As I head out toward the Fairmont Empress Hotel, I try to remember the last time I was on ice skates. I can’t.
I do remember taking skating lessons when I was four. We had a year-end show and I played a rose. As I think of it I can feel the tight strap of elastic under my chin that held the pretty, sparkly pink bud atop my tiny head. The skirt was sparkly too – green tulle. All I had to do was skate toward that flowery arch in a line with my little classmates and raise my leg behind me, gliding regally underneath. I was scared witless.
In rehearsal I could barely accomplish the feat – in front of hundreds of parents and spectators – I was certain I’d crumple into a pile on the ice to be dragged off in shame.
I survived. I’m sure my foot was never more than a few inches off the ice surface, but skill and grace be damned, I didn’t fall.
It’s with that attitude that I strap on a pair of skates at the Empress to try out their new – and glorious – ice rink.
Before I meet up with marketing representative Rebecca MacDonald for our skate, I take a few minutes to wander among the forest of beautifully decorated Christmas trees, on display to raise funds for BC Children’s Hospital Foundation, hosted by the hotel each year (on until Jan. 6).
Couples stroll through the lobby and families pose for photos in front of the gorgeous tree that stands in the lobby. Later, MacDonald tells me there are all new decorations around the Empress this year, turning an already elegant landmark into a sparkling holiday wonderland.
But the pièce de résistance is the skating rink.
As we walk through the entrance to the giant white tent set up on the lawn facing the Inner Harbour, the scent of hot buttered popcorn and the sight of hundreds of pretty white lights reflecting off the shining surface of the ice are topped by happy Christmas tunes.
Although they are not the pretty little white figure skates I wore when I was four, the skates I’m handed by Ian, one of many employees hired to man the holiday skating rink, are easy to slide into and, with the zap of a few straps, my feet are snug inside.
I confess to MacDonald that I am likely to fall and she reassures me she is not one to bust a Lutz, but has taken to the Empress ice with her boyfriend a couple of times already.
“A month out from the opening the owners said, ‘you know, we kind of want an ice rink.’ Nat and Flora Bosa are so nice they just wanted to offer something new and exciting to Victoria,” she says. The Vancouver couple, who bought the Empress last summer also recently announced a $30-million renovation to the property.
“It’s very nice to have owners who are local and know the area and know what the people would want,” MacDonald says, adding they are the first BC residents to own the hotel in its 106-year history.
As we head out onto the ice, we are both a bit like Bambi as he wobbled across the frozen pond. After a couple of rounds, I’m able to take my eyes off my feet and lift my gaze to twilight setting in across the harbour. The lights of the Legislature Buildings and surrounding trees combined with the fresh evening air and fun of starting to glide across the ice with some measure of confidence leave me feeling peaceful and happy – dare I say festive?
“It’s surpassed all our expectations,” says MacDonald. “We had high hopes, but the way the public has embraced it has made us all really happy.”
They’ve answered the great response with extended hours, 11am-9pm weekends and 5-9pm weekdays. They also have theme nights, date nights, Sunday skates with Santa, and Christmas Eve skating with the elves, hot cocoa and cider. The rink is scheduled to be open until mid-January, but that may be extended if interest continues, says MacDonald.
As we head off the ice, the warmth of the hotel and a hot drink at the Bengal Lounge beckons. While I didn’t attempt any fancy maneuvers, nor did I fall on my face. My four-year-old self would be pleased.
Click here for the full skating schedule.