Christmastime in Victoria: a getaway with holiday markets, high tea, fine dining, and old-world charm

The city is home to the Courtney Room, named one of Canada’s best new restaurants 2018

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      Let’s face it: the festive season is great in a lot of ways: rum and eggnog, goodies and chocolates everywhere you turn, and get-togethers with friends and family.

      But it’s also a complete pain in the arse for other reasons: long lineups, nasty traffic, too many cookies and chocolates everywhere you turn, too many get-togethers with friends and family, and too many things to check off your to-do list, most of them involving shopping.

      It all results in a kind of first-world stress, a false sense of impending doom.

      For Vancouverites reeling from so much rushing around, there’s an antidote: a Christmas getaway to Victoria.

      Even with more and more condos going up, the place retains its old-world charm, and so many holiday lights make it especially lovely to stroll around. If you stay within the city centre, you can walk everywhere, so no headaches finding parking spots or plugging meters.

      Even with just 24 hours to take a break from the big-city hustle and bustle, it’s as relaxing and romantic as a mini vacation gets. 

      Here are some ideas of how to spend a little Island downtime.

      11:30 a.m. Catch the 35-minute floatplane ride from downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria via Harbour Air. It's a splurge, but you’re across the Strait of Georgia in less time than it takes to drive to the ferry terminal. If you need a reminder as to why you still live in one of the world’s most expensive cities, you’ll get it from 3,000 feet flying over islands and sea; hot damn, the West Coast is astonishingly beautiful.

      12:15 p.m. From the terminal in Victoria Harbour, you’re a few hundred metres from the open-air Christmas Market at Bastion Square. Open daily till December 24, it features local artisans’ wares, from sea-glass ornaments and natural soaps to leather-bound journals and metal art. From there, stroll through the Festival of Trees at the Bay Centre, on until January 7, in support of B.C. Children’s Hospital.

      Venus Sophia Tea Room & Vegetarian Eatery offers a fresh take on afternoon tea.
      Gail Johnson.

      1:30 p.m. What’s a trip to Victoria without tea? Options are plentiful, from classic high tea (Fairmont Empress) to seasonal tea flights (Silk Road’s Chinatown shop, which also has an organic spa). Named after the company’s guiding principles of love and beauty, Venus Sophia Tea Room & Vegetarian Eatery is a casually elegant spot in the heart of Chinatown.

      The tea cups and saucers at Venus Sophia are sourced from Victoria's antique shops.
      Gail Johnson.

      Husband-and-wife team Allain and Sallie Alaily serve organic loose-leaf teas, including signature blends like Provence rooibos (with elderberries, lavender, rose hips, and rose petals) and Monk’s black (originally created by Tibetan monks to help them stay awake and aware, it has pomegranate and vanilla).

      Royal Holiday Afternoon Tea comes with endless tea choices and three tiers of finger sandwiches (from Swiss raclette to cranberry mascarpone) and treats like apricot-preserve window cookies, lemon profiteroles, scones with Devonshire cream and strawberry jam (natch), and Mont Blanc (chestnut-cream meringues). Then there’s an exquisite date cake; the Alailys both have Egypt in their blood, and this recipe has been handed down in Sallie’s family through the generations. Not too sweet, not too dense, not too chewy; topped with a thin layer of white icing, it’s just right, especially with a cup of caramelly Cream Earl Grey.

      3:30 p.m. Time to walk off those goodies and explore the city’s core. Hit Chinatown’s shops and Fan Tan Alley before making your way to Munro’s Books, a must-visit institution in a charming neo-classical heritage building. Stroll along the water toward the Parliament Buildings, home to the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. At this time of year, the buildings, which opened in 1898 and were designed by architect Francis Rattenbury, have red and green bulbs worked into their postcard-pretty white lights for the ultimate Christmas in Victoria Instagram photo. A few blocks beyond on Government Street is Emily Carr House and Gardens, a National and Provincial Historic Site. You can’t go inside till May 2019 due to renos, but it’s still worth seeing the pale-yellow house that dates back to 1863 where the iconic artist spent most of her childhood.

