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Victoria, British Columbia:
anyone care for tea?
By Diannek
Beautiful Victoria lamp-posts
Victoria's harbour
(photo credits:  Diannek)

Queen Victoria died in 1901, yet her legacy lives on. As we near the centennial of her death, it is remarkable to note that the remnants of her era are still part of our culture. I'm talking about what we usually refer to as Victorian Charm, such things as Victorian architecture, Victorian period furniture, Victorian home decoration and ornamentation, and Victorian manners, all of it associated with the 19th century, when Victoria was Queen of England and "the sun never set on the British Empire."

As we all know, those days are long gone, but a certain nostalgia over Victorian things remains with us. If you'd like to experience some of that charm without going all the way to England, I'd like to suggest that you make a visit to Victoria, British Columbia.

The city is inconveniently located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. To get there you must either fly in from Seattle or Vancouver (the city) or take a ferry. There are frequent flights out of the Seattle Airport. The trip takes about 45 minutes on one of those small commuter airplanes. The Victoria airport is about a half-hour north of the city. A shuttle will run you into town.

Ferries take longer. If you must take your car and you want to visit in the summer, you have to plan ahead. You can get a reservation, but it's tricky. The cars line up and are waved aboard until the ferry is full. The ferries are huge, but the line is long. I have heard that the cars line up overnight in Port Angeles. People park their cars in line and then stay in motels for the morning ferry. The distance between Port Angeles and Victoria is shorter than from Seattle. The Seattle run takes about 5 hours.

If you don't need your car, you don't need a reservation for the big ferries; you can simply buy a ticket and walk aboard. The price is about $30 US one-way from Seattle. There is also "Clipper Service" to and from Victoria. It's passengers-only, on a hydrofoil which takes about 2-1/2 hours, and you do need a reservation, and the fare is about $90 US, one way. The ferries dock at the harbour, which is right in the heart of downtown Victoria.

Ready for tea?
Here's the Empress.  You can't miss it.

Everyone will ask you, Did you have tea at the Empress? Did you visit the gardens? You haven't really seen Victoria until you've done those two things. The Empress is Victoria's grand hotel, and it stands facing the harbour, so you can't miss it. It's the city's centerpiece of Victorian charm. By the way, the Empress opened for business in 1908, with 116 guestrooms. Other buildings and rooms were added over the years, but by 1966 the hotel was outdated and antiquated. There was talk of razing the old Empress and constructing something new, but the Victorians convinced the owners to modernize and update the entire hotel. And they did, but they managed to retain its charming furnishings, even with new, modern kitchens, air conditioning and electrical systems.

The Empress is where you have tea. It's High Tea, which means there will be lots of food along with it. (It's a fixed price, about $35 US per person. Make a reservation.) The tea service is held in the main room of the older part of the hotel, which is set up with a mix of antique furniture, settees, arm chairs of various sizes and small Victorian tea tables, so that no two tea seatings are alike. The meal begins with berries and whipped cream. The tea is served in silver teapots and china cups and saucers, small plates, and a bowl filled with sugar lumps and those little silver tongs that children love to play with. The food is served in one of those English three-tiered plates, which is filled with a variety of tea sandwiches, scones with strawberry jam and clotted cream, berry tarts, filled cookies, and cream cakes. Start from the bottom of the plate and work your way to the top. You'll need many cups of tea, and the waiter will keep the pot filled and help with the pouring if you need it. There's no need to hurry through tea. A piano plays softly in the background, and if you've remembered to bring your camera, the waiter will gladly take your photograph.

When you've finished with tea, you will probably either need a nap or a long walk, perhaps a stroll through an English garden would be just the ticket. There are double-decker English-style tour busses stationed outside the Empress that will take you to Butchart Gardens. The gardens stay open until late in the summer evenings because the sun takes its time going down. Even so, I do suggest visiting the gardens as early in the day as possible. It's about a half an hour ride up the peninsula, just north of town.

Flowers everywhere
Butchart's quarry gardens in August

The gardens are open year round but summer is definitely the best time to see them. They are famous all over the world and that is quite evident because you will hear a variety of   different languages while strolling the pathways. The guide that is passed out with tickets is printed the following languages: Arabic, Chinese, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Spanish, Swedish, Ukrainian and Russian, and English, of course.

The gardens, on a 50-acre plot, were designed and constructed in 1904 by Mrs. Butchart, a Victorian lady with a passion for gardening. Perhaps the most spectacular of all the gardens is the quarry. It's reminiscent of a formal English garden. Follow the map and sign-posts and you won't miss it. Even though there are thousands of people touring at the same time, there will be places to stop where you can get away from the crowds for a moment or two.

