Tess van Straaten played tourist in her own town for her recent column for Monday Magazine. Photos contributed

Victoria Spring Fling: tea, tulips and historical treasures

Monday columnist Tess van Straaten rediscovers some local gems

Tourists come from all over the world to visit Victoria — and it’s easy to see why — so I decided to join them and have a ‘spring fling’ staycation in our vibrant city.

“Victoria is such a walkable city, and is there any time better than spring?” asks Fairmont Empress public relations director Tracey Drake.

“With the flower count and the cherry blossoms in full bloom, there is a somewhat European allure to the streets, quaint English architecture and Parisian tree-lined streets. Why would you want to go anywhere else?”

I’ve checked into the iconic Fairmont Empress Hotel, the grand dame of Victoria hotels. Over the years, the Empress has hosted everyone from Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles to Hollywood royalty. And after an incredible $60-million renovation, she’s been restored to her former glory.

“Locals and travellers alike love the grandeur of the new reception lobby and the upgraded rooms,” says Drake. “I love the lobby lounge — it’s the perfect mix of historical elegance and modern touches.”

The Empress is also famous for afternoon tea, which it’s been serving for 110 years. An estimated half a million cups of tea are steeped to perfection each year. With sweets, savoury treats and sandwiches, it can easily replace a meal. My favourite part? The mouth-watering macaroons!

It wouldn’t be a Victoria staycation without a visit to the region’s most famous attraction — the world-renowned Butchart Gardens. A riot of colour and creativity, the National Historic Site attracts more than a million visitors every year.

“If you ask a gardener what their favourite season is, they’re likely to say spring,” says Butchart public relations manager Daphne Gardner.

“Spring is a time of re-growth, with each day showing a fresh sign of the season as bulbs planted in the autumn push through the ground and shrubs burst into colour.”

More than 400,000 bulbs are planted in the fall and begin blooming in March, including more than 75,000 spring bulbs in the Sunken Garden alone. In 1912, Jennie Butchart began transforming what was a barren limestone quarry into the world-famous Sunken Garden.

“Jennie Butchart wasn’t a gardener before she moved here from Ontario,” explains Butchart historian Rob Churchill.

“She actually turned down an arts scholarship to marry Mr. Butchart. With her sense of colour and artistry, we think maybe this was her canvass.”

Until March 15, free historical tours are being offered at the Butchart family residence with many treasures on display.

After our enlightening tour — did you know the 1932 addition alongside the Italian Gardens was a one-lane bowling alley? There was also a heated indoor pool (sadly, it’s now a storage room) – Churchill joins my mom, Dee, and me for afternoon tea at the Blue Poppy Restaurant.

“There were teahouses all around the gardens and people would go in and help themselves but they’d also walk off with the cups and saucers and cutlery so that had to stop,” Churchill tells us. Sipping Earl Grey tea and looking out at the flowers starting to burst into bloom, I’m rediscovering all the things I love about Victoria.


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