My sister and I grew up taking weeklong road trips punctuated by a lot of Holiday Inn Express stays and countless meals at Applebee’s. We cherish those memories, but now that we’re older, our tastes have changed — so for our first vacation together sans parental involvement, we decided on the theme of “sophisticated sisters’ getaway.” Of course, no one does sophistication better than the Brits, but with England out of the budget, we headed north to Victoria, British Columbia for a royally lovely weekend of strolling through gardens, browsing boutiques, and donning our finest floral dresses for afternoon tea (pinkies up!).
Upon arriving to Vancouver Island via the Victoria Clipper boat from Seattle, we met the valet from Oak Bay Beach Hotel, who sired us to our room. After a run of more than 80 years, the local landmark set in a residential Victoria neighborhood closed in 2006. In late 2012, with 95 percent of the previous hotel recycled or reused, the doors opened once again, welcoming guests in search of a little luxury. If our room’s crown molding details, chandelier, and heated bathroom floor hadn’t won me over (and they did), the panorama from the floor-to-ceiling windows would have. (oakbaybeachhotel.com)
Hard as it was to tear myself away from the view, downtown Victoria, in all its seaside splendor, awaited. Our first stop was the most quintessential of all: afternoon tea at The Fairmont Empress. The ivy-covered, chateau-style hotel has been the icon of the city since the early 1900s, welcoming everyone from Queen Elizabeth to Shirley Temple. Ruffled dresses and sensible heels in place, we made our way to the Empress Tea Lobby, filled with hand-carved tables and muted antique furnishings. (fairmont.com/empress-victoria)
After the strawberries and clotted cream, dainty sandwiches and scones, petite desserts, including rose petal shortbread and lemon curd meringue tarts, and plenty of cups of the Empress Blend (created specially for the hotel), we felt fortified enough to head to the Royal BC Museum, chronicling the history of the province, and Craigdarroch Castle, a Victorian-era home known for its stained-glass windows (and controversial Dunsmuir family who resided there). (royalbcmuseum.bc.ca)
Back at Oak Bay Beach Hotel, we enjoyed dinner in The Snug, a lively pub off the lobby. We somehow ended up with every dessert on the menu once the wait staff caught on to our rampant sweet teeth and indecisiveness over what to order. Plump with pastries, all we had the energy to do was slink into the outdoor seaside mineral pools and stay quiet in hopes we’d hear a whale breaching.
Vowing to eat less and move more the next day, we headed to the Inner Harbour for a kayaking trip with Ocean River Adventures. With owner Brian Henry as our enthusiastic guide, we paddled past seaplanes and herons as we learned about the harbor’s history. The highlight was floating through the Grilligan’s “drive-through,” a paddle-through window that provides donuts to hungry kayakers. While you can walk to the floating Fisherman’s Wharf, home of Grilligan’s, paddling there really makes you feel like you’ve earned your donuts, scoop from Jackson’s Ice Cream, and stroll around the floating homes. (oceanriveradventures.com)
At that point, it’d been almost 24 hours since we’d had tea, so we immediately set to remedy the problem by paying a visit to Silk Road in Chinatown. The silver-tin-filled shelves were like magnets for my sister, a tea aficionado who’s long lamented the fact that coffee options far outweigh tea ones, at least in Seattle. Here, that wasn’t an issue. (silkroadteastore.com)
Hunger finally pried us out of the cozy shop, and we were on to Red Fish Blue Fish, an upcycled cargo container featuring fresh seafood. There’s always a line, but on the plus side, we made friends standing in it. One gentleman even drew us a map with points of interest, which just underscored a point we had already learned: everyone in Victoria is ridiculously nice. (redfish-bluefish.com)
The next morning, after frolicking through Victoria’s crown jewel, the photogenic, world-famous Butchart Gardens (and having more tea!), we spent our remaining hours browsing the adorable shops of Lower Johnson. When my sister and I had different goals, I sent her on her way and set a time and place for us to meet. “Mom would never let us split up!” she exclaimed. “This is so great.”
Oh, Mom — we still appreciate those roadside motel trips of yore, but we’re grown up and fancy now. At least we like to think so. However, we did ride the Rose Carousel in the Children’s Pavilion at Butchart Gardens, and we delighted in the childlike wonder of it all — much as we delighted in Victoria all around.