Story by Michelle Hopkins
VICTORIA, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Who doesn’t love a ghost story? Best known for high tea and its landmark position in Victoria’s Inner Harbour, it seems the Grand Lady herself, the Fairmont Empress Hotel, has a resident ghost or two.
Well, I for one love a good phantom tale even at Christmas. So, when I was taking part in local historian and tour company owner John Adams’s Discover Christmas tour I asked if he could tell me about the untimely death of the hotel’s chambermaid Lizzie McGrath.
Adams says that indeed Lizzie fell to her death in 1909 after stepping out of her sixth-storey room to stand on the fire escape that she didn’t realize had been removed for construction. The history buff went on to add that many an employee of the hotel says Lizzie still likes to roam the sixth floor.
It’s not all ghosts and goblins, though. Adams’s 90-minute stroll of Old Town weaves through the festive streets to hear true stories about the season, including reminiscences of artist Emily Carr’s Christmases as a little girl.
Here I am in one of my favourite cities, staying on the gold floor of the Empress, experiencing the Christmas spirit. We arrived on a clear, crisp evening. The British Columbia capital is aglow with brightly coloured lights – every building, hotel and the provincial Parliament Building along the waterfront sparkles. I can’t think of a better place to get into the holiday mood.
Skating at the Fairmont Empress
There is something almost magical about skating on the lawn of the Empress facing the iconic harbour.
Although I’m not the steadiest on skates, I laced up to experience the hotel’s new skating rink. The covered rink was filled with happy children, parents and young lovers holding hands going around and around. As music wafted around us, I attempted to smoothly glide across the ice without falling.
After a few rounds, I left and watched as children and parents effortlessly glided onto the rink to experience this invigorating pastime that is so quintessentially Canadian but can be rare to find in Victoria, where the temperatures rarely fall below freezing.
Winter Magic at Butchart Gardens
The magic of Christmas is everywhere in the horticultural wonderland of Butchart Gardens, the hallmark attraction that is a 30-minute drive from downtown Victoria. As soon as you enter the gates, the thousands of lights and decorations in the Edwardian-style 55-acre gardens are enough to make Scrooge himself smile.
The night of my group’s visit last week was chilly but clear as we wandered through the gardens, becoming somewhat competitive as we tried to be the first to spot the life-size Twelve Days of Christmas exhibits. One of my fellow travel writers even began singing the lyrics to Twelve Days of Christmas as we passed by the two turtle doves in a gilded cage; the three French hens cavorting under the Eiffel Tower and eight lovely maids of a-milking … Are you singing yet?
Christmas really brings out the kid in you as was evident when all of us rode the Rose Carousel. As the menagerie of 30 animals went round and round to the beloved holiday song, Nutcracker Suite, the giggles weren’t only coming from the children.
Then, as we strolled towards the Dining Room restaurant for dinner, the original residence of the Butchart family, we eagerly anticipated our dinner.
Shivering a little, we were instantly warmed by the roaring fire in the heritage home’s lobby. Decorated in its Christmas finest, we were seated in the stately Tango Room — originally used as an office and for family receptions. I started my culinary journey with the sea scallops, then for my entrée I opted for the wild BC salmon fillet with winter kale, corn and red potato hash. Can I just say that the award-winning cuisine was only outshined by the historic surroundings of the elegant residence.
Gingerbread Masterpieces in Victoria
The next day we walked to the Inn at Laurel Point, where its sixth annual Great Gingerbread Showcase, benefitting Habitat for Humanity Victoria, was taking place. This year’s theme is interpretations of Where Things Live.
From the simplest works made by amateur fingers to mind-blowing creations of pastry art by professional bakers, the fairytale gingerbread collection is worth checking out. You can’t help but marvel at the intricacies of the depicted characters: aliens and pirates in the imagination of a little boy; the picturesque Mexican village; or the replica of the Forest Moon of Endor, the home of the Star Wars’ Ewoks. More than one child and adult strolling through this magical journey of imagination looked on in wonder at these magnificent edible masterpieces.
I could go on and on as to why Victoria should be experienced during the Christmas holiday season but I think you get the picture …
MORE ABOUT VISITING VICTORIA
Getting There: The easiest, fastest (30 minutes from Richmond) and most scenic way to get to Victoria is by Harbour Air Seaplanes, departing from Richmond and Vancouver. Tickets cost about $99 one way but can be less expensive depending on your departure time and date. Book online at www.harbour-air.com. Air passengers who are arriving from outside of Vancouver can fly into Victoria International Airport, located 20 minutes outside of the downtown area. BC Ferries has several daily arrivals from British Columbia’s lower mainland, with sailing times of about 90 minutes and a cost of approximately $100 for a passenger car with two travellers.
Where to Stay: The Fairmont Empress Hotel (721 Government Street, Victoria, BC). Telephone: 1-250-384-8111. Website: www.fairmont.com/empress. Nightly Rates: A recent search of the hotel’s booking engine showed a weekend rate in December costing $219; rates vary depending on day and season.
More Holiday Cheer: Check out the 23rd Annual Festival of Trees, which spreads cheer to everyone who comes by for a visit at the Empress. The beautifully festooned trees raise funds for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. There is no admission cost, but a minimum $2 donation to vote for your favourite tree would be appreciated. The skating rink is open until mid-January 2015.
Discover The Past Tour: Blessed with a radio voice, John Adams, historian and guide, is a walking encyclopedia about some of the most interesting Christmas stories of the past and present. The tour location is at 634 Battery Street, Victoria. Telephone: 1-250-384-6698. Website: www.discoverthepast.com.
National Gingerbread Showcase: The sixth annual Canada National Gingerbread Showcase is open until January 1, 2015 in the lobby of the Inn at Laurel Point (680 Montreal Street, Victoria). Entry is by donation to its charity. Telephone: 1-800-663-7667. Website: www.laurelpoint.com.
The Magic of Christmas at The Butchart Gardens: The exhibit runs until January 6, 2015. Location: 800 Benvenuto Avenue, Brentwood Bay. Telephone: 1-250-652-7751. Website: www.butchartgardens.com.
The Royal BC Museum’s Old Town: The exhibit is an ode to Christmas past. Step through the doors of the province’s oldest house to get an idea of what Christmas would have been like on the streets of Victoria more than a century ago. Royal BC Museum is located at 675 Belleville Street. Telephone: 1-250-356-7226. Website: www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.
Additional Details: For more about what to see and do in Victoria over the festive holidays, visit the website of Tourism Victoria.