Despite all the beauty and grandeur to behold upon arriving in the Inner Harbour, The Fairmont Empress stands out as the crown jewel on Victoria’s waterfront. Emblazoned with elegant script declaring its name and distinctive architectural details, the iconic hotel has been a fixture in BC’s capital since it opened in 1908.

After decades of hosting notable figures from Rita Hayworth to Harrison Ford and even Queen Elizabeth II, it was time for the grande dame to undergo a little makeover – to the tune of $64 million. The resulting rejuvenation manages to retain the building’s original charm while incorporating 21st century amenities.

One step into the reception lobby and the two-ton chandelier that hovers nearly 20 feet in the air is sure to catch your eye. Designed by Lasvit, the chandelier consists of 250,000 hand-cut crystals crafted into playful cloud-like shapes. The perfect blend of Old-World glamour and new world whimsy!

Fairmont Empress chandelier
Visitors are immediately greeted with glamour in The Empress’ revamped reception lobby. Credit: The Fairmont Empress

Keep your head pointed skyward to catch The Empress’ other lofty showstopper – the Palm Court’s intricate stained glass dome. The kaleidoscopic marvel that you see today is actually the iconic dome’s second iteration. The original structure collapsed during a New Years Eve snowstorm in 1968, and was subsequently covered over and forgotten for more than two decades.

During 1988’s Royal Restoration, the dome was uncovered and faithfully reconstructed using old photographs and an original piece of glass found in a nearby shop. The most remarkable part of the dome is its color – or, we should say, colors! The hues of the stained glass shift with the weather, making return visits throughout the seasons an absolute necessity.

Palm Court dome. Credit: Annarae
The reconstructed dome high above the hotel’s Palm Court. Credit: Annarae

After amazing vistas? Look no further than the library. Overlooking Victoria’s picturesque Inner Harbour as well as the stately Parliament Buildings, the cozy room serves up some of the best views in Victoria.

The room was even a favorite spot of one of The Empress’ most famous visitors, John Rowland, who spent nearly every evening for 30 years posted outside the hotel’s opulent library. Rowland was such a steadfast fixture, in fact, that letters and postcards from across the globe would show up simply addressed: “John Rowland, By the Grandfather Clock, Empress Hotel.”

In the name of thorough research, it’s best to include a stop include a stop at the newly expanded Willow Stream Spa as you wander the magnificent grounds. Or at least that’s what we keep telling ourselves!

Named one of Conde Nast’s Top Resort Spas in Canada, your stress will melt away the moment you wrap yourself in one of their luxurious spa robes. With a selection of more than 10 different kinds of massages, six different facials and their signature spa ritual (a combination of Steam Inhalation Room, Finnish-style sauna and soothing Thermal Mineral Bath) any mainland troubles will feel a thousand miles away.

Willow Stream Spa
Choose from more than 85 different spa treatments at The Empress’s award-winning Willow Stream Spa. Credit: The Fairmont Empress

After all that exploration, it’s high time for happy hour! Pop into the all-new Q at The Empress bar and restaurant to sample their innovative range of cocktails. Sip on an aromatic Queen of Spades made with Buffalo Trace bourbon and chocolate & orange bitters.

Or sample their signature Empress 1908 gin and tonic, which features color-changing gin (yes, you read that right) made by Victoria Distillers of Sidney, BC. In the light, the gin emits a purple glow “reminiscent of the royalty,” Tracey Drake, the hotel’s director of public relations, points out.

Empress 1908 Gin
Sip on carefully crafted, color changing cocktails from the new drink menu at Q. Credit: Kirsten Ruddy

Tying the bar and restaurant together is the original ceiling of horsehair and plaster. Portraits of Queen Victoria extend along a wall. “It’s a bit cheeky, but she starts out young in the dining room and then ages as you move through the bar,” says Drake.

Q at The Empress bar
Queen Victoria gets a pop art makeover Q at the Empress. Credit: The Fairmont Empress

Both eateries at The Empress view locality and freshness as essential to their quality. From the Cowichan Valley Angus burger on the menu at Q to strawberry preserves laced with lavender grown in the hotel’s rooftop garden, served alongside clotted cream and freshly baked scones at Afternoon Tea.

Speaking of which, it goes without saying that a visit to The Fairmont Empress is not complete without experiencing their tea service. Choose from 21 varieties of loose-leaf tea from around the world (don’t worry, their expert attendants are close at hand to offer guidance). Sit back and enjoy your selection alongside offerings like mini passion fruit & strawberry pavola and smoked salmon and cucumber finger sandwiches. There is quite possibly no more surefire way to feel like royal-tea.

Fairmont Empress Lobby Lounge
Designers worked within the Lobby Lounge’s existing architectural framework, but added new shades on the chandeliers and refurbished the original tea tables. Credit: The Fairmont Empress

Creating these tasty treats is no small feat, with The Empress kitchen staff working around the clock to be sure everything is up to standard. They even make their own honey on site. That’s right they have their own colony of bees on the premises as part of the Fairmont’s Bee Sustainable program! Starting with about 500,000 bees – The Empress harvests around 700 pounds of honey each season.

The pastry chef uses the gooey golden goodness to concoct an utterly addictive house recipe of honey, peanut butter and chocolate. The delicious elixir is also used to produce the hotel’s microbrewery honey lager, which can be sampled in the Q at The Empress. If that wasn’t sweet enough, the tasting notes for the honey include a caramel-butter flavor. Drool!

Fairmont Empress beekeeping
The Empress honey is a darker hue from the ivy and abundance of roses in the garden. Credit: The Fairmont Empress

The Fairmont Empress is no stranger to elegance and luxury, aptly proven over decades of hosting royalty. Yet through this renovation, the hotel manages to further raise their level of excellence while keeping the historic elements that have helped them stand the test of time. Honoring the past while welcoming the future – we can raise an Empress G&T to that!


Contributing Author: Keith Norbury