Tucked into the southern end of Vancouver Island in a protected harbor, Victoria, Canada, is a small city of fairy tale proportions. Setting the scene with ships bobbing in the bay, street performers strumming a tune, and grand, ivy-covered buildings watching over the waterfront, every angle feels as though it has been imagined by a master illustrator.
If this description seems a tad too ideal; think again, it’s real. Canada’s mildest city has a way of working itself into the plot of travelers’ storybooks. The second I mention Victoria to those who’ve visited, their heads tilt to the side, their lips lock into a smile, and they breathe a little more deeply.
Coupled with its easy-to-reach milieu between Vancouver, British Columbia, and Seattle, visitors flock to B.C.’s capital city on cruise ships, ferry boats, sailboats, seaplanes, and helicopters—all of which congregate in the horseshoe-shaped Inner Harbor.
This street-meets-sea location is where most 48-hour Victoria storybooks start and end. It’s also the perfect perch to catch a front-row seat to the famous Water Ballet, a tradition spanning a quarter century performed by a quintet of Victoria Harbour Ferry skippers who maneuver their boats like ballerinas every weekend (Saturdays at 10:45 a.m., July-August; Sundays at 10:45 a.m., May-September).
My skipper, a retired Coast Guard reveling in his slower-paced career, is not the kind of guy one might expect to plié and pirouette, but performing in the 10-minute show is one of his greatest joys. “We practice every Wednesday and Sunday,” he tells me as we discuss the dance and boat company’s ballet moves, which are, surprisingly, as tight as The Rockettes’.
Jokingly, my captain blames ice cream for his non-traditional ballet bod as he drops my family off at Miner’s Landing where we spot an ice cream truck parked on the wharf. While we usually scream for ice cream, the presence of sea-salted air has us hankering for something from the ocean.
We find it at Red Fish Blue Fish, a dockside shipping container serving sustainable seafood; think: B.C.-caught halibut fish and chips, wild salmon tacones, and local fried oysters. During summer the lunch and dinner line-up can grow longer than a fishing line, so get there early or at off-peak meal times. For a quicker catch, walk up to the chef’s newest venture, Fishhook, where a more intricate menu of tartines and salads means your fish fry just got elevated.
Just a few blocks inland, we walk to Canada’s oldest Chinatown, where red and yellow lanterns dance in the wind and vintage neon signs signal Szechuan and dim sum. Once the main entry point for Chinese miners and railway workers, the area is at once steeped in tradition and today, juxtaposing tea emporiums and herbalists with organic juice shops and bamboo markets.
Viewfinder Tip: The most spectacular way to reach Victoria is by air aboard Helijet, a 35-min jaunt from Vancouver.
For the ultimate conclusion to your Victoria storybook, head back toward the sea for Afternoon Tea at The Fairmont Empress. Nicknamed “Castle on the Coast” for its prime piece of real estate fronting the Inner Harbor, the iconic hotel has been welcoming guests and serving tea on its own Royal-appointed china since 1908.
Over cucumber finger sandwiches—crust off, of course!—raisin scones perfected over the past century, and treats such as rose crisps served on a traditional tiered tray, I linger, and linger some more while sipping my steaming orange-pineapple infusion.
In this moment, it becomes abundantly clear why Victoria admirers can’t help but tilt their heads and smile when they recall the petite city with grandiose charms—it takes travel into fairy tale territory.
What cities have you visited that invoke a fairy tale frame of mind?