Travel Thursday: Vacationing in Victoria, BC & the Iconic Fairmont Empress Hotel

 

Growing up in Maine, it was easy to have a great relationship with Canada; visiting the maritime provinces, exploring as an adult Montreal and Quebec City, and meeting all of the Canadians who would travel to my home state.  My love of Canada is vast and seasoned, and recently, I was able to increase my experiences in the Great White North by visiting the most western of its larger cities and farthest away from Maine, Victoria, British Columbia.

I still can feel how I felt during my journey to and from Victoria and my unbelievable stay in the capital city of British Columbia. One of the first things we needed to do is to decide on is how to get there. For that, we turned to The Clipper. The Seattle to Victoria Clipper ferry ride connects the United States with Vancouver Island, takes just over 2 ½ hours, whisking passengers between Pier 69 in downtown Seattle and the Belleville Terminal in downtown Victoria, BC’s Inner Harbor. Bring your passport, relax, and enjoy the ride up and out Puget Sound and into Canadian waters. We upgraded to comfort for a small fee (round trip tickets range from ($115 to $160 USD) and were treated better than any first-class flight on this breathtaking high-speed catamaran journey.  With drinks, full meals, AND, what I could not get over, was that the staff walked around to enquire if passengers had plans for and reservations during their time in Victoria.  Talking to one of the Clipper staff afterward, she said she loved that part of the job, helping people to plan their stay and inform them of the great options the island has to offer.

Image from YouTube video – Experience Victoria Clipper V | Clipper Vacations

Even if I just rode on the Clipper back and forth, I would have had an amazing adventure already, but pulling into the Inner Harbor, the capital city unfolds like a cultural pop-up book. The architecture is distinctly different as your eyes bounce from building to building, but of course, they come to rest on the Fairmont Empress Hotel.

Even on a cloudy wintry day when we arrived, the Fairmont Empress commands the harbor and Victoria.

The hotel perched at the edge of the harbor (just a 5 min walk with our travel bags), ready to receive all visitors.  Our home for the next few nights, The Empress IS the place to stay in Victoria.  Its reputation is well known for it has earned many accolades:

  • Forbes Four-Star, 4-Diamond
  • Condé Nast Readers’ Choice and Gold List hotel
  • Travel + Leisure Magazine’s World’s Best Award for Top 10 City Hotels in Canada
  • One of Top 21 Iconic Hotels in the World by National Geographic Traveler Magazine

A $60+ Million restoration that ended in 2017 aided the Fairmont Empress in both  embracing the history of the building which opened in 1908, but also the modernization of the 464 guest rooms and suites.  Offerings such as the Willow Stream Spa, Q at the Empress Restaurant with a focus on local and Pacific Northwest cuisine, and its world-famous Tea at the Empress served in the hotel daily since opening in 1908, they will make you question if you ever need to leave the Fairmont Empress, Canada’s Castle on the Coast.

A panoramic of our spacious room. The hotel, hallways, and rooms are impressively large

Once we checked in, we realized that the Empress is just so much to take in culturally, historically, it’s grandeur, and its food.  Let’s mention the food, starting with Q at the Empress restaurant. The Q and the Empress are a nod to Queen Victoria.  The massive portraits hanging in the rich cherry wood covered dinning room area are all kissed with a hue of purple for royalty and the Queen’s color. “Q, a singular letter, for a very singular space.”  The space is far from just historic, which it does in a grand way, but it also embraces current day with modern fixtures and a forward thinking, and a local menu. Oh, the menu.

With the Q’s culinary options tantalizing me, I decided to dive into it all and ordered the following options:  PECKISH:  Farro & Flax Bread with Empress honey whipped butter. TUCK IN: Seared Scallop and Wild Boar. MAIN: Marechal Fock Braised Pork Hock. DESSERT: Empress Cake.

Q at the Empress: Marechal Fock Braised Pork Hock

Just as the Empress is one of the top hotels in the world, this meal was one of the top meals this seasoned traveler/diner has ever had.

The next day we departed from our comfortable Fairmont guest room to be in time for our reservation for Tea at the Empress. An experience for anyone and everyone, Tea at the Empress has been a tradition since opening day in 1908.  For over a century, Fairmont Empress has kept the tea time tradition alive, now being offered in in the Lobby Lounge.

What to expect for tea? All that came to mind was tea and scones and done, but this was clearly to be so much more. What comes out to be roughly a $60 experience per person, will be one I would do every time I returned to the island, even if I were not staying at the Empress. Tourists come from other hotels as well as many townspeople enjoy the tea experience.

Lobby Lounge during Tea at the Empress

Tea at the Empress is among the world’s best unique tea experiences. To complement our house-made signature Empress scones, pastries, clotted creams and strawberry preserves with fresh lavender from our rooftop herb garden, are 21 of the finest loose leaf teas available. Featuring our original blend of The Empress Tea and the exceptionally rare Tong Mu Phoenix Lapsang Souchong blend, the tea list is completely ethically sourced and certified by the Ethical Tea Partnership. – Tea at the Empress

Could we have asked for more? Definitely not since the edibles were plentiful at Tea.

