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Kim Pemberton: Getting away from it all, close to home

When you live in Greater Victoria, you don’t have to go far for adventure, new experiences and indulgences.

Who says you have to travel far for adventure, new experiences and indulgences you typically don’t get at home?

This spring break, instead of booking a flight out of Victoria for distant shores, I went into full tourist mode and did a staycation.

I not only changed up my regular routine but got to explore landmark places, try new activities, and gained a new appreciation of Greater Victoria.

My hometown vacation started by doing what most out-of-towners do when visiting Victoria — booking a hotel room. But this wasn’t just any hotel. This hotel defines Victoria worldwide and is a landmark on the city’s skyline.

The Fairmont Empress, named after Queen Victoria, opened on January 20, 1908 and became the centre of the city, which built up around it in the Inner Harbour. This National Historic Site of Canada is also one of the best places for visitors and locals to go if you want to pamper yourself — whether a fine dining experience at the award-winning Q at the Empress restaurant, a relaxing massage at the Willow Stream Spa, or treating yourself to the quintessentially Victoria experience of Afternoon Tea.

The Empress has been serving tea for more than 100 years and, since 1998, on the same Royal china pattern that was gifted to the hotel by King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, who brought their tea set with them for their 1939 visit. (The Royal couple’s original tea set is on display in the hotel gift shop.)

After my sister and I were shown to our table in the famous Lobby Lounge, our server Yosef Weldemichael told us the hotel was able to have the fine china pattern reproduced by Royal Doulton for the Fairmont Empress.

He also told us why he loves working at the Empress so much he’s been doing it for 44 years.

“The Empress is the icon of Victoria and the Empress Tea is special. The history, the people, my co-workers, that’s what keeps me here,” says Weldemichael, adding most employees serving tea at the Empress have been there for at least 25 years.

Weldemichael says he’s served many celebrities over the years but his favourite was singer Barbra Streisand, who came for tea with an entourage about 25 years ago.

“She was dressed presentable and nice but her friends had blue jeans so we could not accommodate them here, so they had to go next door (to the Empress bar),” he says, of the hotel’s previously strict dress code. Today it’s smart casual, and jeans are okay.

While the bar is a comfortable spot among many to relax at the Empress, I enjoyed drinks in a private lounge after upgrading to Fairmont Gold. This gave me access to exclusive amenities like a private floor with its own reception desk for check-in, its own concierge service, and a stylish lounge expanded in 2023 for travellers who appreciate that extra bit of luxury.

Here you could help yourself to drinks at a full honour bar, enjoy a free hot and cold continental breakfast, as well as canapés in the early evening, and snacks, tea and coffee throughout the day. It was like being in a fancy living room with a great outdoor space, and has one of the best views of Victoria’s harbour and the Parliament buildings.

Which was where I headed next to take my first formal tour of the B.C.’s capital buildings that were completed in 1897. Although I had a 30-year journalism career with the Vancouver Sun, I never covered politics so surprisingly had never stepped inside these hallowed halls.

I’m also embarrassed to admit that even after moving to Victoria in 2017 I hadn’t visited the Parliament Buildings, making this tour long overdue.

Since our elected officials were also on spring break, we couldn’t observe proceedings from the public galleries but our guide gave us an interesting tour, nonetheless, stopping at many of the buildings’ architectural highlights.

I was particularly impressed by the more than 100 beautiful leaded and stained glass windows in the Parliament Buildings, which included the Diamond Jubilee window, created in 1897 to commemorate the 60-year reign of Queen Victoria. It was originally on the second floor above the former Members entrance but in 1912, when this area was dismantled during the construction of the Legislative Library, the stained glass window was placed in the cellar for safe-keeping. There it remained forgotten until it was rediscovered 62 years later during the restoration of the Parliament Buildings. You can find it now on display in the Reception Hall.

Tourists and locals can also dine in the Parliamentary Dining Room, open for lunch and dinner weekdays, but are advised to call ahead for reservations.

Since one of my staycation goals was to try new things, I had many other first-time experiences, including seeing a drag show at the fabulous Friends of Dorothy, a restaurant and bar downtown, going on a hot tub boat ride with Hot Tub Boat Victoria through the upper Inner Harbour and Gorge Waterway and checking out HAVN, a floating park with hot and cold plunge pools, saunas and green spaces, which opened last June in Victoria’s Inner Harbour.

And while I have gone out for seafood plenty of times in Victoria, I finally visited Nautical Nellies Steak and Seafood House, which has been in business for more than 20 years serving locals and tourists near the Inner Harbour. I dined on delicious halibut, now in season, and thanks to the perk of being a local “tourist,” I was able to take home my leftovers.

Nearing the end of my mini home vacation, I left the city looking for new experiences in Greater Victoria’s outdoors, travelling one hour to Sooke. Located in the westernmost part of the 13 municipalities that make up the Victoria capital region, Sooke markets itself as the quickest getaway to west coast wilderness.

“The top attraction is the outdoors. We are so close to Victoria but you feel like you are out in the wilderness,” says Steve Eckert, president of Sooke Region Tourism Association.

“We have so many trails, two marine wildlife adventure companies and kayak and paddleboard rental companies that do tours and rentals. Plus, we are right at the end of the Galloping Goose trail, so we have a lot of mountain bikers and hikers.”

During my two days here, I stayed at the beautiful SookePoint Ocean Cottage Resort, built on cliffs above the Pacific Ocean in east Sooke. It was definitely a wow moment when I first entered my pet-friendly, cottage suite with a wall of windows looking out to waves crashing on rocks below. The view made me feel like I was on my own luxury cruise ship as I settled into a swivel chair and stared out to the sweeping view of Juan de Fuca Strait.

From my window, I could also see East Sooke Regional Park, where I would later take my two dogs and go for an easy walk to Iron Mine Bay, through the rain forest and down a gently sloping trail that leads to a rocky beach. I climbed the rocky outcrop for another great view, and with no one else around at the time I truly felt like I was out in the middle of B.C.’s wild country but was only a half an hour walk from my luxury cottage suite.

The resort offers 1-, 2-, and 3-bedroom cottage suites, with spacious kitchens, soaker tubs and, of course, those ocean views. If you go, be sure to bring your own food and drinks since the nearest restaurants are half an hour away in Sooke, and chances are high you won’t want to leave.

But leave I did on two occasions — to enjoy seafood, of course, at the West Coast Grill in Sooke, overlooking the Sooke Harbour Marina. Which is where I returned the next day to do a marine tour with Neptune Wildlife Tours, which opened a month earlier.

Owner/operator Ryan Hou said while resident orcas are in the area year-round they move around quite a bit and, in late spring and summer, humpback whales start showing up and are “much easier to find and vastly outnumber the orcas.”

“My experience whale watching in this area, 90 per cent of the time you’ll find a humpback whale before you find anything else,” he said.

“Some of the coolest stuff I’ve seen is in the fall with humpback whales. A lot of their food is right at the surface so you’ll see a lot of feeding behaviour, whereas other parts of the year, you might just see them swimming through or going on dives.”

Unfortunately, our outing didn’t result in a whale sighting but we still enjoyed the trip, particularly getting to see the historic Sheringham Point Lighthouse, a National Heritage Lighthouse, from the water.

We also got to see some seals, which were waiting for us as we docked at the marina, proving yet again you don’t have to travel far for great experiences and sights.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Tourism Victoria, which did not review or approve this story. Follow her on Instagram at kimstravelogue.