Dan Smith has a habit of spoiling the ladies in his life. So when my mother and I mentioned that we’d love to visit the famous Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia, he was quick to plan our Canadian adventure.
We flew to Seattle, Washington, and spent a day exploring downtown before catching our international ferry. I’ve always wanted to watch them throw fish at Pike Place Market, which is just as fun in person as it looks on television.
We strolled around the Seattle Public Market, enjoyed the Space Needle and the iconic animated statue in front of the Seattle Art Museum, enjoyed some delicious seafood, and whetted our appetite for gorgeous spring flowers.
Rather than fly to Victoria Island from Seattle, we chose to take the international ferry. It was an easy, pleasant journey that took about three hours, and we were treated to an orca sighting midway through our sailing.
British Columbia really knows how to make a first impression. Victoria Harbour is surrounded by iconic buildings, including the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia with its picturesque fountain and impressive Neo-Baroque architecture, as well as our first Canadian destination, the Fairmont Empress Hotel.
Opened in 1908, the Empress is one of Canada’s grand railway hotels, although it was originally designed as a terminus for Canadian Pacific’s steamship line. It was named for Queen Victoria, who was also Empress of India, and it helped the city of Victoria become a major tourist destination beginning in the 1920s.
The Empress is known worldwide as a hospitality legend, particularly for its afternoon tea. As the story goes, the tradition of afternoon tea began with the seventh Duchess of Bedford in 1840. In that day, dinner was served at 8 p.m., and she struggled to make it through the afternoon without feeling a bit peckish. She solved the problem by placing an afternoon order for tea with bread, butter, and cake served in her room at 4 p.m. She enjoyed it so much that she began inviting friends to join her.
By the 1880s, afternoon tea was all the rage, and it was now served in drawing rooms with silver teapots, fine linen, porcelain teacups, and gourmet teas. Afternoon tea became tea parties, which led to tea rooms and tea gardens across England.
While “high tea” might sound fancier, afternoon tea is the proper term for the tiny sandwiches, dainty desserts, and other treats we typically associate with the occasion.
My mother and I happened to enjoy our afternoon tea at the Empress Tea Room the same day King Charles was being crowned in England, and the Empress celebrated the affair with commemorative menus and macarons emblazoned with his coronation seal. And Champagne, of course.
We were in British Columbia to visit the famed Butchart Gardens, but the rest of Victoria is no slouch when it comes to an abundance of florals.
Known as the Garden City, Victoria’s climate enables it to grow flowers year-round. Every June through September, the city’s lampposts are festooned with 1,000 hanging baskets. Each February, residents tally the number of blossoms in their yards for the annual Flower Count Week. The 2022 total was 27,875,292,158 flowers — that’s 27.8 billion — not counting the blooms at Butchart.
Victoria enjoys its status as a record holder, and not just for flowers. The city’s Chinatown is the oldest in Canada and the second-oldest in North America after San Francisco’s. You’ll find dozens of shops, restaurants, studios, and art galleries as well as the Gate of Harmonious Interest and the narrowest commercial street in North America: Fan Tan Alley.
Named for the Chinese gambling game fan-tan, the alley was infamous at the turn of the 19th century for its opium dens. After the drug was outlawed in 1908 — the same year the Empress Hotel opened — the alley focused on gambling parlors for the next 50 years. When the last of those was shuttered in the 1960s, the alley fell in to disrepair until being revitalized through community efforts in the 1970s and ’80s. This National Historic Site now looks much as it did in 1990, when Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn raced between the narrow walls on a motorcycle in the movie Bird on a Wire.
A thriving Chinatown isn’t the only thing Victoria has in common with San Francisco. Handmade tiles from California’s City by the Bay were used in the construction of Victoria’s Craigdarroch mansion, known as “Canada’s castle.”
Completed in 1890, the Scottish Baronial mansion was home to the Dunsmuir family, who made their fortune in coal. It is estimated that it cost as much as $500,000 to build, and its 25,000 square feet hold 39 rooms filled with locally mined granite, intricately carved oak, and colorful stained glass.
The family’s patriarch died before construction was completed. When his widow followed him in 1908, the survivors among their 10 children couldn’t afford to buy one another’s shares, so the property was sold for $38,000 to a land speculator. He subdivided the estate’s 28 acres into building lots, and to drum up interest in their sale, raffled off the house itself. The winner had mortgaged his own home to finance failed investments, and Craigdarroch Castle’s ownership was claimed by the Bank of Montreal to cover his debts.
In 1919, the castle was converted into a military hospital, then a college, and subsequently a music conservatory before being purchased by a trust that has worked since 1979 to restore it to its original glory. Now filled with period furnishings, art, clothing, and other exhibits of the era, it is open to the public for tours.
Victoria’s harbor, as well as its downtown area featuring Chinatown and Craigdarroch Castle, are easily walkable and very enjoyable. And the Empress Hotel, with its exquisite tea and out-of-this world purple pea flower house gin, is not to be missed. The highlight of the visit, however, was definitely The Butchart Gardens. Take a look that flower-filled adventure!