The Jewel of the Pacific, The Fairmont Empress Hotel is one of Victoria’s highlights. Cresting the city’s Inner Harbour, this 477-room hotel was built in the Edwardian style and recently restored to its original grandeur, with antique furniture and luxurious décor.
Considered to be the most photographed attraction on Vancouver Island, The Fairmont Empress was originally designed by Francis Rattenbury, and opened in 1908.
In true British tradition, the hotel is famous for its elegant Afternoon Tea – served to over 130,000 visitors annually. Savour tea in the finest tradition, accompanied by fresh seasonal fruit and Chantilly cream, traditional raisin scones with thick Jersey cream, strawberry preserves, sandwiches, pastries and tarts. All served with silver service in the elegant Tea Lobby, stately Harbourside Room, or intimate Library Lounge.
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Reservations are required and must be made directly with the hotel, a week or two in advance 250-384-8111. Tables are held for 10 minutes after reservation time. Up to five seatings daily: from 12:00 pm until 5:00 pm. Dress Code: Smart casual. Walking shorts, jeans that are not ripped or torn and running shoes are allowed. Tank tops, sleeveless shirts, “short” shorts or cut-offs are not permitted.
Rising regally on the banks of Victoria’s Inner Harbour, The Fairmont Empress is the symbolic centrepiece of Victoria, and conveniently located adjacent to the Victoria Convention Centre, the Legislative Buildings, the Royal BC Museum,and shops and local attractions.
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 Streisland, Harrison Ford, and a host of others have passed through its lobby. Shirley Temple arrived accompanied by her parents amid rumors that she had fled from California because of kidnapping threats, a story borne from the presence of two huge bodyguards who took the room opposite hers and always left their door open.
In 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 Empress would not be demolished. Instead she would embark on a $4 million campaign of renovation and refurbishment, playfully dubbed ‘Operation Teacup.’
The walls of the hotel contain stories of unusual guests and employees. In 1987, a woman wrote about her wonderful stay at The Empress and asked if other guests had received a similar late night visitor: a little girl who had watched over her bed and then floated across the room. There are also the stories of an early 20th-century maid, who shows up now and again on the sixth floor to help with the cleaning.
Throughout its history, The Fairmont Empress has played host to kings, queens, movie stars and distinguished guests from around the world. In 1919, Edward, Prince of Wales, waltzed into the dawn in the Crystal Ballroom – an event considered by Victorians to be of such importance that almost 50 years later, the obituaries of elderly ladies would appear under headlines such as, ‘Mrs. Thornley-Hall Dies. Prince of Wales Singled Her Out.’
In 1989, over $45 million was spent on the Royal Restoration; all the guest rooms were renovated, and a health club, indoor swimming pool and guest reception were added. With an emphasis on craftsmanship, no attempt was made to give the hotel a new image. Instead, the goal was to restore The Fairmont Empress to her original elegance.
In 2001, the $7 million, 8,000 sq. ft., two-level Willow Stream spa was opened to compliment the hotel in a blend of traditional and contemporary style. Willow Stream features 11 treatment rooms, 5 with exterior views, a Finnish sauna, steam room, Hungarian mineral bath, and a wide range of full-service treatments inspired by the elements and reflective of Victoria’s stunning natural surroundings.
The strong emotions The Fairmont Empress evokes in many of her guests and protectors is exemplified in the statement made by an irate gentleman, as workers raised the sign above the front entrance: ‘Anyone who doesn’t know this is The Empress shouldn’t be staying here.’
Tour guides in period costume relate the history of the Empress Hotel every Saturday at 10:00am during the summer, commencing mid to late May. Tickets can be purchased at the Dining reservations desk, 250-389-2727.
The Fairmont Empress Hotel
721 Government Street