Sidney, B.C. by the Salish Sea

One of Canada's greatest poets plays tourist in her own town

photo by jason van der valk

*Our latest story is brought to you by the award-winning Canadian wordsmith Lorna Crozier. Lucky for us, when we asked Lorna if she’d play tourist in her own town on Vancouver Island, and write it up for Toque & Canoe, she agreed. We hope you enjoy this post from one – we are very proud to say – of our newest correspondents.

 

Not many hotels have a beware-of-dog sign on the wall between the breakfast café and the lobby.

It’s one of the many charms of the Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa. This warning is softened by the “muffin-eating canine” reference that follows – an introduction, if you will, to Dave, a rather chubby, six-year-old black lab that became the hotel’s mascot after failing the last of several guide-dog tests.

Guests can take him for a walk, certainly a perk for travelers like me who miss their animals, but the desk clerk tells me that Dave doesn’t always want to go for a stroll, and when he does, he plots his own course.

I wonder how many guide dog tests he actually passed. Are they being kind in saying he failed only one? It’s lucky he’s so endearing.

A hotel, of course, needs more than a pooch to recommend it. How about the etched glass panels on the walls by Coast Salish artist Chris Paul, the orchidaceous bouquets in the lobby, the elegance and practicality of the rooms. My husband and I delighted in our seafood specials in its classy Haro’s Restaurant, and the next afternoon in the hotel spa, our massages made us fall in love with our bodies again.

But maybe the best thing about this hotel is its setting.

Right on the harbour, the Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa is the last building on the north side of Sidney’s Beacon Avenue, if you don’t count the café and fish store at the end of the pier. Seven blocks long, Beacon is a shopper’s paradise with nine—count them—nine bookstores, and galleries, bakeries and one-of-a-kind boutiques—like Marmalade Tart (women’s wear),  Bubba Loo (children’s clothing), and Waterlily Shoes.

Bronze figures sit on bronze benches along the street, and other sculptures stand at the shore or greet you on the long sea walk. Part of the magic of Sidney is the small-town friendliness (population around 12,000) and the rarity of no mall in sight.

You’ve got to wonder why visitors to Vancouver Island bypass my hometown and head off to Victoria as if we didn’t exist. Sidney is less than ten minutes from the ferry and the airport. Restaurants, as well as shops, abound. Crowded with locals, Sabhai Thai is one of our favourites along with Haro’s. So is Maria’s Souvlaki. The food’s better at Maria’s than in Greece.

Then there’s the Star Theatre, a cinema that takes you back to childhood with its smallness, its old-fashioned lobby and inexpensive popcorn. And on rainy afternoons, you can spend the day at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre, a watery dream world of creatures from the Salish Sea.

Inside the small aquarium, I met creatures I’d never seen before, the nudibranch, for instance. A shell-less snail, it could be mistaken for a gorgeous, slightly wacky blossom. I learned that a barnacle has the largest penis in the world (not that it matters), if you take into account its body size. And that a wolf eel mates for life.

My favourite critter is one I long to sweep across a page if I could do that without harm. Called a sea pen, if it feels threatened it emits a cold green light. It looks like a quill, the kind Shakespeare used to create the beautiful Ophelia.

On our final day of three playing hometown tourists, we push off from Canoe Cove, ten minutes north of town, with Brian Smiley who operates EcoCruising Tours and Charters. His pontoon boat looks like a greenhouse that broke free from its moorings to embark on an ocean voyage. Because of its shallow draw, it can go where only paddlers venture. Brian calls it “kayaking from a couch.”

It’s a kind of Zen alternative to whale watching: we’re not heading out to see anything in particular. We’re going nowhere and seeing stuff along the way. Travelling on the water like this, sometimes drifting with the motor off, leaves the smallest sandy footprint.

We’re simply fellow creatures as we move slowly among seals, oyster catchers, cormorants and eagles. When the boat turns to head back to the cove, Sidney rises in the distance.

