48 Hours In: Victoria

The capital of British Columbia comes alive this month, with flowers and festivals in abundance. Let Susan Griffith be your guide to one of Canada's most accessible and attractive cities



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Travel essentials

Why go now?

British Columbia's capital, a city of one-third of a million people at the southern tip of Vancouver Island, comes to life this month. Weekend markets have resumed, beach cafés are open and some upcoming events are guaranteed to entertain – such as the Tartan Parade next Saturday, the Highland Games the following weekend and the Victoria Day Parade on 24 May.

Touch down

The lowest-cost access is by charter flight from the UK to Vancouver (for example through canadianaffair.com ) and then ferry to Victoria (90 minutes, bcferries.bc.ca ). Pacific Coaches ( pacificcoach.com ) links Vancouver airport with downtown Victoria, a trip that takes less than four hours and costs $48 (£32) one way. You can fly into Victoria's tiny airport – where a grandmotherly employee welcomes passengers and passes upbeat remarks about the weather – on flights via Toronto on Air Canada.

The most beautiful way to arrive is by ferry from Seattle through the Strait of Juan de Fuca (001 800 888 2535; clippervacations.com/ferry ); the trip takes nearly three hours and costs from $60 (£40) one way in May.

Get your bearings

Water is visible from a thousand vantage points in this coastal city. The easily walkable downtown forms a grid that hugs the Inner Harbour, while the metropolitan area incorporates peninsulas and inlets, bays and beaches. Buses cost a flat $2.50 (£1.65) and are easy to master after taking the advice of staff at the Visitor Centre (1) at 812 Wharf Street (001 250 963 2033; tourismvictoria.com ) where you can collect a plenitude of maps and timetables.

Check in

As befits a city that trades on its old-world charm, Victoria offers an impressive choice of "heritage" bed and breakfasts. Many are concentrated in the posh area of Oak Bay, about halfway along the Scenic Drive from downtown to the university. Closer to the city centre is Rockland where the prosperous classes once built their mansions. Guests at gracious Abbeymoore Manor (2) at 1470 Rockland Avenue (001 250 370 1470; abbeymoore.com), built in 1912, can help themselves to home-bottled port. Doubles including a good breakfast cost $139-$179 (£93-£120) until 20 May, $20 (£13) more thereafter.

The oddly named Pink Dishrack is a floating cabin three miles from the city at Westbay Marine Village (453 Head Street, Esquimault; 001 250 385 1831; westbay.bc.ca ) where a double costs $165 (£110), room only. It is one of the stops on the twee little Victoria Harbour foot ferry ( victoriaharbourferry.com ). This starts at the Causeway Floats directly across from the Fairmont Empress Hotel (3) and also calls at Fisherman's Wharf (4).

Day one

Take a view

To get a sense of the complex layout of the city, gain some elevation. At 700ft Mount Douglas (5) is more hill than mountain but on a clear day it gives superb views of island chains and mountains including the 8,000ft Mount Olympus 24 miles to the south in Washington state. Tackle one of the many hiking trails, and you notice the wild flowers sheltering among the exposed rock and moss; take bus 28 from downtown to the corner of Shelbourne Street and Kenmore Road. Or, with a car you can cheat and drive to the summit (the gates open at noon).

Window shopping

A great place to gain an insight into Vancouver Islanders at play is to visit the Mountain Equipment Co-op at 1450 Government Street (6) where locals go to buy their sleeping bags suitable for Arctic conditions, camping stoves and dry bags for kayaking. Prices are keen because it really does operate as a cooperative; lifetime membership costs $5 (£3.30).

Housed in a three-storey 1860s building at 1900 Store Street, Capital Iron (7) is a treasure house that oozes pride and stocks everything under the sun, from lumberjack shirts to replacement axe handles, $2 emergency blankets to barometers. Further along Government Street at number 1108, pop into lovely Munro's Books (8) owned since the 1960s by the first husband of the Canadian writer Alice Munro.

Weekends are the time to seek out a market such as the James Bay Community Market (9) on Saturdays at the corner of Menzies and Superior streets (9am-3pm). On Sundays, Government Street closes to make way for food and craft stalls (pin.ca/market) and live musicians.

Lunch on the run

Fisherman's Wharf (4), south of the Inner Harbour, is a colourful community of float homes tethered to pontoons, and nothing like its touristy namesake in San Francisco. At Barb's Place (10) you can get terrific fish and chips. Even better, spend $5 (£3.30) on a dozen sushi rolls from the Fish Store next door, and eat them dangling your feet over the water. Then spend the same again on some herring to feed to the harbour seals.

