Christmas festivities, craft beer lift spirits in Victoria
Sometimes, as the Mame song goes, we need a little Christmas. And sometimes, as the song does not go, we’ve had enough of Christmas already and we need a little beer.
Even the most enthusiastic tree-trimmer will admit that the holiday season is often stressful. That’s why getting away from home for a few nights can be especially refreshing. And while Victoria is known for embracing Christmas—witness the regal lights strung up at the Parliament Buildings—it also offers opportunities to unplug from it all or enjoy the festivities at a more relaxed pace.
During a recent weekend in Victoria, I found both Christmas cheer and craft beer. If you’re in the holiday spirit, the place to be is the city centre. The Downtown Victoria Business Association is running a free horse-drawn trolley this weekend (December 22 and 23), which does a 20-minute hop-on hop-off loop through the area. The ride is a hit with kids and trots you up Government Street, around Chinatown, through the lower Johnson Street area with its design stores and cafés, and past Market Square. Near the Chinatown gate, Silk Road Aromatherapy & Tea Company makes for a pleasant stop. Capital Iron on Store Street is also worth a browse, with its eclectic stock ranging from tents to tools to wineglasses.
But if you want the full-on Christmas experience, drive about 30 minutes north of town to the Butchart Gardens in Brentwood Bay. Until January 6, the sweeping grounds sparkle in every direction with thousands of multicoloured lights. Carollers sing, fountains glow red and green, a carousel spins merrily, and scenes from the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” appear throughout the display.
To round out the experience, go for a spin around the outdoor skating rink or have dinner at the Dining Room Restaurant. Located in the elegant former home of the Butchart family, the restaurant serves food that’s of a quality you might not expect at a major tourist attraction. Executive chef Travis Hansen was born and raised on the Saanich Peninsula and knows the area’s farmers; he started buying local before it was fashionable and oversees delectable dishes such as the house-made cinnamon-spiced lamb sausage.
If you want to stay downtown but slightly out of the fray, the Inn at Laurel Point is a great option. It’s just a 10-minute walk from there to the shops on Government Street, but the hotel has an inspiring waterfront location that makes it feel somewhat remote and resortlike. Until New Year’s Day, 27 creations from Canada’s National Gingerbread Showcase are on display in the lobby, and the serene Japanese aesthetic of the hotel’s Erickson wing nicely offsets any feelings of Christmas overdose.
This hotel is also perfectly situated for my favourite Victoria activity: a long walk from the Inner Harbour around to the seaside path off Dallas Road. You can walk anywhere from a few kilometres on up, so if you have a chance, grab a copy of the excellent Walk + Run Downtown Victoria map from the Visitor Centre at 812 Wharf Street, which gives estimated route times. The views become more expansive at the breakwater, which is a great place to grab a coffee, at the Ogden Point Cafe. Once you hit the Dallas Road Pathway, it’s all fresh air and cliff-top views of the ocean, and thoughts of to-do lists vanish.
For those who prefer to be based outside downtown entirely, there’s a new option in Oak Bay, a leafy neighbourhood to the east. The waterfront Oak Bay Beach Hotel, which dates back to the 1930s, has been completely rebuilt and opened in November. A good reason to stay here is the outdoor mineral pools, which are heated to a soothing 38 ° C to 40 ° C throughout the winter. A clear barrier separates the pool deck from the rocky seashore, so you can relax to the crash of the waves and the calls of seagulls while you soak. (Nonguests can buy day passes to the pools for $30.)
The picturesque Oak Bay Marina, with its coffee shop and restaurant, is a five-minute walk down the road, and a 15-minute walk brings you to Oak Bay Village. I really enjoyed the pace of this charming strip of Oak Bay Avenue, which has a more laid-back feel than downtown. Although the former Oak Bay Theatre building now houses a Starbucks, the refurbished exterior remains quaint, and nearby stores like Nicholas Randall and the Feys+Hobbs Canteen are a pleasure to poke through. There are also some attractive bistros, like the Vis à Vis Wine and Charcuterie Bar, and one could imagine whiling away a happy evening at the convivial Penny Farthing pub.
But if you’re looking for the latest on the craft-beer scene, drive across town to the slightly obscure area east of the Bay Street Bridge and north of Chinatown. The light-industrial neighbourhood is home to a growing number of microbreweries, including Moon Under Water Pub & Brewery. When I visited, Clay Potter explained that he and his family took ownership in September and have changed the focus from English ales to German-style beers. Potter’s brews include the flagship beer—the dark, strong Victorious Weizenbock—and a Munich brown lager called the Creepy Uncle Dunkel, touted as “the most misunderstood of all lagers”. As the beers aren’t yet in Lower Mainland stores, this is the place to try a flight.
Potter is happy to fill growlers to go, and so is Sean Hoyne at the nearby Hoyne Brewing Co. While the latter doesn’t have a pub, there is a tiny tasting room, where Hoyne noted that plenty of “beer tourists” pass through following an informal ale trail. (Nearby craft breweries include Phillips, Driftwood, and Canoe Brewpub.)
The founder of Canoe and a brewmaster for 24 years, Hoyne opened his namesake brewery last Christmas. “It’s been a dream of mine for many years,” he said, and he’s since made beers such as the Voltage Espresso Stout, with hand-pulled shots of single-origin espresso.
Earlier this month he released an extra-strong ale, a winter warmer with the name Gratitude.
“It’s our way of thanking the beer-drinking public for accepting us into the beer community,” he explains. The beer’s label takes about as long to read as the bottle does to drink, offering up gratitude for all kinds of people, from those “happily caught in love’s sticky web” to those who “despite the odds, cling to hope that things will somehow get better” to those who are “naturally given to generosity, no matter their means”.
It’s a nice message at this time of year, whether you need a little Christmas or just a little beer—or both.
Follow Carolyn Ali on Twitter at twitter.com/carolynali