Sidney, B.C., a salty northern neighbor of Victoria, is worth a stop when you disembark from the ferry to Vancouver Island.
SIDNEY, B.C. — A scenic ride aboard a Washington State ferry between Anacortes and Vancouver Island begins or ends in Sidney, a community of 11,000 that rarely rates more than a glance out the car window for visitors speeding along Highway 17 on their way to or from Victoria.
I’ve bypassed Sidney many times, assuming a turn off would turn up just another row of fast-food restaurants and chain hotels. Wrong, I discovered recently after arriving from Seattle hungry for lunch.
A few minutes after parking along a shady side street, I was sitting a foot from the water’s edge, tucking into an oyster burger at the Pier Bistro. Across the way was a new aquarium with its own octopus den. Within a few blocks’ walk were secondhand bookstores, a bakery, sidewalk cafes and a collection of neat-as-a-pin thrift stores stocked with British treasures.
Sixteen miles from Victoria, Sidney-by-the-Sea, as the locals call the downtown hub, is like a slice of small-town coastal England with an ethnic twist. Several Greek restaurants, a Japanese sushi cafe and a Thai restaurant remind visitors that Vancouver is just a 90-minute ferry ride away.
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I started my wandering along Beacon Avenue, the main street leading to the Beacon Wharf, a marina and a paved seaside walkway that skirts a pebbly beach. Sidney Marine Park overlooks the Georgia Strait or what some call the “Salish Sea,” referring to the inside waters off Vancouver Island that were home to the Coast Salish people.
The pink-wrapped Victoria Creams at Rogers’ Chocolates on Beacon are as mouthwatering as those sold in the capital, but browsing here is more relaxed without the tourist crowds. Next door is the free Sidney Museum (www.sidneymuseum.ca), where exhibits trace the town’s pioneer history and growth as Vancouver Island’s rail and marine transportation hub in the late 1800s.
Mostly a retirement community now, Sidney benefits from a population of well-to-do and well-read residents, many of whom are emptying houses as they downsize. They helped stock the museum with a collection of vintage radios and typewriters, and they support Canada’s only “Booktown,” modeled after Hay-on-Wye, Wales, a town of 1,800 people and 40 bookstores.
With a dozen shops scattered in a five-block area around Beacon between First and Fifth streets, Sidney’s Booktown has been around since 1996, when Clive and Christine Tanner opened Tanner’s, the largest store and the only shop that now stocks only new books.
The Tanners sold their store a few years ago to new owners who also run the Children’s Bookshop and Tanner’s Bargain Books. The other shops — five are still owned by the Tanners — specialize in everything from military history to cookbooks and out-of-print classics.
Odean Long moved the 62-year-old Haunted Bookshop, Vancouver Island’s oldest bookstore, from Victoria to Sidney 14 years ago. Leather-bound volumes of poetry, vintage paperbacks and hard-bound copies of the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys series fill wooden shelves and old-fashioned glass bookcases.
Ask Long where the shop gets its name, and she’ll reach into the front window where she keeps a copy of Christopher Morley’s 1919 mystery “The Haunted Bookshop.” It’s a reminder that, like the fictional shop in Brooklyn that Morley created in his novel, the Sidney store takes its name from “the ghosts of all great literature.”
Cats and English china
Locals cleaning out their houses or garages keep a handful of thrift stores well stocked with collectibles. Beacon Community Services (www.beaconcs.ca) operates the largest out of a white cottage and annex on Third Street. Sales support social-services programs. Among my finds were Queen Anne and Royal Albert English china tea cups for $6 to $9 each.
Kids will like the Animals for Life Charity Store, 2507C Beacon. The front window houses cats and kittens that are up for adoption. I found long-stemmed cordial glasses for $1 each and hand-knit puppets for $5.95 to $7.95. Proceeds go to support animal-rescue efforts.
Along the waterfront
Beacon Avenue ends at the Beacon Landing, where a bright-blue cottage at the end of the wharf houses a fresh-fish market. The wharf is the departure point for wildlife cruises, and from July through Sept. 7, foot-ferry service to the Sidney Spit, a marine park with beaches and trails, part of the Canadian Gulf Islands National Park Reserve (www.pc.gc.ca/gulf).
The best lunchtime views are next door at the Pier Bistro, where a friend and I split the oyster burger and large bottle of Salt Spring Porter. The bill came to $22 Canadian, about $20 in U.S. dollars.
More elegant is the patio at Haro’s, the restaurant and bar at the Sidney Pier Hotel & Spa (www.sidneypier.com), across the way on Seaport Place. The hotel serves a bar menu all day and a soup-and-bread special ($7.95) or a soup and sandwich of the day ($10.95) from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Next to the hotel is Sidney’s newest attraction, the Shaw Ocean Discovery Centre (www.oceandiscovery.ca), which opened in June. The $8 million development is an educational aquarium housing fish and plant life found in the Salish Sea.
Visitors “descend” deep in the ocean via a simulated deep-sea elevator and arrive in the Galley of the Drifters, where delicate jellyfish float in backlit aquariums. Exhibits are very much hands-on. There’s a touch tank where kids and adults can feel sea stars, sea urchins and sea cucumbers. In place of lengthy written explanations, volunteers wander about answering questions.
The center’s gateway is a simulated kelp bed made from 17 glass panels created by Sidney artist Rick Silas. Silas, who does most of his work with recycled glass, made a dozen of the panels from reclaimed shower doors.
Carol Pucci: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3701
Carol Pucci: email@example.com or 206-464-3701