An old man with cruelly hunched shoulders, ruddy cheeks and triangular, tufted eyebrows sat just inside the door of the restaurant, his long nose curving into a teacup. As I waited to be seated, I noticed he was carrying on a passionate conversation with the teacup. He wore a dark wool jacket and spotless white shirt buttoned to the neck. As the waitress led me past, the gentleman began waving his hands wildly.
The waitress continued unfazed, as if his display were all part of the tearoom's daily brew. She seated me by the lace-curtained windows and brought me a pot of Earl Grey swathed in a hand-knit cozy. "That's not right!" the old man suddenly bellowed, and I jumped, sloshing tea on the table. When I remembered I was no longer in the States, and that he was therefore probably unarmed, I relaxed a bit.
On the wall hung a large original oil portrait of Prince Charles and Princess Di in their wedding attire. Also featured were Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill and Edward VIII, his hand resting on Wallis Simpson's shoulder.
After my tea, I strolled past Parliament, adorned by a gigantic bronze statue of Queen Victoria, and headed along the waterfront, where the sun glinted off the bay, gulls screeched, a kilted bagpiper whinnied and the docks teemed with boats flying colorful flags. Along the crescent-shaped promenade flowed a parade of sightseers in the evening air.
In the evening I stopped at a restaurant on the water, and as the sun set over the harbor, its rays highlighted the leaf of a maple tree next to my table. I stared at the distinctive iconographic shape . . . one I'd seen someplace before . . . one that seemed awfully familiar--and, with a jolt, remembered I was in Canada.
Trouble is, I kept thinking I was in England.
I admit to being an Anglophile, one particularly obsessed with things Victorian. And my first reaction was that the city of Victoria--the largest town on Vancouver Island, just off the coast of the city of Vancouver, B.C., Canada--appeared to have been transplanted straight from 19th-century England. I thought that was wonderful. So when I informed a ferry captain that Victoria put me in mind of a British city, I felt I was paying his home my highest compliment.
He smiled pleasantly and informed me that he considered this comment highly offensive.
"After all," he continued, "Victoria was settled 75 percent by Americans." He referred to the thousands of miners who swarmed the shores in 1858 after gold was discovered outside Vancouver. When I explained that I'm American and that I saw nothing American about his city--but it did seem very British--he looked at me as if my brain were addled.
"The main people who complain about the reference to Victoria as a British city are the British!" he insisted.
We toured around James Bay aboard a tiny ferry that looked like something from a cartoon. The captain pointed out a bar called the Canoe Club, where the patrons paddled in, and posh condos built on the former land of First Nation tribes (Canadian for Native Americans). Along with the sites, he delivered local history.
Victoria, the capital of British Columbia, sits at the south end of Vancouver Island, which was claimed for England by Captain Cook in 1798. When Vancouver Island became a British colony in 1843, Queen Victoria was on the British throne. What the ferry captain didn't say was that after 1843 she would remain on the throne for half a century, proving a tremendous influence on her fledgling colony.
Today's city was originally Fort Victoria, built when the Hudson Bay Co. launched a fur-trading enterprise. Most of the original European settlers were Scots; they traded guns and liquor to the natives in exchange for the much-sought-after beaver pelts used to make top hats for Victorian society. The infant city was populated almost solely by men. The few families that arrived sent their children home to England to be educated.
The Hudson Bay Co. had orders to populate the colony to keep those upstart Yanks from overtaking it, so "bride ships" were sent from England carrying dozens of single women. When the first one arrived in the harbor, word spread quickly throughout the town and the waterfront was soon crowded with eager grooms. The local authorities led the women through the ensuing riot and locked them away for their own safety. The majority of them were soon married, but as one wag wrote, "A certain proportion went quickly to bad, and from appearances, had been there before."
Victoria's waterfront beckons as the heart of the city, and I was drawn there day after day. At the far left of the crescent are the stone Parliament buildings of the provincial government. In 1897, they boasted a new feature to honor Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee: At dusk, the switch was thrown to illuminate 3,330 bulbs rimming the massive domed structure, a particularly awe-inspiring display at a time when electricity was a novelty. Today this ritual happens each evening, providing a spectacular finish to the day as the lights reflect off James Bay.
