Welcome to the edge of the world, welcome to Vancouver Island, welcome to Victoria.
The capital of British Columbia, Canada, is a scenic harbor and city in ‘Old English’ style. Here is where I found the popular British sausage and mash and fish and chips in a North American city. But I found a warm and welcoming LGBT community as well, represented by the Victoria Pride Society.
Joe Winkler, one of its representatives, is proud of his city: ‘Here we don’t need to be political and we don’t give any message. Every year we work for six months, preparing a 10-day event, Victoria Pride.
‘It is a huge celebration of pride, we are not here to fight against something or someone, we are so lucky to be able to live in a very tolerant country where we can walk hand-in-hand and we are so sorry when we see that our cousins, the Americans, are still fighting the battles we fought ten years ago.’
Victoria’s Pride is the second-biggest LGBT celebration in British Columbia. This year, at least 15,000 people paraded in the city center, ending the big day with parties and a lively festival, with 160 vendors in the streets.
It was also the occasion for the ‘Drag Ballgame’, a half-drag, half-man softball match attended by more than 10,000 people.
This is Victoria: a place where proud LGBT people live their lives naturally, surrounded by nature, of course. The blue sea is everywhere, and the islands between Vancouver Island, the big one, and the mainland are stunning. Here I had one of the best experiences in my life: a whale-watching session with Eagle Wing Tours (stay tuned as we’ll be sharing a separate story on the fun we had whale watching).
Unfortunately, gay life is not as buzzing as it was some years ago, apart from the interesting Paparazzi, a gay nightclub where eclectic Attila – one of the owners – and drag queens like Gouda Gabor and Charis Matic welcome the friendly local community and the numerous tourists visiting this remote but wonderful island.
Victoria Pride Society’s president David Tillson manages another gay-friendly nightclub Hush. He’s been an important contributor to the Victoria gay community for over 20 years.
David has been on the Pride board for the last eight years and is most certainly responsible for a large portion of the success that the society has found during that time.
His is an easier job in one of the most tolerant cities in Canada. Famous travel magazine Condé Nast Traveler calls Vancouver Island the ‘best island in North America,’ and after my experience I can say Victoria is one of the best and most liveable cities in this part of the world.
Thanks to its weather, as well. A mild year-round climate makes you want to come here in winter and spring as well, where other areas of this continent struggle with ice and strong winds.
A temperate climate is not the last of the perks, of course. Victoria’s culture and heritage are represented in everything from the oldest Chinatown in Canada – have a look at it – to the remarkable First Nations (Natives) offering.
An afternoon tea at the The Fairmont Empress hotel, close to the harbor, reminds you of old English Victorian (of course) habits. But the Fairmont (the most iconic building in this city) is also home to the cocktail temple, the Bengal Lounge, where I first met Joe Winkler, my special gay guide in Victoria.
So special he drives me to the hotel every night, the exquisite Oak Bay Beach Hotel, with its stunning views over the sea, its nice and warm SPA, a café, a restaurant and a pub. The Oak Bay Beach Hotel is so remarkable it merits its own story, soon to come.
Regarding the foodie fun, I suggest a family-friendly, open-air eatery Red Fish Blue Fish, delightful for those who desire a fish-and-chip experience, albeit with a twist. Try the tempura-battered salmon or BBQ Qualicum Bay Scallop Burger while you dine outside, watching the evening hustle and bustle on the scenic Inner Harbour.
Other must-try restaurants are the Aura Waterfront Restaurant and Patio (local and organic ingredients), the Tuscan-inspired Il Terrazzo Ristorante and, if you are craving duck, lamb or beef, get a table at Wild Saffron Bistro.
In order to consume all these calories, I rented a bike at The Pedaler. You can contact them to arrange a personalized tour to the city center and the surrounding beauties, like the Craigdarroch Castle or some hipster and indie borough in the surroundings. Try also the Craft Beer Tasting Tour. You drive and you drink, you drink and you drive. But be careful and mind the traffic!
For our readers wanting to go to Victoria this winter, some suggestions: you can stroll through a lush, green forest at the Festival of Trees at the Fairmont Empress Hotel, or you can enjoy the Christmas at the Craigdarroch Castle, in the real spirit of a traditional Victorian Christmas.
Be sure to pencil in your calendar the Victoria Tea Festival or the Victoria Film Festival. And, if you are looking for something exotic, the Dragon Parade in Chinatown, for the local Chinese New Year is also not to be missed.
Spring and summer are, of course, the best seasons to come here. Check the Victoria Performing Arts Festival, or the Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival in spring. And be ready for the stunning Swiftsure International Yacht Race, with hundreds of boats in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
More over, for a British twist, you can celebrate the birthdays of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II with the Victoria Day Parade, which has been gracing the city’s streets since 1898.
In summer, I suggest the Victoria International Buskers Festival, the Victoria Fringe Festival and, of course, the Victoria Pride Week.
The triumph of the creative, the tolerant and the welcoming atmosphere remind me of the biggest value on Earth: democracy. That’s why I end my visit in Victoria having a look at The Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, the other iconic building close to the harbor.
With a sense of rich tradition and timeless architectural splendour, the buildings offer a restful counterpoint to the liveliness of the harbor, where floatplanes descend and taxi to their moorings.
Here, I can see a nice painting representing the Queen ‘Lizzie’. And I find this lovely stained glass. It will always be on my computer desktop.