One of my earlier childhood memories is sitting in front of the TV set with my sister, both of motionless with rapt attention, and taking in several hours of coverage of the royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana. We were raised with an active fascination for all things British in our suburban track home, sparked by our mother’s early exposure to the PBS program, “Upstairs, Downstairs”.
While my own travel dreams outgrew that fairy-tale kingdom in favor of the spice and mystery of the Far East, my mother has always held fast to the wish to immerse in the spirit of jolly ol’ England.
As an early Mother’s Day celebration a couple weeks ago, I wanted to approximate that travel dream for her. Trans-atlantic flights are impressively low these days, but rather than jump the big pond, my mom and I did the next best thing – a long weekend in Victoria, B.C.
Determined to leave our cares (and our cars) behind on this trip, we opted to take the Victoria Clipper, a fast foot-passenger only ferry, from downtown Seattle to Victoria. It felt great for both of us to embark on this weekend entirely by foot. The Clipper was a fast, smooth ride, and we were on land, checked-in to our hotel and traversing Victoria’s pretty Inner Harbour in time for lunch.
Victoria is absolutely a fantastic walking city. Even with a recovering foot injury, my mom roamed the streets comfortably with me, and we found sweet boutiques, hidden shop-lined alleyways and other surprises as we made our way between impressive landmarks, like the Parliament Building, or meandered along the waterfront. Lucky for us, the weather was fair (Victoria enjoys the fair-weather benefits of the Olympic rainshadow) and spring colors spilled out across tidy planters and flower beds.
In fact, Victoria’s sidewalks were so inviting that our weekend became shaped by wandering. We zigged and zagged our way through the heart of Victoria, taking in lovely vistas along the waterfront, admiring historic storefronts painted in candy store colors, pondering glass and steel condo developments springing up like mushroom patches next to weathered totem poles. We came across a fantastic Carribbean restaurant for lunch one day, and stopped in to a cute English pub for draught beer and poutine for an afternoon snack the next. The British vibe gave way to asiana in Victoria’s colorful Chinatown district, but re-emerged among the silver and fine china in the antique shops along Fort Road.
For me, this is very typical of the way I explore a new place when I travel — wandering, observing, enjoying, taking in — and it was great to share this feeling of discovery with my mom. I love the freedom of detaching from any sort of set itinerary and allowing the place to beckon you as it will.
The centerpiece of our weekend was high tea at the Empress Hotel. This one piece of structure within our flowing itinerary (reservations highly recommended on shoulder season; required in high season) had also been a longtime dream of my mother’s.
A grand old dame herself, The Empress was built in 1908, but the years (and more than one renovation) have treated her well. Traditional high tea is a highly feted affair; the hotel’s website claims that during the summer months, Victoria’s Empress hosts more guests for afternoon tea than most hotels in London.
A certain air of British properness and dignity permeates the experience. As soon as we arrived at the grand lobby, we were tended to with a quiet formality; chairs were pulled out for us and napkins placed in our laps, causing us to sit up straight and try and keep our elbows off the table. The set menu features a tiered platter of delectable finger foods and decadent sweets. Our server came by often and in one fluid motion ensured that our gilded tea cups were always full. We stretched tea time over a good two hours, talking and giggling like little girls at a make-believe tea party. There was a feeling of stepping out of our lives into this moment and inhabiting our dreams.
Afternoon tea at the Empress is pricey, yet the food was surprisingly delicious and filling enough to forgo lunch that day. That said, the joy in sharing this experience was, for my mom and I, completely priceless.