Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 20, 2022
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Tea at the Empress

Victoria’s grande dame hosts a centennial year that shows off her best assets

One of the reigning beauties of Canadian hotels, she was designed by a man who’d be murdered.

She once played host to a wild cougar. She charges $60 for afternoon tea. She’s celebrating her 100th year, and she’s still gorgeous to look at.

She’s Victoria’s Empress Hotel, the westernmost of the great railway hotels that reach from Quebec City’s Château Frontenac to Alberta’s Banff Springs and Chateau Lake Louise.

She opened her doors in 1908 — the year that Henry Ford produced his first Model T, the first-ever Mother’s Day was celebrated and Anne of Green Gables was published.

She doesn’t flinch at being known as a stately Edwardian pile. The architect was Francis Rattenbury, who had also designed the nearby BC Legislature building. To this day, the two structures define the city’s terribly British sensibility and colonial charm.

Rattenbury later returned to his native England and was bumped off by his chauffeur, who had been having his way with the Missus Rattenbury.

A century later, the hotel — now branded as the Fairmont Empress — remains a Canadian classic. Travel magazines frequently list it as one of the world’s great hotels. And it’s still the place to stay in Victoria.

Gossip and Glamour

She can reminisce about a who’s who of royals, politicians and movie stars. Shirley Temple stayed, allegedly hiding out from kidnappers. Bob Hope joked about using the corridors as a putting green. Barbara Streisand was turned away from Afternoon Tea for running afoul of the dress code. Rita Hayworth, John Wayne and Lassie slept in the Vice Regal Suite — but not together.

The only celebrity ejected for bad behaviour in a century was the actor, charter member of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Kennedy clansman, Peter Lawford. He’d gone overboard trying to seduce a room-service waitress.

But no guest was more stellar than the 60-kilogram cougar that dropped in back in March, 1992. The story that the cat sauntered into the lobby and gave the desk manager a new white hairdo is just a rumour.

In fact, the feline was found in the hotel’s indoor parking lot. It was pursued by a hotel employee who insulted it by mistaking it for a dog. Finally, it was tranquilized and packed off to a new home in the Cowichan Valley, where the farmers are plump and juicy.

This centennial year, the Empress has a portfolio of treats for guests who walk through its imposing portals. They range from a bargain accommodations package to a new souvenir book.

The Fairmont Empress: The First Hundred Years by Terry Reksten is a softcover edition that includes a new chapter chronicling hotel life in the 21st-century. “It’s different than the earlier parts of the book,” says Empress general manager Roger Soane. “It’s more about people, and there’s even some gossip.”

Guests arriving this summer will find a Centennial Garden in full bloom just off the Willow Stream Spa. A computerized light show will bring additional glamour to Victoria’s after-dark pizzazz.

Decades of decadence

In the baronial opulence of the Empress Room, the menu spins through time to offer the gastro-hits of 1908 lightened up in the contemporary mode. The restaurant delivers the sort of dazzlingly velvet-glove experience you’re unlikely to find anywhere else in this iPod era.

When the Empress Room goes retro, it’s an awfully good fit. A revived trout amandine, employing fresh-farmed rainbow trout from Sooke and only a little subdued in the butter department, leaves you wondering why the dish fell out of fashion in the first place.

Breast of pheasant, a bird you see on few menus nowadays, shows the juiciness and full flavour that makes it something more than another chicken. And you can bet the tournedos Rossini, filet mignon sandwiched between a crouton and a slab of foie gras, will, by today’s prim standards, border on the degenerate.

The hotel’s other asset is its Willow Stream Spa. The $7-million, 743-square-metre spa’s secret weapon is fine tuning with amenities including a luxury suite with soaker tub and gas fireplace for couples, a Hungarian mineral pool for soaking and duvets on massage tables.

This is no fluff-and-buff factory. Fairmont takes a lead by acknowledging the importance of touch in a society that doesn’t feel comfortable with it — and doesn’t know it isn’t comfortable with it.

“Our research linked touch and care inherently and intimately,” says one staffer. “Children have been known to live longer without food than without touch. Yet in North American society, touch is, well... almost illegal.”

Down to a Tea

Finally, much of the Centennial fuss has to do with the Tea Room. It’s been fastidiously refurbished, maybe too fastidiously: “We spent $175,000 replacing the white oak floor,” says Soane. “It looks so much like the original, people can’t tell the difference.”

Afternoon Tea at the Empress goes back the full 100 years. “It’s what we’re known for,” explains the general manager. “It’s about the experience: like being in Singapore and going to Raffles for a Singapore Sling.”

“It’s not a necessity,” he says. “It’s purely for pleasure. There’s no rush, no worry, just an abiding sense of tradition.”

Tourists can’t seem to go home without it. Cruise ship passengers practically storm the room. Afternoon Tea winds up served at 9:30pm.

But what do you get for $60? You’re seated in an early 20th-century room that’s cosy and formal at the same time. You get nothing less than Royal Doulton china, silver tea service and a live piano player. The slate of teas is attuned to tea connoisseurs. The Centennial offering blends leaves from Assam India for a predominantly malty flavour, from Sri Lanka for fruitiness and from Kenya for floral aroma.

The food platter is a triple-tier of dainty sandwiches, scones and pastries. “Americans start at the bottom and work their way up to the pastries,” says Ray, a veteran server. “The Queen works her way down from the desserts to the sandwiches. Canadians start somewhere in the middle.”

The scones show why the recipe hasn’t changed in 100 years. Among sweets, the tart cherry coated in chocolate is a decided winner. Included is a glass of Stellar’s Jay, the award-winning bubbly from Sumac Ridge in the Okanagan Valley.

The pot thickens with the Centennial Tea to be served Fridays until October in the Library, with the tab jumping to $100.

“It’ll be like tea in a Victorian home,” says Soune. “There’ll be a harpist. The tea sommelier will be working with the best. The food will include items such as lobster and caviar. But it’s still about the experience of being here.” A must-do or the Empress’ new clothes? That’s up to you.

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