Some special cities and towns become especially special during Christmastime. Victoria, B.C. is one such sparkling dot on the map.
The place is something between a city and town, in fact. Victoria’s downtown core possesses the quaintness of a small historic town, with brick buildings and walkability, alongside the perks and particulars of a city, like boutiques that carry Swedish designers, cafés fit for espresso snobs and Club Monacos.
And at Christmastime, it all gets lit up, twinkly from street level to spire. Nowhere is it more glistering than betwixt Belleville and Government streets overlooking the inner harbor, with the provincial parliament buildings on one side and the Fairmont Empress Hotel on the other, both over 100 years old and swathed in nighttime shine.
For a weekend, I settled myself at that Empress, not unlike an empress, with a view of that harbor and those parliament buildings, and the comfiest King bed I’ve slept on in many a moon. A classic, storied hotel, one that wholeheartedly embraces the holidays, was a welcome change from the contemporary cube in the sky I usually inhabit.
Just like Julie Andrews sang of brown paper packages tied up with string, I’ve compiled a few of my favorite Fairmont Empress things (in no particular order, but with a particularly festive angle):
1. Christmassy Afternoon Tea
I’d venture to say that Victoria is the most British city in British Columbia, so the Afternoon Tea tradition here is that much more steeped (please pause to appreciate that pun) and the Fairmont Empress is famous for it. They have a tea specially blended for the water here. Most of their tea room servers have been here for 30 to 40 years. No doubt it’s a sweet job, just look at the three tier tray. You always get scrumptious sandwiches, and scones and cream. But during the holiday season the top tier sees an influx of seasonal treats.
2. Hotel-made honey
The hotel produces its own honey on site (well, the bees do). This year alone yielded 1,400 pounds of the sticky stuff. They package it up in bijou jars. You can use it to sweeten your specially-blended tea.
3. Cocktail and ‘cone
You’re not tired of tea yet, are you? Better not be, because come cocktail hour you must have a 1908 at the Bengal Lounge. The drink is tea-infused vodka with a mini scone on the side. It’s dangerously easy to drink. The beautiful room was dreamt up with Queen Victoria’s old Empress of India gig in mind, all high ceilings and dark wood with a Bengal tiger above the fireplace. You half expect the hunter from Jumanji to walk in (yeah, this guy).
4. Pastry class in the thick of it
In one of his pastry classes, patient Pastry Chef D’Oyen Christie will teach you how to whip up some of the sugary wonders everyone upstairs loves devouring. Best part is your classroom is their working kitchen, so there’s no gloss on this ganache, you get to see all the pros do their real prep while you try to roll a Yule log (that’s my work in progress pictured). You also get a chef’s hat and personalized apron. It’s like Disneyland for junior bakers.
5. Cheeky toiletries
Most people don’t take the time to read the back of their mini bottle of body lotion, but I’m not most people. I liked the made-in-Canada cream all the more for including a sassy line, “For better results, have someone else apply it on you.” See, this old girl—by that I mean the hotel—isn’t stuffy in the least.
6. Whiskey on wheels
If you don’t want to make Christmas dinner, The Empress Room restaurant will do it for you. They’ll even throw in a few extra delicious courses to make you feel culinary inferiority, but also tripped out on bliss. But why am I talking about food when this part is about whiskey? Ah, yes, the booze cart is to blame. They wheel up the well-worn relic of a thing with four shelves of various kinds of firewater and the spirit of Frank Sinatra overcomes you and you can’t resist a rye nightcap. Merry Christmas to me.
7. Tons of twinkling trees
Every year for 20 years the hotel has decked its halls with some 75 trees. Decorated, very often in unexpected ways, by local businesses and individuals, they raise funds for Children’s Hospital. Pretty and purposeful, what a perfect combination.