City Portrait: British Columbia

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

December, Canada, and motorcycling are words you don't often find in the same sentence. But then there's Victoria. Sheltered on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, near the entrance to Puget Sound, Victoria is caressed by palmy breezes tracking in from the central Pacific, and protected from fierce Arctic air by the Coast Mountains. In a country famous for being cold, Victoria is a climatic anomaly.

More British than Britain, Victoria also has quaintness in spades. Before BC's confederation into Canada, Victoria was an important British naval base, and the English connection has stuck. Until immigration restrictions tightened, many Brits retired to its sleepy, leaf-laden suburbs. Of course, Canadians retire here, too, seeking respite from the harsh winters most of their countrymen endure. Riding a bike year round is do-able and widely done, even if it does mean owning good rain gear.

So it was just before 9:00 am on December 21, the year's shortest day, when I coasted the ST down the loading ramp of the Spirit of Vancouver Island at Swartz Bay terminal, 23 miles north of Victoria. The Spirit had collected me in Tsawwassen, BC, at 7:00 am, fed me bacon and eggs washed down with good strong java, and I was ready to ride.

The main route to the city is the Patricia Bay Highway, #17, but bikers know a better, more interesting, route. As the "cages" jostled onto the highway, I turned on Wain Road, which fed me to West Saanich Road. From there, I could follow the Saanich Peninsula's coastline most of the way to Victoria, edging around its calm, sheltered bays and many fertile farms.

Mist hung over the fields, fogging my visor, and the rising sun worked at steaming the dew from the blacktop. As I cruised by Victoria Airport's floatplane base on Saanich Inlet, a procession of Cessnas bobbed on the morning tide. I wound through the Saanich Nation's Tsartlip Reserve, and soon thereafter slipped past a waterfront of posh villas before crossing over the Pat. Bay Highway at Royal Oak Drive. Sticking to the scenic eastern coastline, making my way to the city center, I wandered by oceanfront bedroom communities filled with pretty lawns and stylish mansions.

Outside the Cadboro Bay Bookstore, I soaked in the morning sun and sipped a scalding Americano while students from nearby U. Vic. dallied and debated around the adjacent tables. Above the horizon, past Oak Bay's mock-Tudor Beach House Hotel, in McNeill Bay, the brooding hulk of snowy Mount Baker - 80 miles away, on the mainland - floated with unusual clarity. I cruised the ST slowly along Beach Drive onto Dallas Street, cut through Victoria's swanky oceanfront golf course, and parked there for a photo. Without warning ("Fore!") a ball whistled by my ear, smacked into the road a couple of yards behind me, and rolled into the ditch. I should have kept my helmet on!

My ocean-side ride concluded in Beacon Hill park, officially "Mile 0" of the Trans-Canada Highway. It's nearly 5,000 miles to St. John's, Newfoundland, at the other end. One day, I'll...

Victoria's downtown is reasonably motorcycle friendly. Legally, you can only park in a regular, metered, car parking bay, but most cops will turn a blind eye to a bike slipped between two cars. The city center is compact enough to walk around easily, so I slotted the ST into a space on Front Street, right on the inner harbour, and went walkabout.

The harbour is Victoria's heart and its maritime soul. The cafes of Bastion Square, the topiary-trimmed trees of Government Street, the Empress Hotel, the parliament buildings, and the Royal BC Museum all front the harbour. As I watched, a battleship-gray coast guard cutter cruised for open sea while two floatplanes landed, ripping the mirror-smooth water and raising a flurry of gulls. Behind me, Bastion Square provided a suntrap for outdoor coffee drinkers. Cafes and pubs spilled tables onto the street. Pedicabs, horse-drawn buggies, and even those vehicles emblematic of all things British, double-decker buses, plied the streets.

I strolled south toward the parliament buildings. These structures set the architectural tone for much of the city. The 25-year-old winner of the design contract, Francis Rattenbury, arrived from England in 1892. As an encore, he created the characteristically copper-roofed Empress Hotel next door for Canadian Pacific, and other stylings of his influenced much of the building erected here at the last century's turn. What Rattenbury is to Victoria, Sir Christopher Wren is to London.

I lingered by the totem pole, a nod to the pervasive influence of BC's First Nations, as a horse-drawn carriage rolled by. Had I visited in May, a legion of motorcyclists might be on hand, meeting provincial parliament members on the steps of the legislature and offering rides. Many of Canada's riders do it every year as their way of promoting motorcycling. Across the street in front of the wax museum, "the Queen" was engaged in conversation with one of her "subjects." Victoria emphasizes its British-ness because it's good economics - after the business of government, tourism is the second-largest moneymaker.

Back on the Sprint, I braved the Christmas shopping traffic on Fort Street for a mile or so, turning right onto Joan Crescent. Here the nineteenth-century coal baron Robert Dunsmuir hired Portland, Oregon, architect Warren H Williams to design the outlandish Craigdarroch Castle, a testament to financial and artistic excess. An impressive structure in a very Hollywood way, its gothic towers and turrets seem to vie with spindly chimneys to provide the most ridiculous punch line in a vertical joke.

Keeping folly in the family, Dunsmuir's son, James, commissioned the building of Hatley Castle, a mock-stately pile overlooking the "Royal Roads," the British-controlled sea lanes that gave access to Victoria Harbour and the naval shipyards at Esquimalt. I pointed the Sprint across the Harbour's powder-blue painted swing bridge, and joined the "Colwood Crawl," a perpetually slow-moving traffic line that winds through View Royal to Colwood and Sooke. Turning into Royal Roads University (the younger Dunsmuir's castle is now a campus), I rode a leafy lane to the waterfront. James Dunsmuir retired in the 1920s to spend his fortune, but died in 1929, leaving his wife to maintain Hatley Castle. When she died penniless in 1937 (her children having disposed of the fortune), the Canadian government acquired the Castle. It became a military college, which it remained until the 1990s. A fascinating collection of military uniforms is on display in the Castle's basement. But I was running out of time. It was, after all, the shortest day of the year, and the light was fading fast.

With the reddening sun sinking toward the wide Pacific, I turned the Sprint toward Highway 17 and the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. Motorcycling? In Canada? In December? No problem!

Fame and fortune came early, but Francis Rattenbury met a sticky end. In the 1920s, by then pushing 60, Rattenbury abandoned his wife of 30 years for a 25-year-old pianist named Alma Packenham, a flighty flapper who (horrors!) smoked cigarettes, in public. Shunned by Victoria society, Rattenbury returned with Alma to England where they hired a 17-year-old, George Stoner, to be their chauffeur. Alma soon seduced Stoner, who, besotted, clubbed Rattenbury to death as he dozed, drunk, in his chair. The authorities arrested Stoner, tried, and sentenced him to swing. Four days after Stoner's trip to the gallows, Alma committed suicide, stabbing herself through the heart.