Funky Fernwood: Exploring Victoria's urban village

The Fernwood Inn 

Victoria, B.C. - You've done high tea at the Empress hotel, viewed the Parliament buildings from a horse-drawn carriage, and stopped at Rogers' Chocolates for a box of truffles.

Now what?

Leave Ye Olde England behind for a stroll to Fernwood, an urban village a short walk or bus ride east of the Inner Harbour, and discover an alternative Victoria. 

Meet a new-age ice-cream maker who takes orders on a rotary dial phone and a former Apache helicopter pilot who custom-designs contemporary-style kilts. Take in a play in a restored 19th century Baptist church, or stroll through a square film crews used to recreate a scene in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Did I mention the tattoo parlor and piercing salon?

"There's an atmosphere here,'' says Steve Ashton,  a retired U.S. marine and former yacht designer who operates Freedom Kilts out of a historic 1911 house.  "They call it funky Fernwood." 

Steve Ashton of Freedom Kilts
Read all about it in my recent story for the Portland Oregonian. The neighborhood's commercial hub is Fernwood Square, a tree-lined pedestrian area at the corner of Gladstone Avenue and Fernwood Road that was transformed into the city of Edinburgh in 2011 for the filming of a movie about Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. 

Much has changed from a decade ago when the square was an unwelcoming place in a neighborhood filled with historic homes  built by merchants, sea captains and tradesmen in late 19th and early 20th century.

Belfry Theatre
The gable-roofed Belfry Theatre, once shared its space  with a homeless shelter. It faced the Cornerstone Building, a boarded-up eyesore, now the Cornerstone Cafe, known among locals as "Fernwood's living room.''  

Stop in for coffee or tea latte and know your money is going for a good cause. Rehabbed and owned by the nonprofit Fernwood NRG (Neighbourhood Resource Group), the cafe's proceeds go to support affordable housing and child-care programs. 

Cornerstone Cafe
Dining choices - everything from Mexican and Caribbean street food to sophisticated French - fit the neighborhood's eclectic personality.  Next door to the Cornerstone Cafe is the Stage Wine Bar, 1307 Gladstone Ave., open evenings for cocktails, vegetarian tapas, plates of housemade sausages. 

Tiny Ca Va Bistro Moderne,  across from the Belfry at 1296 Gladstone, was voted the No. 2 best restaurant in Canada by Air Canada's enRoute Magazine's readers. The refurbished Fernwood Inn, 1302 Gladstone, welcomes families into a a warmly-lit, English-style gastropub with locally-brewed Phillips double-chocolate porter is on tap and a menu featuring artisan cheese plates and Thai curries. 

Other stops:

*The She Said Gallery, 2000 Fernwood Rd., supporting Vancouver Island women artists with sales of pottery, jewelry and glass art and more.

 *Freedom Kilts, 1919 Fernwood Rd. Steve Ashton and his band of kiltmakers specialize in "contemporary kilts,'' made from machine washable materials with side pockets like those found in slacks. Ashton wears the talk, donning a "work'' kilt most days in favor of pants. 

* Fernwood Coffee, 1-1115 N. Park Street. Starbucks not. This small roastery operates a cafe called the Parsonage, serving coffee and a lunch menu composed of whatever local farms, butchers, fish mongers and bakers are producing at the time. 

* Cold Comfort Ice Cream, next door to Fernwood Coffee at 2-1115 N. Park.  Owner Autumn Maxwell began making all-natural ice cream out of her home, inventing 250 all-natural flavors so far. 

Autumn Maxwell of Cold Comfort Ice Cream
Using local herbs and fruits to come up with creations such as sour cherry and rosemary ice cream sandwiches, she sells a rotating selection of treats out of an old-fashioned storefront creamery complete with a working rotary-dial phone. 

Fernwood, says Maxwell, "is definitely evolving into a foodie community,'' with the emphasis on community. 

Painted telephone poles
Follow a walking tour laid out by the Fernwood Community Association, and notice the decorative telephone polls painted by local residents.  As part of a project commissioned by the Belfry, playwright/journalist Joel Bernbaum spent more than a year interviewing hundreds of people in Victoria about homelessness, including a few who once lived at the Belfry, for the recent production "Home is a Beautiful World.'' 

"The neighborhood has changed a lot in the past ten years,'' says Fernwood resident Lydia Mills. "Now there's something for everybody.'' 

If you go:

Fernwood is about 1.5 miles east of downtown Victoria. From Bastion Square, walk along Pandora Avenue or take bus No. 27, 24, 2 or 28.

For tourism information, contact Tourism Victoria. The Fernwood Community Association published a self-guided walking tour. Other information about the area is on the NRG's website.

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