This imposing brick edifice, festooned with ivy, was built at the edge of Victoria Harbour in 1908, and it still offers an intriguing glimpse of what life might have been like for the landed gentry just before fissures began to form in the British Empire.
Recent renovations added the requisite
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To visit the Bengal Lounge, for example, is to step into a cocoon of well-worn leather chairs and sofas, dark oak paneling, tall ceilings with slow-moving punkah fans and a crackling fireplace. The eye is instantly drawn to a tiger skin, stretched out and snarling on a wall above the hearth. Yes, it's real, a gift to the hotel many years ago.
Is that the scent of curry in the air? Of course. How could you have a Bengal Lounge without it? A buffet is set up daily, offering seafood chowder, tandoori
(My only complaint was that the fare wasn't particularly hot _ not spicy hot, temperature hot, but that can be an inherent curse in a buffet format.)
This is a profoundly comfortable room, with some of the furniture positioned around coffee tables _ great congregating spots for larger groups. Beer and wine by the glass reflect a strong local sensibility, and martinis are served in individual shakers.
You might overhear, as I did, a remark not commonly heard in a cocktail lounge: ``Mmm. This is very good tea.''
``It's a blend of four black teas,'' the waiter replied. ``We've been serving it here for almost 100 years.''
The Dominion of Canada may have formed in 1867, but the province of British Columbia didn't join it for another four years _ and seems no less eager to throw off some of the trappings and traditions of colonialism.
That's evident on a stroll from the lounge, through the Conservatory and out to the garden. Horticulture was an important aspect of life for Edwardian Brits, and bright roses are still presented in precise, well-tended rows in an expansive area just south of the hotel. Traffic whirs by on the bordering city streets and tour buses idle noisily nearby, but its tranquillity is undeniable.
The guest rooms are faithful to the Empress' past, too. For some reason, green was a popular color for interiors at the turn of the 20th century, and as part of the hotel's ``Royal Restoration'' of 15 years ago, designer Deborah Lloyd Forrest brought it back in carefully measured doses.
My room in the original building (there have been three major additions over the years) had tasteful green accents in the carpet, the draperies, the dust ruffle and the tile around the fireplace. The fireplaces, once used for heat, are now displays for floral arrangements.
The bathroom was one step up from the floor level of the room _ not uncommon in hotels of this age, since that was the logical place to hide the plumbing when private baths had to be retrofitted into existing spaces.
The room's nicest feature, however, was its tall windows that faced the harbor. They opened just a couple of inches (any wider and the sea gulls would find their way in), but this permitted ventilation night and day with crisp, salt-scented air that drifted in off James Bay.
Historic character is also celebrated in the hotel's fine-dining restaurant, the stately Empress Room, where guests can find hearty, throwback dishes like olive-crusted beef tenderloin and Alberta rack of lamb rubbed with grainy mustard.
But I was attracted to the delicacies from that ocean that lies just beyond the hotel's front door. Empress Room chef Rob Cleland is known to roam local fish markets for the freshest catches, and I was delighted with roasted halibut with pistachio nut and dried shrimp crust, preceded by an appetizer of roasted Alaska scallops with lumpfish caviar.
For the quintessential colonial experience, however, a guest of the Empress would be remiss not to make a reservation for afternoon tea. True, the event is patronized almost entirely by Victoria's tourists, and it is not the intimate little affair it was in the hotel's early days _ more than 115,000 guests are served in a year _ yet a stay here would be hollow without it.
Tea is served in the original hotel lobby, where windows overlook the harbor and a piano player provides gentle accompaniment. A group of four guests will be seated at a table, but if you have a party of three or fewer you'll sit on love seats and wing chairs around small tea tables. This creates the comfortable feel of a friend's living room.
The tea and treats arrive with a grand flourish _ and in a dizzying array. There are seven teas to choose from, and none was familiar. Borengajuli? Margaret's Hope? I opted for Empress Blend, which combines Assam, Kenyan black, Kenyan green and Sri Lankan Dimbula. According to the menu, it is characterized by ``Burgundy depth and oaky notes.''
The china was Royal Doulton, of course _ anything less in this setting would be philistine _ first used here in 1939 on the visit of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth.
Strawberries and cream arrived with a big, fat gooseberry perched on top. Then came a three-tiered serving tray presenting sandwiches with the crusts trimmed off (smoked salmon, carrot and ginger, egg salad, cucumber), a scone with strawberry jam and Jersey cream, and a selection of tiny pastries: custard tart, lemon-infused cream puff, shortbread cookie, wedge of chocolate cake.
If you're foolish enough to have eaten lunch before coming to afternoon tea, you'll never survive it.
This midafternoon indulgence, at which champagne and wine are also available, costs about $38 U.S. In the hotel's early days, it was served for $1.
I discovered that bit of intelligence in the Empress Archives, a small room on the hotel's lower lobby level. In addition to tea menus, displays include dance and orchestral programs from the '20s and '30s, a silver service, tourism brochures, even an old registry book.
Old photos are hung here, and also in hallways throughout the hotel. But to get a greater sense of the Empress' 96 years of lore, it's advisable to take a history tour, a 90-minute excursion offered daily at 10 a.m.
