Day Two: The Queen, the Empress, the Laird, and London

comments: 74

We left Seattle the next morning, Monday, in the dark. During the fall and winter season, there is only one ferry a day between Victoria and Seattle, and it leaves Seattle at 8 a.m. The boat was so crowded — every seat was taken. It was sort of like being on a Greyhound bus except on the water. We sat at a table with some guys who were already drinking beer, eating danishes, and playing cards. I drank about five cups of coffee and knit and knit (I'm sorry, I can't remember what the yarn is called, and naturally, although I tried to save it for you, I lost the label somewhere along the way). Andy read every newspaper he could find from cover to cover. Two-and-a-half hours later, we arrived in the harbor in Victoria, and just a few blocks away was our hotel, the Fairmont Empress.


It was our first time in Victoria, but I'd been wanting to go for years, since college, when my roommate Martha, who had traveled all over the world, told me the Empress was her favorite hotel. My mom was in Victoria last year, and she, too, was eager for us to see it. It's quite amazing. It's almost impossible to take a photo of the whole thing at once; this is just part of it. I'll have more tomorrow.


Our room was charming, painted pale green with dark pink fabric accents. Here's Andy on the bed reading the room-service menu. Too bad you can't hear him saying, "Holy ____ , a ham sandwich is nineteen dollars!" and "Holy ____ , pancakes are twenty-four dollars!" And the exchange rate was about one dollar U.S. for one dollar Canadian. Good thing we only go on vacation for about four days every two years. It's all we can afford.


But this was worth it, I think. It is so good to get away, out of the normal routine. It helps you dream. You can sit in the window seat and think about the people who have stayed here over the years, and wonder what their lives were like.


Makes me want to write a historical novel.


Mine would have black-slate rooftops, anachronistic baked goods, an orphan, and lots of calico. And obviously a love interest.


After Andy recovered from the menu prices, we went out to explore downtown Victoria, and see if we could find something cheaper to eat. It was the day after Canadian Thanksgiving, so much of Victoria was closed and empty.


Like, alas, the embroidery and yarn store.


But luckily this little Thai place was open, so we had curry and iced tea (although it was pouring rain outside) and looked at brochures to figure out what to do with the afternoon. We decided to take the city bus to Craigdarroch Castle.


While we waited for the bus, we ate a ginormous caramel apple. Unfortunately, the caramel was so hard I thought it was going to rip my fillings out. But all fillings stayed put, and soon enough the bus came and took us up the hill to the "castle."


In a gorgeous, old-growth residential neighborhood stands Craigdarroch Castle, a huge house built in the 1890s by Scottish coal baron Robert Dunsmuir, in his day the richest man in British Columbia.


It's quite incredible, and impeccably preserved. This is the view from the entrance hall, looking up the staircases through all four floors of the house.


It was very dark inside, so I didn't take too many photos. You get the jist, though. The heavy, mahoghany, gilded, crystalized jist.


The stained-glass and marbled jist. Robert Dunsmuir and his wife Joan had ten children. Robert died a year before this house was completed, and never lived here, though his wife and several children did. In one of the upstairs rooms, there is a display that features the long and complicated history of the family; this PDF tells their story.


My favorite part of the house was the tower, from where you could see the terra-cotta-colored rooftop wet with rain. It truly felt like we were in the heart of autumn, and I kept thinking about the time, eighteen years ago now, when I was in London and walked alone all day from Kensington through neighborhoods so much like this one, across Hampstead Heath and to Highgate Cemetery. I'd had no idea how far it really was (almost eight miles, it turns out), and by the time I got to the cemetery, it was just closing. I couldn't get in after all. It was starting to get dark, and it was drizzling. I turned back around and bought a Nanaimo bar, which was about the only thing I ever ate in London (funny coincidence, as this is a treat that apparently originated on Vancouver Island — and I do wish that they were as widely available here in the U.S., because I love them), and wandered off to try to find a tube station to get back to my little hotel. It was the exact same time of year. The sky looked exactly the same. In Highgate, people were getting home from work, the lights in little paned windows starting to come on. The leaves were red and wet, the sidewalks dark and mossy. I was desperate to get off my feet. No gloves. The sound of tires on wet pavement. Thoughts about the olden days. Wondering what I would do with my life. Smelling onions in the air. A steaming bath and cherry soap in the small tub near the window, the casement open out to the dark evening, when I returned. It was a great day. I've never forgotten it.


Though this one was better, because it was shared.


Please tell me you went to the battlements. I have to go everytime I go to Victoria. I stand on the top and let the wind blow through me and imagine I am there being a donut Dolly in WWII. Helping keep those brave soldiers fed while they look out for enemy subs. :)

Gorgeous, evocative photos. I'm loving this little travelogue. And I can relate to wonderful days alone - the bath with cherry soap sounds like a bit of heaven.

Steve and I were on a budget when we took our honeymoon in '96. We went camping on various islands, but eventually stopped in at The Empress and stayed there one night (in the cheapest room available, which wasn't as nice as yours!) I was in absolute Heaven, poking my nose into ballrooms and staterooms that I probably wasn't allowed to. Didn't have High Tea there either, which is supposed to be wonderful. Guess I'll just have to go back!

