victorian queen3

A bustling Chinatown.

Walking north on Government Street, I wandered into the LoJo (Lower Johnson) district, a menagerie of stores, cafés, and funky independent coffee shops. Curious Comics brimmed with Wonder Woman action figures and a full rack of Tintin books. Fisgard Street, the main drag of Victoria’s winding Chinatown, was nearby. I squeezed myself into Fan Tan Alley, a narrow passageway, and almost emerged with a bamboo ladder before thinking better of trying to stow it on the plane.

From Chinatown, I crossed the Johnson Street Bridge and entered Dockside Green, an industrial area on the

waterfront that’s now dominated by high-rise buildings, pocket parks, and budding retail pods. What was once a cavity of decrepit warehouses and dead space will soon be Victoria’s newest and greenest community. City views across the channel are reminiscent of the panorama of downtown Portland visible from OMSI. “[The design] reflects our progressive approach,” says Cliff Leir, who opened his bakery, Fol Epi (rough translation: “wild wheat stalk”), in Dockside Green earlier this year. “Soon enough there’ll be 3,500 people here.” Most of whom, no doubt, will stand in line for Leir’s breads, all baked on-site from Saskatchewan wheat.

Away from the tourist zone, Victoria is a thriving metropolis of 33,000 residents.

Across the street was a trailhead for the Galloping Goose Trail, a paved and gravel road that extends thirty-one miles along a reclaimed rail bed to the outlying community of Sooke. I thought about taking a long bike ride, but instead backtracked to the quiet elegance of the James Bay neighborhood. Here I discovered Beacon Hill Park, an enormous greenspace crisscrossed by walking and biking trails and a lovely waterfront path. Sun-worshipping Victorians clogged the paths, so I kept walking … and wandered into a secret. While tourists head in droves to Butchart Gardens—an admittedly majestic but usually crowded fifty-five-acre floral display—the locals get lost in Playfair Park, where hundreds of species of rhododendron and azalea and several species of camellia explode into beautiful blooms every spring.

By the time the sun went down I’d ended up in Fernwood, a neighborhood that reminded me of the very English Victoria I’d escaped. The local high school was an imposing brick fortress that could double for a Dickensian debtor’s prison; the Fernwood Inn sported pristine Tudor architecture—even the Belfry Theatre, a converted church, seemed like the kind of place Shakespeare would’ve favored. But what was going on inside squelched any thoughts I had about the monarchy. The show was called BASH’d!, a musical that billed itself as the world’s first gay rap opera. On that point I had to trust them.

For a solid, mesmerizing hour, I sat rapt as two energetic young performers—one named “Feminem”—kissed, rapped, and acted out their tongue-in-cheek tale of, as they put it, “Romeo meets Romeo.” Beau Breedlove would’ve blushed.

Leaving the theater, I realized I hadn’t thought about Earl Grey in hours; my fixation on all things Anglophile now seemed like some sort of passing phase. Coffee, comic books, neon rhododendrons, and brash queer theater set a new standard for Victoria. I love them. They’re mine.