Eco-cruising is another way to see the town. Low along the shore, Sidney looks like an imaginary city the ocean made up – shimmering with moisture and soft, rain-coast light.

Soon it might vanish in the mist. There’s a fragility to its beauty, and right now, for this moment, we’re the only humans around. The only ones who see it from this perspective.

Everything seems in balance – the ocean and its creatures, the town, my husband and I, side by side, feeling the miracle of being here out of the chaos of crowds and cities.

In retrospect, maybe Sidney should be kept a secret a little longer. Don’t come here. You won’t like it.

 

Editor’s Note: Our writer was hosted by our tourism partners. They did not review or edit this story before publication.

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  1. Jody Robbins commented:

    The secret is now out! I spent almost every Easter as a child in Sidney, staying at the Cedarwood Motel. It’s truly a magical place. I love, love the picture of the harbour and the Satellite Fish Co. Did you know you can get fresh crab there that they’ll wrap up for transport? It’s less than 15 minutes away from the Victoria airport, so is worth the stop. One client flew back to China and his crabs were still alive when he arrived!

    Reply

      • Lorna Crozier commented:

        How lucky you were, Jody, to spend almost every Easter in Sidney. I had to wait until I was an adult to discover it.

        Best,
        Lorna

        Reply

        • Lauren Webb commented:

          Lorna – What a beautiful piece! Sidney is where my parents live and this takes me back! I just traveled provinces in 5 minutes. Miss Sidney!

          Thanks Kim for pointing this article out!

          Jody – who knew! Lucky kid!

          Reply

    • ROBYN commented:

      Hey Jody,

      Thanks for the shout out!!! Much appreciated I will keep an eye out for your name in our reservations system!!

      Have a great holiday weekend!
      Robyn

      Reply

  2. Jason van der Valk commented:

    Great article. Sidney is a hidden gem. As a resident of Sooke, about a 45 minute drive south-west of Sidney, we choose Sidney as a get-away day excursion a few times of the year. The quaint oceanside town is beautiful and the local stores friendly and charming.

    A stroll along the marina and the waterfront to the Seafood market always lightens ones spirits. The smell of the sea lingers in the air and the waterways are always busy with sailboats transiting from one gulf island to the next.

    For those that love to watch the action of the airport with all the hustle and bustle and watch planes landing and taking off, tucked back behind Victoria airport is the Spit Fire Grill which serves some great food.

    We always take in the Shaw Ocean Discovery centre too. My 3 year old loves it there. We spend hours watching the jellyfish and octopus.

    Keep an eye out for Orca or Grey Whales too when you are walking along the waterfront.

    Reply

  3. Rhonda Ganz commented:

    It’s often easy to overlook the sights literally in our own backyards. I live in Victoria, not very far away, but only know about a few of the Sidney attractions described by Ms. Crozier. Her description of seeing the town from the water has me intrigued to go on my own pontoon boat trip. I do know and love Waterlily Shoes, and look forward to trying Maria’s next time I’m in Sidney at mealtime.

    Reply

  4. Garth commented:

    I used to make special trips to Sidney by public transit simply for the bookstores, the more used, the better.

    Reply

  5. anne moon commented:

    Words burble out of Crozier’s computer with the energy and exactness of a mouse-hunting cat. Only she would find a dog who flunked his ‘seeing-eye” test! She has captured Sidney so well–but she missed Fish on Fifth and the fact that its level streets make it an easy destination for those using wheelchairs or scooters. And then there is the summertime trip to Sidney Spit–pack a picnic, or buy the makings at the numerous bakeries, and enjoy. Thank you for a delightful piece.

    Reply

    • Lorna Crozier commented:

      Hi, Anne. I’m glad you mentioned wheelchairs and scooters. Brian, the captain of the pontoon boat, told us that one day as he started the engine and pulled away from the dock, it was lined with walkers (not pedestrians but aids for walking). His boat is accessible to those with mobility problems. Because of that it will work for my brother and his wife when they visit us from Cochrane. They both have trouble getting around and a zodiak is not for them.

