Vancouver Island Museums
|McLean Steam Sawmill in Port Alberni, Vancouver Island|
Museums are far more than history’s closets, much more than stuffy collections—though, indeed, they do hold stuff. On Vancouver Island, our museums rank among the world’s best, and the “stuff” they hold includes priceless treasures of human civilization. Here are great works of art, unique examples of the ways people have lived here for millennia, and intriguing interpretations of the way we live here now. Wonderful places to go any time of year, the Island’s museums are especially appealing in the dark days of winter, when they shine their own light on our land.
Best-known among these is Victoria’s Royal BC Museum, a glistening facility just off the Inner Harbour between the Parliament Buildings and the Empress Hotel (two marvelous landmarks themselves). The Royal BC is first and foremost a treasurehouse for Northwest Coast indigenous art, holding one of the world’s most valuable and extensive collections of Haida, Kwakwaka’wakw, Salish and Nuu Cha Nulth artifacts. Some of these are historic, such as the totems gathered from abandoned villages at the end of the 19th century by farsighted Island pioneers.
Many of these greet visitors as they arrive at the museum’s ground floor, but the greatest number of them is upstairs in the First Peoples Gallery, where visitors can experience a Kwakwaka’wakw longhouse made especially for the Royal BC by the Hunt family. Nearby, in the haunting mask gallery, ceremonial masks by many artists include several by famed carver Mungo Martin, who also practiced his craft for the museum in the mid-20th century. An adjacent hall contains an exhibit in which legendary Haida artist Bill Reid explains, on tape, the devastating impact of smallpox on his people.
Elsewhere, the Royal BC’s galleries illustrate the human history of our Island, from indigenous lifestyles based on salmon and cedar, to European colonization based on timber and coal. Victoria’s history as a colonial trade capital in the British Empire is evoked starting with a replica of George Vancouver’s vessel HMS Discovery through which museum-goers can walk.
But one of the museum’s greatest exhibits is outdoors, in adjacent Thunderbird Park, where totems carved by Mungo Martin, the Hunt family, and other First Nations masters rise to the sky—welcoming, in winter, the life-giving rain that makes out Island so lush and rich. A carving shed/feast house, Wawadit’la, is not just a museum piece: Here, on special occasions, First Nations peoples conduct traditional ceremonies just as may have been done centuries ago.
The First Nations history that lives on in two up-Island museums is especially poignant. At Nuyumbalees Cultural Centre, on Quadra Island near Campbell River, and at U’mista, in Alert Bay, near Port McNeill, the Kwakwaka’wakw masks, capes and other regalia on display were seized from their owners in the early 20th century by authorities attempting to curb potlatch, the centuries-old ceremonies at which First Nations peoples celebrated their culture. Illegally sold around the world, these matchless works of art have been painstakingly found and brought back home by the bands in Alert Bay and Cape Mudge. Here, visitors see not only marvelous works of art, they experience the wonder of a historic wrong being healed by modern reconciliation. Each of these museums is a world-class repository of aboriginal art—and a place of hope.
Many communities on our Island also hold smaller but equally engaging museums. In Victoria, the city’s Art Gallery is housed in a heritage building on Government Hill, and though compact, makes fabulous use of its space by focusing on native daughter Emily Carr, whose expressionist canvases depicting the Northwest Coast made her one of Canada’s most famous artists. The Art Gallery not only hangs Carr canvases, it frames her work against the climate of her times with piece by other artists and exhibits on her other accomplishments such as writing.
The Nanaimo Museum, at the edge of the Harbour City’s historic district, introduces both First Nations culture and a key up-Island story, that of coal mining. A coal mine exhibit, installed with the help of film industry set artists, introduces visitors to this colourful industry pivotal to our recent history. A replica mine shaft helps modern visitors understand what it was like below ground not so long ago.
In Port Alberni, two facilities honor the area’s key industries, maritime enterprise and timber. The Maritime Discovery Centre is along the waterfront in town, while the McLean Mill’s still-operating steam sawmill demonstrates how millions of board feet of lumber were once shaped on the Island. In Campbell River, the town museum illustrates the area’s long history as a salmon fishing center, from traditional First Nations life to modern-day sport angling.
If we can stretch the definition of museum just a bit, we also can boast two of the best small aquariums anywhere. In Sidney, just north of Victoria, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre focuses exclusively on the marine environment that’s below water just a few meters away, the rich ecology of the Salish Sea. Nudibranchs, anemones, crabs, shrimps, kelp and many other small wonders lie at close range so one can marvel at these colourful local denizens easily.
In Ucluelet, on the Island’s ocean shore, the Ucluelet Aquarium pursues a display philosophy perhaps unique on earth. Each spring, all the marine creatures that will be on exhibit in the aquarium’s tanks are gathered from local waters—crabs, fish, mollusks, seaweed and more. They spend the summer on display, and then they are returned to the waters whence they came each autumn in a community festival. The brand-new facility hugs the waterfront in this rugged coastal town, and it’s entertaining to view Ukee’s lovely underwater neighbours with the knowledge they will be going back home in a few months.
