Afro-Cuban group Kutapira gets the crowd going during FernFest in the square in front of the Belfry Theatre. This year’s event happens June 21-22. Photo courtesy Webmeioster Bud

TESS VAN STRAATEN: Getting funky in Fernwood

Eclectic neighbourhood draws many visitors, laid-back feel popular with residents

It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon and I’m chilling on the patio at the Fernwood Inn, just a few minutes from downtown Victoria, sipping an ice-cold cider. With a vibrant arts scene and amazing artisan eateries, this eclectic neighbourhood is funky and full of energy.

“Fernwood definitely feels like its own little village,” says Belfry Theatre artistic director Michael Shamata. “There’s an identifiable architecture to the neighbourhood and a recognizable sensibility. We really are the 21st century Haight-Ashbury!”

Tess Van Straaten

The Belfry, of course, is also one of the big draws here. The iconic theatre’s been a Fernwood favourite for more than four decades. Located in a historic building that used to be a church dating back to the late 1800s, the Belfry anchors Fernwood Square, a popular community gathering place in the heart of the village that also has seasonal markets.

“The Belfry building itself is as much a part of our identity as what we put onstage, and the community loves this space,” Shamata says. “I think the Belfry is popular because our programming is contemporary and primarily Canadian and people know that the plays will be relevant and reflect who we are.”

I can’t wait to see the Belfry’s latest production. But first, it’s time to explore. After noshing on an aptly-named Fernwood burger with applewood-smoked English cheddar and a side of sweet potato fries and homemade paprika aioli dip at the Fernwood Inn, I stroll down the street to look at the unique assortment of shops and character homes in the area. There are so many, in fact, you can do a self-guided, 90-minute walking tour with the Victoria Heritage Foundation. It maps out more than 60 heritage buildings, including Victoria High School, which opened on the current site of Central middle school in 1876 (this building was built in 1914) and is the oldest public high school west of Winnipeg.

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As I stroll through the neighbourhood, I notice painted telephone poles. Hundreds have been decorated since 2011 as part of the Fernwood Pole Painting Project and they inject vibrancy into the area. Walking down side streets, no two homes are the same and there’s a quirkiness here that’s endearing.

Making my way back to the heart of the village, I stop at Stage Wine Bar for a glass of sauvignon blanc and some coconut curry mussels before heading to the theatre. The award-winning restaurant specializes in tapas-style dinning. As I sip and savour my meal, I can’t wait to return to Fernwood for FernFest June 21-22. The music, arts and community festival is a free, family-friendly event with live music, workshops, a local artisan market, a kid’s zone, heritage walking tours, theatre, magic and much more.

Right after that, on June 23, is Fernwood Bites — a tasting event with the best food and drink Southern Vancouver Island has to offer with samples from more than 30 restaurants, breweries, distilleries, cideries, and wineries. It’s the 10th anniversary for the popular event, which is a fundraiser for the Fernwood Neighbourhood Resource Group.

Walking across the street to the Belfry, I can’t help but smile after a day in this fun and funky neighbourhood.

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