Victoria's Dickens-style Christmas

Can't make it to London this Christmas season? No worries. A slice of old England awaits in Victoria, B.C., ending its celebration of 150 years as a city this year with dozens of traditional holiday festivities. 

"Victoria is kind of like Whoville at Christmas time," says Avril Matthews, manager of the Inn at Laurel Point, recalling the make-believe world of Dr. Seuss with its animal-like creatures known for their warm hearts and welcoming spirits. 

"I tell my friends in Portland and Seattle to get off the crazy train (away from the malls and the holiday-shopping fray) and come on over" to Vancouver Island. 

With package deals putting the price of many hotel rooms at under $100 per night and many free events taking place, a winter getaway can be budget-friendly. 

My story in Sunday's Portland Oregonian includes a trip planner and some suggestions for getting in the holiday spirit. 

Get the lay of the land aboard a horse-drawn trolley 

Wrap your hands around a cup of coffee and join the locals in a chorus of "Jingle Bells" as you ride free on Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 23. 

The Victoria Downtown Business Association has hired Vintage Carriage Tours to run two horse-drawn trolleys through Old Town, where the Hudson's Bay Company fur traders built Fort Victoria in 1843. 

The 20-minute tours are a bargain considering that private horse-drawn carriage rides cost $50 for 15 minutes. No reservations necessary.  

Go hotel-hopping for a cause 

Start at the Fairmont Empress, facing the Inner Harbour, for a self-guided tour of its annual Festival of Trees. Brightening the hallways and lobbies are 78 evergreens decorated by local businesses and organizations to raise money for the BC Children's Hospital Fund. 

Move on to the Hotel Grand Pacific for Bear Wear, a display of teddy bears dressed up for the holidays by local sponsors to benefit the Queen Alexandra Foundation for Children. 

Arrive between noon and 2 p.m. through Dec. 23, and sample roast turkey with apple dressing, Christmas pudding, mincemeat tarts and more at the hotel's $28 Christmas lunch buffet. 

Walk it all off with a stroll along the waterfront to the Inn at Laurel Point, where there's a display of 27 edible gingerbread creations made by local chefs and others to benefit Habitat for Humanity. 

All three displays are free, with $2 donations accepted in exchange for ballots to vote for your favorites. 

Get outdoors

Bundle up for a garden walk, movies under the stars or a stroll through a farmers market. 

Butchart Gardens celebrates 25 years of its Magic of Christmas display this year, with thousands of twinkling lights throughout the gardens, an outdoor skating rink and scenes depicting "The Twelve Days of Christmas."  

Delta Victoria Ocean Pointe Resort  brings back its outdoor Christmas Starlight Cinema on Tuesdays and Thursdays through Dec. 19. The hotel supplies heaters and the movies are free (donations accepted for the Santa Anonymous fund). 

Stock up on homemade cider, pasta, teas and local crafts at the Victoria Downtown Winter Market on the first and third Saturdays of the month at Market Square on Johnson Street. 

Shop wisely 

With the exchange rate on the U.S. and Canadian dollars roughly the same, look for unique gift items rather than bargains. 

Stop by Murchie's Tea & Coffee, 1110 Government St., for decorative tins of hot chocolate mix ($7.95) or 50-bag boxes of Christmas blend tea for $15.95. 

Rogers' Chocolates, selling candy out of the same storefront location at 913 Government St. for more than 100 years, stocks a holiday line of its popular Victoria Creams in flavors such as eggnog and candy cane ($15.99 for six packaged in bright foil wrappers). 

The volunteer-run Global Village store, 527 Pandora Ave., markets handmade crafts for worldwide fair trade cooperatives. Pick up small ornaments made by women in Vietnam ($4.50) and woolen shawls ($21) woven by villagers in India. 

Soak up a bit of history

Join local historian John Adams and his crew at Discover the Past walking tours for a glimpse of how the holidays were celebrated years ago, or a ghost walk tour recalling stories of the supernatural at Christmas. 

"People think of Victoria as this quiet little city," said Adams. "It is today, but it wasn't back in the day." 

It wasn't until the gold rush of 1858 brought thousands of people to Victoria that religious Christmas celebrations really began. Until that time, workers for the Hudson's Bay Co. observed the holiday hunting, shooting, fishing and drinking rum. 

Adams tells one of his favorites ghost stories inside Rogers' Chocolates next to a portrait of the original owners, Charles and Leah Rogers. 

The couple devoted their lives to the business after their only child, Freddy, who blew the fingers off one hand while playing with dynamite, committed suicide. 

"See that mirror above the doorway?" Adams said, pointing to a room in the back of the shop that was once the candy kitchen. 

"A couple of years ago, on Christmas Eve, someone spotted a small handprint. It was a child's handprint and it was misshapen -- like it might have been if the fingers were blown off." 

Not to worry. The only handprints to show up lately are on the glass cases, no doubt put there by children tempted by the sight of so many sweets. 

"Anyone who lives in Victoria," said Adams, "wants Rogers' Chocolates at Christmas."

I'm always on the lookout for new places to have tea in Victoria. My new favorite is the Venus Sophia vegetarian cafe and tearoom tucked among the souvenir shops and seafood restaurants in Chinatown. The atmosphere is bright and cozy, with tables positioned around an electric fireplace and comfy overstuffed chairs. 

The menu is thoroughly modern, nothing like you'd expect to find in Chinatown. We went back three times, once for the brie-mango quesadillas, another time for the vegetarian kebabs and the third time for a vegetarian lasagna - all paired with a pot of smokey Assam tea. 

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