How I missed your posts while you were away, but how fortuitous to have you back with beautiful pictures and such sweet stories. Do write that book...

Ooooh! Please tell me you had high tea at the Empress! I think the world would be a much gentler place if we sat down to tea every afternoon ...

Love the sound of that historical (hysterical?) novel. I can see myself reading it, engrossed, as the late afternoon rain lashes against the window. Get writing!

I've recently stumbled across your blog, and I have to say, I love it!
Glad you enjoyed your visit to Victoria. I got to go for the first time last Christmas, even though I'm in Calgary, we don't get over there that much.
You haven't posted about the whole trip yet, but I hope you discovered Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub. It's an amzing Restuarant and Pub near the harbour (not that far from the Empress) that serves all local, organic fare and beer from their very own micro brewery. I had the most amazing Monte Cristo on homemade pumpkin bread.
If you didn't get a chance to check it out, make sure you add it to your to-do list if you ever return!

Thank you for sharing your vacation with us. Such exquisite photos, and the dreaminess of the experience comes through. I know exactly what you mean - even though I live in a rather dreamy city myself I somehow get into that mind-wandering state better when my body is wandering someplace less familiar.

Victoria is so beautiful, isn't it? I just went this past April (I hadn't been since I was 7 - 28 years ago!) and it completely floored me. The entire city was in bloom. I'm a visual artist and was so taken by what I saw that I've been painting Vinctorian landscapes since I returned. Next time you'll have to visit the Butchart Gardens - magical!

By the way, a relative from Nanaimo likes to remind us that they just call 'em "bars" there!


I'm so glad you had a lovely trip to my town. (Seems a few of us have been saying that. Who knew so many Victorians read your blog!) Funny thing, you can buy Nanaimo Bar kits in the grocery stores here. I'm not sure the final result would be as good as a non-kit baked good, but fun just the same.

not sure how I came across your site, but glad I did! love your style!

Fabulous architecture. I love buildings like that. I want a candy apple now!

Alicia, you really MUST go to London again...but with Andy this time. I know that from America it would be hideously expensive, but in 18 years so much must have changed and there will be so many new things to love. I am lucky enough to have a direct rail link from my nearest town to London (only 90 minutes to get there, yay!) and go up every few months to visit a friend who lives there, and to browse the many vintage and craft shops. Victoria also looks wonderful, but I'm British and from a small village, so to me London is the epitome of all things great. x

That just don't make buildings like that anymore do they. Such a pity, I wish they would.

wow!!! I am ready to book my Victoria getaway right now.
Thanks so much for sharing!

Oh we just stayed in the Empress this past May for my brother's wedding -- well do I remember the price of those pancakes!

If I'd known I would have reccommended the brunch/breakfast at the Gatsby House just a few blocks away. So delicious and much more reasonably priced - and the house is a gem (we stayed there before too it was better than the Empress in many ways actually).

What a great time of year to see the gardens! I love the colour of the ivy right now.

Glad to see someone shared a recipe for Nanamio Bars with you. I have one for Peanut Butter (a real vice of mine) that I can always share if you're interested...

Victoria is so beautiful. I was considering a trip up there, and now I just have to go!

I do hope you write a historical novel someday, because I would love to read it.

I have always wanted to visit Victoria but you have turned my desire into a necessity.

You take such beautiful pictures, and I simply adore your diction.

Oh please write a historical novel. Please, please. Pretty please.

I know just what you mean. Have you ever read the anne of green gables books or watched Road to Avonlea (which is coincidentally now on DVD sets at Costco! Score!)? Everytime I read or watch either, all I want to wear is muslin, and lace up boots!

Hello Alicia,

I have been reading your blog for awhile but never posted before. When I read your entries about Victoria, though, I had to say something. We went to Victoria twice about 10 years ago. It was absolutely beautiful. I loved the Butchart gardens and Craigdarroch Castle so much. We also went to Nanaimo, and it is so beautiful. I also live in Portland, and Vancouver Island is the only other place I have been that I would be willing to live besides here. I copied the above recipe for Nanaimo bars; I hope that is ok. Your blog is great; keep writing!

Alicia!!!!!!!! Andyyyyyy!!!


Thanks guys!!!!

All of it is so so so GOOD!!!
YAY for you!!!..and YAY for us getting to see it all!!

xoxo Jenny

Lyndalee28 says: October 30, 2008 at 07:42 PM

I too took this very same trip - had high tea at the Empress and fell in love with Butchard gardens. My husband also loved the castle and I remember taking pictures from the same angle. Your words made me relive it with the type of clarity only being there would evoke. Thank you for your beautiful words.

These pictures are amazing! Me and my husband plan to go on vacation soon and I was looking for a nice hotel in London- the hotel you stayed in looks lovely! We didn't go on a proper vacation for more then 4 years now so we are very excited but your post made me realize how amazing it will be! Thank you- now I just can't wait!!! Going next month :)

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About Alicia Paulson


My name is Alicia Paulson
and I love to make things. I live with my husband and daughter in Portland, Oregon, and design sewing, embroidery, knitting, and crochet patterns. See more about me at




Since August of 2011 I've been using a Canon EOS 60D with an EF 18-200mm kit lens and an EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro lens.