A Year in Victoria, a Brief Review

At the beginning of 2019 I wrote about our decision to move to Victoria. While we hoped this was going to be a permanent thing, we also knew we were testing the water to some degree. Life has a habit of handing you surprises and, as I wrote in October it did just that.

I won’t rehash any of those details, as you can hit the links above if you’re interested. However, since Victoria ended up being more temporary than we originally expected, I thought a very brief review of our experience was in order.

Climate

While it’s only a few kilometers across the Strait of Georgia, Victoria is generally a lot drier than Vancouver. In fact, until things got fairly wet around Christmas, we’d had very little precipitation in the entire year we’ve lived in Victoria. However, it’s also a lot windier, particularly if you live close to the water downtown. So, while less rain makes it easier to stick with outside activities, you often have to be prepared to get blown pretty hard.

Getting Around

Partly a byproduct of living downtown, close to where I was working, and partly due to Victoria’s size, getting around on foot is very easy. While I was working I had a really pleasant 1km walk each way, and the lack of rain for most of the year made it doubly pleasant. Most things we wanted to do on a day-to-day basis were easily walkable.

I didn’t cycle nearly as much as I expected, but Victoria has done an admirable job on cycling infrastructure and the regional network extends the excellence north through Saanich to Sidney and Swartz Bay, and over to the west shore, through Esquimalt, View Royal, Colwood, Langford and beyond. If you have the time, you can generally get around by bike very easily.

I should also mention that the traffic, by comparison to Vancouver, is a delight (if traffic can be called that). Drivers tend to be more considerate of cyclists, and with the exception of heading out the number one or over to the west shore, there really isn’t much of a rush hour closer into the city.

Running & Hiking

City Strides Victoria, Oak Bay and Esquimalt map
My Victoria, Oak Bay and Esquimalt streets run (click for City Strides)

Victoria has long been a great place to run, and I’ve done a few races here over the years. While I’ve put training and racing on the back burner for the time being, however, I decided I’d continue my City Strides pastime and run as many streets as I could. I’m presently done all of Victoria and Oak Bay, with the majority of Esquimalt complete (above). There was even an article about it in the Black Press community papers here a few weeks ago.

I’ll really miss the deer while running
I don’t think I’ll be able to finish Esquimalt before we leave, as a rather sticky hip flexor strain has sidelined me from all run/bike for over two weeks and counting. However, if you’re in the area, from James Bay, to Dallas Road, to Vic West, to the trails in the Highlands, Saanich and beyond, the running is great. Urban deer sightings while running are almost guaranteed.

As with cycling, I didn’t get out on the trails as much in the past year as I would have liked. Some of the notable smaller ones very close to Victoria which I did get to include Mount Douglas, Elk / Beaver Lake, Mount Tolmie, Swan / Christmas Lake and Thetis Lake. I’d hoped to get out to Finlayson Arm, Tod Inlet and Mystic Beach, but didn’t make it.

Food

Seeking plant-based options when eating out can be a real hassle. I’d say Victoria is decent, but not sensational, and probably not quite as good as Vancouver even when factoring in the much smaller size. We already had a couple places we liked when we moved here and have added a few to that list.

In no particular order, a few notables:

  • Fern Cafe and Bakery became one of our go-to places for weekend brunches. Killer tofu scrambles, custom burgers, mac and cheeze and massive vegan cinnamon buns.
  • Very Good Butchers sells some of the same kinds of food as Fern, but tends to be busier and slower. They also sell a full line of bean-based vegan meats. Delicious.
  • Be Love was a place we adored, discovered originally in 2016. We ate there a few times this past year and found it more disappointing on each visit. In particular, they seemed to get A LOT saltier over time, to the degree that I couldn’t even finish my meal last time I ate there. And, it’s not cheap.
  • Nubo was also a place we were familiar with, which continued to impress us this past year. Mid-to-better Japanese tapas with lots of veggie and vegan options and very original creations. Not a quick cheap bite, but well worth a visit.
  • No Victoria veggie list is complete without Rebar, and while we still enjoy it, we find the use of garlic can be a problem (it can trigger pretty bad IBS for me). It’s in a lot of their dishes. They went through ownership changes which temporarily affected their quality, but seem to be good again. In particular, the Rebar Salad is one of the better meal-sized salads you are likely to find anywhere.
  • Yalla and SuperBaba are both nice Mediterranean/Lebanese places of the fast and almost fast variety, respectively. Neither place loads their hummus with garlic and a tasty meal can be had in either place for under $15.
  • Virtuous Pie was one of our favourite vegan comfort food joints from Vancouver, and they’d been promising to open on Pandora for last summer. They finally opened in December and did not disappoint. Great vegan pizza with awesome potato and cashew cheeses, vegan ice creams, and (in Victoria) some new cocktails. In the Vancouver comfort food vein, Meet is supposed to be opening in Victoria sometime as well.
  • FanTan Cafe was a place we had liked very much early on, but as with Be Love, quality really seemed to decline over time. You can get a few decent Chinese veggie dishes, including a nice peanut deep fried tofu.
  • When we went to the Pacific Rim this past summer we hit the original, but you can get a couple really decent veg and vegan dishes at Taco Fino.

