Updated July 7, 2017
British Columbia’s capital city of Victoria was once known as a very British outpost of the Canadian territories, and in 1908, a very British landmark was built on Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
Designed by architect Francis M. Rattenbury, who also designed B.C.’s parliament building nearby, The Empress Hotel began welcoming guests that year. As you wander its grand corridors or take afternoon tea in its famous Tea Lobby, it’s not hard to imagine the well-to-do patrons and liveried staff who once populated the property.
These days, the hotel, known as the Fairmont Empress Hotel, is part of the luxury Fairmont chain, and it’s tourists of all shapes, sizes, and nationalities who wander the halls of Victoria’s “grande dame.” And after a $60 million multi-year renovation, she’s grander than ever.
Here’s the scoop:
Hotel Facilities and Services
The public spaces, including the completely refreshed lobby, as well as the polished staff, give the Fairmont Empress its majestic feel, from the doormen who greet you at the entrance to the gracious front desk team.
A massive crystal chandelier hangs from the lobby ceiling, and the stately stairway has been rebuilt, providing the entrance with new glamour.
The hotel’s restaurant, now called Q at the Empress, retains its original dark woodwork, but features eclectic new artwork — funky oversized portraits of Queen Victoria as a young woman. In the adjacent bar, the portraits depict the monarch in her older days.
The Fairmont Empress helped popularize the tradition of afternoon tea in Victoria, and the hotel still serves more than 500,000 cups of tea every year in its famous Tea Lobby, which has also been modernized.
You begin with your choice of tea – the hotel offers its own signature blend as well as other options – and then move on to finger sandwiches, scones with jam and clotted cream, and a tray of assorted pastries. The well-trained staff make you feel like you’re as important as the royalty and celebrities who’ve taken tea here over the years.
The renovations maintained many other original features, including the dramatic stained glass ceiling in one of the function spaces.
The hotel has a well-equipped health club and a small indoor pool overlooking the lawn. The Willow Stream Spa offers massage and other treatments.
On the front lawn, the hotel keeps several bee hives, which make honey that the hotel restaurants use. Peek into their “observation hive” to watch the busy bees at work.
Guest Rooms and Amenities
The 464 guest rooms at the Empress have all been updated with white linens and a serene beige color scheme that feels modern without losing the classic feel. The best have views across the street to the Inner Harbour.
Guest rooms vary in size, and as you often find in older hotels, the bathrooms aren’t always that spacious. The recent renovations overhauled all the bathrooms, though, making up for any lack of space with a smart redesign.
The Empress provides an abundance of amenities, too, from monogrammed bathrobes to its own line of rose-scented bath products. Staff offer a nightly turndown service and place slippers next to your bed.
Rooms are equipped with flat-screen TVs, coffee makers, and tea kettles. Work desks have multiple electrical outlets and charging ports. Wi-Fi is available throughout the hotel. Join Fairmont’s complimentary President’s Club before your stay and Wi-Fi is free; otherwise, it’s CAD$15/day.
Guests who upgrade to the Fairmont Gold rooms have a new perk, in addition to the dedicated concierge and the complimentary breakfast and afternoon snacks served in the private lounge. The Gold Lounge now opens onto a terrace overlooking the Inner Harbour — a gorgeous spot to enjoy the outdoors during the day or to watch the sunset in the evenings.
Guest room rates at the Fairmont Empress begin at CAD$395/double in the summer high season. Parking is $32/day. If you want the Empress experience but you’re watching your budget, look for off-season specials, particularly during Victoria’s damp but mild winter. Check the hotel website for details. You can also book through Travelocity, Expedia or Priceline.
At any time of year, Victoria’s grande dame remains equally grand.
Hotel review by Vancouver-based travel, food, and feature writer Carolyn B. Heller. Photos © Carolyn B. Heller. I paid a discounted media rate to stay at the Fairmont Empress.