A Tale of Two Cities – Surrey & Victoria BC

Published April 4, 2023 in British Columbia , Canada - 1 Comment

A Tale of Two Cities

Jane heads to British Columbia in search of culinary delights from around the world on the Spice Trail, while being protected by a wolf at a sacred site

by Jane Finn, Photography by David Finn as published in the April 2023 Edition of Planet Golf Review Magazine

The snow-covered peaks loom large, piercing the sky before tapering off to meet the sea. As we descend into Vancouver, I have a bird’s eye view of the raw, rugged terrain and dancing lights below. Sandwiched between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, British Columbia’s natural beauty is breathtaking and draws me back time and time again. Undoubtedly, this is one of the best places on the planet to hike, ski, canoe, or golf. Still, on this trip, I want to spend time exploring smaller cities and the diversity of culture, cuisine, history and entertainment that makes BC not only an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise but a world-class destination.

So, I head southwest to bold, brash, modern Surrey, one of the fastest-growing centres in the country. It’s also a city striving to balance environmental protection and economic development in its quest to create an urban oasis. The downtown core is clearly expanding and reinventing itself, as evidenced by the number of cranes towering overhead and the new builds popping up everywhere. Still, it’s easy to spot the Civic, the Marriott Autograph Collection hotel that dominates the skyline. Surrounded by parkland and several ethnic communities, it’s the perfect jumping-off point for a new culinary adventure.

Food, Glorious Food? Savour the Flavour or Bon Appetit?

Surrey Indian cuisine

Above: Classic and contemporary dishes tantalise your taste buds Right: Tea complements the savoury spiciness of Indian cuisine

Food has always been part of Surrey’s identity, but when the pandemic hit, many restauranteurs closed their doors and put their dreams on hold. But, when venues reopened, the city had a plan to reignite those dreams.

In July 2021, the Spice Trail was launched, a consortium of eateries, independent restaurants, winemakers, breweries, and distillers collaborating to offer visitors a unique food experience. The Trail has brought me to Surrey, but it’s not long before I learn that one trail leads to another and some unexpected delights.

Sometimes, we’re afraid to stray from the tried and true, but the Spice Trail makes it easy to nibble and nosh your way around the globe. I sample cheese empanadas from Columbia, stuffed Bolani flatbread at the Afghan Kitchen, and zesty honey-jerk chicken with jollof rice at A Taste of Africa. If asked to pick a favourite, it would have to be the Guacamole Mexican Grill – a little gritty on the outside, pure gourmet on the inside! The graphics on the wall, reminiscent of South America, create a welcoming space, and the karaoke tucked in the corner tells me this joint hops, but the depth of flavour of the pozole will have you coming back for more.

Crescent Beach, Surrey

Crescent Beach at sunset

After all the calories I’ve consumed today, a little exercise is in order, so I head to Crescent Beach. I share the path with cyclists, runners, and dog walkers, frequently pausing to admire the historic gardens, and vintage cottages that line the boardwalk. So captivating are the views of the Northshore Mountain ringing Boundary Bay that I wander past Blackie Spit, to the Nicomekl River where kayakers and paddleboarders are packing up their gear. Just in time, I remember Crescent Beach is rated one of the best places to enjoy a sunset on the mainland and return just in time to see the sun light up the sky before sinking in a burst of orange, pink and purple flames.

Too often, we travel with a jam-packed itinerary, too busy ‘ticking off the boxes’ to ensure we see all the guidebook ‘musts,’ that we miss opportunities to delve into the past and meet the people who define their communities.

Restored car, Fraser Valley Heritage Railway

Restored car, Fraser Valley Heritage Railway

The Cloverdale Fraser Valley Heritage Railway Society wasn’t on my radar, but when I saw the sign, I decided to make a quick stop and pick up some souvenirs for my train-obsessed grandsons. That was before I met Grace, a passionate volunteer whose enthusiasm was so contagious that I bought a ticket to ride the rails before I knew it. At Grace’s urging, I later head to the nearby Museum of Surrey to check out the Surrey on Screen – an interactive exhibit showcasing an extensive collection of ‘Hollywood North’ memorabilia. I linger almost until closing time, wandering from room to room, ending my tour at Our Living Language, a First Nations that pays tribute to the diversity and people’s resilience in the face of change. My agenda may have flown out the window, but fortunately, sometimes fate intervenes and causes me to take the road less travelled.

Guacamole Mexican Grill, Surrey

The neighbourhood’s favourite

More than twenty percent of Surrey’s population is of Southeast Asian descent. It’s no wonder that two of the top-rated restaurants feature Indian cuisine. My Shanti translates as peace, and that is what I feel as I witness celebrity chef Vikram Vij circulating throughout the eclectic dining rooms. He seems to quickly and effortlessly strike up conversations with strangers, ensuring that everyone feels like guests in his home as they feast on classic Indian fare.

