"Museums and galleries are vital," says Don Main, my guide from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. "But here in Victoria, the treasures are on the streets."
Born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, Main is an architect with 30 years design experience and a keen interest in local history.
I've chosen an architectural walking tour of James Bay, Victoria's oldest neighbourhood, as ashore excursion on my cruise of the Inside Passage with Lindblad Expeditions. "Architecture offers a portal to the past you might otherwise miss," says Main.
Located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, a former crown colony of British North America, Fort Victoria began as a fur trading post in 1843. When gold was discovered in 1858 the fledgling settlement boomed from 500 to 30,000 people. "Along with the miners came the engineers and then the architects," explains Main. "By 1895 there were 19 architects in town."
Our first stop is the childhood home of renowned Canadian painter Emily Carr, famous for her landscapes of the Pacific Northwest and its First Nations people. Built in 1863 by prominent local architects Wright and Saunders, the style is Victorian Italianate – wide eaves, arched windows and a butter and cream trim that looks like shortbread.
"The new settlers used architecture to stay connected to their homelands," says Main. Even a young Carr was aware of this when she described her family home in The Book of Small: "It was as though Father had buried a tremendous homesickness in this new soil and it had rooted and sprung up English."
Victoria isn't all high tea and biscuits. As we walk along Government Street we talk about other features of the city I'd encountered earlier on a bike tour: Chinatown, the oldest in Canada, built by the influx of Chinese miners; Beacon Hill Park, with its ponds and totem poles; and the dome-topped Parliament Buildings, designed by Francis Rattenbury, British Columbia's most infamous architect. "Murdered," whispers Main, as though the scandalous event happened yesterday, not in 1935 in England. "By his second wife's young lover."
Further along we stop at the James Bay Inn, an Edwardian-style inn built in 1911, long favoured as the watering hole of government officials. "Emily Carr died here in 1945," says Main. Before I pass judgment on Carr's drinking habits Main explains that the inn was used as a hospital during World War II.
"Victoria continues to breathe new life into its old buildings," says Main, when we stop in front of the three-tiered Gatsby Mansion, now an inn and teahouse. Built in 1895 for William and Emily Pendray, it is pure Queen Anne with dormer windows, deep sleeping porches and wedding cake ornamentation. We pass other repurposed buildings including the biscuit-coloured Haterleigh, now a landmark B&B, and a creme and olive, hip-roofed Queen Anne house which is now Nourish Kitchen and Cafe. San Francisco may have its street of Painted Ladies, but in James Bay, the entire neighbourhood is a pencil box of pastel colours.
At the end of the tour I'm still oblivious to the difference between gothic revival and gingerbread (yes, it's a style), and can barely differentiate between a bay and an oriel window. Yet, I've strolled in the sunshine, been engulfed in a blush of azaleas, their pink petals blanketing every front garden, and enjoyed the company of an informed local. That's the real joy of a tour like this.
Kerry van der Jagt was a guest of Lindblad Expeditions.
Qantas flies to San Francisco daily from Melbourne and Sydney with connections to Seattle. See qantas.com.au
Lindblad Expeditions' 14-day Treasures of the Inside Passage travels from Seattle to Sitka (or reverse) visiting the San Juan Islands, Victoria, Alert Bay, Misty Fjords, Icy Strait and Glacier Bay. Prices from $12,490 a person. See expeditions.com