Visiting Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and Vancouver Island’s biggest city, is like taking a step back in time. Named for England’s reigning queen, this charming city boasts mild weather, gorgeous views of the Pacific coast and harbor, historic buildings and stunning gardens.
A perfect place to begin a stay is at the regal elegant Fairmont Empress, which recently celebrated their 100th anniversary. In honor of this milestone, the resort embarked on a $40 million restoration project including renovating guest rooms, adding a new restaurant and bar, upgrading the Willow Spa and revamping their Fairmont Gold Lounge.
The Edwardian-style resort is located across from Victoria’s inner harbor and is adjacent to the Royal BC Museum, parliament buildings, and the convention center, and is home to world famous afternoon tea. Opened in 1908, the property has now been restored to its original grandeur.
Guests can take in the royal atmosphere by stepping into the new regal lobby and viewing the large crystal chandelier made from more than 250,000 crystals. A smaller replica can be found halfway up the lobby stairs.
New guestrooms were reimagined by Hirsch Bedner to honor the hotel’s heritage and infuse a modern design. Classic moldings and fireplaces have been restored and the resort’s club level floor, the Fairmont Gold, added 20 new guestrooms for a total of 65 renovated rooms.
The new Lobby Lounge still offers the Empress’ signature afternoon tea as well as a champagne bar in the evening with live music. The space is now brighter than ever, with colors sourced from the Empress tea china design and lush plants that now decorate the room.
The 88-seat Q at the Empress restaurant has a contemporary design with lots of natural light highlighting the cherry wood ceilings and detailed molding. The menu focuses on local seasonal ingredients and utilizes the resort’s own vegetable and herb garden. Guests can begin with sharable seafood charcuterie with salmon jerky, tuna, octopus bacon and candied sablefish; bison carpaccio or the baby beet and burrata salad with blood orange dressing. Standout dishes include braised lamb shoulder rack, pan seared sablefish, duck confit with lentil cassoulet, salmon with sea kelp spatzle, white wine braised rabbit and a chargrilled beef tenderloin.
Desserts include a special chocolate Empress cake, hazelnut chocolate pie, pistachio profiteroles and a frozen fig and Earl Grey tea parfait. Q also offers a nice variety of local wines by the glass. In addition to dinner, the restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch.
Guests can head to the Q Bar for a cocktail made from the pretty purple Empress 1908 Gin. The special gin was concocted for the resort’s 100th anniversary and contains juniper, coriander, grapefruit peel, ginger root and blue butterfly pea blossom. Rob Williams, a Scotch expert and the bar manager at Q Bar, has created a variety of new drinks and whisky programs for the hotel.
The resort’s Willow Stream Spa has also been redone and has a new reception area, relaxation lounge and one of the biggest indoor pools in Canada. Reservations at https://www.fairmont.com/empress-victoria/.
Guests can take a stroll for breakfast to Nourish Kitchen and Café set in a beautiful heritage house. The front area houses the restaurant offering fresh seasonal and vegetarian friendly dishes. Diners can start with their special house made bone broth and enjoy oatmeal pancakes, benedict with kale and baked sweet potato, avocado toast or buckwheat tabouleh and eggs.
A short walk from the Empress and the ideal spot for sweet tooth cravings is Perverted Ice Cream, 604 Humboldt Street. They offer adult themed ice creams including Cocoa Dependency, Matcha Macho Man and Brand Spankling, among other flavors. Their black waffle cones are made from activated charcoal and often contain a condom garnish.
In addition to the Empress, Victoria is known for beautiful gardens with the most famous being the Butchart Gardens which is a short half hour drive from the Empress.
Created in 1904 in Brentwood Bay, Butchart Gardents houses over 55 acres of majestic gardens. During the summer, guests can enjoy concerts, fireworks, and a night illumination display into the evening as visiting hours are extended until 10 p.m.
In addition to thousands of varieties of plants and flowers, the gardens also have several dining options on the property. In 1947, the Benvenuto Garden Teahouse opened, serving spring and summer afternoon tea and fall and winter high tea. Today, executive chef Travis Hansen utilizes local ingredients to create a seasonally inspired tea menu including a berry trifle; house-made sausage roll; roasted onion and asparagus quiche; sandwiches that include egg salad, smoked salmon, maple glazed ham, chicken curry, and English cucumber and cream cheese; and desserts like a chocolate brandy napoleon, an orange poppy seed loaf, French meringue, and a chocolate truffle. Candied ginger scones with strawberry jam and Devon-style whipping cream are also served.
Seasonally inspired dishes featuring ingredients from local farmers and fisherman are served in the Dining Room overlooking the Italian garden. Standout dishes include scallops with roasted peaches and bacon, smoked trout, pork chop with ham hock and bean succotash, salmon and poached egg with hollandaise, and rack of lamb with blue cheese ravioli. Desserts include rhubarb ricotta pound cake, a chocolate marshmallow brownie, and tiramisu.
On the way back to the Empress, stop by the Victoria Butterfly Gardens to view thousands of tropical butterflies and over 70 species as well as frogs, tortoises, iguanas, flamingos and tropical birds. There’s also a new insectarium to view impressive insects and invertebrates, $16.50, info at https://www.butterflygardens.com.
Visitors interested in Victoria’s darker side can indulge in a Ghostly Walking Tour combining Victoria’s ghosts and the stories behind them with walks through alleyways and hidden streets. Most walks start at 7:30, last about 90 minutes and cost a mere $20, info at https://discoverthepast.com.