The British Columbia flag flies next to Parliament; the design shows a Union Jack above the wavy blue lines of the Pacific and the setting sun. When I toured the pristine restored building, the guide pointed out an arched entrance used solely by Queen Elizabeth's hand-picked representative, who even today must sign all laws enacted in the Canadian province. I was getting more confused about Canada's political and cultural independence from the United Kingdom by the minute. I had always assumed that Canada, like the United States, was a former colony of the crown, and like us, those issues were now simply matters for the history books, not part of everyday life.
When I asked the guide if Victoria's residents thought their city still had an awful lot in common with the Old Country, she looked at me coldly.
"Of course not. Do I wear Victorian dress? Do I take tea at 2:30 each day? It might be nice, mind you, but it simply doesn't happen."
After briefly poking my head into a legislative session--something about the budget, I think--I requested my camera back from the security guard. He looked friendly.
"Listen, I have to ask you something," I said. "I'm not meaning this in a derogatory way, but simply as a foreigner who is trying to understand your culture. Everywhere I go, I see symbols of England, yet when I ask people about it, they get defensive. I mean, Queen Elizabeth's face is on your money, it's on your postage stamps, the Union Jack's on your flag, everybody in town is serving tea--what gives?"
He began to laugh and explained that there are still plenty of British living on Vancouver Island, and if some people thought it would attract business they'd fly the Union Jack from every corner. But even though Canada is still technically part of the Commonwealth, there are plenty of citizens against the idea. "They say, 'Why should we be giving money to the royal family? Throw the rascals out!' "
Across the street from Parliament is the Royal British Columbia Museum, which renders the area's heritage with vivid movie-set-like displays. Farther north along Government Street is an entire block dominated by an ivy-covered castle known as the Empress Hotel. The Empress opened its doors in 1908 and has remained a fixture since. Here vintage punkah fans have cooled patrons since the days when the fans were operated by boys pulling ropes. I had cocktails beneath the tiger-skin rug mounted over the hearth, and kept expecting a butler to bang a gong announcing that dinner was served.
Nineteenth-century Victorians are currently out of favor, their imperial, high-handed, beaver-hatted tactics considered politically incorrect. But they've left behind some splendid stuff. One such example is Craigdarroch Castle, in Victoria's Rockland neighborhood. Touring its 39 rooms left me slack-jawed.
Robert Dunsmuir began building the estate in 1887 as a conspicuous tribute to his success. He had arrived on Vancouver Island as an indentured servant who worked in the coal mines, and he made his fortune in those same coal mines. The first floor displays several train-car loads of oak paneling, custom made for Dunsmuir in Chicago and shipped to Victoria. I climbed 87 steps, past thistle-patterned stained-glass windows, ornately painted ceilings and massive stone fireplaces to the tower at the top where Joan Dunsmuir took tea each evening. Her husband did not join her, as he had died a few months before the castle was completed and never spent a night in the house.
Two other members of the Victorian generation designed to leave a magnificent statement as well. Like the You-Know-Who, the residents of Victoria in general have an international reputation as master gardeners, but one example stands hedgerow and flower bed above the rest. Mr. and Mrs. Robert Butchart turned their 50-acre property into a breathtaking display of flora called Butchart Gardens, my favorite section being a former limestone quarry that has become the Sunken Garden.
Viewed from above on a sunny day, I looked down upon a football-field-size display of waterfalls, lily-padded ponds, flowering crab apple trees, Japanese maples, willows, rhododendrons, roses, daffodils, pansies and tulips. I was speechless, but as visitors rounded the bend and came into view of the scene below, I heard them exclaim in a dozen different languages.
Even though this small harbor city offers numerous stunning combinations of man-made artistry against a backdrop of natural splendor, its defining characteristics took me a few days to discover--because they became apparent only by their absence. Eventually I realized that Victoria was missing things I took for granted in the United States: trash, graffiti, cursing, screaming, honking, sirens, being cut off while driving, being flipped off while driving, decrepit buildings, having my molars rattled by car stereos. There was a civility about the place as refreshing as the sea air; the city exuded a sense of community and civic pride that most of America has traded in favor of self-fulfillment of some sort. I wondered how the same motley mix of native and foreign stock that populated our country had produced such a different result north of the border.
