FAIRMONT EMPRESS: THE PERFECT WEST COAST CASTLE
When you think of castles what comes to mind first? My guess would be Disney, and princes and princesses, and ancient ruins, and most commonly Europe. But most definitely not North America.
For me, when I think of castles and North America the first thing that comes to mind, no joke, is the line of Fairmont properties spread across Canada. I know it may seem a little strange to think of a hotel chain in this context but open another tab and search Fairmont + Canada. More specially search for their properties in Quebec City, Banff/Lake Louise and Victoria, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
WHO IS RESPONSIBLE FOR ALL OF THIS MAGICAL ARCHITECTURE?
These stunningly beautiful structures spread across Canada were the vision of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s general manager, Cornelius Van Horne. His vision was to develop a series of hotels along the transcontinental line, which had been fully completed in 1885. This is where the original function of these hotels came from. They were intended to cater to the wealthy travelers who were using the transcontinental railway across the country, and the architects commissioned for each property did each location justice, and then some.
One of the most famous, and most photographed buildings in all of Canada, The Fairmont Le Château Frontenac (which opened in 1893) was designed by New York architect Bruce Price, who was inspired by French castles. The name of the hotel came from Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac, a key figure in New France (Quebec’s) history, and it’s prime and historical location, overhanging the St. Lawrence River, which partly makes the hotel so iconic.
One of the most important renovations to the hotel took place in 1926 with the addition of the central tower by architects Edward and William Maxwell, and the modernized addition of its swimming pool, fitness center and magnificent exterior terrace came in June 1993.
Château Lake Louise
aka the “Diamond in the Wilderness”
Situated on the eastern shore of Lake Louise facing the Victoria Glacier the “Diamond in the Wilderness” opened to the public in 1911. Several architects were involved in the creation of the gorgeous current hotel, each bringing in their own different styles which mimicked and perfectly captured the culture of the time.
The hotel began as a two bed log cabin in 1886, and 10 years later started its journey of expansion. In 1912 architect Francis M. Rattenbury (we’ll hear about him later) grew the hotel to accommodate over 500-beds, and in 1925 a new nine-story brick addition added 400 rooms and the second largest pool in Canada. This was also when the hotel took on the name Château Lake Louise.
aka the "Castle in the Rockies"
Completed by American architect Bruce Price the “Castle in the Rockies” opened in 1888. The first version of the hotel was a wooden structure in the French chateau/late Victorian style, an organic element of its surroundings.
Between 1900 and 1995 the hotel went through 5 different renovations and updates to create a more cohesive visual concept reflecting the property’s original majestic vision, ultimately becoming the current structure seen now, including the luxurious $12 million spa.
aka the “Castle on the Coast”
Primarily designed by architect Francis M. Rattenbury, The Empress is known for its Château-style design, stunning interiors, celebration of its west coast setting, and picturesque location on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
The Empress opened in 1908 and was initially intended to cater to the travelers of the transcontinental railway. The city of Victoria wanted to showcase the impressive landscaping and architectural features in the Inner Harbour, in order to make a lasting first impression to visitors as they arrived, and thus The Empress was born. The stunning exterior features the hotel is famous for include the lush green landscape, with its rotating seasonal flowers and plants, and the ivy-covered façade which help distinguish it from its urban setting and the surrounding buildings.
As Victoria is also the seat of the provincial capital of British Columbia The Empress is also surrounded by the Parliament Buildings (which were also designed by Rattenbury), and the Royal BC Museum.
The interiors of the hotel (designed by Kate Reed), create a fairy-tale Château setting which take your breath away as you walk inside and are confronted by the lavish ornamentation, Tudor arches, deep, rich color palette and numerous plants which are spread throughout the inside of the hotel.
In 1966 a $4-million renovation focused on the hotel’s visual impact took place in order to restore The Empress to its former grandeur. Another $45-million restoration took place from 1988–89 in order to improve the hotel’s original craftsmanship and update the stained glass roof of the Palm Court. 2014 saw new ownership and a new $60+ million two-year renovation project by Canadian architect James Cheng. All of the over 460 guest rooms were renovated, 1,400 windows were restored, the pool, health club and spa were upgraded, and a six-meter-high, 1.8 ton custom chandelier with 250,000 hand-cut crystals was added to the new lobby.
YOUR LUXURIOUS HOME AWAY FROM HOME
Outside of Butchart Gardens, The Empress is probably one of Victoria’s most popular tourist attractions, and the afternoon tea is something you cannot skip! Even if you don’t stay in the hotel there is plenty to do to keep you coming back day and night during your visit to Victoria.
The Empress so much more than just a hotel with 464 rooms and suites and a couple of restaurants, it’s a whole world in its own. You can thank the addition of seasonal sports and attractions that became available to the hotel’s visitors in the 1960s for making you never want to leave.
The Willow Stream Spa is a full-service spa that can customize your experience to any and all of your wellness needs. I’m all about a good spa session and when I’m back in Victoria, and have a little more relaxation time available, I will be partaking in the highly recommended ‘spa ritual’ which features a Finnish style sauna, steam inhalation room and mineral pool.
