You may not realize it, but if you’ve travelled to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, you’ve probably been to Sidney. Positioned adjacent to the Victoria International Airport and the busy ferry terminal of Swartz Bay, the Sidney crossroad also serves as a boat-friendly nook with the gorgeous backdrop of Haro Strait and Mt. Baker.
Here is a small coastal town that’s made the sometimes tricky transition from a lumber and railroad hub to a tourist and residential community with grace.
The name may sound Anglo, but it actually originates from the WSÁNEĆ First Nation who inhabitated the region before European colonization. They called the area Set,tines that translates to “chest sticking out”, perhaps a reference to the geography of the location.
A summer’s afternoon spent casually exploring the public-centric waterfront is a slice of paradise. Kids and dogs chase each other on the green lawn of Beacon Park or along the rocky shore of Glass Beach, and laughing couples talk starry eyed on a date over coffee or, if it’s going well, drinks. Here is a haven for independent bookstores, cute boutiques, and flower shops.
Thanks to the well-appointed Port Sidney Marina, boaters can enjoy that Sidney magic. Positioned between rustic Salt Spring Island and urban Victoria, Sidney has a foot in both worlds, making it an ideal place to refuel and provision. You’re within striking distance from Campbell River to the north, Vancouver, B.C. to the east, and the San Juan Islands to the south, a strategic position for a boater on the loose. Enjoy the sights and make your next move, skipper.
Wandering the Waterfront
Sidney deserves a world of credit for making its charming waterfront the public centerpiece of the town. A visiting boater who exits the Port Sidney Marina is plopped right on a pedestrian trail that winds south along the edge of the beautiful Haro Strait. Beyond the cluster of waterfront dining and drinking establishments is a large grassy expanse known as Beacon Park that has picnic written all over it. This area also has ready access to the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea (essentially an aquarium and cultural center hybrid), Haven Spa and Salon, and a pier with great views and a seafood bistro at the end.
Keep up the southerly course on the path and you’ll make it to Glass Beach and Diver’s Point. These areas are popular in the summer months, with visiting families wading along the beach or wandering to the end of the southerly fishing pier to see what the recreational crabbers are pulling up in their pots. Scuba divers can be spied as they surface from exploring the local depths.
A standout feature of Sidney is the menagerie of adorable, independent bookstores along Beacon Avenue. You’ll find no fewer than four standouts between 1st and 5th streets: Galleon Books & Antiques, The Haunted Bookshop, Tanner’s Books, and Beacon Books. Each has its own distinctive flavor, somehow coexisting peacefully. Perhaps this speaks to the high mindedness of the locals.
Other sources of brain food include the Sidney Museum, which focuses on local history (more online at sidneymuseum.ca) and the Mary Winspear Centre, an event and theater facility (marywinspear.ca). The Mary Winspear Centre is also across the street from the Visitor Information Booth, a smart stop for those wanting to stay in the know.
Sidney is a jolly-feeling, boutique town, so of course there are plenty of fun shopping opportunities catered towards out-of-towners and those looking for an afternoon escape from Victoria. To idle away a few hours and pick up some gifts or souvenirs, a stroll up and down Beacon Avenue is highly recommended.
In addition to the pack of bookstores, Beacon Avenue is home to Brown’s The Florist, Cameron Rose Gifts, Marmalade Tart Boutique, Baden-Baden Boutique, Buddies Toys, Dancing Orchid Gift Shop, and much more tucked among cafes and restaurants. Your exact path will be determined by what you’re looking for, but you’ll probably find whatever is on your list (and plenty of things that you didn’t even know you needed).
What’s the Deal with the Art?
You probably won’t be off the boat for more than five minutes before you encounter a prominent piece of art in Sidney. The Eye of the Ocean by David Hunwick is essentially two whale bones arranged into the shape of an eye gazing out at the sea.
The Sidney Pirate by Jake James is a playful, jaunty character, with a telescope over one eye and eye patch over the other. The Diver is an all-wood, super-sized scuba diver cut from a single 80-foot red cedar by Alan C. Porter and marks Diver’s Point, where scuba enthusiasts explore.
Many of the sculptures on display are part of the Sidney Seaside Sculpture Walk, opened to the public in 2012. Some are for sale, while others are commissioned by the town. The onslaught of art certainly adds flavor to the place, the gorgeous natural backdrop a part of each masterpiece. A few memorials, such as the United Nations and NATO Forces Memorial, and murals, like the First Nations Nil/tu,o, are scattered about the area as well. A map of these sights can be found at the aforementioned Visitor Information Booth near the Mary Winspear Centre.
Given Sidney’s charming public waterfront, cultured vibe, and visitor-oriented offerings, it’s no wonder that it serves as a venue for events of all kinds. From the annual BC Boat Show (May) to the massive summer Sidney Street Market on Thursdays (June through August, 1030 to 1730 hours), Sidney is the kind of place ripe for live concerts, festivals, outdoor art shows, and the like.
To stay in the know, you can check out the town’s event calendar at sidneybia.ca/events/calendar.
Key to Sidney’s identity is its role as a crossroads, positioned near the Victoria International Airport and the Swartz Bay ferry terminals. For the adventurous with bicycles in tow, Sidney sits on a 55-kilometer (34-mile) multi-use trail from Swartz Bay to Victoria called the Lochside Regional Trail.
For boaters, Sidney represents a tempting stopover for those heading north to wilder waters and who want to fuel up and fully provision. Boaters heading south may be hankering for some of that civilization and culture after weeks navigating the waters of rural B.C. Whatever your travels have in store for you in this corner of the world, don’t be surprised if Sidney acts as a springboard to the next step in one form or another.
SIDNEY, BRITISH COLUMBIA
Sidney may be small, but from a culinary standpoint, it is mighty. Popular ethnic offerings include Bistro Suisse, Sidney Harbour Chinese Buffet, Maria’s Souvlaki Greek, and Sabhai Thai Restaurant (all near the water on Beacon Avenue). There are also plenty of coffee shops and bakeries to complement the boutiques and bookstores.
At its soul, Sidney is more of a seafood, pub grub, comfort food kind of town. Boaters in the Port of Sidney are strategically located near both the Surly Mermaid and Rumrunner Pub & Restaurant. Both are seafood/Pacific Northwest/bars with waterfront views. You can get slightly more upscale versions of these places a bit farther south in Haro’s Restaurant and Bar and Beacon Landing Restaurant & Lounge, both overlooking Haro Strait.
If you’re into gin or a fan of the Empress Hotel, a visit to Victoria Distillers is a must. They make the gin used at the iconic hotel in Victoria and have a great waterfront setup a block from the marina. I gave their Distillery Flight gin sampler a go and didn’t look back ($13 CAD). Their cocktails are also delicious.