Clove's Restaurant Surrey

Clove’s Lucknowi lamb chops

Clove is chic and elegant at the other end of the spectrum, elevating traditional dishes to a new level. Fabled cocktails like my Magic Mushroom are served in custom handblown glasses that showcase the creativity of Clove’s mixologists. Every item on the menu, from the herb-encrusted Lucknowi lamb chops to the fenugreek, spinach, and mushrooms baked in cashew cream, is exquisitely prepared and presented. Two vastly different experiences, just like the cities I’m visiting, and neither will disappoint you.

Come Sail Away

Navigating the Gulf Islands

It’s time to leave the hustle and bustle of the mainland for the more laid-back lifestyle of Vancouver Island. I walk aboard a BC Ferry in Tsawwassen to see the majesty of the island gradually revealed from the water. I quickly secure a window seat serving up expansive views of the Salish Sea and settle in for the ride.

Race Rocks

Race Rocks Ecological Preserve, Victoria

Before long, the gentle rhythm of the waves and the low hum of the engines make me relax until, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of Mayne Island. Then it’s a mad dash to reach the outer deck before we enter Active Pass. Now I can feel the breeze on my face and the tang of salt in the air as we weave through the Gulf Islands. The scenery is so impressive that I snap photo after photo until I realize I’m not present. I stop to lean into the moment and fully appreciate the wild, windswept sandstone cliffs and rocky pebble beaches that reach out to welcome me before we head for shore.

The Gateway to Vancouver Island

The Empress Hotel

The Empress Hotel overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbour

On the short taxi ride to the city’s centre, I pass Macaloney’s, where I’ll be tasting ‘Island Whisky’ later in the week. As the suburbs recede, Victoria, as regal as the Queen for whom she’s named, slowly begins to reveal her old-world charm.

Fisherman's Wharf

The whimsical floating homes at Fisherman’s Wharf

Fan Tan Alley, Chinatown

Top: A fine ‘Island Whisky’ Above: Fan Tan Alley, Chinatown

Downtown is eminently walkable, especially from The Oswego, a boutique hotel located in a quiet residential area minute away from the Inner Harbour. I have a panoramic view of the cruise ships arriving at Ogden Point from our ninth-floor balcony. Still, I need to get out on the water and soon find myself at Fisherman’s Wharf, strolling amongst the whimsical floating homes before embarking on a sunset cruise.

I’m fascinated with marine life, and Victoria is one of Canada’s premier destinations for whale watching if you have a sense of adventure and no desire to stay dry. Our excursion on Eagle Wing Tours‘ catamaran is exhilarating and rewarding. We’ve hardly left the shore before the naturalist on board signals that he’s spotted some ‘footprints,’ indicating that a whale may be about to surface. Captain Pete throttles down and comes to a full stop as two mature humpbacks execute a double breach off our starboard side. Then with a flick of their tails, they dive deep and disappear. It happened so fast that I didn’t have a chance to pull my camera out, but I left with a memory that would last a lifetime.

For the next few days, I clock more miles than I can count, burning off the calories I acquired following the Spice Trail. I study the British influence on the city’s architecture as I wander through the stately Empress Hotel and the Parliament Buildings. I treat myself to high tea in the Abkhazi Gardens and discover an endangered Garry oaks ecosystem within Beacon Park in the heart of the city. I even find room for more outrageously good food when I join the Taste of Victoria. Not only do I get to indulge my palate, but I also get to meet the creative forces behind the counters and in the kitchens while learning the secrets of Fan Tan Alley, part of North America’s second-largest Chinatown and how the locals thrived during Prohibition. My trip is drawing to a close, but there’s one more thing I’m called to do.

Stairway to Heaven

Malahat Skywalk - Victoria

Left: Tanya Bub‘s impressive wolf sculpture welcomes visitors to the Malahat Skywalk Right: Finlayson Arms and the Coastal Mountains beckon

Twenty minutes north of Victoria, atop Mount Yos, lies the Malahat Skywalk, a towering new structure that reaches the clouds providing anyone, regardless of age or ability, with the ultimate hiking experience. This tree walk represents a collaborative effort between the Malahat First Nations and the province. Their vision is that this tranquil space will unite people of different cultures and beliefs.

As I step through the gates, I sense a quiet gentleness and feel the spirit of the land. On my right, I spot a larger-than-life wolf sculpture by Tanya Bub, whose work I had first encountered at Studio 106. Wolves have a keen sense of community and depend on one another for food, protection and raising their young. Wolf is also regarded as a great teacher, so it’s fitting he should serve as Malahat’s guardian.

It’s an easy climb, and in no time, I’m 356 meters above sea level, enjoying a panoramic view of Finlayson Arms and the distant Coastal Mountains. Home to the legendary Thunderbird, this heavenly perch is considered the most sacred site on Southern Vancouver Island.

As I gaze across the Saanich Peninsula, the whisper of the wind reminds me of the legend of the five Huaquas. Now is the time to regain our sense of humour, seek happiness for ourselves and others, reignite hope and restore health to people and the planet, so we can collectively move forward in harmony. As the world reopens and we begin travelling more freely and more often, may you find peace and harmony wherever you roam.

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