I had the opportunity to return to the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia last month for TeaTime magazine’s Occasion for Tea. The other speakers included Jane Pettigrew, Norwood Pratt, Shelley Richardson, and editor Lorna Reeves. We were joined by 70 devoted tea enthusiasts from across the United States and Canada for a weekend of pure tea bliss.
Afternoon tea in the Tea Lobby at The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC.
I don’t know of a tea venue anywhere that hosts more afternoon tea customers year after year than the magnificent Fairmont Empress Hotel. Over 100,000 patrons sit at their lobby tea tables each year, generating over $4 million in revenue for the hotel.
Since its opening in 1908, the hotel has long been accustomed to entertaining Hollywood celebrities. Rita Hayworth, Jack Benny, Pat O’Brien, Douglas Fairbanks, Katherine Hepburn, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Tallulah Bankhead, Roger Moore, John Travolta, Barbara Streisand, Shirley Temple, Harrison Ford and a host of others have passed through its lobby.
By 1965, there was much debate on whether to tear down what was becoming a faded, dowdy hotel, to make room for a more modern, functional high-rise hotel. One local newspaper warned that “Without this splendid relic of the Edwardian era, literally tens of thousands of tourists will never return. This is the Mecca, this is the heart and soul of the city.” The decision was announced on June 10, 1966: The Fairmont Empress would not be demolished. Instead, she would embark on a $4 million campaign of renovation and refurbishment, playfully dubbed “Operation Teacup.”
Jane Pettigrew entertains her table with tea time stories.
Afternoon tea at the Empress is what you do when you visit Victoria. Guests sip tea and enjoy delicious food and pleasant conversation, accompanied by live music, while seated in the famous Tea Lobby. The rose and green-trimmed lobby ceiling is over 15 feet high and supports 12 original chandeliers. A pair of period George V and Queen Mary portraits stand watch over the matching fireplaces. Tea patrons are seated at comfortable couches or chintz-covered high-back chairs set before antique wooden tea tables custom-crafted from the original wooden flooring.
Norwood Pratt with guests in the Tea Lobby at The Empress.
Summertime guests may take their tea at wicker tables along the verandah and watch boats arriving in the harbor, just as travelers have done for over a century. This same small port once welcomed fast-sailing clipper ships laden with tea imported for a growing population of tea-drinking British colonists and Chinese laborers.
A great way to walk off those clotted cream calories is to wander through the variety of fascinating shops that line nearby Government Street. Along a two-block area, you will pass Murchie’s Tea Shop, Teavana, David’s Tea, and Silk Road Teas. This is a tea drinking city!
Just remember – if you tell your friends the story of your visit to Victoria, they will ask “Did you have tea at the Empress?”
If you say “no,” they will think you unrefined. But, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, there is no way that tea faux pas will happen!