Maybe the answer lies in critic Northrop Frye's comment: "Historically, a Canadian is an American who rejects the revolution."
Everywhere I went, people were impeccably courteous. One feels embarrassed to make an observation like that these days. But there you have it. And the niceness and politeness were genuine, not the cowed, rehearsed, Stepford patter that welcomes you to Wal-Mart. After I'd been in town for more than a week, I was still compulsively meandering the waterfront. One afternoon a man walked up to me, and said, grinning, "California, right?"
Thinking on my feet, I replied: "Huh?"
"You're from California, aren't you?"
I looked at him in alarm. "Uh, yeah, how did you know?"
He explained that he'd been picking up his wife at the airport and overheard my conversation with a fellow passenger. He went on in an animated manner, telling me how wonderful his home town was and all the wonderful places to visit. Later I realized that I had just stared at him rudely throughout his entire spiel because I figured that anyone that friendly was either a Moonie, a con man, a nut or all of the above.
But just as I had decided I'd found the most civilized place in the solar system--whether British, Canadian, whatever--I visited an excellent establishment called the Old Bailey. The Old Bailey is one of several suspiciously British-style pubs in Victoria: Hog in the Pound, the Sticky Wicket, Swans, Steamers. The Old Bailey has a low-beamed ceiling, mullioned windows with bull's-eye glass and several signs advertising venerable ales. Drinking a Black & Tan at the bar, I discussed Victoria's merits with Mark, a boutique owner and transplant from Grimsby, England. He frequents the Old Bailey because--this is what he said--"it's just like a British pub."
Suddenly we heard a loud crash and saw two men rolling across the floor. They scuffled into an antique sideboard that rocked wildly, its tall mirror alternately reflecting the ceiling, then the furniture. Two waitresses rushed over and broke up the fight. One yelled: "What on earth do you think you're doing, eh?!"
"Hey, he sucker-punched me!" cried a ruffian rubbing a large red mark below his eye. It seems there had been a dispute over darts.
Mark turned to me. "Yep, just like a British pub."
Later I asked the bartender if he thought Victoria seemed like a British city, and he said, "Well, a little . . ." Then he briskly added, "But that's silly because obviously it's a Canadian city."
Other than the barroom fisticuffs, I never saw the flawless Victorian manners crack except when I asked about the seemingly British influence in their city. Obviously, there's a whole cultural history here that I'm not privy to, maybe a sore spot that's been rubbed raw for decades.
I asked a friend who grew up in Vancouver: "What am I missing?" I told her of the persistent denials that there was anything British about Victoria, despite all the evidence. She said the root of the problem is that Canadians in general are struggling to develop their own identity, and in Victoria to overcome their British heritage. "And then they go and change the name of the museum to the Royal British Columbia Museum!" she shrieked. "Egad! What a disaster!"
Once I left the city and drove north to sample some of the other sights of Vancouver Island, it quickly became clear that I was, well, not in the Cotswolds. Driving west along Highway 4, my rental car struggled up the steep ridges of the Mackenzie Range, past gray cliffs, towering Sitka spruce, pounding waterfalls and somber fiords. The snow-capped peaks were shrouded in fog and constant drizzle.
My destination was Tofino, a wild, rugged town on the island's west coast, an area more reminiscent of Alaska than, say, Notting Hill. My goal was to view the gray whales, which travel 10,000 miles from Baja, Mexico, up the Pacific coast to the Arctic--said to be the longest migration route of any mammal. Several whales choose to stop in the shallow waters of Grice Bay--a 15-minute boat ride from Tofino--and feed on ghost shrimp from March to September.
I boarded the tour boat Leviathan on a damp afternoon with a dozen German tourists, a handful of Canadians and two British women. Within 15 minutes, we sighted three feeding whales. All the passengers, rain forgotten, rushed to the better vantage point of the top deck.
