Holiday weekend in Victoria
A Maclean’s LEISURE IN CANADA feature
A Maclean’s editor and his wife—though unrepentant Vancouverites—find the capital of B. C. is just as Kipling said. It’s the Bay of Naples with the Himalayas behind it. Is it also a bit of Olde England? Gracious, no
AS WE SWUNG THROUGH beautiful Beacon Hill Park on our sightseeing tour of Victoria, the driver of the tallyho announced, “And on our right is the pitch where they play English cricket.” Not simply cricket, mind you, but English cricket.
The three of us — myself, my wife, Kay, and our traveling companion, photographer Jack Long — smiled and exchanged knowing, cynical glances, as if to say, "Isn't the bloke laying it on a bit thick, even for the American tourists? After all, cricket is cricket is cricket.”
Kay and 1 had followed the birds to Victoria, as the tourist slogan has urged people to do for the past thirty-five years, to spend a holiday weekend in British Columbia’s capital city.
And on this, almost our first outing of the weekend, we had already encountered Victoria’s conscious striving to make the tourist, especially the American of the species, feel that he is actually wandering abroad through A Little Bit of Olde England, a scheme that succeeded so well in the case of one visitor from New York that he was heard to exclaim, ‘This place is so bloody English the tea comes to your eyes.” Near
HOLIDAY WEEKEND IN VICTORIA continued
the end of our Victoria visit, a man who makes his living out of Victoria’s thriving tourist industry, suddenly, from out of the blue, confessed to me, “All this English rot, it’s baloney, you know.”
Then, with a furtive glance over his shoulder, as though he half expected to find there an agent from the Un-Victorian Activities Committee, he added, “For heaven’s sake, don’t quote me on that! If you do, they’ll hang me, instead of those flower baskets, from a lamppost on Government Street.”
The truth is, of course, that the Victorians themselves do not believe their own tourist propaganda (one merchant spoofs it outrageously by calling his business, on Government Street, Ye Okie War Surplus Shoppe) and, really, they have little need to. For their city, as we were to discover, has an inimitable charm and a great beauty that can’t fail to captivate even the most blasé tourist — and whether or not Victoria is really A Little Bit of Okie England matters not a jot or tittle.
Many years ago Rudyard Kipling drew a deep draught of Victoria’s sea air and then attempted to describe the beauty he had seen. “To realize Victoria,” he wrote, “you must take all that the eye admires most in Bournemouth, Torquay, the Isle of Wight, the Happy Valley at Hong Kong, the Doon, Sorrento, and Camps Bay; add reminiscences of the Thousand Islands, and arrange the whole around the Bay of Naples, with some Himalayas for the background.” Well, in spite of his lyricism, it seemed to us that Rudyard was ruddy near right.
When we told our friends, in Vancouver, that we were off to Victoria for the weekend, invariably their comment was a laconic, “Why?” Indeed, one of Vancouver’s favorite indoor and outdoor, all-weather sports is deriding and scorning Victoria and Victorians. The latter they picture as tweed-clad Blimps through whose veins courses strong orange pekoe. The female of the species is either a creaking dowager or a striding frump in walking shoes. The city itself they regard as one vast graveyard, its grandest mausoleum being the Parliament buildings. Tell a Vancouverite that you visited the provincial museum while in Victoria and he’s apt to say, “Why. I thought Victoria was the provincial museum.”
And so. the holidaying Vancouverite will pile into his car and drive madly to the Okanagan, to the Cariboo, or, perhaps, by ferry, to Nanaimo from where he is more likely to head up-Island to Qualicum Beach or Campbell River, home of the famous Tyee salmon, than he is to drive down-island to Victoria. Victoria, he thinks, is not his cup of tea — and how wrong he is.
Though Vancouverites may snub Victoria, it can afford, in return, to strike a haughty pose, for tourists flock there from everywhere else on the continent and, man for man, it actually attracts more visitors than does any other Canadian city. Every year Victoria’s tourist industry puts half a million customers through the works. The population continued on page 57
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Holiday weekend in Victoria
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of Greater Victoria is 122,000. This works out to almost five tourists for every resident.
When it comes to climate. Victoria not only has Vancouver but the whole country beaten, thanks largely to the warming influence of the Japanese current. Less rain actually falls on Victoria than on Toronto and sunshine tables place it on the same plateau of brightness as Winnipeg. And this is why the rich and the well-to-do gather up their cash, bonds, and securities and flee the rest of the country to spend their last years in Victoria.
The result has been twofold: Victoria has the highest per capita purchasing power of any city in Canada and, in Vancouver, at least, has gained a reputation as the only cemetery in the world with a business section.
