Further to my previous post on Victoria BC, I want to add an update on more specific infrastructure-related matters, and also to mention the Saanich Peninsula, immediately to the north of the city. The big event while I was there was the arrival on a barge of the main span of the long-awaited new Johnson Street Bridge – the current bridge is a major bottleneck (carrying about 23,000 motor vehicles a day, 4000 pedestrians and 3000 cyclists – 3500 in summer). It’s particularly fearsome for cyclists since the original wooden deck was replaced in 1966 by steel latticework, so that water would drain and not add weight to the lifting span; it now gets slippery, with the added thrill of the view of the Inner Harbour below, and it’s not easy to see the lane markings. After many years of campaigning the city agreed to fund a new bridge, costed at C$53m in 2009; it will in fact have cost C$105m, despite having been gradually de-scoped, but nevertheless half its width will be for pedestrians and cyclists, with on-road cycle lanes, an off-road shared-use track and a pedestrian-only footway. Anyway, it should be open in March 2018.
Almost half the cost of the bridge is coming from the federal government, which is also paying big bucks for highway improvements, such as a big interchange on the Trans-Canada Highway to serve the rapidly growing suburb of Langford, but people are beginning to think that there may be better options than constantly adding to the road network, and hence to the traffic levels. For one thing, the former rail line is still available west from the Johnson Street Bridge – it was a miracle it kept working as long as it did, with a single railcar trundling out from Victoria in the mornings and back in the afternoons (yes, the wrong way around), but it could be used for an effective LRT service, with modern trams running frequently from the new suburbs as far as the bridge, if not across it. The Greater Victoria area is already well served by buses (some of which are nice new air-conditioned double-deckers), although I’ve never seen so many showing ‘Out of Service’ messages (or ‘Out / Of / Svc‘, or just ‘Off’). The ticketing system has recently changed, with free transfers (a North American custom) abolished – now you pay C$2.50 for a ride or C$5 for a day-pass. But it’s possible to buy a strip of ten tickets at some grocery stores for C$22.50, and you can give the driver two of these for a day-pass (ie $4.50). As yet there are no moves towards an Oyster-style smart card, although that is working well in Vancouver, after a lot of teething problems.
The other way to go is of course by bike, and new segregated cycle lanes are being built in the city centre and elsewhere. The new lanes on Pandora St seem to have boosted cycle numbers on the Johnson St bridge, even though it’s far less cycle-friendly than the one opening in March, and the Dobosala Cantina at 760 Pandora is installing a cycle-through serving window! This is a good place to cycle, as drivers are just ridiculously law-abiding and polite, and positively desperate to stop and let pedestrians and cyclists cross; more than anywhere, a mandatory helmet law seems pointless here. Saanich Municipality, immediately north of downtown Victoria, built (and paved) a good trail system to celebrate its centenary in 2006, and while the more rural municipalities of Central and North Saanich have done less, there’s still the lovely Lochside Trail on a former railway up the east side of the peninsula. It’s possible to make a loop via the cycle track around the airport and the Interurban Tail, also on a former railway on the west side of the peninsula, but that’s much more patchy and requires more riding on busyish roads. The Lochside Trail also connects to the Galloping Goose Regional Trail, another former railway running 55km west from Victoria to Sooke. Between 2011 and 2016 cycling levels rose 16% in the CRD, and from 5.4% to 6.3% in Saanich – the proportion commuting regularly by bike in the CRD grew from 5.9% to 6.6%, which is pretty high for North America.
As I noted in my previous post, many people walk daily, and new trails are being built and new pieces of parkland opened up to link them. The Sea to Sea Green Blue Belt is a corridor of protected green space between the Saanich Inlet and the Juan de Fuca Strait near Sooke, within which the Sea to Sea Regional Park Reserve is a large wilderness area that’s home to bears, wolves and cougars. It’s not continuous, but parcels of land are being bought as available. It’s also worth mentioning that the Trans-Canada Trail – an amazing project linking the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans, and passing through this area to finish in Victoria – is now branding itself as The Great Trail.
