Pacific Northwest travelblog: High Tea & the high seas
When you turn the corner via sea into Victoria’s Inner Harbor, The Empress Hotel comes into sight as a regal welcome to one of the world’s most charming cities.
The Victorian-era hotel, which opened in 1908, spans a full city block wide and stately sits as the most iconic symbol of British Columbia’s capital.
Edward, Prince of Wales, visited the Empress in 1919. Shirley Temple was here in the 1930s. In 1939, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stopped by on their royal tour of Canada.
That was 80 years ago, by which time the Empress already had established a proud legacy. And today it retains that status, and its most renown connection to the past is Afternoon Tea.
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Afternoon Tea at the Empress is a Victoria tradition. Thousands of visitors each year make reservations at the Empress for the British ritual, which once was served to royalty, celebrities and dignitaries alike and has been a tourist mecca for decades.
Last year, Trish the Dish and I didn’t do Afternoon Tea – we didn’t really know anything about it – but this year decided we had to at least experience it once.
Here’s the gig. You dress more formally than the masses walking along the harbor; I wore the sportscoat and slacks I packed for the OSU-Oregon State game, and turns out I was the best-dressed man in the place. You sit in an elegant dining room, with great views of the harbor. You order tea and eat a three-course lunch that’s on the foofoo side of foofoo, with servers who call you by name (I was Mr. tra-MEL). And it costs $82 (Canadian) a head, which is about $65 American.
I know. Sounds insufferable. But it actually was fun. We had a great time. I mean, I never once imagined I was British royalty; I decided that if I am ever king of England and visit Victoria, I’m heading down to the harbor or the wharf and eat a cod dinner out of one of the fish shacks.
But Afternoon Tea was a step back in time. The Dish thought it was great, which makes my day. And I enjoyed it, too.
Take the tea, for instance. You order from a wooden menu, with 21 tea options. Each patron gets their own pot, sitting on a small fire on your table. The Dish ordered bella coola organic, some kind of orange and pineapple blend. I went with Imperial Breakfast, which seemed to be a standard black tea and the Dish thought that might be the safest for me. Even “black tea” alarmed me; the only thing I could think of was the “Beverly Hillbillies,” until I remembered I was confusing black gold with Texas tea.
Our server – who was excellent and has worked at the Empress for 50 years, since she was 17 – brought us a tiny timing device consisting of three hourglasses of different colored sand. They ran out in either three, four or five minutes, so you could time your tea to a desired strength.
And she brought little pots of four types of sugar, which were bigger chunks than the tiny granules to which we’re accustomed. So I experimented with the sugar – tried each one, with heavy doses of each, and the tea was really good. The cup handles were way too small for my hands, so I feared dropping the danged things, but I have to admit, the tea was excellent. I drank my whole pot.
As for the food, you don’t order. Everyone gets the exact same three-course lunch.
1. Raisin scones with clotted cream (think really good butter) and strawberry lavender preserves.
2. Miniature sandwiches, with the crust removed, of egg salad with a shaved radish; cold smoked salmon; carrot and ginger salad; ham and gruyere cheese; and cucumber with cream cheese.
3. Bite-sized desserts of Scottish shortbread, strawberry tart, chocolate and raspberry macaron, chocolate cremeaux (think mousse) and maple pecan financier (think miniature pecan pie).
You know what? It wasn’t half bad. I mean, the idea of eating a cucumber sandwich ranks right up there with hitting my thumb with a hammer. But I tried some new things, lived to tell about it, got reasonably full and had a memory to last a lifetime.
We walked around the Empress, which underwent a major renovation in 2015-17, and its north end, the hotel lobby, has been modernized. But the south end, with the restaurants and some retail shopping and ballroom, retains the Victorian look. I’ll probably never stay there – room rates appear to be $300 minimum – but it was fun to experience.
Later in the day, we went from High Tea to the high seas. We took a whale-watching excursion with Prince of Whales Tours. We used Prince of Whales last year and had a good experience, and this one was even better.
We took a 12-passenger Zodiac boat, which is sort of a big banana boat. It cost $130 (Canadian) each, it turned out to be well worth it for the three-hour tour.
It was the warmest day in Victoria, temperatures in the low 70s, and we were given bulky coveralls to wear that also serve as flotation devices in case of emergency. For the five minutes that you wore them before you got out of the harbor, you roasted like a Thanksgiving turkey. But when the Zodiac zipped up to speed, and the wind started whipping, the temperatures fell quickly and you were glad you were insulated.
Captain Hamilton was a fabulous tour guide. The boats work in conjunction via radio to share information on where whales have been spotted, and we zipped immediately into the Strait of Juan de Fuca, which is the gateway out to the open Pacific. We found a group of whales and the viewing was tremendous.
We probably spent two hours around several groups of both orcas (killer whales) and humpback (the giant whales). The whales don’t stay above the water very long, but they don’t stay below the surface for interminable amounts of time, either. Captain Hamilton, a teacher who guides the boats in the summer, knew all about the whales. Some of these whales migrate as far south as Latin America. And they travel in packs that are not necessarily family. We even passed a boat of scientists, monitoring the whales’ behavior.
At one point a group of orcas swam right at us, disappeared and came out on the other side, apparently having swam right under us. It was phenomenal.
Between High Tea and the high seas, we strolled the harbor and found a local artist with paintings of Victoria. The Dish had been looking for some small paintings, and this guy had a great collection. We bought an original of the harbor and a print of Butchart Gardens, all for $80 (Canadian). We’ll hang them in our house. The artist found out we were from Oklahoma and wanted to talk about the musical. Captain Hamilton brought up tornadoes when he found out we were from Oklahoma, and we told him there was one back home the night before, even though it wasn’t tornado season.
Sorry, football and the Thunder. Rodgers, Hammerstein and Tornado Alley appear to be the prime images of Oklahoma in the Victoria crowd.
We also went back to the British Columbia parliament building, which also sits on the harbor, diagonally from the Empress, and unlike last year, this time I got to stick my head into the legislative chamber. Very traditional and opulent. I learned a little about Canadian government, which is this. The provinces and the territories are not the same in status. The Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut are not sovereign; their authority and responsibilities come from the federal level. The provinces are considered sovereign. Of course, none of the territories have populations greater than 45,000, so they probably just want to be left alone and probably are.
Our Zodiac boat returned at sundown, and we got a picturesque view of the harbor and Victoria and the Empress and the Parliament. Spectacular. Simply spectacular.
We were wind-whipped but hungry, so we walked to Irish Times, an Irish pub in the old Bank of Montreal building on Government Street, just off the harbor. Really cool place with a live Irish band. We sat outside by the sidewalk, the temperature was in the high 60s, and had a great meal. I had an Irish stew – beef, potatoes and carrots in a delicious thick brown broth. Fantastic.
What a day in Victoria.