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The Fairmont Empress: Anyone for Afternoon Tea?

By Jennifer L. MacGregor

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Deadlines and details' endlessly ringing phones, countless emails to return, even the cliched 'LA road rage'' had taken over my life.  I was slowly being consumed by a bad case of the 'end-of-summer blues.'  What's a girl to do?  I could think of nothing better than a weekend getaway with my mom and two sisters.  That's right, a ladies-only travel extravaganza.  The four of us scheduled a conference call to determine what destination appealed to us the most.  I offered far-away, exotic locales like a grand African safari or a mystical Himalayan odyssey through the jungles of Nepal.  After 45-minutes of consultation and discussion (and more than one reality check for me), we decided to all meet in Victoria, BC.  All right, so I'll have to save my explorations of the Maasai Mara and the Dalai Lama for another time.  I decided Victoria, BC would be perfect, the epitome of British style and grace in the new world.  Well, that and the fact that my mom and one of my sisters live in Portland, Oregon while the other lives in Seattle and it just seemed more practical.

The stately Fairmont Empress Hotel overlooks Victoria's Inner Harbour.

Upon my arrival in Victoria, BC I was instantly enchanted with the cobbled alleyways, ubiquitous silver and china shops and, of course, the elegant tea rooms.  Since this was our ladies-only travel extravaganza, we decided that we simply must experience Afternoon Tea at the world renowned, grand dame of them all' The Fairmont Empress Hotel.  This beloved tradition at The Empress is enjoyed by more than 115,000 guests and local residents each year.  The ancient ritual of tea originated in China, where its' making is considered an art form.  By the 19th century, the Duchess of Bedford, who experienced a sinking feeling around five in the afternoon, asked her friends to join her for tea, buttered bread and little cakes.  Due to the Duchess' sensitive constitution, the tradition of Afternoon Tea as we know it was born.

Afternoon Tea at The Empress is served in several locations including the stately Harbourside Room or under the hand-painted ceiling of the Library Lounge.  Of course, I opted for the largest and most grand room of them all' the opulent Tea Lobby.  The patina of Victorian elegance and grace permeates the space.  Large bay windows along the entire length of the room offer magnificent views of Victoria's Inner Harbour while portraits of King George V and Queen Mary are displayed opposite each other over the Tea Lobby's two massive stone fireplaces.  I was quite relieved that I had made an online reservation the week before because there wasn't an empty table to be found.  In fact, I was told that our reservation would be honored for only 15-minutes past the appointed time and then would have to be released to accommodate other guests.  Like a drill sergeant, I set alarms and organized wardrobe selections the night before to ensure that none of us would be late for our allotted time.  Once we arrived, we were not disappointed.

The Empress' opulent Tea Lobby.

The hotel does have a dress code of what they call 'smart casual,' this means no torn jeans, short shorts, tank tops or jogging suits are allowed.  We all decided to really make an event of this and' .(gasp!)....actually wore skirts and heels!  Yes, our 21st century homage to comfort and convenience was temporarily put on hold as we coiffed, powdered and sprayed.  Not a small feat for four women in one smallish hotel bathroom!  I did notice that several patrons waiting in line for their tables did not fully comply with the dress code regulations.  They were not asked to leave, but I daresay I saw more than one eyebrow raised in their direction.  We were told that during the 1970s, a group of streakers jogged through the hotel during Afternoon Tea, but had the courtesy to wear neckties.  What a display of respect and reverence to the dress code. 

After our arrival (actually 15-minutes early just to be safe), we were seated at a lovely table by the large bay window.  My sisters and I sat on comfortable upholstered high-backed chairs while our mom had the large, green velvet chaise all to herself.  Our decadent indulgence began with a crystal bowl of fresh blueberries topped with a dollop of chantilly cream.  Next, steaming signature Empress Blend tea was poured into our Royal Doulton tea cups.  This rich, coppery-gold blend incorporates Chinese, Kenyan, Indian and Ceylon components.  I had no idea what an art producing a great tea really is.  Like a wonderful wine or rich chocolate, tea is a delicacy.  In fact, we learned that the local water supply can have a distinct effect on the taste of various teas.  Therefore, the Empress Blend was created with the local water conditions in mind.  However, my sister from Seattle has never liked tea.  She was actually going to order coffee!  What?!  Come to the bastion of British tea room tradition and elegance and order a Starbuck's.  What blasphemy!  So, we urged her to reconsider.  After much cajoling, she relented and tentatively sipped the Empress Blend.  Slowly, a smile began to form as she added a touch of cream to her cup.  We all let out a sigh of relief.  I would venture a guess that she is not the first Empress Blend tea convert. 

After several more cups of the delicious blend, a magnificent silver tier was placed in the center of our table.  Like an overflowing cornucopia, each tier was dripping with mouth-watering delicacies.  The service began with finger-sized tea sandwiches filled with cucumber, smoked BC salmon and cream cheese, carrot and ginger with cream cheese, open-faced shrimp mousse with fresh papaya and curry mango chicken salad.  Next, were freshly baked scones with strawberry preserves and clotted cream.  Lastly, an assortment of light pastries including decadent chocolate truffles (my personal favorite), fresh fruit and lemon tarts, miniature chocolate eclairs and Cardamom shortbread cookies.  When the tier first arrived, we all glanced at each other and began discussing where we would go for lunch after this light appetizer.  Forty minutes later we decided to cancel our dinner reservations.  Future patrons take note' .this is a hearty, (albeit sweet) meal, so please plan accordingly.  

Pastry Chef D'oyen Christie.

             

Our server promptly delivered the check to our table along with a royal blue tin of Empress Blend tea for each of us to take home.  This was an unexpected surprise that we truly appreciated.  At first, I was rather shocked at the seemingly exorbitant price of $55 CDN, that's around $44 USD per person.  Remember, too, this was our ladies-only extravaganza so we each had a glass of champagne which brought our total to approximately $60 USD per person.  I know, I know' this is a splurge.  I was mentally contrasting this price to other comparable teas I've experienced at The Beverly Hills Hotel and The Bel Air Hotel for nearly half the price.  However, one does not experience the sense of authenticity and tradition, even at high-end luxury establishments like The Beverly Hills Hotel that one receives at The Empress.  After all, there aren't many hotels that serve tea to their guests on the same china that was first used by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth for a Royal visit in 1939.  Yes, I was a little surprised that once our waiter had delivered our check he seemed to hover over the table indicating that it was time for us to leave.  With up to five seatings a day between 12 noon and 5 pm there isn't much time for guests to linger over a final cup.  In spite of this, however, I found the ambience and overall 'tea experience' to be truly magical. 

Afternoon Tea patrons enjoying a steaming cup of The Empress' signature blend.

I'm back in LA now.  Back to my telephone and computer screen.  Last night as I was listening to the numerous voicemail messages that were waiting for me, I smiled to myself when I heard my sister's voice.  She was calling me from her local Seattle Starbuck's where she had just placed an order for the 'recommended steep.'  For you hot beverage neophytes, that's another term for the 'tea of the day' .'            

For more information go to: Afternoon Tea at the Fairmont Empress

Published on Dec 31, 1969

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