Drink

If you’re just looking for coffee, cocktails or neighbourhood pubs, Victoria is a lot like other cities with some decent options. However, if there’s one area where it punches way above its weight for a city of its size, it’s the craft beer options here. Some of the best craft breweries in BC call Victoria home. We have attended the BC Craft Beer Awards in Vancouver for the past seven or so years. We were delighted when we found Beer Fest Victoria at Royal Athletic Park in September.

The damned fine Beer Fest Victoria in September

Not likely a complete list, the ones below are the places we’ve visited (and we’ve made the effort to visit most):

  • Phillips Brewing is my favourite tasting room, based on location, consistent quality beer and ambiance. Black Magic is often on tap and very good, while they have some excellent IPAs and mellower fruity blond stuff.
  • ile Sauvage is probably the best place to go if you like sours and unusual experiments, and a couple really good stouts. It’s a nice warehouse space in a less-than-ideal Rock Bay location.
  • Hoyne Brewing is a very small, standing-room-only tasting room. Killer beer. Always. Is anything better than Dark Matter?
  • Driftwood Brewery is less than a block from Hoyne and also a small standing space. More great stuff, though and some real variety in the brews.
  • Moon Under Water is more of a brewpub than tasting room, with one of my perennial favourites, Creepy Uncle Dunkel. They make a decent veggie burger, too.
  • Vancouver Island Brewing only does flights and I’d say they have some hits and misses, but their flights are really cheap and there’s always an interesting beer or two there.
  • Lighthouse Brewing is located in Esquimalt where Phillips used to be, if my understanding is correct. They have some absolutely delicious stuff, including a really unique blond coffee lager and vanilla stout.
  • Whistle Buoy is very new and located downtown in Market Square. Decent early efforts, but probably needs time to mature.
  • Category 12 is a ways up the Pat Bay highway in Saanichton. Their beers are decent. What marred our one tasting room/food experience was virtually nothing vegetarian. We decided to have something that should have been (even though there was a little dairy), but when it came it was sitting on a pile of meat sauce that wasn’t mentioned on the menu. Bringing it to their attention didn’t even elicit the slightest concern.
  • Twa Dogs is the brewing arm of Caledonia Distillery and they have a very strong and pretty tasty bourbon ale, along with some other really nice stuff. Their tasting room is tucked in an industrial warehouse in north Saanich.
  • Swan’s Hotel and Garrick’s Head get special mention as pubs with a really good tap selection, as opposed to being tasting rooms for their own brews (though Swan’s does have house brews).

Below, while hardly insignificant, are the two areas of the move which could have used some improvement.

Housing

We made a conscious decision to rent for our move and, given developments, it’s a good thing we did since a mortgage would have stopped us considering travel this year. As we were looking for a place remotely we had very limited time and simple criteria – it needed to be close to where I was working and needed to accept our dog. Luckily we found a place quickly, but were forced to pay too much for it. The rental market is pretty much identical to Vancouver’s, though perhaps a tiny bit cheaper. With vacancy rates presently at 1%, the situation isn’t likely to change.

Our particular building ended up being pretty bad. We had a good view and were right across from Beacon Hill Park, but otherwise it was an old, poorly run building. It’s effectively a large cement echo bowl with drafty, 50 year old, single pane aluminum framed windows with no screens – bugs, dust, rain and the like just fly in when they’re open. When you couple that with 10th floor James Bay wind, it can be pretty bone-rattling, too. Very glad we didn’t pay for heat.

Building management has been entirely focused on aesthetic updates for rental visual appeal, as opposed to anything that would improve the building’s livability. Apparently, they used to do mass renovictions, but long-term tenants stopped them, so now as tenants move they do long overdue surface updates and then jack the rent by hundreds of dollars. Presently, there’s been a mud pit surrounding the building for two months as landscaping to be finished December 15th hasn’t been touched since well before that.

I won’t dwell on this further, as it was our specific experience, but that and far worse is common in tight rental markets. Also like Vancouver, relief in Victoria seems to be very slow in coming due to restrictive zoning.

Wages

Compensation is really the only other negative I’ve experienced from the move. I found that I had to take a sizable hit to my pay and benefits to move to Victoria. Since my wife could work remotely, we figured we’d give it a try. Talking with people in tech in Victoria, I’d say that’s a pretty common issue. Some who do recruiting refer to it as the Island Tax (as in, it’s a lovely and somewhat cheaper city, so the pay tends to be lower). This was made a little more challenging by the fact that the job I took really wasn’t as advertised. Everything from the scope to the challenge of the work was less than discussed during the interview process.

After a while I realized I’d need to look for a different gig (either in or out of government). When I looked at trying to get back to my Vancouver salary and benefits, I realized that wasn’t going to happen. I know that I would have made the sacrifice if we were staying permanently, but with family issues pulling my wife back to Vancouver and my job safe to return to after my leave, I decided the compensation sacrifice could wait until I was closer to full retirement.

In Closing

On the whole, we have really enjoyed living in Victoria and could easily see returning at some point. I’d prefer, though, that to be when we’re close to done working and looking to transition to retirement. In all honesty, though, that’s probably well under ten years from now.

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