THE cruise ship sailed into a beautiful harbour on an early Oct morning.
The calm sea was blue and shimmering in the rising sun.
And soon, a small quaint city appeared on a good day with temperatures hovering around 14ºC.
More than 2,000 passengers went on shore to enjoy the serenity of the sun-kissed city, situated at the tip of an island.
Victoria is the most English city in North America, according to a tourism pamphlet. I was to find out more.
Victoria is the capital of British Columbia, Canada. But why British Columbia and not Canadian Columbia? The name is stuck even though Canada became independent in 1867.
To start our tour of the city, my friends and I first had to connect with Malaysia, so we went straight to an English breakfast place to enjoy the free wi fi.
It was clean and full of polite wait-staff with customers cashing in on the free wireless connectivity provided.
Newspapers were on the tables for customers to read. The rest rooms were delightful and refreshingly fragrant at the back — with brilliant skylight from the roof.
Every nook and cranny was decorated in ecologically-friendly manner, using recycled materials.
We felt comfortable as no one was staring at us even though we looked very ‘foreign’. The locals were so used to tourists.
Hanging on the wall were pictures of nature, featuring, most interestingly, those of wild animals like wild boar, pigs, birds and bears.
After stretching our legs (we had at sea for nearly 20 hours), we were ready to explore the city on foot.
It was interesting to see the British colonial past in the city’s Victorian architecture — the Parliament Buildings, the Craigdarroch Castle Mansion, the Butchart Gardens and the Fairmont Empress Hotel.
Some of the quaint English pubs are so British that it’s easy to visualise one being actually in England!
The Parliament Buildings, dating back to 1896, were hard to miss. They are ‘neo-baroque’ in structure. Blue domes could be seen from afar as we strolled along to the Inner Harbour.
The Beacon Hill Park is a nice place to take photos. Cedar trees, often mentioned in the Bible, are found in this ancient park. The world’s tallest totem pole is also found here.
This lush, 62-acre oasis is the crown jewel of the Victoria Park system. A haven for wildlife, birds, and outdoor enthusiasts, the grounds are a combination of landscaped and natural beauty.
We walked to the beautiful Inner Harbour under the early morning sun. It’s a great place to be on a Sunday — with lots of fishing boats and colourful floating homes which got me thinking how nice if the Bakun floating hotels could be like them.
Many of the cruise passengers went whale-watching some distance from the harbour.
We gave the Royal British Columbia Museum a miss since we weren’t sure whether or not it was opened. We walked along more roads, soaking up the splendid architecture of the buildings as we sauntered on, and found the whimsical names of the cafes somewhat intriguing. We also met friendly people who made us feel at home with their warm greetings.
Drivers stopped in the most polite manner to let us to cross roads — via zebra crossings, no less!
One road was closed for the shooting (on location) of a movie, presumably a documentary. We could see from a distance artificial snowflakes wafting down from the second floor of a building.
We watched for a few good minutes before being shooed away. How I wished the cameramen had shot some scenes, showing Malaysians in the background of the movie. Incidentally, Canada is one of the most filmed countries in the world.
Although the city’s Chinatown is rather small compared with other Chinatowns in the world. It’s attractive and the second oldest in North America after San Francisco’s.
It was started in the mid-19th century when a large number of miners from California arrived in 1858. A third of these early migrants were Chinese. Soon direct migration from China followed as news spread about the discovery of gold in Fraser Canyon.
Famines and political upheavals in China also forced many Chinese, especially those from Guangzhou, to take the first boats to Vancouver.
Later, the Canadian Pacific Railway project attracted even more Chinese migrants.
When first established, this Chinese area was crowded and had a lowly reputation. Brothels, opium and gambling dens thrived in a gold mining community most of whose members were without families.
But slowly, as more of the miners sent back money to bring their families over, the enclave began to shape up. Soon the Chinese took up six city blocks along Herald Street, Fisgard Street and Cormorant Street. Pandora Street is also full of Chinese-owned shops.
Today, the Chinatown of Victoria is a thriving business area with cultural and entertainment venues. Schools, churches, temples and even a hospital have been built by the Chinese population.
The Chinatown is located on major tourist bus routes and fairly near the Empress Hotel and Market Square.
The alleyways, courtyards, restaurants and theatres and some gambling dens continue to attract tourists, domestic visitors and residents.
Many locals do their shopping in the area where prices are very affordable. Asian souvenir shops and restaurants are very popular here. There are so many shops to see and so many exotic foods to savour as well.
In the 1960s, the Gate of Harmonious Interest was built by all interested parties to help revitalise Chinatown. The future looks very promising with more and more high-rises coming up to change the skyline and lifestyle of Victoria.
Fan Tan Alley is part of the Chinatown in the capital. It is the narrowest street in Canada and a side door to the country’s oldest Chinatown.
The Alley, perhaps like Change Alley of Singapore, comprises more than a dozen locally owned shops, offer exciting shopping experiences.
There are organic treats and different kinds of teas. Some of the vintage shops give fantastic offers such as lovely jewelry items, among others. If only we weren’t on a cruise!
There is also a Tam Kung Buddhist Temple in British Columbia. It’s the oldest Buddhist Temple in Canada. Visitors are welcome most days and they can make donations for good health and upkeep of the shrine there.
The Bay Centre
The all-grain biscuit at the English café served us well into the afternoon. And our stomachs did not grumble as we walked along more roads in the cool weather. We were heading back to the ship for high tea.
We spent an hour or two looking at all the beautiful items at the Bay Centre, operated by the Hudson Bay Company which, perhaps, is one of the few in the world to claim fame to having established or founded a city.
When the Company came to Vancouver Island, it decided to set up a fort named Fort Victoria which went on to become the city it is today.
It started with only 50 residents. At about that time, gold was discovered on Fraser River — and nothing would be the same again.
One July morning, some 2,800 people arrived from San Francisco in the wake of the gold rush, sparking the Company’s retail business.
Warehouses were built and before long, everything fell into place. The Bay Centre, completed in 2003 on the Company’s 333rd anniversary, is a magnificent building.
Its 1921 store, a little further away from the city centre, is listed as a heritage building.
In a way, Victoria reminds one of Sibu. It was founded on the southern tip of Vancouver island, off Canada’s Pacific coast.
The city is not big with a population of less than 90,000 while the metropolitan area of Great Victoria has a population of about 400,000.
It’s only 60 miles from Vancouver and Seattle and named after Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom. It’s a major tourism destination with over 3.5 million overnight visitors per year, injecting more than a billion dollars to the local economy.
An additional 500,000 day-time visitors arrive via cruise ships which dock at Ogden Point, near the Inner Harbour.
Our final shopping was done at Cowichan Trading Company store, only a few minutes from the Inner Harbour.
It is a store that sells moccasins, slippers, First Nations Art, hand-crafted jewelry and Canadian designed native souvenirs. It is also a store that kindred spirits would like to potter around for hours.
The peoples of region’s Coast Salish First Nations established communities in the area long before non-native settlements, possibly several thousand years earlier, which had large populations at the time of European exploration.
Many shops like Cowichan carry very significant amount of souvenirs, made by the First Nations community.
All too soon, we had to board the waiting bus near the Bay Centre. Alas, our short but memorable tour of Victoria city had come to an end.
It was a serene day, just the kind I would like to have in Canada, enjoying the smells, sights and the spiritually uplifting sounds of the sea, the calls of seagulls and songs of other birds in the woods.