This is not only unkind, it’s untrue. Victoria is no Sleepy Hollow, but has its own stake in the province’s two most lusty industries, lumbering and fishing. It is a shipbuilding centre as well. And. in any case, in the one hundred and sixteen years since it was founded as a Hudson's Bay Company fort. Victoria has played a part in British Columbia history that makes Vancouver, by comparison, nothing but a cheeky upstart.
Of the variety of ways to reach Victoria from Vancouver, the de rigueur way is by Princess steamer, which takes you almost the whole length of Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet, across the Strait of Georgia, through Active Pass, a winding scenic maze right out of a travel folder, and into Victoria's picturesque Inner Harbor.
I’m convinced it must surely be the world's most beautiful short sea voyage. The fare is only $8.55 return, and you may have dinner aboard, as we did. or a drink in the Princess Room, and watch the Pacific glide by.
Taking our car with us (Ye Olde Volkswagen, as Kay was later to dub it in keeping with the Victorian spirit) we sailed one fine Friday morning aboard the Princess Patricia, a four-million-dollar ship that shares the run with her sister, Princess Marguerite. The Pat and Marguerite are like miniature luxury liners; you need only the slightest streak of Walter Mitty in your makeup to imagine yourself an ocean traveler.
We spent part of the journey, by special arrangement, on the bridge with Captain James Anderson, a thirty-fiveyear veteran of the Princess service, and his first and second officers, Thomas Parkinson and Charles De La Mare.
Later, we lolled in deck chairs, observing the sea gulls that hovered over the afterdecks, noting that despite the slogan, “Follow the birds to Victoria,’’ the birds actually follow the tourists. To watch a gull as it peels off in a graceful glide to the sea. then rises in a flurry of motion to overtake the ship, is worth the whole fare.
No city in Canada, I’m sure, puts its best foot forward quite so quickly or
works such an instant spell on the visitor as does Victoria. The Princess sails right into the foreground of a picture postcard — the Parliament buildings, dead ahead, and the Empress Hotel, off to port, both behind immaculate lawns, and the whole scene laced together by the vivid colors of the flower baskets that hang from every lamppost.
Some cynics contend that the panorama is all too obviously contrived and that its purpose is to mesmerize the tourist so that later he may be easily relieved of his poke. Whatever its motives,
it worked like a charm on Kay and me, putting us in a holiday mood.
To savor the full flavor of Victoria, we had decided to stay at the Empress and, luckily, we drew a room overlooking the Inner Harbor. The tariff was eighteen dollars a day but the room was so large we could have got our money hack subletting it to conventions.
It so happened that, at no extra charge, some of the romance of the sea went with the room. Moored at a jetty, almost directly beneath our window, were four small yachts from Vancouver and all
bound, as we read in the newspaper, for long ocean voyages. One, Galatea II, had taken its owner, Frank Keillor, a North Vancouver fireman, ten years to build and now he and his wife and their two sons were embarking on a four-year cruise around the world.
We were soon off on an expedition of our own — to the Haunted Book Shop, a place where I invariably find myself within minutes of setting foot in Victoria. As usual, Rosamond Rand, the owner, was presiding over her thousands of old volumes with a cup of coffee in
one hand and a long, black cigarette holder in the other. As is her custom, she invited us to have coffee before we browsed.
Our visit had its rewards. 1 unearthed a Jack London book. The Kempton-Wace Letters, for which I had searched for twelve years in hook shops all over Canada. I also found a Dreiser first edition, and Kay found a quaint old novel. Evelina, with drawings by Arthur Rackham. the famous English illustrator of children’s hooks, whose work she collects.
We worked on the theory that when in Victoria we should do as the tourist does, and, accordingly, we found seats on the tallyho. a sort of horse-drawn bus, at $1.25 each, for a six-mile sightseeing tour. It took us to. among other things, Craigdarroch Castle, built as a family residence in the 1880s by Robert Dunsmuir, the coal baron who was British Columbia’s first great capitalist. His son became premier of the province.
Naturally, a story went with it. as it must with every castle. To induce his bride to leave Scotland, Dunsmuir had promised that one day he’d be rich and he’d build her a castle — and so he became rich and built her a castle. Having heard this romantic tale, someone inquired, “How did he heat it?” and the tallyho driver, having already explained the source of the Dunsmuir fortune, replied. dryly, “With coal.” The truth is Dunsmuir was cold in his grave before the castle was finished. But his widow did live there and she did burn coal.
“Em anti sea food”
It was already evening by the time we climbed down from the tallyho and we were famished. For sentimental reasons. we had decided to have our first meal at the Princess Mary, a restaurant fashioned from a section of the superstructure of an old coast steamer. Kay and I knew the Mary well when she was on the run between Vancouver and the Gulf Islands and so it was like searching out an old friend. Once, returning almost broke from a Gulf Islands holiday. we'd bought a loaf of bread and a tin of sardines to sustain us while going home on the Mary, and it still stands out as one of our most memorable meals.