      Reply

  6. Rena Upitis commented:

    Ah, Sidney. I was there years and years ago, and until reading this, I had forgotten about its many splendours. What if we all came at once? (Because we know that the last couple of lines are really an invitation). Thanks for this….

    Rena

    Reply

  7. Dick Capling commented:

    You had me with “The Salish Sea.” Must be the name of a magical place; eagerly-imagined this March night as Ancaster Ontario stumbles backwards into another spell of winter. O you land of February daffodills, who knew there’s another Sidney in Canada? And that it’s small, inviting, and beautiful to behold? Now, we will make that Western trip — and we know where we’ll be staying!

    Reply

  8. Marlyn Horsdal commented:

    Lovely article on Sidney by Lorna Crozier!! I live on Saltspring Island and often stop in Sidney on my way home from Victoria — for example, this afternoon I went to Beacon Books to ask the knowledgeable and friendly folk there about a title, had a little walk down Beacon Avenue (the sun was out in Sidney but it had been raining in Victoria!!) and then, all relaxed, pottered on to Swartz Bay. Hurray for Sidney!!

    Reply

  9. wendy morton commented:

    Lorna’s article made me want to put on my walking shoes and take Dave the lab for a walk. This is going to put Sidney on the map. Who knows what’s next?
    A literary festival in October!!!

    Reply

  10. EC Sheedy commented:

    ” Seven blocks long, Beacon is a shopper’s paradise with nine—count them—nine bookstores…

    Your description makes it sound as if Sydney should be charging admission, Lorna. 🙂 It’s also a reminder that on at least one sunny summer day, I need to put on my walking shoes, tramp around a bit, then go meet Dave.

    (Really want to see the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre!)

    Reply

  11. arleen pare commented:

    I love Sidney, but I’ve never been to the Aquarium. Now I must pay it a visit. maybe my grandkids would like to come with me when they visit from Vancouver.

    Reply

  12. Renee Woodsend commented:

    Thanks, Lorna, for this charming piece on our soon to be, home town. I can hardly wait to move there and enjoy all those activities and shops you’ve mentioned. It’s a fun place to visit with children – there are so many things to do from simple beach walks and treasure hunts to enjoying the graceful movements of the sea life in the Discovery center. In the summertime there is music played from the new bandstand and these events are well attended by locals and visitors. Sidney is a jewel in the Penninsula’s crown.

    Reply

  13. Joan Eaglesham commented:

    What a lovely article! My favourite poet reviewing my favourite West Coast town, my dearly loved Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre (where I used to work), and Dave, of course. Thank you, Lorna! Missing them all from wintery Kincardine Ontario.

    Reply

  14. Carl Tracie commented:

    Sidney by the Sea is not to be missed. And Lorna’s wonderful evocation of its charms and attractions will ensure that more people will not be missing it. I came for the bookstores, but returned for the food and the wonderful ambience of this little jewel. Of course, that it is the home of two of Canada’s finest poets only adds to its attractiveness. Sidney as home place—how could two poets be wrong?

    Reply

  15. Debbie Willis commented:

    This article made me miss the west coast in an aching way! That aquarium sounds amazing and has convinced me that next time I’m on the island, I need to do my best to be a tourist.

    Reply

  16. Leigh commented:

    My mother lived in Sidney for years but recently moved. She bemoans the way the place is growing though I kind of like it. I finally kayaked over to the Sidney Spit over Thanksgiving and loved the outing. I’ve also used Sidney as a base for multi-day kayak trips to some of the more inaccessible islands – my favourite being Rum Island.