I should have been a good boy and remembered everything that was on that three tiered tower of edible love, but between having my own tea pot, sampling the teas of my other two tea-goers at my table, enjoying the champagne, I could see why not only is this an institution of Victoria, it is also an honored past time that is loved by both servers and guests. Tea at the Empress, a must.

Needing to explore and be even more historical, we gallivanted up the hill to Craigdarroch Castle.

Peacock at the Craigdarroch Castle.

This legendary Victorian mansion, built between 1887 and 1890 on a hill overlooking the City of Victoria, announced to the world that Robert Dunsmuir was the richest and most important man in Western Canada.

Visiting the large home and looking across all of Victoria was a historical treat as the guides and placards brought the history of the man and the town to life.

Even though we were visiting in January, the weather was still enjoyable with a small coat on. We walked down the hill and back into town. For some reason macarons were on the snack list every day we were in Victoria and there were no complaints here.

The edible art at Bon Macaron
The edible art at Bon Macaron

But to find out more on the cuisine and history of Victoria, we booked a tour of Chinatown, Old Town, and Inner Harbor with A Taste of Victoria Food Tours.

The tour started at the Victoria Public Market at the Hudson where we experienced some great treats from [roast] meat & sandwich shop and Silk Road. Then the tour departed the market and lead us through Chinatown, learning about the history, politics, education, and the influx of other ethnicities into the area.  La Roux Patisserie was a wonderful stop on the tour and our chance for that day to have more macarons.  Other stops included Just Matcha Tea Shop, Shanzee’s Biscuit Cafe, and Sult Pierogi Bar.

The nightlife in Victoria was pleasantly lively for a January/Winter weekend.  We stopped by Lucky Bar for a quick drink and to enjoy the eclectic environment.  Not a gay bar, but listed as an ally, this seemed to be true.

Lucky Bar seemed to be just my style of bar.

We did find Paparazzi Nightclub and chatted with many of the LGBT and ally locals. They did point out that the bar scene is pretty mixed and friendly and many of the bar-going gays mingle at some of the popular “straight” clubs.  We enjoyed our time at Paparazzi Club located at 642 Johnson St.  With an address like that, you owe it to yourself to try it out.

The dance floor warming up at Paparazzi Nightclub

We hated to depart Victoria, The Empress, and Canadian hospitality.  We vowed to come back to BC’s capital.  One event we would love to return to see is the Victoria Symphony Splash which we have been told can be best seen and heard from the Fairmont Empress front lawn.

Photo from victoriasymphony.ca

On Sunday, August 4, 2019, tens of thousands of people will take to Victoria’s Inner Harbour for the 30th annual Victoria Symphony Splash. From a floating stage in the Inner Harbour, the VS orchestra and special guests will perform, ending with a grand finale performance of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture – with fireworks of course!

We also had plans on visiting the Butchart Gardens, but The Clipper had contacted us stating that it would be leaving at 2:50 instead of 5 PM that day because of an incoming winter storm. We were grateful we filled out all of the contact information efficiently and had roaming on our phones.

No visit to Victoria is complete without exploring the world-renowned The Butchart Gardens! Journey from downtown Seattle on the Clipper and experience 55-acres of floral splendor on your overnight Victoria, BC vacation.

Created in 1904 by Jennie Butchart to restore natural beauty to her husband’s mined-out quarry, the lush grounds are simply amazing. Explore the array of colorful flowers and don’t miss the award-winning Afternoon Tea!

If you get the chance to get to this Canadian treat, there will be only fond, amazing, and heart-warming memories of Victoria, British Columbia. Also, there are other lodging selections to choose from in Victoria, but we are set on returning to The Empress for its quality, historic and continuous role in its community, its support of Victoria Pride, the staff’s commitment to its guest, the convenience to the harbor and the rest of the city, and just our overall feeling of satisfaction and happiness after staying at this Fairmont location.

We will see you soon, Empress, Q, and Victoria, British Columbia.


As usual, I take a great deal of pictures. Here are some extra pics and some more information about my trip to Victoria.

As part of the $60 M reno, a six-metre high custom-designed chandelier from Lasvit, a Czech lighting company, was installed in the new Empress’ redesigned lobby. It is made up of about 250,000 crystals.
Q at the Empress with its host table looking like big purple lips or a purse. You decide. Notice the purple hued pics in the background and the overhead modern lights that may look like mashed potatoes or clouds.
TUCK IN: Seared Scallop and Wild Boar.
Looking down the wooden staircase at Craigdarroch Castle.
Tea anyone? With 21 options, you’ll be able to find a couple to keep you very satisfied.
We’re going to say yes to the champagne, excellent staff, unique Empress China, but you don’t have to be refined to enjoy the pampering.
roast – part of our A Taste of Victoria Food Tours
Experiencing Chinatown during A Taste of Victoria Food Tours
La Roux gave us the choice of 3 macarons as part of our food tour.
Pierogi’s at Pierogi Bar
Our journey home on The Clipper. Such a stunning view of mountains and water all around helped calm our sadness of leaving Victoria.


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