The upper lobby of the hotel, which connects to the Victoria Conference Center (and I randomly and mistakingly wandered into while exploring the halls) also includes a variety of shops with high-quality handmade goods, including the Fairmont store. Now I’m not really one for buying things from hotel “gift shops” but you can see the original tea set King George VI and Queen Elizabeth brought during their visit, and even bring home your own impeccably crafted useable replica!
Staying at The Empress
The Empress is known as the “Castle on the Coast” and from the moment I stepped in front of the entrance I was treated like a princess. As corny as that sounds, it is completely true. As I typically stay in Airbnbs or bed & breakfasts when I travel I am not immediately used to the level of service I received from the Fairmont. I was immediately overwhelmed with how nice and helpful everyone was, the service really is second to none.
Because I arrived before the technical check-in time my room wasn’t ready so I went off and explored around, made a reservation to take an afternoon trip out to Butchart Gardens, and headed over to Q for brunch (more about that experience a little further down).
TIP TO NOTE:
The reservation I made to visit Butchart Gardens was all done at the concierge desk. I looked it up and even though public transportation is going to be significantly cheaper, it’s going to take you over twice as long to get out to the gardens. The transport you arrange through the Fairmont is much shorter (40 minutes), they will also book your entry ticket for you, and you can relax in a comfortable coach while the bus driver gives you a mini tour and fun facts about Victoria on your way out. I even took advantage of the 40 minute ride and took a little cat nap.
After returning from my holiday Butchart experience I was able to settle into my room, which to my pleasant surprise was a beautifully gorgeous corner room overlooking the city’s Inner Harbour! Because it’s winter, and sunset starts happening around 4:30pm these days, I was greeted by a crackling fire on the flat screen TV (which could not have made for a more perfect ambiance to walk into) and the glowing holiday lights from the nearby Parliament building on the boats floating in the harbor. To say it was a magical evening welcome would be an understatement.
As I explored around my room, resisting every temptation to jump into my huge fluffy bed, I discovered the soft terry bathrobes, the coffee maker and tea kettle, and amazing Le Labo bath products. Which full disclosure I am OBSESSED with this brand! Anytime I stay somewhere and their products are included I freak out a little in complete joy.
Full disclosure, the one and only thing I was a little disappointed in was the lack of complimentary internet access. You would think with all of these great amenities and the hotel’s impeccable service that Wi-Fi would be included in your stay. Unfortunately, this is not the case. If you do want to remain connected, without using your cell data, then you will have to pay for access in your room. I luckily travel with a pocket Wi-Fi so this was something I didn’t have to worry about, after trying to connect and seeing the fee associated.
BRUNCH AT THE EMPRESS
When you travel, especially to cities that are known as meccas for foodies, you have to schedule in at least one brunch experience. This is one of the good things about The Empress, you don’t even have to leave in the morning in order to get a delicious, I need to take a nap afterwards, brunch experience.
The hotel restaurant, Q at The Empress, provides not only brunch on the weekends and breakfast during the week, the bar is a great place to also grab an expertly crafted cocktail before a night out on the town.
Both the restaurant and the bar are impeccably designed, with purple accents and artsy portraits of Queen Victoria throughout the spaces. Not to mention the fact the view of the inner harbor from the windows within the bar are so inviting and so pretty you may not make your dinner reservation.
“If the former Empress was Queen Elizabeth II,” the Georgia Straight’s Gail Johnson wrote, “the new and improved version is all Kate Middleton: fresh, modern and sophisticated.”
The quote above perfectly sums up the vibe within Q, which is meant to represent queen and country, with a modern twist.
The only words that describe the visuals and tastes you will experience from one of Q’s many food options can only be described as a culinary experience. In typical fashion throughout this part of North America, the food celebrates the Pacific Northwest location as the menus are built around regional ingredients from local farmers and artisans.
As much as I wanted to spend my entire weekend eating in The Empress, I did give other local gems a try. My first morning/afternoon at The Empress did include brunch and boy was I satisfied! I always have a hard time choosing between savory and sweet when it comes to brunch and this was no exception. I came fully prepared with a whole 4 pack of Lactaid and dove right into the banana bread French toast. Which let me tell you was absolutely delicious, but something that should probably be shared between two people. Note to self when traveling solo.
TEA AT THE EMPRESS
It was during my trip to Victoria that I realized afternoon tea is a social staple in British Columbia’s capital. This quintessentially Victoria experience can be found in a number of locations spread throughout the city but it’s the Tea at the Empress that should be at the top of your list.
The afternoon tea has been offered in the Lobby Lounge since it opened in 1908, and has hosted royalty, celebrities and dignitaries. The china dishes the tea is served on were custom-made in 1914 and the beautifully ornate pattern was replicated to be the same as is was on the china King George VI and Queen Elizabeth brought and used during their 1939 visit.