Next comes the Japanese garden, my personal favorite. Its greenery and lack of color is a relief to the eye after the thousands of blooms and masses of color that you pass along the way to it. It's cool under the trees, and small streams cascade into pools of shaded water. It's restful and meditative there, as it was intended to be. After that comes the Italian garden with marble tiled pools and fountains.

After you've seen the gardens, there is a lovely gift shop to wander through, and a seed shop, as well as a restaurant and cafeteria. Every Saturday night during the summer there is a fireworks display, which is well-attended by local residents as well as tourists. You can spend as much time as you like in the gardens, have a meal or two, buy something nice to take home, and stay on for the fireworks, if you like. It's a very Victorian way to spend an afternoon.

If you're going to stay overnight in Victoria, you don't necessarily have to stay at the Empress to experience some of that Victorian charm. Let me recommend a place. It's called the Oak Bay Guest House, and as their brochure claims, it's a "Classic English Tudor-Style Bed and Breakfast Inn, offering affordable elegance in an olde world setting." Notice the "e" at the end of old. That definitely signifies charm.

If you don't have a car, you can easily reach Oak Bay by city bus. Walk over to Douglas Street, in back of the Empress, and catch the #2 heading to Oak Bay. Ask the driver to let you off in the village. When the bus crosses Foul Bay Avenue, it's like you've passed through a tweed curtain. Oak Bay Village exists, not as a tourist attraction, but as a thriving community, with gift shops, a pharmacy, an antique shop, hardware store, card shops, a market, and a couple of bookstores. It is the essence of British Columbia.

From Oak Bay Village, it's a quick walk to the guest house. Head down Oak Bay Avenue until it turns into Newport and you'll come onto it just before Margate. If you had stayed on the bus, it will drop you off just half a block from the inn.

The rooms are small, but comfortably furnished. Most have baths, some have claw foot tubs. There are two public rooms, a downstairs sitting room with antique furniture and a fireplace. The upstairs sun room has a TV and a library, comfortable chairs and couches, and hot chocolate, tea and popcorn there for the making. It's quiet, restful and charming. And I haven't yet mentioned breakfast, Here's the guest house
which is a very special treat. It's a four course affair, with great coffee and juice to start, and then followed by fruit and cereal or the house special, a combination cereal yogurt parfait that's truly delicious. They even serve edible flowers. The muffins are homemade every morning. If you can't eat them, they'll put them in a bag for later.
Karl & Jackie, the innkeepers We stayed three nights and were treated to the following main courses at breakfast: Nova  Scotia scrambled eggs with smoked salmon, French toast with bacon, and eggs Benedict. Everything was yummy!  And our hosts, Karl and Jackie Morris  made us feel very much at home. (And I didn't mention that I would be writing  about them in Clever until we were leaving, so they didn't give us any special treatment.)

If you prefer to stay in a hotel, the Oak Bay Beach Hotel is just two blocks from the Guest House on Beach Drive. It's a large Tudor building dating from the turn of the century. It's an old-world hotel, somewhat pricey, but nothing compared to the Empress. It has two dining rooms. For informal eating, there's the nearly-famous Snug, an authentic English pub, which is quite popular with local residents. The Snug is great fun, with its eclectic furnishings, cozy little nooks and wonderful pub food. On sunny days, they open the balcony and patrons can sit out under umbrella tables while hoisting a few.   Great view there.  Cheers!

Walking is the favorite recreation of local Oak Bay residents. The views of the bay are spectacular any time of the year. There's a pathway around the harbour with its sailboat marina and rocky windswept, driftwood beaches, and the views along Beach Drive in either direction are breath-taking. All the homes are beautiful and mysterious and it seems as though everybody has a garden. It think it's a city requirement. And the hanging baskets on the lamp-posts are the hallmark of Victoria. On Sundays, passers-by can watch the sailboat regattas. The local residents will all say hello as you pass them. If you walk two days in a row, you'll be remembered. If you meet the same person on three different days, you'll be one of them, and they'll be concerned if you miss a turn around the bay.

Victoria is one of those places I like coming back to. Oak Bay reminds me of times past, and it helps me remember that it is possible to find quaint pleasure and a sense of safety and serenity in this hectic, fast-paced life we lead. It's not that many people would want to live out their lives in such a place, but it's wonderful to know that such a place can and does exist.

If you're thinking about making a trip to Victoria, here are a few websites and phone numbers to check out:

Online ferry schedules:  www.ferrytravel.com
email The Oak Bay Guest House: OakBay@beds-breakfasts.com or check out the website: http://beds-breakfasts.com
To make a Clipper reservation, phone 1-250-382-8100
To make tea reservations at the Empress, phone 1-250-441-1414

Have a wonderful time!

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