      The classic white lights get a festive burst of reds and greens at this time of year.
      Gail Johnson.

      5:30 p.m. Check in to and chillax in your hotel. There’s no shortage of places to stay right in the heart of Victoria, making it easy to amble for hours then flop on the bed to recharge before dinner.

      In Decembers past, I’ve stayed at the Fairmont Empress, Delta Hotels Victoria Ocean Pointe resort, and Hotel Grand Pacific. This visit, it’s Magnolia Hotel and Spa. The boutique hotel, which is a block away from the Inner Harbour, has won multiple awards from the likes of Condé Nast Travel and Travel + Leisure. So what’s the big deal? Yes, the rooms are spacious and elegantly appointed, but it's all about the details. Case in point: the bathroom was stocked with a luffa mitt, Saltspring Soapworks’ Sparkling Rhubarb Bubble Bath (for the soaker tub), a razor (no need to call housekeeping!), and L’Occitane body products. There was a Nespresso machine, gas fireplace, bathrobes, morning newspaper, curated trail maps with various themed walking routes, and, best of all, quiet, which is what we came here for in the first place, remember? Coffee, tea, and freshly baked pastries are out in the lobby in the morning, too.

      The Courtney Room was named one of Canada's best new restaurants for 2018 by enRoute.
      Gail Johnson.

      7 p.m. Dinner at the Courtney Room. Like Vancouver’s St. Lawrence Restaurant, the Courtney Room (which is in the Magnolia Hotel) made it onto enRoute’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants list for 2018. These were the only two B.C. dining establishments to do so.

      The main level has an oyster bar, while the upper space feels more like a refined classic French bistro, with a glass-encased corner wine cellar. Servers can answer with ease any question about the menu you throw out. Chef de cuisine Chris Klassen and opening chef Sam Harris previously held roles at Agrius Restaurant when it was listed as one of the country’s best new restaurants in 2016. The cocktail program is stellar: special spirits (such as pine-infused Wallflower gin), syrups (like ginger cayenne), and other concoctions (a take on Limoncello) are all made in-house. The wine list offers some of the best of B.C., Unsworth Vineyards, Sea Star, Liquidity, Poplar Grove, Hester Creek, and Tantalus among them. Similarly, the food showcases leading B.C. producers such as Two Rivers Meats, Outlandish Shellfish Guild, and Parry Bay Sheep Farm. 

      Recommendations: To start, Cache Creek beef tartare with egg, brown-butter croutons, wild greens, and fermented daikon from Umi Nami Farm; cured scallops with hazelnut mayonnaise vinaigrette made with grapes from Foxglove Farms.

      We were tempted by local-bean cassoulet (with smoked lentils, shallots, sunchoke, winter vegetables) and Northern Divine white sturgeon but opted instead for an indulgent seared beef tenderloin Oscar (topped with Dungeness crab and Béarnaise sauce alongside pomme purée and tart, wilted greens) and steelhead trout from Little Cedar Falls (with rutabaga, leek, chard, and molasses beurre rouge poured tableside).

      This is the kind of place where the service, drinks, food, and surroundings all come together to make for one of those meals that lingers in your memory long after it’s done.  

      Next day, 9 a.m. Breakfast at the hotel or at any of the bakery cafés in the city core, like La Roux Patisserie (keep it simple with a croissant and coffee from Victoria’s own Fernwood Coffee Company), Bubby Rose’s Bakery Café (locally roasted Discovery Coffee with a raspberry croissant or cinnamon bun), or Fol Epi Patisserie (all of its exceptional artisan goods are made with flour that's freshly milled at its headquarters).

      10 a.m. Visit the Royal B.C. Museum. Across from the legislative buildings, it houses the province’s natural and human history collections. Our Living Languages: First People’s Voices in British Columbia shines a light on 34 of those languages through interactive stations, video, and audio. A first for North America is Egypt: The Time of the Pharaohs, with more than 300 artifacts, some dating back nearly 5,000 years, on till December 31.

      11:30 a.m. Fly home. Back to reality, which now seems a little easier to embrace.