There comes a point in every couple’s life when the prospect of hauling yourself across the country to celebrate the holidays with family is no longer tenable.
For my husband Don and me, the breaking point came last year. We had moved to Seattle only weeks before, undertaking a cross-country move that, among other things, required me to fly nearly 5,000 miles for the sole purpose of picking up a cat. And the family Christmas plans coming together left us cold: Staying in a sterile Philadelphia hotel so we could shuffle through the snow between several hectic households seemed designed to make everyone happy but us.
“If we’re going to stay in a hotel for the holidays, I’d rather that we go somewhere we want to go!” I fumed to Don. He looked at me, the gleam of possibility suddenly apparent. “So why don’t we do that?”
Why not, indeed. Holiday cheer returned, as I researched Christmas getaways in the Pacific Northwest. We didn’t want to ignore the holidays entirely, but flush with the euphoria of a fresh geographical start, we wanted to immerse ourselves in the idiosyncrasies of our new home.
We settled upon Victoria, British Columbia. I had visited the provincial capital on a daytrip once before, but had spent only a glancing time exploring the city. Sunnier than Seattle, with a mix of Anglophile history and First Nations empathy, the city sounded like a perfect choice. I found a holiday package for the Fairmont Empress, one of the chain’s venerable hotels built for Canadian Pacific Railway passengers, and booked a two-night stay.
Our entry into Canada, via a ferry ride across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, went smoothly, primarily because we had no gifts or wrapped packages to declare to the watchful customs officers. And entering the Empress lobby induced an adult form of Christmas wonder: Resplendent in wreaths, lights and a 25-foot expertly decorated tree, the Victorian-era hotel was done up in all its old school glory.
Moved by the Christmas spirit, we upgraded to a Fairmont Gold room. As we entered the corner room, complete with a view of Victoria’s harbor pathway and the neo-Baroque British Columbia Parliament building, outlined in white lights, I turned to Don and smiled.
“Oh, yeah. This is going to work out just fine.”
And so our Christmas weekend passed, on our own terms. We slept in. We ate Indian food in the Empress’s Bengal Lounge. We wandered through Victoria’s Chinatown, Canada’s oldest, perused the stacks at Munro’s Books, and went to a late-night viewing of the unsentimental Coen Brothers version of “True Grit.”
That’s not to say that we ignored holiday activities. Every year, the Fairmont hosts the Festival of Trees, a fundraiser supporting the BC Children’s Hospital, where more than 70 pines are adorned in theme decorations. We joined the crowds of Canadian gawkers in the hotel basement, amused by the often-kitschy ornaments: Social media symbols, hardhats and construction, stuffed animal lion cubs peeking through the branches. One tree even hung upside down.
The crush of Empress’s Christmas Carol-themed high tea left us cold, however. I’m a high tea addict, a casualty of too much time spent reading Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters in my youth.
While I had enjoyed the hotel’s ceremonial pouring over the summer, the holiday version seemed too rushed, with wait staff processing the three-tiered trays of food with the joy that you’d expect from a postal worker sorting Christmas cards. The strolling carolers, dressed in Victorian garb, appeared late in our service, and sang just two songs, hardly enough to justify the jacked-up price ($58).
Far more pleasant: A low-key Christmas Eve in the lobby, where children in pajamas gathered around Mrs. Claus for a bedtime story. As we sipped hot rum drinks, we were handed mimeographed songbooks for a caroling session that took us through all of our favorite songs, plus a few we didn’t know (try to find a recording of the haunting Huron Carol, Canada’s oldest Christmas song).
On Christmas Day, we roused ourselves to visit Butchart Gardens, one of Vancouver Island’s more well-trafficked attractions, about 45 minutes outside Victoria. During my July visit, I lingered among the manicured rose bushes and topiary displays, trying to process the controlled environment of the gardens with the untamed Vancouver Island woods surrounding them. While you can’t deny the pleasing symmetry of a formal garden, there’s something presumptuous in believing that man can improve on what’s already growing wild, particularly in a region where trees stretch more than one hundred feet to the sky.
In the winter, Butchart Gardens appears a bit eerie, with cartoonish figures from “The 12 Days of Christmas” interspersed throughout the bare branches.
The Japanese Garden retained its appeal; here, the clipped bushes appeared in context and the weak December sunlight gave the moss a peculiar neon green tint. At night, tens of thousands of Christmas lights appear, the voltage transforming the park into a Tivoli-like spectacle.
During the holidays, Butchart Gardens runs an ice skating rink for visitors. We strapped on skates and floundered around the rink, laughing at ourselves as we clutched the railings.
We returned to the Washington mainland on our final ferry, the natural vistas of the San Juan Islands reminding us how far from our cramped East Coast rowhouse we had come. While we had traveled together before, this trip in particular seemed special, a rite of passage in some respects. We had taken on Christmas expectations, staring them in the eye without blinking, and created our own memories. That’s a tradition worth maintaining.
Victoria has tons of Christmas activities; for a list, visit Tourism Victoria.