The Mary, aground only a cable length or two from the water, still has her ties with the sea: she is owned by the Island Tug & Barge Co., who arc also owners of the famous deep-sea tug Sudbury. (The activities of the company are diversified. indeed — from the towing of old Liberty ships to Japan to be scrapped, to serving tourists with crab salads, baked salmon, or Virginia ham. While the stern of the restaurant is certainly a genuine part of the old Mary, the bow, we learned, is a ringer — it’s from the Surinam, a scrapped Venezuelan tanker.
Kay took on what appeared to be a whole shipload of deep-fried prawns while I. as a fully accredited anti-sea-food man. chose the only meat course on the menu — Virginia ham. As an epicure. 1 am hopelessly biased, considering roast beef and Yorkshire pudding the only fare fit for human consumption.
By the time we returned to our hotel from the Princess Mary, the lights that outline the Parliament buildings had come on and it presented so enchanting a sight we couldn’t resist a sort of nightcap stroll through the grounds. Amateur photographers apparently find it irresistible either by night or day. In the afternoon we had actually counted fortynine of them (one for each state?) cock-
ing their cameras there almost simultaneously and now, though it was nearly midnight, there must have been a dozen.
“Maybe,” Kay remarked, “we should wait and see the graveyard shift come on.”
For the next day, Saturday, we had set ourselves what proved to be a killing pace. “See Victoria and die!" must have been our unconscious desire.
After breakfast, we wandered through Thunderbird Park, no more than an arrow’s shot from the Empress, admiring the fine collection of Indian totem poles that has been preserved by the provincial government. Had we chanced to come on a weekday, most likely we would have seen Mungo Martin, the outstanding contemporary carver, fashioning a replica of sonic distinctive old totem pole or creating an original work of his own.
We had another bookshop to haunt, the Adelphi, in search of additions to our London and Rackham collections. The Adelphi, owned by a former Toronto librarian, R. D. Hilton Smith, specializes in old and rare children’s books, and we emerged with Kay clutching a prize, Hawthorne’s Wonder Book, illustrated by Rackham.
The Adelphi and Haunted book shops are both on Fort Street, a thoroughfare that seems to be the special preserve of Victoria’s many antique shops. We explored one of them, the establishment of the Alberto de Rodil, a Spanish nobleman who has lived in Victoria since his country’s civil war.
“I’ve given up going abroad for antiques,” the Marquis told us, “because I can do as well, if not better, right here on Vancouver Island.” And. by way of verifying this claim, he invited us to examine an intriguing sixteenth - century desk — properly called a vargueño — which he had discovered at Qualicum, on Vancouver Island, and which now may be purchased for $4,250, plus, of course, the usual five-percent provincial sales tax.
Before lunch we squeezed in a brief visit with Fenwick Lansdowne, Victoria’s remarkable young painter of birds. Two years earlier I had written his story for Maclean’s and ever since Kay had been anxious to meet him and see his paintings.
We found Fen and his parents in the garden, picking cherries. At our insistence. lie brought out the only two paintings he had on hand, both unfinished — one of a flycatcher with an eye so alive it seemed to stare me down, the other an exquisite water color of a spray of violets. Fen is a prolific worker; he told us he is painting from sixty-five to seventy-five pictures a year.
We soon hurried off to lunch (at the Net Loft, another interesting waterfront restaurant, housed in what was once actually the net loft of B.C. Packers, the largest fishing company on the coast) for afterward we had shopping to do: our three-year-old son. Paul, had demanded we return with a doll’s buggy and a rifle. As usual, we split the difference, settling for a buggy, at $3.45.
It was then time for us to take part in that Victorian ritual — afternoon tea in the lobby of the Empress, sipped to the refined strains of the Concert Trio. We had hoped, of course, to observe the hotel's famous dowagers, but all w;e saw were scores of tourists like ourselves, devouring their tea and crumpets and scanning the place, as w'e did, for the sight of at least one of those dear old ladies. I suppose w'e had frightened them off.
It was one of the hottest weekends of the summer but, fortunately, the ideal
place to cool off is right behind the Empress — the Crystal Gardens, the world's largest glass-covered swimming pool. While Kay, who can’t swim a lick, looked on, I swam a couple of widths of the pool and emerged to announce. "We're off to the Butchart Gardens!"
With good reason Victoria calls itsel! the Garden City and its most wonderful garden is the one Mr. and Mrs. Robert Butchart started more than fifty years ago in an ugly, worked-out limestone quarry on their estate. Since then the gardens, thirteen miles from the city centre, have
spread out over twenty-five acres. In a province noted for its natural beauty, the Butchart Gardens stand out as one of man's most worthwhile creations; they’re the pièce de résistance of any visit to Victoria.