Last but certainly not least, for those who like museums as living facilities, is the famous—especially with kids—Victoria Bug Zoo. Here visitors get to know arachnids and insects of every description from around the world. Imagine holding in your hand a 400-leg millipede or tarantula. Now, that’s not stuffy
Discovering Victoria, Vancouver Island
|A Patio Cafe on Victoria's Government Street|
No doubt pragmatic considerations led the founders of Victoria to select the colonial settlement’s location—a remarkably sheltered harbour, easily reached from the open ocean, ample water and timber resources, a handy spot to fend off American claims to the region. Fort Victoria, founded in 1841, was joined by a Hudson’s Bay Company post two years later, and the discovery of gold in the BC interior in 1855 spurred rapid growth for what became one of the finest outposts in the British Empire. Clipper ships called from Asia, a genteel lifestyle sprang up in the wilderness, and trade and government quickly became mainstays of the city’s life.
All those facets of Victoria’s character hold true today—global flair, fortunate geography, ample timber and water and a serene quality of life based on government and trade (though tourism is the larger part of the trade economy now). High tea remains a daily event, and one may even still find tall ships tied up in the Inner Harbour below the Parliament Buildings and Empress Hotel, two landmarks reflecting the city’s Victorian and Edwardian heydays.
But much has changed in 21st Century Victoria, and the city presents a vastly more diverse and colourful personality than just historic colonial capital. Its lively restaurant scene, for example, is a world leader in the “locavore” movement toward using foods grown or gathered nearby. Island fish, meat, produce and foraged foods such as seaweed combine into meals that marvelously reflect the great richness of Island agriculture and fisheries; a local Chefs Collaborative helps ensure a ready market for all these producers. At table, diners enjoy everything from classic Cantonese dim sum to sustainable fish and chips; from traditional country French steak frites to wildly inventive West Coast creations—octopus aspic, say.
Two great museums offer premier collections of First Nations art and the work of Victoria native Emily Carr. Shoppers throng to Government Street for everything from traditional British teas at Murchie’s to modern herbal blends at Silk Road Tea. Fort Street is an antiques district whose wares range from Victorian china and silver to nautical maps and charts. Chinatown is a compact district with bustling Asian produce stores and a narrow lane, Fan Tan Alley, in which the echoes of 19th century life still ring. An excellent professional symphony and theater scene afford superb cultural offerings.
The city’s also an outdoor lifestyle capital—fittest in Canada, according to government measures. A marvelous recreation trail, the Galloping Goose, leads many kilometers from the edge of downtown out into the fields and forests of the countryside, and kayakers can be seen plying the waterways of the harbour almost any day. They share those waters these days with both floatplanes and sailing vessels, and the clean ocean breezes and snowcapped mountain vistas that greeted 19th Century settlers remain ever the same. Victoria’s character today is brilliantly modern, but its underlying elements are strong. Those 19th Century explorers knew what they were about.
Vancouver Island Brunch
Winter is the perfect season to enjoy the delights of brunch, that wonderfully indulgent late morning pastiche of breakfast items plus supper entrees plus desserts. Most commonly offered and enjoyed on Sundays, brunch (yes, the word consists of breakfast and lunch pruned and glued together) dates back to late 19th Century Britain. “By eliminating the need to get up early on Sunday, brunch would make life brighter for Saturday night carousers,” wrote author Guy Beringer in an 1895 magazine article titled “Brunch: A Plea.”
Few people these days need pleas to take advantage of this now well established tradition, and Vancouver Island offers many provisioners of classic Sunday brunch, as well as a couple more distinctive versions.
The classic brunch, either a lavish buffet or sweeping a la carte affair, offers up fresh fruit and juices, eggs, bacon, sausage, pastries; plus roast beef and ham, vegetable melanges and desserts—famously, bread pudding. A common Island inclusion is seafood: roast oysters, smoked salmon, crabcakes, poached halibut. A brunch platter has not one or two or three but numerous delicacies, and hearty eaters enjoy not one or two but three or more visits to the buffet. Gourmet chefs concoct high-style variations of traditional brunch dishes: brioche bread pudding, for instance, at the Wickaninnish Inn’s Pointe restaurant in Tofino.
A simpler but equally savoury version of brunch is found at Island pubs hewing to traditional English countryside fare—steak and kidney pie, for example, at the much-loved Crow and Gate Pub outside Nanaimo.
A dramatically different version of brunch is offered at several Vancouver Island Chinese restaurants that serve the delightful Cantonese dim sum. This midday meal (available most days of the week) focuses on handmade dumplings, steamed or fried, filled with seafood, meats or vegetables, or all three; or with Asian dessert ingredients such as mango paste or plum filling. Dim sum preparation begins at dawn in restaurant kitchens, and serving staff trundle out carts with trays of treats on them starting at about 11:30am. Diners choose from these rolling buffet carts, and most of the dishes are gone by 1:30.
In the case of almost any brunch, a warm and comforting afternoon nap is called for afterwards. Brunch, wrote Beringer, “puts you in a good temper, it makes you satisfied with yourself and your fellow beings, it sweeps away the worries and cobwebs of the week.” Amen to that!
- Blue Fox Cafe - Victoria
- Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa - Courtenay
- Merridale Estate Cidery - Cobble Hill
- Genoa Bay Café - Duncan
- The Marina at Oak Bay - Victoria
- Inn at Laurel Point - Victoria
- Atlas Café - Courtenay
- Matterson House - Ucluelet
- Longwood Brewpub - Nanaimo
- Tigh-Na-Mara - Parksville
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