Stepping out of the tiny airport in Victoria, I can’t resist luxuriating in a few deep breaths – even though it’s the first week of February, the air is lush and exhilarating. I’ve always associated the city with restoration and renewal, a place where green things unfurl and blossoms burst long before the ice and snow covering the rest of the country have begun to melt.
Like those early crocuses, the city itself is emerging as a wellness destination, with hotels, spas and adventure companies offering experiences that heighten the sense of well-being that comes with just being there. These businesses are catering to an increasing number of visitors seeking getaways that focus on self-care. Wellness tourism, the pursuit of maintaining or enhancing one’s personal well-being through travel experiences, grew by 6.5 per cent annually from 2015 to 2017, more than twice the growth rate of tourism over all. The market, driven by an increased desire for stress reduction and a healthier lifestyle, is expected to reach US$919-billion worldwide by 2022, according to the Global Wellness Institute.
This focus is influencing even the most staid traditions, such as the long-time tourist ritual of afternoon tea, available across the city. At Silk Road Tea, though, the occasion is less about indulging in tiers of scones, finger sandwiches and sweets than it is about discovering an inner sense of well-being.
Silk Road Tea’s founder, Daniela Cubelic, a certified tea master trained by Chinese and Taiwanese herbalists in ancient tea traditions, operates her tea and skin-care shop just outside Chinatown. Ahead of the curve, her destination has focused on wellness since it opened in 1992. Talking us through the myriad benefits of her loose-leaf teas, which are free of additives and richer in antioxidants than mass-produced teabags, she drips aromatic hydrating nourishing dew on the backs of our hands and rubs it in, a small gesture that’s surprisingly relaxing. Cubelic developed her own skin-care line free of harsh ingredients such as artificial fragrances, dyes, petrochemicals and chemical preservatives; her products are used in the facials, massages and scrubs offered in the small spa at the back of the shop.
“Rituals can be very powerful – they become opportunities throughout the day to take moments to do something positive, as an antidote to all that’s going on,” she says to my friends and me as we sip a flight of organic teas, which she calls an elixir of life.
Another spa that has an increased focus on well-being is Spa Magnolia, situated just outside the city’s inner harbour. It offers facials using products formulated from natural ingredients, including cold-pressed raspberry, pumpkin seed, cranberry, grape seed and black cumin oils, designed to improve hydration, luminosity and elasticity. “Our focus is on smart aging, rather than anti-aging,” owner Paula Veenema says, as we enjoy postfacial shots of the same ingredients used in our treatments.
Spa Magnolia is in the lobby of one of the city’s best boutique hotels, the 64-room Magnolia, which also caters to guests focused on feeling good. A fleet of complimentary Norco bikes is available, and the hotel has compiled 12 trail maps to help guests navigate Victoria on two wheels or on foot, all with different themes. “Being a small city surrounded by ocean, forests and mountains, we embrace nature in everything we do, and want to share that with our guests,” general manager Bill Lewis says. The hotel has also curated a collection of unique local experiences that combine nature with mindful activity, which the concierge will help arrange: hiking to the peak of Gowlland Tod for sweeping views of the Saanich Inlet, kayaking with seals and otters in the Victoria Harbour, and exploring the lavender fields and the oldest apple orchard in the province at Bilston Creek Farm in nearby rural Metchosin.
Bilston Creek Farm, which dates back to 1851, remains one of the few places in North America where farmland stretches along the ocean. Cleared, restored and rebuilt over many years, it opened to the public in the summer of 2018 as a calming hub of wellness retreats, workshops and farm-to-table dinners prepared by the resident chef. In the summer, there are glamping tents equipped with king-sized beds and an outdoor cocktail bar and pizza oven. Visitors can harvest and distill lavender and cedar essential oils in the Portuguese copper still or head out on a paddleboard with a guide, taking advantage of the farm’s beachfront.
On the other side of the city, the Oak Bay Beach Hotel is known for its oceanfront heated mineral pools, which overlook the Salish Sea. This property, too, has responded to an interest in self-care by developing an annual Wellness Weekend, which it launched in 2019. The three-day retreat leads participants through five in-depth modules on mindset, movement, nutrition, sleep and connection with Catherine Roscoe Barr, a neuroscientist who draws on 18 years of experience as a certified personal trainer, fitness instructor and coach. With a focus on the science of health, happiness and productivity, Roscoe Barr’s program helps attendees to create personalized life and business goals and strategies while drawing on insights from the group. Growing interest in the first event saw attendance more than double; there were 20 registered in their second event, held earlier this year, and they anticipate a larger group in early 2021.
And if your idea of wellness involves doing less, there’s the option to pop into the Snug, Victoria’s’s oldest neighbourhood pub, for a glass of B.C. wine or pint of local cider while gazing out over the ocean, then wander back to your freshly made bed to take a nap as the waves crash against the shore.
Victoria has one of the longest growing seasons in the country, which not only inspires gardeners to beautify the seemingly endless green spaces, but allows restaurants access to a steadier supply of seasonal island produce. These dining options are worth making time for.
The Courtney Room, in the Magnolia hotel, is an elegant, award-winning brasserie that serves modern cuisine using ingredients from local farmers, foragers and growers on their plant-heavy and sea-focused menu. 619 Courtney St., thecourtneyroom.com
Be Love is a modern eatery serving local, organic, plant-based cuisine; the menu is free of wheat, dairy, gluten and processed sugar, and is complemented by an organic and natural wine list and a lineup of superfood cocktails, juices, smoothies and elixirs. 1019 Blanshard St., beloverestaurant.ca
In a transformed 1888 heritage house filled with natural light, Nourish Kitchen offers an inspired breakfast and lunch menu supplemented by its backyard garden. The open main floor has a full-service dining room one one side; the other is counter service, with coffee, tea, their own nutrient-rich elixirs and bone broths. 225 Quebec St., nourishkitchen.ca
In Victoria’s iconic Chinatown and a block from the upper harbour, OLO pays homage to the region’s roots as a trade hub, drawing inspiration from island farms and small artisan producers for their constantly evolving menu. 509 Fisgard St., olorestaurant.com
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