Story by Kathleen Kenna
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Whenever guests from another country ask about Canada’s best traditions, I recommend high tea at the Fairmont Empress.
It’s so elegant.
You dress up — big hats are fun — and meet your most gracious friends to sip tea blended from far-off parts of the old British empire, and dine on teensy sandwiches and sweets.
Conversation becomes, naturally, more gentle. I didn’t hear a single cellphone conversation during the two hours we recently spent at the Tea Lobby.
You eat more daintily when trying this “finger sandwich” or that — smoked salmon or pate or egg salad. You learn to savour fine tea, especially when it’s the Empress’s own blend from the finest tea-growing nations in the world. Our waiter, Sam, explained that this special blend is made from leaves harvested in Sri Lanka, India, Kenya, and China.
This being a traditional Victoria tea, carried over from the days when Queen Victoria ruled a vast empire, we learned about Ceylon tea, which is labelled “airy, almost piquant.” We discovered later that some of the blend is from Assam, in northeast India. Afternoon tea at the Empress is an adventure in world geography.
(The historic hotel’s website says the tea leaves from Kenya are a “floral-like flavour and a golden coppery infusion,” while the bits from South India add a “superb fruity and sprightly flavour.”)
My most elegant tea-sipping companion decided we needed bubbly for such a grand occasion. I highly recommend her choice of Steller’s Jay sparkling wine from Sumac Ridge in the Okanagan Valley. It’s a sweet prelude to the second tier of the three-tiered meal. Here, there are handmade scones with fruit jam and pastries, created by executive pastry chef D’Oyen Christie.
Celebrities Stir Up Tea at the Empress
The third tier has tiny “tea sweets” from marzipan to chocolates.
Tea becomes high art at the Empress because you’re surrounded by tradition. Afternoon tea has been served here since 1908, with ornate, sterling silver tea sets and real china.
There’s a reason we felt like royalty just tipping back our teacups — Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret took afternoon tea here too.
So did the king and queen of then-Siam, now Thailand. Celebrities including Bob Hope, Spencer Tracy, Rudyard Kipling, and Rita Hayworth had tea at The Empress, as did Barbra Streisand, John Travolta, Sarah McLachlan, and Nelly Furtado. Even Mel Gibson couldn’t resist the antique tapestries and wing-backed chairs, oil portraits of royalty over the fireplaces, ornate carpets and hand-carved furniture. A pianist plays quietly at a baby grand piano tucked in a corner of the room.
Heavy, scarlet drapes frame big windows facing a glass verandah. Window seats are favoured at the Tea Lobby, because they overlook Victoria’s busy Inner Harbour, where kayaks and mini-tugboats mingle with yachts and floatplanes.
Reservations are recommended because 900 people a day book here, from all over the world. Officials at the Empress estimate there are more guests at afternoon tea here “than most hotels in London, England,” says Nathan Pearce, the hotel’s food and beverage director.
He adds that this Victoria tea draws more than 75,000 guests a year.
Amid all the splendour, Pearce offers an anecdote about the place that wouldn’t have happened in Queen Victoria’s day.
“One may say you’re eating off the floor,” Pearce says.
During the centennial restoration of the Tea Lobby in 2008, the floor was replaced, and the original wood flooring was transformed into delicate tea tables.
More About Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress
Location: 721 Government Street, Victoria, BC
Hours: Tea is served from 11:30 am to 4:45 pm daily. To accommodate crowds in Victoria until September, there’s an early evening tea, poured from 7 to 9 p.m., Thursday through Saturday.
Cost: $59.95 for adults. It’s half price for children aged 12 and under, who can order from their own Prince and Princess menu.
Reservations: Telephone 1.250.389.2727, book online at the hotel’s website, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dress Code: Guests are ask to dress “casually elegant.” That means no torn or ripped jeans, short shorts, cut-off pants, beach wear, flip flops or baseball caps. You’re warned, Justin Bieber.
More Victoria Coverage on Vacay.ca
Great Canadian Weekend in Victoria: How to spend three glorious days in BC’s capital
Why Victoria is Canada’s Fittest City: Learn why Statistics Canada data shows Victoria is in better shape than anywhere else in the nation
Kathleen Kenna is a senior writer at Vacay.ca, who blogs at tripsfor2.net
View Larger Map