19 JUL 2018: Voted the number two Best Small City in the World in 2017 by Conde Nast readers, Victoria charms with its small-town walkability and friendliness while its scenic location, range of great local eats and drinks and awesome activities dazzle. Its transformation from merely quaint to “Best Small” is anchored by the recent $60+ million restoration of the iconic Fairmont Empress.
The gutting and renovation of the Fairmont Empress did stir up controversy but now the final result is open for business, most people admire the blending of historic with modern era luxury. British Columbia’s capital city is surrounded by the Salish Sea, and the hotel’s gold floor lounge, the new Q at the Empress Restaurant and Q Bar take full advantage of the stunning harbour views.

The cuisine, with its Pacific Northwest focus, is tasty and in tune with the locavore movement. However, some traditions should never be lost, namely Afternoon Tea at the Empress served daily since it’s opening in 1908. At present on any given day more than 400 people come to the Lobby Lounge to enjoy the ritual of scones, sandwiches and pastries served with a selection of 21 teas. It was the teas, sourced from around the world that impressed me the most. The new LOT 35 tea collection is all handpicked whole leaf teas sustainably farmed.

They include Rose Congou Emperor, a favourite of Princess Diana that is five times layered with rose petals, Cream Earl Grey Organic, Madame Butterfly Jasmine and two of my favourites Tong Mu Phoenix Lapsang Souchong and Ceremonial Dragonwell Yixing. The cost of afternoon tea, $78 per person, is also impressive but the price obviously doesn’t deter the crowds.

Afternoon tea at The Butchart Gardens, around a half hour drive from Victoria is half that cost, after purchasing an entry ticket (about $30) to the 22 hectares of gorgeous gardens. However were it my buck, I’d live it up and do the Fly ‘N’ Dine with Harbour Air. It’s the ultimate Victoria VIP experience that includes a scenic aerial tour taking off from downtown and landing dockside on Tod Inlet in Butchart Cove. The $285 per adult cost includes the flight, admission to the gardens, a three-course dinner, a limo back to town and gratuities.

The Dining Room Restaurant at the gardens, is in the expert hands of Executive Chef Travis Hansen, who was born and raised just up the road from Butchart and joined the company 26 years ago. The restaurant, located in the original Butchart family residence, overlooks Jennie Butchart's private garden and the Italian Garden. The menu focuses on local and seasonal - Cowichan Valley chicken breast, West Coast halibut cheeks, Saanich Organics field greens, Berryman Farms pork loin chop and wild BC salmon fillet for example.

Aside from Champagne and a few hot climate reds, the wine list is a well-chosen selection by sommelier and restaurant manager Dave Lane of top BC producers including a number from Vancouver Island such as Unsworth Vineyards Charme De L’île (a delightful 100% pinot noir sparkling wine), Averill Creek Vineyard Pinot Grigio and Alderlea Vineyards Pinot Noir.

The farm to plate movement is equally strong in Victoria with a good array of places to eat. I had my first meal there on the patio of Commons, across the road from The Empress. It’s one of three restaurants owned by 10 Acres Farm on the Saanich Peninsula, which supplies the organically grown vegetables, orchard fruits, nuts, honey and pasture raised pork, duck and turkey to the kitchens. What they don’t grow and raise, they source from like-minded farmers and fishermen.

About a ten minute walk from the hotel was a fabulous lunch place, Nourish Kitchen and Café. Owner Hayley Rosenberg has styled her menu to be healthy, nourishing and healing for your gut. I’d be here every day if I lived in Victoria. There are bone broths, organic salads from local greens, lentil soups, cashew cheese, house made water kefir, various teas and tinctures and for those who want to indulge cocktails, beers and ciders as well as bacon, sausages and eggs.

At Agrius Restaurant, I had a more upscale but still down to earth experience while enjoying the four-course kitchen menu ($60 plus $30 to add on wine pairings). Owner Clif Leir has been baking for 22 years and all his breads are made from the heritage grain red fife, which he mills into flour using a stone mill and bakes in a wood fired oven. The breads are amazing but then so is the rest of the menu at this restaurant which was number four on EnRoute’s 2016  Best New Restaurants when it opened. It takes farm-to-table to the extreme: more than 90 percent of all ingredients are certified organic and sourced micro-locally from single suppliers on Vancouver Island.

My best fine dining meal was at the newly opened The Courtney Room in the Magnolia Hotel, about a five-minute walk from the Empress. This modern dining spot offered delicious cocktails, local beers and BC wines (they brought in four bartenders to brainstorm on the list). The menu under executive chef Sam Harris featured local and seasonal with a French twist such as tuna salad Nicoise, rockfish meunière and steak frites. They make their own charcuterie and dry age in-house their beef, pork and lamb.

About a half hour drive from Victoria is Victoria Distillers in the tiny town of Sidney. Located on the waterfront, this artisan distillery makes handmade spirits such as their flagship Victoria Gin, Empress Gin (butterfly pea flower gives it a vibrant purple colour), Left Coast Hemp Vodka, Sidney Spiced (a flavoured rum) and Chocolate Liqueur. They offer daily tours and tastings that end at their cocktail lounge where patrons can indulge in spirit tasting flights, 22 excellent cocktails and light bites such as a cheese and meat board, vegetarian platter, chocolate truffles and house made sorbet. This is pumped up on certain days with live music, Truffles Catering wood fired pizzas and other special happenings.

It didn’t take me long to understand why Conde Nast readers voted for Victoria. If it keeps up the momentum it’s gunning to be number one Best Small City next year.