A lot of the grand hotels offer these, usually gratis and often conducted by a member of the hotel staff or a docent from a local historical society. I was initially dismayed to learn that the Empress charges a fee for its tour, about $7. But this is because the tour is farmed out to a professional company, Walkabout Tours of Victoria, and the quality is much higher as a result.
George A.J. Baker, wearing the uniform of a Canadian Pacific steamship officer, conducted ours, and he was a fount of fascinating and amusing tales of the Empress.
We visited the original Ladies' Parlour (now the library), with its dark- wood paneling and beautiful ornate ceiling. We skirted the perimeter of the hotel and learned that the original English ivy had devastated the mortar between the bricks, and had to be torn down during the renovation and replaced with Boston ivy, which dies out seasonally. ``The root ball for that original ivy was 6 feet by 6 feet,'' Baker said. ``Had to remove it with a backhoe.''
We learned of the dowagers and other characters who lived here as permanent hotel guests in the '20s, '30s and '40s. These people were products of a refined era, and were horrified when decorum took a beating with the advent of family travel and relaxed dress codes.
At tea, Baker noted, the acceptable attire today has been downgraded all the way to ``resort casual,'' but it was not long ago that Barbra Streisand was turned away because she was wearing jeans.
It was disappointing that the tour didn't find its way into some of the Empress' most significant historic rooms, including the Palm Court, where a stained-glass dome, shattered by a 1967 snowstorm and then hidden behind a false ceiling, was re-created to glorious effect, using pieces of the original.
Another impressive room excluded from the tour is the Crystal Ballroom, which once had glass ceiling panels so that guests could dance under the stars. The panels are now mirrors, which reflect the glittering light of 10 original chandeliers, each made of 8,000 beads of crystal.
The Palm Court and the Crystal Ballroom are used only for meetings, receptions and other private functions. I ducked in for a quick peek with a hotel staffer, but it's unfortunate that most hotel guests don't get to see these rooms, or the historic library.
It's a difficult balance to strike, though. The Empress is very much a public treasure, and tourists troop through continuously (the carpet has to be replaced every five years, a spokeswoman said).
The hotel guest's experience used to suffer for it _ the Tea Lobby was a high-traffic area, for example, with wheeled luggage rumbling through _ until some reconfiguring was done as part of the 1980s restoration. A new if nondescript check-in lobby was created and visitors were funneled to the area of shops on the lower level.
But the additions of 1989 were only the third wave for the hotel (others coming in 1912 and 1929), and an unfortunate byproduct is a maddeningly convoluted layout. I overheard one elderly couple say to a bellman, ``We've walked around the hotel twice and we can't seem to find the front door.''
Indeed, if you walk from your room to the check-in desk en route to Kipling's restaurant for breakfast, you'll find that the most expedient route is to walk outside, down the sidewalk and back into the hotel through a different door.
If you want to go to the Bengal Lounge from the check-in desk, you must go up one floor, walk through the hotel to the Tea Lobby, go back down one floor (so as not to disturb the tea crowd by passing through), traverse a subterranean area of the hotel, ascend to the floor you were just on, and walk down another corridor to the lounge.
This forces guests to do a little exploring to find some of the hotel's best assets. But persistence is rewarded.
Quite by chance, I stumbled upon the hotel's original front porch, also called the Verandah. You have to walk through the heart of the Tea Lobby to get there, but just remember that erect, haughty bearing. Out here are comfortable chairs, ocean breezes and a matchless view _ of the waterfront's human parade, of the harbor's hum of boats and seaplanes, of glorious sunsets. In the summertime, drinks and light dining are available.
This used to be the Empress' grand front entrance, but today there is a velvet rope strung across the steps. As you sit here with a book and a Beefeaters, you might eye those commoners out on the sidewalk and wonder if they'd have the audacity to breach it.
GUEST COMMENT CARD:
Best attribute: Venerable hotel in a great location _ on the Victoria waterfront, within walking distance of many of the city's points of interest.
Something unique: A late afternoon spent among the leather, oak and big-game trophies of the Bengal Lounge.
Don't miss: Afternoon tea. It might seem a tourist cliche, but it is fun, refined and taps deeply into Empress tradition.
Could be better: Some of the hotel's most significant rooms _ Palm Court, Crystal Ballroom, the library _ are accessible only to guests attending special functions.
Final thought: Has done a nice job of positioning itself astride its Edwardian past and the requirements of the 21st-century traveler.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: The Fairmont Empress is at 721 Government St., Victoria. Most visitors either fly into Victoria or take a ferry from Vancouver (www.bcferries.com) or Seattle (www. wsdot.wa.gov/ferries). The Seattle ferries land right at the inner harbor, steps from the hotel. The Vancouver ferries land north of the city at Swartz Bay, a 30-minute drive away.
RATES: From about $150 U.S. in the winter season. From about $200 in the shoulder seasons of May-June and early October. From about $290 during the July-to-September peak. Many packages available.
INFORMATION, RESERVATIONS: (888) 705-2500, (250) 384-8111 (hotel switchboard); www.fairmont.com/empress.
-Eric Noland, (818) 713-3681, email@example.com
FINAL HOTEL IN THE SERIES:
La Fonda in Santa Fe, N.M., Dec. 19. For a look at other Classic Hotels that have been featured in the series, visit www.greatescapes.com