Words by Toby Tannas
Photography by Don Denton
I must admit something before you read on. The morning we departed our Okanagan home for our weekend in Victoria, the forecast of rain, rain and more rain had already dampened my enthusiasm. My spirits lifted, though, the moment we rounded the corner into Victoria’s Inner Harbour and the exquisite Fairmont Empress Hotel came into sight. Through the dark of night, she stood alight like a beautiful queen, subtle but radiant as if dressed for a royal ball.
The Fairmont Empress strikes me as the embodiment of Victoria itself. Old-world charm proudly standing amid a modern world. I’ve been coming to Victoria for years (my husband spends half his time here with work and family commitments), but this is my first stay at the Fairmont Empress. Victoria is hurried yet calm, modern and historic at the same time, metropolitan with incredible culinary, cocktail and cultural experiences—yet earthy with its combination of wild Pacific Ocean beauty, old growth forests and mountains.
The Fairmont Empress takes you back in time. I imagine women in petticoats and parasols parading through the grand lobby when the doors first opened 110 years ago. People dress a little differently now but the building seems to inspire a level of sophistication in its guests. The tone is set the moment you step through the front doors. Let the stunning lobby chandelier draw your eyes up. The massive, multi-tiered installation is the proverbial cherry on top of a more than $60 million restoration completed in 2017 that has brought a new level of modern luxury, all the while maintaining the hotel’s proud history.
We are efficiently checked into our Fairmont Gold suite overlooking the harbour. I must mention something about the atmosphere here. It is not stuffy; it’s relaxed but elevated. This is perhaps punctuated most by the number of dogs I see checking in with their owners. Where there are dogs there are smiles, I always say, and the Fairmont Empress has its own four-legged ambassador, Winston. He’s a Labrador Retriever X that failed guide dog school for being too friendly…need I say more?
READ MORE: Victoria’s Empress named best historic hotel in Americas
Our suite is everything you would expect from Fairmont Gold. Spacious with thoughtful touches like small bottles of the famous purple Empress Gin, chocolate truffles and turn-down service.
We freshen up and then venture off into the night for a late dinner at local eatery Wind Cries Mary. Walking distance from the Fairmont Empress, it’s a popular subterranean experience tucked into trendy Bastion Square. We splurge and go with the chef’s menu and I highly recommend this. Four courses selected by the chef and not necessarily all of them are on the regular menu. We oohed and ahhed over every bite.
The next day, we hit the Malahat early, bound for a new must-see tourist attraction: the Malahat SkyWalk. We spend just over an hour walking among the tree tops and taking in the incredible views. Keep your eyes peeled for driftwood creations by local artist Tanya Bub hidden amid the landscape.
READ MORE: Window on the West Coast: Malahat Skywalk gives a bird’s-eye view of the world at your feet
Re-charged by our immersion into nature we head back to the Fairmont Empress to take part in a long-standing tradition: Tea at the Empress. Fresh in our velvets and silks, we are seated in wing-back chairs in the bright Lobby Lounge. From scones to sandwiches, cakes and macarons our “tea time” leaves us satisfied and glad we didn’t bother with lunch!
We decide a walk is in order to work up our appetites for a late dinner. We head to Fisherman’s Wharf. It’s a delight for the eyes with its brightly coloured houseboats. We hop in the car and head for Dallas Road to take in the views of the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We park and meander through the pathways of Beacon Hill Park and then walk the quaint streets of Oak Bay.
Sufficiently hungry once again, we arrive for dinner at Q at the Empress. Located right next to the Lobby Lounge, this wood-panelled restaurant is modernly ornate and grand. On this night, lovely live music is playing at the adjoining Q Bar. Our dinner is exquisite and the whole experience is punctuated by our server, Maddie, whose impeccable timing and friendly demeanour has us lingering more than two hours.
We return to our suite appreciative of turn-down service. Our room has been tidied, bottled water sits beside the bed and soft music plays on the television. We sleep.
Our final day is reserved for a visit to The Butchart Gardens. As someone who doesn’t have a garden or a green thumb, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Well, let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the vision that awaits in The Sunken Garden. It took my breath away. It’s a former limestone quarry that is now how I imagine the Garden of Eden looked. You’ll be in awe of the beauty, the history and the attention to detail on display here.
As we leave the garden headed for Victoria International Airport and my flight home, the skies open up. The rain has a beauty of its own but I say a quiet thank you that it held off just long enough for us to see Victoria in her very best light; one of sunshine and historic splendour.
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