By Keith Edwards
Suddenly the rain stopped and it was “back to lovely.” Seaplanes buzzed in, water taxis bobbed on their moorings and patios filled up. Warm fingers of sun broke through the clouds.
A short walk from the Victoria waterfront, the Magnolia Hotel, my pied à terre, is just far enough from the selfie takers and behemoth tour buses. With only 65 classically elegant rooms, its quiet Euro-feel gives me that private club vibe. My room with a view on the seventh floor has a 10-foot ceiling, gas fireplaces and all the comforts of home. But there’s no rest for the wicked. I’m here to explore.
On my bike
I’m directed to the bike stand, the preferred mode of transport for the green crowd, and shown how to follow the Magnolia’s curated bike trail. Within a few short blocks I’m surrounded by gingerbread houses, pastel stucco homes and voluptuous gardens. Past Beacon Hill I stop for an ice cream and a gaze over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Then, it’s a quick run down past the harbour breakwaters into Fisherman’s Wharf with its riotously painted floating houses. Another pause to nibble a spicy halibut sandwich at The Fish Store, where two hungry harbour seals ask in vain for a bite, and I’m back pedalling. Quaint tea shops, small galleries, old-fashioned book stores and local restos are clustered along the way… appealing, I’m told to both retirees and cost-conscious youngsters escaping Vancouver.
The ambassador of Tea
At one such shop, Silk Road Tea, I’ve arranged to meet accredited Tea Master Daniela Cubelic. Her encyclopedic knowledge of exotic teas is staggering and I’m embarrassed to confess a life-long habit of using stale, astringent, second-rate teabags. My first taste, a blend called Beaut-tea-ful, promises youthfulness and lovely skin. I fear that it’s a little late for me. There are two teas, however, that become new favourites: The delicate Hojicha roasted Sencha and the lightly oxidized Jade Oolong. Now to break the news to my Marks and Spencer tea-loving wife. This might not go well.
All about the food
My first night’s dinner is at the casual yet chic Agrius, which is housed in a space shared with a bakery. It takes farm-to-table seriously and is an unmistakable local favourite. I start with the delicate cured steelhead sushi garnished with sea asparagus, sea coriander and salmon berries. Perhaps seeing my obvious enthusiasm, the chef sends over a tasting portion of sidestripe shrimp, cream cheese, cucumber, tarragon and sheep sorrel. He tops that with a luscious Yarrow Meadows duck breast with daikon, chard, beet and preserved pear. Paired with a lovely lightly floral Tantalus Juveniles Pinot Noir from Kelowna, it’s a meal to remember.
My dinner at OLO in Chinatown the following evening is equally enjoyable. There’s a happy buzz in the rustic but edgy dining room. The kitchen, as expected out here, is local producer friendly and offers a tasting menu that’s just up my alley. The Hakurei turnip salad is crunchy, aromatic and flavourful, with a nice zing from the dressing. Lamb tartare follows. It’s a mild counterbalance to the complex intensity of the salad. Sockeye salmon arrives—sweetly salty from cold smoke and brining. Another remarkable Pinot Noir, Screaming Frenzy from West Kelowna, sets the tone for the main course of local duck breast. And who wouldn’t love rhubarb with elderflower ice cream and a fennel macaroon for dessert?
The Abkhazi Garden has the studied naturalness of a Japanese garden coupled with an English style, with its roots in a fairytale love story that’s worth hearing. Peak times are April and May, but the wickedly indulgent afternoon tea on The Tea House patio would be lovely anytime.
And don’t miss The Umbrellatorium & Canery in Fan Tan Alley. It’s the headquarters for all manner of rain protection, including an umbrella that mounts onto my bike.