victorian queen1

Beacon Hill Park, a large greenspace in Victoria, BC’s James Bay neighborhood.

TRAVELING IS MOSTLY about discovering new things, but there’s a lot to be said for replaying your favorite standards. Every time I’m in Paris, for instance, I happily return to my favorite pastry shop, Gérard Mulot, just to stuff myself with giant slabs of clafoutis. I love it. It’s mine. Kailua Beach on Oahu brings back strong memories of my eldest son’s first year, when we lived across the street from the Pacific; I always sink my feet into Kailua’s sands within a day of landing in Hawaii. And no trip to New York City is complete without a stroll through Washington Square Park, where I spent my younger days watching chess matches while politely turning away drug dealers.

For less-sentimental reasons, reasons that border more on laziness, when I’m in Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, I always take tea at the very English Fairmont Empress Hotel in the city’s Inner Harbour. I love it. It’s mine. Unfortunately, these days, hundreds of cruise-ship passengers feel the same way. They arrive by the busload and so overtax the tea service that tables have to be set up in surrounding venues to accommodate everyone. And the price of high tea at the Empress has risen to a shocking Can$55 (about US$50), which could buy an awful lot of good coffee and doughnuts.

It rather dilutes the Englishness of the experience to have a gaggle of picture-snapping grandmas descend upon your tea service. So I vowed to break my pattern and make my most recent trip a tea-leaf-free one. I would explore Victoria’s neighborhoods, which meant getting past the very British façade that greets travelers. This isn’t entirely easy to do. The Inner Harbour makes a convenient nexus for visitors, and it’s easy to fall for its British-ness, in the form of the stately, Oxfordian Parliament Buildings, the Tudor pubs, the bright-red double-decker buses, and the Buckingham Palace-like Empress herself. Tourist traps beckon, and I enjoy wax museums as well as the next man.

With every fiber of my being crying out “Earl Grey and scones with clotted cream,” I tore myself away from the Harbour and began to explore. Away from the tourist zone, Victoria is a thriving metropolis of some 330,000 residents (depending on how many outlying neighborhoods you include—a favorite point of contention among locals). The architecture ranges from Victorian-era structures, such as the 1890s Craigdarroch Castle, to the kind of modern glass high-rises that have begun to transform downtown Vancouver. Woven throughout is the kind of charming street life and local culture that seems to be equal parts British and American, and winds up being uniquely Canadian: fussy gardens next to houses made from reclaimed shipping containers; hockey moms drinking pints of bitter alongside tattooed and pierced vegan snowboarders.