written by John Macdonald
Note: At the time of writing in mid-August, Canada began welcoming back fully vaccinated leisure travelers from the United States who have proof of being fully vaccinated.
We all have our own reasons for visiting Victoria. My reason was quite narrow. I wanted to walk Fan Tan Alley in Chinatown, also known as Canada’s narrowest street. In the era of social distancing and pandemics, I realize this may not resonate with everyone, but, for me, it was a grounding starting point to explore the history of Vancouver Island and Victoria.
Vancouver Island’s largest ethnic groups are British descendants and Chinese, the former because it had been a fur trading outpost and then British colony, the latter population largely streaming in after the 1858 gold rush. Chinatown is Canada’s oldest and second in North America only to the famed San Francisco Chinatown. In 1995, it earned the distinction of a National Historic Site of Canada.
The pandemic made me long for bygone eras and a lust for something different. A post-lockdown Victoria is jubilant and filled with old things that are on my itinerary. Chief among them are Chinatown, Beacon Hill Park, Helmcken House, Craigdarroch Castle, Parliament, the oldest pubs (of course), and winding down at the Fairmont Empress, Victoria’s oldest hotel. All of these venues lead down a path of time and cultural travel, places I need to be.
You can stretch your arms out and touch shops on either side of Fan Tan Alley between Fisgard Street and Pandora Avenue in Chinatown. At your fingertips on either side are antiques, jewelry, fashion boutiques, chocolates and a bakery. This street was part of a larger network in the historic Chinese neighborhood that was home to small, wooden, ramshackle abodes and the dreams of people fleeing famine back home to start a new life in the West.
Head south toward the Royal BC Museum, where the Helmcken House is just off of Belleville Street. This simple log structure was, from 1853 to 1920, the home of Dr. John Sebastian Helmcken, one of the few who negotiated British Columbia’s entry into Canada to abandon its formal colony status.
Just steps farther south into Beacon Hill Park, Victoria’s oldest part, is a contrasting view of mid-nineteenth century living. Beacon Hill Park, a 180-acre Garry oak sanctuary, was first the home of the Lekwungen People, a camas-cultivating First Nations tribe. In 1882, the province deeded this plot to the City of Victoria to be a park.
History takes on many states of being. An important cultural state was that of liquid form of ale dispensed by cask and firkin in the pubs of Victoria. Six Mile Pub is reportedly the oldest pub in the region, followed closely by Garrick’s Head Pub downtown. Don’t settle for the advice of others—investigate them both for yourself. Six Mile Pub, a lovely Tudor circa 1855 and on former Hudson Bay land, lies about 6 miles west of downtown but well worth the distance. Back downtown in Bastion Square is Garrick’s Head Pub, of 1867 birth and a great spot to end the day with English pub fare while sipping a beer and nesting by its wood-burning fireplace.
Make your last call a meander down past British Columbia Parliament Buildings and to the Fairmont Empress, one of the stunning examples of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s build-it-and-they-will-come-by-train portfolio, which includes Banff Springs Hotel and Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City. Both magnificent structures—Parliament and The Empress—were designed by the Leeds-born English architect, Francis Rattenberry, whose life story, itself, is another scandalous chapter in history. The architect won the bid to design the Parliament Buildings by entering and winning a competition at age 25 and under a pseudonym.
Garrick’s Head Pub
Six Mile Pub
Beacon Hill Park
British Columbia Parliament