    Reply

  17. Sandra Campbell commented:

    Great article. Travel writing at its best. I enjoyed a magical visit to Sydney last year and have been singing its praises ever since. So pleased to have this engaging piece to share with friends and family. Love how it details all the delightful features of the town. So well worth a read before planning a visit!

    Reply

  18. Leslie Uyeda commented:

    I don’t know Sidney well, having spent a mere thirty minutes there en route to another destination. But I do know that when Lorna Crozier writes (in poetry or prose) about any place, that city or town is given new life, and we are then privileged to see it afresh through the eyes of my very favourite poet.

    Reply

  19. Heather Pawsey commented:

    Sorry Lorna, I’m already on the ferry! : ) Nine bookstores? Shoes? Count me in!!! I’ve never explored Sidney and this article makes me wonder why. Thanks for sharing the secret!

    Reply

  20. Belinda Thomas commented:

    We moved to Sidney two years ago from Calgary. I absolutely Love it here. We came to the island for a two week holiday, and when we drove into Sidney, my exact words were. “This is my most favourite place, and I want to live here”…..well, we now do… This was not a planned move, but sometimes the universe puts something out there and you either go for it, or maybe regret it forever…so we did a really bold and brave thing, we sold our home and gave up our jobs and moved to this magical place.
    I explain what it is to live here by saying, “It’s as if I have lived my life in black and white and now it’s in kodachrome”…
    Sidney is a town stuck in a time warp; in a good way…It’s a safe, clean, extremely friendly town. People smile and say hello as you walk the streets. Dogs are welcome in most business. Many stores have dog water bowls out front and treats behind the counter. My dog Stringo loves to do errands, especially banking…she knows there’s a treat for her most places….She needs to go on long Art Infused seafront walks to burn off the extra calories!!!… On our early morning walks we get to see the most stunning sunrises. The colors here are unmatchable.
    All the businesses here are welcoming and there is variety of stores. There is always a smile and warmth when you enter. I was lucky enough to get a job in Marmalade Tart women’s clothing boutique. The owner wants every persons experience in her store to be fun, relaxed and a good time..The personal attention is from a time past, but the customers’ acknowledge this daily, with thanks for going that extra mile for them. That is what most of the stores in the town strive to attain, the personal touch, where you feel like you are important… A lot of people feel comfortable to drop in just for a chat and a catch up…That’s what it was like in my mum’s florist shop in England 35 years ago…It was a meeting place for friends to gather, to chat about what was going on in their lives. A kinder gentler time…that is what has been reproduced in Sidney, or maybe it never was any different….

    Reply

  21. Pat Touchie commented:

    Get ready, get set, and go, I said to myself after reading Lorna’s enticing article on the many attractions and charms of Sidney. She stirred me to revisit this gem. The beautiful waterfront, the book stores – how good can it get?

    Oh, this Island of wonders.

    Reply

  22. Andréa Ledding commented:

    Lovely travel piece from one of our loveliest poets. I have been to Victoria, Nanaimo, Parksville and Duncan, but never to Sidney. Now I know I have to go. What a great magazine, and I think you get a special point-of-view when a resident goes tourist: great premise!

    Reply

  23. Birgit Fuerst commented:

    Thanks Lorna, first for drawing my attention to this delightful and informative website, and second for bringing so beautifully to my attention even more charms of my former hometown.
    Good luck in keeping people away 🙂

    Reply

  24. Anne Carter commented:

    Next time I visit Vancouver Island I’ll forgo Victoria and stay a few days at the Sidney Pier Hotel, not only to meander (or not) with canine Dave but to try kayaking from a couch. Lorna has relaxed me just reading about it.