Directly opposite on the north side of the harbour, but just over a mile by foot from the city centre, Spinnakers (11) is one of Canada's first brewpubs. From the upstairs taproom and balcony, you get fantastic views of floatplanes taking off and landing. Salmon is ubiquitous on the menu, from the shellfish cup for $5 (£3.30) to the house-smoked salmon pizza, accompanied by a glass of one of their artisan beers (ask to taste before choosing).

Take a hike

According to a poem accompanying a sculpture of a girl riding a dolphin on the Westsong Walkway (12), "Victoria's writ in nature's script/By the ocean's timeless hand". Miles of Victoria's coastline are reserved for pedestrians. Starting at Ogden Point (13), walk east towards Beacon Hill Park (14) either on the paved walkway along the top or along the beach below, clambering over rocks glaciated 10,000 years ago.

An aperitif

Rather than succumb to the cliché of spending $55 (£37) on afternoon tea at the grand old Fairmont Empress Hotel (3) which rises imperiously above the harbour (001 250 384 8111; fairmont.com/empress ), visit the hotel's Bengal Lounge for one of their signature martinis. In a setting from a lost age of the Raj, the friendly staff make sure pomposity is kept at bay. If you are feeling experimental try the martini with puréed mango and fresh coriander. Jazz musicians entertain from 8pm on Fridays and Saturdays.

Dining with the locals

The California-inspired devotion to haute-barnyard and organic ingredients is long established in Victoria. One of its most passionate exponents is Café Brio (15), at 944 Fort Street (001 250 383 0009; café-brio.com ). Culinary excellence is guaranteed in a place where the chefs make the charcuterie in-house from island pigs who have been allowed to root, wallow and forage freely; choose one or two of these at $5 (£3.30) each, served with homemade mustards and pickles. Starters or mains are priced at roughly $16 (£10.50) and $27 (£18).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

St Ann's Academy (16) and convent ( stannsacade-my.com ) served as a school for Catholic girls from 1858. Wandering through the peaceful gardens and orchard near the Inner Harbour, you can enter the academy and visit the beautifully restored chapel. It opens 10am-4pm daily in summer ($5/£3.30 donation requested).

Out to brunch

Rebar Modern Food (17) at 50 Bastion Square (001 250 361 9223) publishes its own cookery book. Its near-vegetarian dishes brim with nuts, seeds and sprouting things that are perfect for the morning after the night before. Another weekend brunch place that locals love is the arty Superior (18) at 106 Superior Street (001 250 380 9515; thesuperior.ca ) in the old residential area of James Bay. Between 10am and 3pm at weekends you can feast on dishes such as truffled scrambled eggs, mushrooms, pecorino, potatoes and toast for $10 (£6.60) or flatbread with figs, prosciutto, goat's cheese and caramelised onions ($15/£10).

A walk in the park

Victoria is known as the City of Gardens due to its equable climate, and the blinding and blowsy rhododendrons at the university's Finnerty Gardens (19) are a sight to behold this month. Alternatively, take a stroll around Beacon Hill Park (14). Afterwards cross Douglas Street to eat soft ice cream at a Victoria family institution, the Beacon Drive-In (20), not much changed since 1958.

Cultural afternoon

For a crash course in the human and natural history of the Canadian west, spend a couple of hours in the Royal BC Museum (21) at 675 Belleville Street (001 888 447 7977; royalbcmuseum.bc.ca ). The First People's galleries display tribal masks, bark capes, salmon fishing and drying equipment and totem poles from before Europeans arrived. Open 10am-5pm daily and until 10pm on Fridays and Saturdays in high summer; $15 (£10).

Take a ride

Cyclists are keen and plentiful in Victoria so you will find yourself among locals if you decide to ride the Galloping Goose trail ( gallopinggoosetrail.com ), named for a 1920s rail-turned-trail. It starts at the Johnson Street blue bridge (22) in the city centre and stretches 33 miles west past farms and creeks, rocky coves and lakes. Hybrid bikes can be hired from Cycle BC Rentals (23) at 685 Humboldt Street (001 250 380 2453; cyclebc.ca ) for $24 (£16) a day.

Icing on the cake

Whales are regularly seen in the straits off Victoria between now and October. A three-hour trip with the laconic Ron King (001 250 381 4173; seaking.ca ) should allow you to spot a pod of whales, humpback, killer or grey, not to mention sea lions and bald eagles. Sea King Adventures operates a small boat out of Fisherman's Wharf (4), which csts $90 (£60) per person.

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