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High Tea at The Empress Hotel

Once Upon a Time in Victoria

The ferry glides through the San Juan Islands on its way to Victoria B.C. I haven’t been this route for years and am glad that the islands look much the same. I was expecting the worst and am sorry to find Friday Harbor, once the sweetest landing, has succumbed to suburban sprawl. When I lived in Seattle, we would bring our bikes on the ferries to San Juan or Orcas islands in winter to ride, explore and picnic, fairly certain to leave the rain behind. There’s a rainbow effect that leaves the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island and the San Juans fairly dry, the clouds sucking up moisture and arcing over this area, dropping most of the rainfall inland as they bump into the Cascade Range. As we leave Anacortes in sleet, I mention to Ru, my traveling pal, that we are likely to have sun in Victoria. She thinks I am insane.

Off the ferry and a 30-minute drive south, we arrive at The Empress Hotel in Victoria. (This is the pre-travel writing phase of my life and my idea was always to take the cheapest room in a grand hotel, as the amenities and libraries, lobbies and sitting rooms were so wonderful for reading and writing. Even traveling in Europe just out of college — six days of the week in hostels or camping; one in a grand hotel.) We check in and are told we’ve been upgraded to a “Fairmont Gold” suite. Astonished, we gladly oblige. (We were informed that if the “Gold” floor was not fully booked they fill it with those who are likely to return, that is, visitors from the west coast — a very nice in-house advertising approach.)

Whatever the reason, we are deliriously happy. Our two-room suite overlooks the harbor. A complimentary plate of biscotti and fruit awaits on the coffee table next to the couch. The lounge area has inviting overstuffed chairs and couches where complimentary coffee, tea, cocoa and an honor bar is available all day, with a complimentary continental breakfast buffet and cocktail hour canapés in the evening, enough for us on our budget to dispatch with dinner.

We are tourists. We walk the waterfront and wander through town exploring and shopping and enjoying the dollar exchange and yes, the sun. Before we know it, it’s teatime and we hurry back to The Empress for that very British ritual, high tea. Teatime at the Empress must be done, but it’s rather a Disneyland version with long lines, a certain giddiness in the crowd anxiously anticipating sitting in the luxurious grand lounge for the very expensive experience of having real tea accompanied by tiny sandwiches with crusts cut off, scones and itsy bitsy delicate sweets. The crowd is diverse, all ages, all sexes, dominated by older women wearing hats. Although no one is wearing gloves that I can see. We are seated near two darling young Japanese women in their twenties who pose taking pictures of each other, one wearing a black and white argyle patterned sweater and the other in a pink and black mohair skintight dress with a matching pink stuffed dog that she cuddles.

The next morn, after our breakfast in the lounge, we head for the Royal British Museum where we spend hours. I am especially moved by the First Peoples collection of masks and native artifacts. By the time we exit the museum, gale force winds are blowing and we return to check out of the hotel. The desk clerk advises us that the ferries may be cancelled. We promptly throw our bags in the car and speed for the ferry that will take us to Vancouver. The harbor has whitecaps. The shoreline on the way to the ferry looks like an angry ocean, not the protected Georgia Strait passage. Limbs are flying onto the highway and trees are toppling. We are lucky we have to stop for gas in Sidney, a few miles from the ferry terminal, as the attendant tells us the ferries are cancelled. Hurricane force winds. We scramble to find a lodging. All motels in town are full.

At the edge of town near the waterfront we see a sign for the Sidney Hotel. We find a two-story motel in which Norman Bates would feel at home. There are only two cars in front. It looks abandoned. One of the letters in the sign over the door is gone and we’re not certain we want to stay at the “idney hotel.” But we do not want to sleep in the car either. There’s a light on inside and much to our relief, the interior is not as bleak as the outside. The place is under renovation and the lobby is torn up but the room is fine and clean and has over 70 channels on cable TV. The waves are breaking over the lower part of the parking lot. We pray that it is already high tide and park the car as high up as possible. Ru has bought candles in Victoria so we take those to our room just in case. The wind howls all night and we can hear waves crashing on the parking lot. I look out to see how close the water is. Ru hides under her covers.

The next morning, the wind is down, the water looks merely riled and we have survived the night without being drowned or murdered. When we enter the dining area to partake in our complimentary continental breakfast, we overhear a young man with orange hair whisper to a largish woman in a flamboyant silk bathrobe, “We have paying guests. Don’t eat all the muffins.”

It’s on to the ferry terminal to join the hundreds who have slept in their cars all night. We wait a mere five hours to make the crossing to BC mainland and on to Vancouver.

NOTE: the “idney hotel” no longer exists, replaced by the Sidney Pier Hotel and Spa where I’m hoping to check out soon…

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