    Reply

  25. Liz McNally commented:

    Lorna,
    Thanks for providing your very unique and poetic perspective on your home town. I, like so many others, whiz by on my way to or from the ferry and have made only an occasional foray into Sidney for a particular purpose. Your article has reminded me of the gift of wandering and slowing down to enjoy the great treasures to be found along our magnificent coast. Hopefully we will hear more from you as you travel.
    Best,
    Liz

    Reply

  26. Richard Osler commented:

    Thank you Lorna! And thanks to you we can’t just say Sidney is that place past the airport and before the ferry terminal! And if folks begin to disobey you and start checking Sydney out, there is is always the Winter season to claim it back! But no matter the season thank you for reminding me to check out again the weird and wonderful sea reality at the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre which brings to surface so much that’s hidden! Wolf eels mate for life? Go figure!

    Reply

  27. isabel huggan commented:

    I found this piece by Lorna Crozier about Sidney a delight to read and certainly an incentive to come see a town I’ve never yet visited… like so many others who come to the west coast from the east, I’ve pretty well stuck to Victoria but now I promise, the next time I’m in BC, Sidney is on my list. This is a great site, by the way, and I’m putting you into my FAVORITES so that I can continue to dream of my next visit to a part of Canada that has never failed to bring me joy. You who live here — hope you know how lucky you are!

    Reply

  28. Linda Heinrich commented:

    Oh my, the introductory photo reminds me so much of Prince Rupert where I was born and raised. This is a wonderful story.I loved every bit of it. The images of the nudibranches, barnacles,wolf eels and exotic sea pens (and other unusual creatures) are marvelous and there are so many of them. Nine book stores – fantastic. I’d love to see them listed if that’s possible. Sidney sounds like Shangri la to me!

    Reply

  29. Geraldene Coates commented:

    Lorna, what a lovely description of our little town. I want to move here – arriving of course via an Eco-tour pontoon!

    As the owner of Marmalade Tart Boutique I feel particularly honoured that we received a notable mention. As a Sidney shopper myself I too delight in the amazing selection that one finds on the Avenue; we really do have it all.
    Geraldene

    Reply

  30. Rachael Holland commented:

    I love Sidney! Such a great article Lorna. My husband, kids and I visit a couple of times a year and would love to relocate. We haven’t tried the Eco-touring but will add it to our list. We have had fits of laughter watching the antics of Dave the greeter at the Pier Hotel. He once jumped up and ran off with my muffin – it was hysterically funny.

    I had to show my friends the article as I’m constantly asked where I buy my clothes. My entire wardrobe is from Marmalade Tart Boutique!!! They are unique and fun; and the service is like no other. Shhh, I’m afraid I won’t get my size next time!!!

    I plan to bring my poetry books on my next visit just in case my favourite Canadian Poet is passing by.

    Rachael Holland

    Reply

  31. Dan Perrin commented:

    Having lived on the Peninsula for almost 30 years, Lorna has really captured the essence of this beautiful little town that has just gotten better over the years. Often overlooked in the shadow of Victoria, it really is worth a look.

    Reply

    • Gail Jopko commented:

      Interesting article, considering I have relatives in the Victoria area. Are you originally from Vancouver, BC? I used to know a Danny Perrin who went to Charles Dickens Elementary School, back in the day. I found this article and your comment, and was wondering if you’re the same person.

      Reply

  32. Anne-Marie Bennett commented:

    One day, just for fun and a day off, my partner and I took the bus out to Sidney from Victoria. We came back with bags full of books, including Trevelyan’s
    three volume History of England and the Age of Queen Anne.

    Reply

  33. phyllis commented:

    Sidney by the Salish Sea…a shimmering city vanishing in the mist— the words seem to echo a tale of ancient lore and conjure images of red-haired sea nymphs luring us to love. Your description entices and summons us to visit.
    Oh, Lorna,
    Afternoon massages at the spa,
    Eco-cruising, Waterlily shoes — and Thou
    Beside me browsing books on Beacon —
    Oh, Sidney by the Salish Sea were Paradise enow!

    Reply

  34. Avery commented:

    I love the picture on your cover. Sidney is a beautiful, well hidden gem. I visited a few years ago and would love to go back!

    Reply

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