Once an old-fashioned kind of cruising destination, British Columbia’s capital city has revealed a hipper side and is now one of the coolest getaways in the Pacific Northwest.
Not long ago, Victoria was the type of place you’d think about cruising to with your grandparents rather than hit up for a guys’ weekend or a fun getaway with your wife. This picturesque port with spectacular scenery on the southern tip of Vancouver Island was a sleepier place. Many of the residents were retirees and a highlight of the cultural scene was high tea in the historic district. But the atmosphere has changed, and the pace is more charged now that Victoria is home to an influx of creative, entrepreneurial types, some of whom were driven across the Strait of Georgia by skyrocketing real estate prices in Vancouver. Others have come to join the thriving technology sector, one of the largest revenue-generating private industries in the city and the reason why some people now call the place “Tectoria.”
The sea change in population is good news for boaters, as it’s spurred exciting developments along the waterfront. On land, brick warehouses built in the mid-1800s are home to indie boutiques, organic restaurants, WiFi-ready cafes and craft breweries. And in the harbor, new facilities and services make Victoria friendly turf for cruising yachtsmen. “My wife and I lived here twenty years ago when Victoria was often referred to as ‘the place for the newlywed and the nearly dead.’ It was a working harbor at the time, and pleasure boats were an afterthought,” says Rob Langford, who keeps his Nordhavn 40 at his home in Vancouver. “But the infrastructure has changed. Now there are dedicated slips and staff for recreational boats. You’ll find good-quality docks and modern services, including a reservation system. At one time, there was never a guarantee you’d have moorage when you arrived.”
The harbor authority is making efforts to accommodate very large boats, too, many of which now stop in Victoria to clear customs before moving on to explore places like the Gulf Islands to the east or the wild, raw and beautiful coast of Vancouver Island. “You would have never seen a superyacht here ten years ago,” says Langford. “That’s no longer the case.”
Boaters have navigated their way to Victoria for decades, and the port has long been lauded as one of the world’s top small urban destinations, with waterways traveled by cruise ships, ferries and floatplanes.
But these days there are even more good reasons to idle into the inner harbor, tie up in front of the landmark Fairmont Empress hotel and explore the compact, walkable downtown. It’s wise to take advantage of the bustling pubs and restaurants (foodies say some of the best grub in British Columbia is here), the museums, Instagram-worthy public gardens, green parks and bike paths hemming rugged beaches. That’s because once you slip the lines and head up the coast to the area’s famously remote anchorages, there won’t be many stops this smart and civilized.
Among the places that lure visitors today is LoJo, a district made up of stylish specialty shops. The area is interesting because modern retailers face streets that miners and outfitters used to prowl in search of saloons. This was back in the mid-19th century, as Victoria was morphing from a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post to a busy port town following the discovery of gold in British Columbia. In Victoria, it seems, some of the best new places channel elements of that past. Even the Fairmont Empress, the grand dame of the inner harbor, carefully combines traditional with trendy. As part of a $60 million renovation, an old flag deck was transformed into a terrace with a five-star harbor view, and a rooftop garden was designed for herbs served at the hotel’s restaurant. Yet there’s still plenty of old Victoria to savor. The corridors on the sixth floor, for instance are still as crooked and atmospheric as ever.
“There’s a lot to do in Victoria,” says Langford, who will typically plan to stay for at least two or three nights. One year, he took his wife and two boys over on the Nordhavn for Christmas. “We’d never been away from home for the holiday, and the kids were reluctant, but we ended up having a great time because there were so many things to see, including the Parliament building right there in the harbor. It was all decked out in lights for the holiday, and we could enjoy it from the deck of our boat.” Later, the boys told their parents they wanted to go back to Victoria. They thought it was pretty cool.