The Lobby Lounge, especially during the holidays, will transport you to a different place. You can forget about the soggy weather outside and any stresses surrounded by the warm and cheerful holiday decorations and live classical music coming from the baby grand piano throughout the day.
I was able to experience the Festive Tea at the Empress, which is running through early next year (January 2nd) to celebrate Christmas and the holiday season. If you thought the classic tea couldn’t warm your winter heart any more Christmas Carolers also provide additional entertainment the weekends of December 15 &16, and 23 & 24 in the late afternoon.
One of the amazing things about this afternoon tea is the tea menu, which is unlike any other tea menu I’ve seen-and I’ve experienced my fair share of afternoon teas.
Each of the seasonal, quality teas that are offered are displayed on the left hand side of the menu in their own little windows, with the descriptions on the right hand side of the menu. Aside from the fact that it’s so great to actually see what you are going to drink before committing, the menu itself is impeccably designed in wood with the original logo of The Empress Hotel carved onto the front.
Victoria’s commitment to embracing fresh, local ingredients can be seen in the afternoon tea menu as all of the sandwiches, pastries and desserts are created fresh every day using ingredients from local suppliers. As with many teas you can elevate your experience that much more by adding the Champagne Tea experience onto your tea which features Veuve Clicquot Champagne. We added on a glass of the rose champagne, because why not? Rosé all day, with bubbles, is the only way to go.
Being someone who has been completely transparent about my dietary issues, more specifically my intense lactose intolerance, I was a little nervous that I may either not be able to fully enjoy the tea, or I would have to take an entire box of Lactaid pills. This was not the case! The Empress fully recognizes that this day and age it’s almost rare that someone doesn’t have some sort of food allergy and provided me a full dairy free version of the tea cart! It’s just another indication of how impeccable both the service and the experience at the hotel is to the staff.
The Fairmont Lifestyle Cuisine Plus program makes it so that all of the Fairmont properties offer special menus for anyone with a dietary restriction. This is why I was able to fully enjoy the Afternoon Tea!
Afternoon Tea - per person 78
Champagne Tea (featuring a glass of Veuve Clicquot Brut) - per person 111
Royal Champagne Tea (featuring a glass of Veuve Clicquot Rosé) - per person 118
WHY YOU SHOULD VISIT VICTORIA & THE EMPRESS IN THE OFF-SEASON
(especially during the holidays)
Winter travel may not be at the top of everyone’s list but I will say that when you travel during this time of year there are experiences you can have that won’t be available when it’s shorts and sun dress weather.
From the decorations, to the festive tea, to the variety of events The Empress really knows how to celebrate the holiday season! Throughout the month of December when you head down to the Lobby Lounge for tea you will also notice that there is a holiday cart full of classic festive treats. You can literally be a kid in a candy shop with their selection of cakes, cookies, snacks, turkeys to go and even curated holiday baskets full of all of the sweet and savory goodies and beverages you could possibly want!
Option 1: Grab some goodies to bring home with you.
Option 2: Grab some goodies to bring up to your room and have an indulgent night in.
I won’t judge.
Another awesome event they have going on this time of year is the evening s’mores you can make on the veranda from mid-November until right before Christmas. The hotel provides a variety of hot beverages and Christmas bites in addition to the DIY s’more kits that can be roasted over the first-come first-served fire pits.
This was something else I really wanted to experience during my stay but the evening that I was going to do it also happened to be the same evening I got food poisoning, so unfortunately I was out of luck.
Negative, I didn’t get to experience the s’mores. Positive, I at least got to take advantage of my room.
Because we haven’t made it to the end of the year yet you can find all the info you need about the festive holiday events THROUGH THIS LINK.
Staying at The Empress was honestly a dream come true! It was easily one of the nicest hotels I have every stayed at, and the fact that it’s an entire experience over just a room with a bed to sleep in made my stay even more perfect. I have always wanted to experience the “castles” spread across Canada, and thanks the staff and the amazing internal PR team that dream has started to become a reality.
FUN FACTS ABOUT THE EMPRESS
During a 1958 stay, Princess Margaret climbed out onto the roof to view the Russian satellite “Sputnik”
On average in peak season, more than 400 guests are served Afternoon Tea in the Empress tea lobby each day. That works out to nearly 2,000 cups of tea every day and over 500,000 cups per year!
There are two rooms with round beds in the hotel. One of them, room 734, is located in the turret of the building overlooking the harbor
During Prohibition, Victoria residents and dining guests of The Fairmont Empress came up with countless ways to hide their liquor, which included hiding it underneath tables and behind tall menus
During Prohibition, Winston Churchill was secretly served his favorite brandy in Afternoon Tea style, a delicate china teapot
Bob Hope used to putt in and around room 330 because he liked the carpet "turf"
The hotel makes its own honey which comes from approximately 800,000 bees. It is jarred and sold on-site, and is also made into a micro-brewery honey lager. The Empress honey can be sampled at the Royal Tea (an additional course to Afternoon Tea)