As I stood there with cold water running down the neck of my sweater, I saw a white-and-gray mottled tail flash out of the water. The gray whale averages 45 feet long and weighs around 35 tons. They seemed to have no fear of the boat, and made no attempt to leave. In fact, as the captain said, they were as curious about us as we were about them. The water was only 6 1/2 feet deep, and the gigantic animals spy-hopped to get a look at us, meaning they pushed their tails against the ground to leverage their heads up out of the water.
Three hours later, as the Leviathan returned to the docks, I asked the Englishwomen if--what the heck--Victoria was reminiscent of a British city. The younger one gave me a blue-eyed stare nearly as frosty as the Pacific, drew in a deep, chest-expanding sniff and straightened to her full six feet.
In bell-toned Oxford diction, she replied: "Well, I should think so! If my memory of history serves me correctly, we did settle the colony!"
Cathleen Miller last wrote for the Travel section about her current home, Napa, Calif.
GETTING THERE: Although no airlines offer nonstop service from Washington to Victoria International Airport (about a half-hour north of the city), a number offer awkward connecting service, including Northwest, American, Canadian Airlines and Air Canada. (You either must travel to Seattle and take a commuter flight to Victoria, or connect in Chicago or Toronto for a flight to Vancouver, and then change planes again to Victoria.) Fares generally start at $600, with restrictions. A cheaper alternative, if you're into driving, is to fly to Seattle (sale fares are $213 round trip right now) and then drive the 112 or so miles to Victoria.
Several firms offer seaplane service from Seattle and Vancouver directly to Victoria's Inner Harbour. The island also is accessible by ferry from Vancouver and Washington state. For details on both, contact Tourism Vancouver Island (see below).
GETTING AROUND: Victoria is an excellent walking or bicycling city, and you will not need a car, especially if you stay downtown. Bus transportation is excellent, and there are numerous sightseeing tours aboard everything from pedi-cabs to ferries.
WHEN TO GO: Summer is high season; expect sunny weather and considerably higher prices, in some cases double the winter costs. But then, in mid-June you get 16 hours of sunlight a day. Spring offers spectacular displays at Butchart Gardens and the whale migration off the Pacific coast. In winter, Vancouver Island is wet and mild.
WHERE TO STAY: Mulberry Manor (250-370-1918, $85 to $135 U.S.) is a lovely Tudor-style inn with elegant decor and lush gardens in a residential neighborhood; it's ideal if you have a car, as it offers free parking and is an easy five-minute drive to downtown. If you prefer to be where the action is, Swan's (250-361-3310, $73 to $80) has an affordable downtown location, large suites with kitchenettes, brew pub, restaurant, nightclub and a staff that performs like a pack of pleasant snails.
WHERE TO EAT: I did not have a bad meal during my stay. Try the innovative Herald Street Caffe's (250-381-1441, $8 to $15, including a three-course meal special for $13) version of "West Coast Fusion," a blend of tastes from the Pacific Rim. I had a duck breast salad with mango/soya vinaigrette that was so good I went back and had it again. Il Terrazzo (250-361-0028, $10 to $20), an Italian restaurant in Old Town, has romantic patio seating with arbors, potted greenery and fireplaces. Milestone's (250-381-2244, $5 to $12) has a stunning view of the harbor and an inexpensive, eclectic menu ranging from burgers to Mexican.
TOFINO: For nature lovers, Tofino is a must. To make the journey of five-plus hours on two-lane mountain roads worthwhile, plan to spend a few days. Whale watching is the No. 1 activity. Also available: fishing, scuba diving, sea kayaking, hot springs and hiking in 20,000-acre Pacific Rim National Park.
Tofino hosts the Pacific Rim Whale Festival each March during the gray whales' migration. Jamie's Whaling Station (250-725-3919) offers three-hour tours aboard covered cruisers (a smart move in bad weather) or inflatable Zodiac rafts.
* Tourism Victoria, 250-953-2033, http://travel.victoria.bc.ca.
* Tourism Vancouver Island, 250-754-3500, www.islands.bc.ca
* Tofino Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Info Center, 250-725-3414 (open March to September).
* Pacific Rim National Park, 250-726-4212 (March to October).