From seaport on a farm to foodie favourite

Jenny and Jackie Myers dreamed of one day owning a business in the tiny village of Victoria.

Born in nearby Tryon in 1967, the family moved to Ontario when the twin sisters were four years old. But they returned for every summer vacation (and a few Christmases), often staying on an uncle’s 42-foot sailboat moored in Victoria Harbour.

“The wharf itself was busy and bustling and just full of energy,” Jackie remembers, “but the village has always been so laid back. We must have been sixteen and I remember thinking: ‘Someday, I’m going to own a business here’.”

The twins eventually moved their respective families back and, in 2009, bought one of two buildings on the Victoria wharf. They rent a portion to two craft shops. And, for more than a decade, they’ve served seafood pulled fresh from the boats at the Lobster Barn Pub and Eatery.

“We knew we wanted to own a business and this seemed like a good opportunity,” says Jenny. “When you’re down in Victoria and sitting on the wharf, it’s just beautiful. It’s a really nice place to have to go to work everyday.”

For much of its 200-year history, the village now known as Victoria-by-the-Sea has lured local residents and world travellers to PEI’s south shore.

Founded in a sheltered harbour in 1819, when little more than blazed trails connected settlements, Victoria began as a seaport to move farm goods. It quickly became the most important commercial centre between Charlottetown and Summerside. By the end of the 1800s, three wharves made it one of the busiest harbours on the island.

Tea, raisins and medicines, as well as books, buckets and brooms, once filled ships from as far away as Europe and the West Indies. They left loaded with potatoes and turnips, barley and butter, oats and oatmeal.

“When you see historic photos of, for instance, these potato wagons, lined all the way up Main Street, waiting to be loaded on to boats heading out,” says Pat Stunden Smith, co-founder of the Victoria Playhouse, “it’s really fascinating, the history of Victoria as a seaport, and all the trade that happened.”

Cars, motorhomes and tour buses have replaced farm wagons, with license plates from across the continent. But the languages heard still suggest visitors from around the world. 

Stunden Smith agrees the wharf is the big draw.

“A working wharf is a magnet for people.” Those from the Maritimes understand the importance of the fisheries, she explains, and naturally wander down to see if/what the boats are unloading. For those from away, “it’s absolutely exotic to see fish being landed.”

“So I think the wharf is absolutely essential. In some ways, that was the beginning of Victoria. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the fact that we were a harbour and the wharfs were built.”

But it’s not the only factor. Stunden Smith has enjoyed a front row seat and four decades to ponder the village’s history and recent successes. She and husband Erskine Smith bought a home in Victoria in 1978 and opened the Playhouse in 1982.

“One of the things that’s unique about Victoria is its situation,” says Stunden Smith. “It’s surrounded by water on two sides; almost three sides, really, for much of its history. Plus it’s laid out in a grid, so that keeps it compact and keeps it very much a community.”

The village hasn’t grown much since an Irish immigrant family bought 72 acres in 1819 and, soon after, laid out the village on a corner of the farm. Three streets run north and south, three others east and west, with most buildings clustered in and around four blocks. Much of the original architecture has been preserved or restored, even as new owners breathe new life into the oldest buildings.

Island Chocolates, for example, has been making hand-made delicacies since 1987. The building they own just a few doors up from the wharf, on the left side of Main Street, for decades served as a general store.

A generous front porch still invites people to sit a spell. Inside, a vintage cash register and glass display case sit atop handcrafted counters. Shelves that once held dry goods and farm tools now tempt visitors with hand-made chocolate bars, hand-dipped cream centres and chocolates filled with fruit or caramel.

A few doors up, at the corner of Main and Howard, stands the Playhouse. Built between 1912-15 as a community hall, it was considered spacious for its day, with a slanted floor and excellent acoustics. Today, the Playhouse averages more than 70 performances per season.

Victoria’s longest-running restaurant also sits at Main and Howard. The Landmark Café opened in 1989, in what was the village post office and rival general store.

“So you have that triangle, that triumvirate, of very unique, very creative businesses that, personally, I think was kind of the beginning of a particular stage of development for Victoria,” says Stunden Smith. “Obviously, it’s been developing for 200 years. But that stage, from the early 80s, that’s when the Playhouse opened and the chocolate factory opened and the Landmark Café.”

Eugene Sauvé remembers when the Landmark was Victoria’s only restaurant. The wharf had closed, and the only food served was breakfast at an inn or tea at Island Chocolates. Still, he often had few customers, made little money and paid himself nothing. 

“For me, it was: ‘Okay, I think there’s going to be a good future in Victoria’,” he explains. “I thought this village was going to take off eventually and I stuck to it.”

Then the wharf was redeveloped.

“All of a sudden, there’s a restaurant right on the wharf and more people are coming out,” recalls Sauvé. “My sales started going up with a second restaurant. And then there was a third and a fourth.”

He thinks a craft shop opened next, then a potter’s studio. In the years since, others have followed.

A decade ago, Sauvé invested $300,000 to expand the building. But he was careful to leave the shelving and trinkets from decades earlier.

“I’d go into my restaurant and my shelves were full of stuff. I don’t really see that when I go in. But people coming in from Toronto, New York or any urban area, they’re struck by ‘Wow. This is frozen in time’.”

He hoped to double his sales and reached that goal the first year.

“People used to come out just to go to the Playhouse. Now they go: ‘Well, maybe we’ll go a little earlier and walk around and do the shops. And maybe we’ll stop for a bite to eat.’ That’s what really transformed Victoria.”

Overnight guests can stay at one of two historic properties. The Orient Hotel B&B, at the far end of Main Street, opened as a hostelry in the 1900s. The amenities may include flush toilets and free wifi, but the décor is vintage quilts and doilies.

The Victoria Cottages re-opened in the summer 2016, on the site of The Recess. Built by Victoria’s founding family in 1827, the original house was twice rebuilt, most recently in a Queen Anne revival style. Recess III sold at auction in 1929 and welcomed tourists to the main house and guest cottages for more than 50 years. The newest owners are restoring the property.

Marly and Greg Anderson are also betting their future on Victoria-By-The-Sea.

The couple moved their young family from Charlottetown, after discovering the village in 2015 while on a Sunday drive. They spent hours wandering the beach and wharf, having coffee at the chocolate factory and exploring the shops.

They stumbled across the old Victoria United Church when leaving. Built by Methodists on the edge of the village in 1877, the gothic revival architecture features round-headed windows and an octagonal spire on a three-stage tower.

“When we drove up to the church, I just knew,” says Marly. “I thought: ‘This is the most beautiful building I’ve seen in my life.’ The energy, it was just beautiful.”

In June of 2016, the couple opened The Grand Victorian as a wedding and events venue. Earlier this year, they purchased the Landmark from a retiring Sauvé. 

“I really feel that Victoria is well on its way to being a food destination,” explains Marly. “There’s so many beautiful chefs in PEI, young chefs and people graduating from the culinary institute, who want to stay on PEI.”

“And Victoria has the view, plus so many other things.”

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