Victoria day trip: Tea at the Fairmont Empress

by Chris on August 6, 2010

Looking for high tea in Victoria? Hard to beat the Fairmont Empress afternoon tea.

Fairmont Empress, Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

I’m not going to lie: If I had my way, I’d live in hotels full-time. And if I’m really honest about things? My hotel of choice would be one of the sprawling Victorian fantasies built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in the late 1800s.

Now run by Fairmont, the CPR hotels were created by the railroad to house important railway passengers in the cities and encourage tourism to rural areas along the tracks. Most have the distinctive granite walls and copper roofs of the chateau style, and their castle-like silhouettes lend an old-school ambiance to Canadian skylines.

I stayed at my first Canadian Pacific Railway hotel in Quebec City, when my husband and I spent a night at the Chateau Frontenac. While I ultimately decided the room itself wasn’t worth the money, it’s hard to ignore the hotel’s romantic air. You do feel a touch more elegant walking through the lobby. Someday I hope to stay at all of them, especially the grand resorts in Lake Louise and Banff.

Fairmont Empress, Victoria, Vancouver City, British Columbia, Canada

Victoria’s Canadian Pacific Railway hotel is now the Fairmont Empress. It’s a focal point of the city’s waterfront, and it’s particularly impressive when you approach as I did by sea. I can see why so many upscale vacationers from mainland British Columbia made a beeline for it when their ferries arrived.  After a morning walking around Butchart Gardens, I made a reservation for afternoon high tea in the Empress tea room.

Tea at the Fairmont Empress, Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

If I’m having a British-influenced high tea, I want it to be held in a room that makes me sit up straight and drink with my pinky out. The Empress’ tea room looked suitably formal, even after all these years, with red velvet drapes and gilt touches tempered by the sunshine streaming through windows overlooking the harbor. On a summer Sunday, the room was packed; advance reservations on weekends are a good idea. They’d prefer that you don’t wear jeans, shorts or flip flops (Tea costs $50 CAD).

Tea at the Fairmont Empress, Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

Even though I was by myself, the tea room staff seated me at a roomy table with a comfy armchair. Even before my tea arrived, my first course – strawberries and clotted cream – came to the table, along with a coffee table book about the hotel. I appreciated having a chance to read about a bit about the hotel’s history as my tea steeped. Apparently back in the day, the Empress was known for its eccentric long-term clientele, who would come out to Victoria during the winter for the temperate climate (Victoria lies in the rain shadow of the Olympic Peninsula and thus has mostly sunny weather). One man spent so much time in a green chair in the hotel’s lobby that he would receive mail addressed to him “by the Empress clock.”

Tea at the Fairmont Empress, Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

The main tea course arrived with a variety of sammies and sweets. I particularly liked the smoked salmon and cream cheese sandwich (crusts cut, of course) and the kiwi tart.

Munro's Books, Government Street, Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

After tea, I took a short walk down to Government Street, the  main retail street of Victoria. Book lovers had told me not to miss Munro’s Books, so I stopped in for a browse and to pick up a book for the 2 and a half hour ferry ride back to Seattle. If I ever write a series of posts on Awesome Bookstores of the Pacific Northwest, Munro’s will be on the list.

Government Street, Victoria, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

You always knew that Santa lived in Canada, right? I loved this statue on top of a building on Government Street.

Parliament Building with Queen Victoria statue, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

I also loved the statue of the city’s namesake, Queen Victoria, outside the province Parliament building. Hail Britannia!

Sunset over Puget Sound, Victoria daytrip

I left Victoria on the  7 p.m. ferry, the last one of the day. When I go back to Vancouver Island again, I plan to do more exploring around the island, going out into the inlets and searching for wildlife.  And maybe – just maybe – I’ll make my hotel wishes come true and take up residence at the Empress in Victoria, for a night or two.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Gray August 6, 2010 at 11:49 am

I think tea can be the perfect treat to oneself when traveling. It just feels so decadent, yet civilized at the same time.

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Chris August 6, 2010 at 9:46 pm

Gray, I’m with you. I love the ritual of high tea. Not to mention the sammies without a crust!

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Judy Wells August 6, 2010 at 3:33 pm

Never stayed at the Empress either but loved taking high tea and ambling through her lobby, a bit shabby when I lived in the Northwest but nicely spiffed up when last visited.

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Steve Berg August 7, 2010 at 9:54 am

We took my parents on a weekend trip on the clipper from Seattle to Victoria and stayed at the Empress. We had our then 7 yr old son with us and wondered about the appropriateness of taking him along to tea. Despite the relative formality of it, they were very accommodating for him, and in fact brought him a large bowl of beautiful berries and specially made sandwiches that they thought he would enjoy. It was a great experience and our accommodations at the Hotel were wonderful as well. I’d recommend Victoria as a great weekend getaway.

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Chris August 7, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Steve – The Empress has a “little prince or princess” tea just for kids. It features cupcakes and more familiar sandwiches instead of the more exotic fare. Thanks for letting us know that the hotel accommodates children so well!

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donnadeau August 14, 2010 at 12:09 pm

After numerous trips to Victoria, finally booked a night at the Empress two years ago. Loved it! It’s hard duplicate that type of experience at a modern hotel.

Although my room was fine, these old railway hotels were built to accommodate the servants who usually traveled with guests. Beware of tiny rooms with less than uplifting views.

Interestingly, Canadian Pacific chose a location for the Empress that is just as good today as it was 100 years ago.

In fact, the two Canadian railways seem to have had a genius for picking urban locations that would withstand time, as evidenced by the Chateau Frontenac mentioned, the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa, the Royal York in Toronto, the Palliser in Calgary, and the Hotel Macdonald in Edmonton, now all Fairmont hotels.

I liked the Empress so much that I had to try another Canadian railway hotel last year, the Jasper Park Lodge, also now a Fairmont property, but formally a Canadian National one. I liked it too.

I trust that you did not merely walk past Rogers’ Chocolates on the way to Munro’s Books. If so, next time, next time!

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Chris August 16, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Don – Great point about the rooms. We felt the same about the Frontenac – the room wasn’t necessarily worth the price, but the hotel as an experience was worth it, at least once.

And I did miss Rogers’ Chocolates. Next time!

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