In the beginning and for many years, Mrs. Butchart threw her gardens open to everyone, without charge, and even provided all the facilities for visitors to make themselves a pot of tea. Now there is an entrance fee of $1.10. but this doesn't stop the tourists from pouring in at the rate of 150.000 to 175.000 a year.
The gardens are now managed by the Butcharts’ grandson, Ian Ross, who has a staff of twenty gardeners. We were so impressed by their beauty, and especially by the imagination that had gone into creating them, we sought Ross out to tell him so. He insisted we come back after dark when the gardens would be illuminated and this we willingly promised to do.
We raced back to Victoria for a quick dinner, because 1 had read in the papers that a rare phenomenon was to be seen in the heavens that night. We hurried out
of town again to the nearby Dominion Astrophysical Observatory.
A great many others had also read the papers. We found ourselves in a long line of people waiting to peer through the huge seventy-three-inch reflecting telescope that pokes through the dome of the observatory. Eventually, it was Kay’s turn to look. She climbed the platform, fixed her eye to the telescope, and, after a second or two, gave her report: “All I can see is something that looks like the star on the top of a Christmas tree.” I shushed her but later had to admit that her description was rather apt.
We kept our promise to Ross, returning to Butchart Gardens and finding them as wonderful at night as they are by day. It was precisely midnight when we collapsed into our bed, the two most tired tourists Victoria has known since the coming of the white man.
Sunday morning we had set aside for some leisurely exploration. On all my previous visits to Victoria I'd never really left the city centre. I was determined to find out for myself if their city is really as lovely as all Victorians swear it is.
After a stroll through Beacon Hill Park and a scenic drive that, for many miles, gave us a magnificent view of the sea on one side and meticulously tended gardens on the other, our verdict was that the Victorian view of Victoria is thoroughly objective.
In the park, incidentally, as we crossed a small stone footbridge, my eye caught an obscure plaque that said the bridge had been erected to the memory of the artist Emily Carr by her sister Alice.
Somewhere in our travels we had picked up a folder advertising the Olde England Inn where, it assured us, “a warm and cheery welcome awaits you by your host and hostess, Squadron Leader Lane (ex-RAF) and Mrs. Lane, late of Yorkshire, England.” Furthermore, we were invited to “see an authentic replica of William Shakespeare’s birthplace and his wife Anne’s thatched cottage.”
“It’s too good to be true,” I said to Kay, "but let’s try it for lunch. They can't help but have good roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.”
The roast beef, brought to us by a waitress costumed as an Elizabethan serving girl, turned out to be excellent and, what is more, for dessert there was trille, a fine old English dish I hadn’t tasted since I was a boy.
And the Lanes, Sam and Rosina, were as advertised: a cheery couple. The inn itself is an old mansion they bought thirteen years ago, shortly after landing
in Victoria with seven tons of antiques (including Charlotte Bronte’s dining table) and a determination to go into the tourist business. As the inn prospered, they built another huge house, a replica of the one in which Shakespeare was born, as a home for themselves and their three children.
The day we arrived they were busily preparing for the grand opening of the replica of Anne Hathaway’s cottage. Our cynicism soon vanished as we were shown through it and as Rosina Lane recounted the story of her three-year struggle to duplicate, at a cost of $75,000, the original cottage and its furnishings, exact in every detail right down to the plates over the hearth.
The story of the cottage’s thatched roof—it begins with a maddening search for a farmer who would grow thirteen acres of the right kind of wheat and nears its climax as Mrs. Lane finds a thatcher in a Dorset village and flies him out to do the job — is a minor epic of blood, sweat, and money.
As it happened, our next and last stop in Victoria was to be another house once occupied by a famous woman: Emily Carr. Not a replica this time.
On Government Street is the home where Emily was born and behind it, on Simcoe Street, is another in which her sister Alice conducted a school and where Emily spent the last two years of her life. It was to this rather ramshackle yet charming old house that we went. Boldly, we banged on the door and, to our surprise, it was opened by Howard O’Hagan, the writer, who, we found, lives there with his wife, Margaret Peterson, a well-known West Coast painter. We were invited in for a chat.
By then we were rushed for time. The one and only steamer back to Vancouver had left in the early afternoon and so we had before us a seventy-five-mile drive to Nanaimo to catch the Princess Elaine, sailing for Vancouver at 9 p.m. However, Jack Long, the photographer, insisted that we couldn’t leave without first trying the Swiss Restaurant. We were glad we did for the atmosphere (the restaurant is housed in one of the fine old Dunsmuir mansions) and the food (thick steaks cooked on a charcoal grill right in the dining room) were both excellent.
A few hours later, as the Princess Elaine passed under Lions Gate Bridge and entered Vancouver harbor, Kay and I went out on deck for a view of our city at night. From the sea, at night, Vancouver presents a spectacular sight— and, we thought, a really fitting finale to a tourist’s weekend in Victoria, iç