Also on the transport front, there’s the new V2V fast ferry service between Victoria and Vancouver harbours; it takes 3 hours and their cheapest fare (known as Premium?!) is C$110; this compares with four and a half hours on the BC Ferries Connector service ($66.58) or $21.50 for a DIY version of the same route using public buses and the ferry from Swartz Bay to Tsawwassen ($2.75 more if you catch a bus in Vancouver before 18.30 Monday to Friday). The priciest option, but one that I absolutely have to try one day, is one of the seaplanes that one constantly sees buzzing in and out of the harbours – Harbour Air charge from $119 for the 35-minute hop. One day I’ll do it! You can also fly from Vancouver Airport to Victoria Airport, but that doesn’t make much sense except as a long-haul connection.
The Steamship Building, the former ferry terminal on Victoria Harbour, re-opened in 2013 as the Robert Bateman Centre, showing the works of the very successful wildlife painter and conservationist Robert Bateman (b.1930). It’s close to the Royal BC Museum, which I’m glad to say is still as amazing as I recall from my childhood. The Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, slightly out of the way to the east of the centre, is smallish but perfectly formed – as well as its famous collection by local artist Emily Carr (1871-1945), it has excellent contemporary and First Nations art, and a Japanese garden and shrine.
Actually, in a way the most exciting development for me was that the Anna’s hummingbird now stays here all year – it’s always been one of the unique features of this part of the world, but only in summer. For the last couple of decades it seems they’ve been over-wintering, due not only to the warming climate and the plentiful nectar feeders in gardens, but also to their ability to go into a state of torpor when it gets cold (reducing their metabolic rate up to 300-fold and breathing six times a minute instead of 250 times) and, it seems, to the spread of eucalyptus trees in California – although I can’t quite see how that helps them if they’re no longer migrating there.
Sidney and the Saanich Peninsula
The Saanich Peninsula was surveyed and sold to settlers in 1859, immediately after the 1858 Gold Rush that kick-started Victoria’s development. It remained a patchwork of forest and farms (and Anglican churches, dating from the 1860s) until relatively recently. Although parts are still surprisingly rural, it’s increasingly affected by suburban sprawl – though it’s a relatively elderly population, concerned about Medical Assistance in Dying laws and the facilities at Saan Pen Hospital. The only real town is Sidney, on the eastern side, which was linked to Victoria by rail from 1894 (closed in 1935). Now Victoria International Airport (created as an air force training base in 1939) sprawls across the width of the peninsula immediately west of the town, with one runway on the line of the rail branch to Patricia Bay, the seaplane base on the west shore (the modern Pat Bay Highway to Sidney and the Swartz Bay ferry terminal runs up the east side, oddly enough). It was named after Princess Patricia of Connaught, daughter of the Governor General of Canada from 1911 to 1916 – the Princess Pats (Canada’s most famous infantry regiment, properly Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry), was also named after her when it was raised in 1914; like her grandmother, Queen Victoria, she was long-lived, serving as colonel-in-chief for 60 years.
Sidney is still a quiet town, proud of its walkability (although it also provides huge free car parks – and doesn’t do much for cycling) and is Canada’s only Book Town – it has half a dozen bookshops, the oldest dating from 1947, so before Russell’s and Munro’s in Victoria (see my previous post) – but, to be honest, not nearly as good. Victoria Distillers (owned by a family friend) are on the waterfront, offering excellent tours and tasting opportunities (check out the gin that changes colour as you add tonic). Like the craft breweries, distillers here feel freer than those in the old country to create interesting combinations (and not just gin, but rum and whisky too), and their cocktail baristas follow suit with their creative mixes.
There are also various wineries on the peninsula that welcome tourists, and I was impressed by Sea Cider, by the Pat Bay Highway on the edge of Saanichton, which makes an excellent range of organic ciders and has a lovely tasting room and deck with views across the water to Mount Baker, a volcano that’s actually in the USA but is the iconic sight of this part of Vancouver Island.