison loin ($29), fresh halibut ($29), or the Parry Bay Farm lamb ($29). All of these entrees are available in smaller portions at $16.
Skinnytato, the only Polish restaurant in Victoria, is a colorful, tiny space with bright paint splashed across a rock wall and photos from Poland on the other. This is the first eatery for owners Greg and Katherina Koper, who say business in their first 18 months has been better than expected. Comfort food and cheery service are trademarks here: Try the potato pancake special ($13.95) with delectable fillings, such as spinach and feta, with choice of Polish salads; and fat cabbage rolls in homemade tomato sauce (only $7.95 for two). Vegetarian and gluten-free options available. Zywiec, Polish beer, is $7 for a 500-ml bottle.
Where to drink: The city of Victoria asked the Veneto Tapa Lounge to create a 150th anniversary cocktail to celebrate its anniversary this month. The Incorporation Cocktail mixes Tugwell Creek Solstice Mead (made at a meadery just north of Victoria), Victoria Spirits Gin (made in the city), New Theatre tonic (also produced in the city), lavender bitters and basil, for an update on an 1800s drink.
The Veneto cocktail list is as creative as its Victoria-made ingredients: Desperado ($16), Hell’s Bells ($10), Rosemary’s Baby ($12), Maria Full of Grace ($12), and Wax Poetic ($12). Bartenders are as adept with the absinthe (posed provocatively in the front window) as they are with an “Angostura flamethrower.”