Amazing art collections, scrumptious signature breakfasts, sleeps with some colorful history, manicured gardens and creative spa offerings are all among the menu of possibilities offered year round!
By Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
When traveling almost anywhere in the world, you just have to say that you come from Victoria on Canada’s west coast and the conversation quickly turns to two attractions: Butchart Gardens and the ever-so-British “high tea” at the Fairmont Empress Hotel. Presiding over this small provincial capital city’s picturesque Inner Harbour for over a century, this grand old lady of hospitality is indeed an Edwardian landmark the size of a respectable royal palace in Europe.
However, when it comes to wheeling my suitcase to a reception desk and laying my head on a pillow for a memorable night’s sleep, I am tempted to downsize to five more intimate-sized crown jewels within walking minutes of all the city’s downtown holiday highlights. These boutique accommodations – Inn at Laurel Point, Beaconsfield Inn, The Magnolia Hotel & Spa , Swans Suite Hotel and Abigail’s Hotel – are each a special pleasure to call home during a visit to Victoria. I have stayed in each one and I am delighted to have such distinctive gems to highlight in my own city.
Inn at Laurel Point, www.laurelpoint.com, is situated on a parkland peninsula at the narrow entry point to Victoria’s iconic Inner Harbour. This tranquil setting invites the water views in to indoor and outdoor public areas and private rooms. With large and small ferry boats, float planes, and private yachts passing so close you can practically touch them, there is always a surprise and a photograph just around the corner.
With 200 water-view rooms and the award-winning AURA waterfront restaurant + patio, the Inn at Laurel Point has been ranked as one of the top 25 hotels in Canada (Condé Nast Traveler). So far, you might think this is a pleasant conventional hotel in a great location, but there is much more. It has operated as a social enterprise for more than a decade and – in a world where climate change is a reality to be reckoned with – it became the first carbon-neutral hotel in British Columbia in 2010, run with the well-being of employees, community, and the environment front and foremost to the present day. With 68% of travelers these days indicating that they prefer to stay in eco-friendly accommodation, this is worth noting.
In 2008, the Inn’s owner, Artie Arsens, set up a trust before she passed away to ensure that the profits made would be reinvested to where they mattered the most – the employees. Support from colleagues and flexibility are key to the corporate culture of the Inn at Laurel Point, where balance of work and life’s priorities are top of mind among the management team and their employees. In addition, Inn at Laurel Point staff receive the benefit of education and professional development as part of their internal training and reviews. In Victoria’s very competitive market for tourism employment, Inn at Laurel Point’s staff loyalty is an indication that this policy is meaningful and sustainable as well as loaded with common sense!
You could say that Managing Director Ian Powell moonlights as an Anglican (Episcopal) priest at Victoria’s Christ Church Cathedral where he runs services on Thursday and Sunday. For Powell, there is a great similarity between these two parts of his life. “Caring for people is caring for people – whether it is food and shelter or spiritually, the motivation to serve is the same.”
Something must also be said about the amazing food at this inn – from breakfast to dinner, nothing is ordinary either in taste or presentation. Executive Chef Takashi Ito says, “taste must come first.” And AURA Restaurant Chef Sethi believes that “each dish should tell us who we are,” with the food at AURA reflecting the stories of its passionate chefs through flavors and textures that enhance locally-sourced ingredients.
Beaconsfield Inn, www.beaconsfieldinn.com, is a wonderful window on early 20th century Victoria, an Edwardian Tudor Revival structure laced with brightly-colored stain glass windows and wood-carved staircases all the way up to the attic where I slumbered in the dormer-windowed Beaconsfield Suite. Characterized by its prominent half-timbering and tall ornate chimneys, this 1908 city mansion was originally built as a wedding gift from one of Victoria’s wealthy entrepreneurs to his daughter and son-in-law. Yes indeed, those were the extravagant days of 11-foot ceilings, plenty of dark wood to be polished by servants, and elegant overstuffed furnishings and draperies.
Now an Edwardian B&B gem, Beaconsfield Inn was earlier saved from demolition. Beaconsfield Inn
Following the death of its original owners, the building declined over several decades until it became an undisputable candidate for the wrecker’s ball. At the eleventh hour, architectural crusaders in the heritage conservation movement intervened and a sympathetic purchaser with deep pockets stepped into the breach. Following two years of painstaking and faithful historic reconstruction, he opened it as a bed & breakfast inn in 1984, though he is not the current owner.
The Beaconsfield Suite, with its own roof-top dormer window, is one of three rooms with two beds each. Beaconsfield Inn
Today the Beaconsfield’s nine rooms and suites are repeat favorites of clients mainly from throughout the US and Canada. It is a mecca for reunions, groups of women and couples traveling together, senior vacationers making up a good percentage of those. Looking through the guest comment book, a major drawing card is the breakfasts presented on a seven-day rotational menu by kitchen diva, Cora.
While not doubting for a moment that the most popular menu item is spinach and smoked salmon in phylo pastry topped with béarnaise sauce, I would happily make a case for my own breakfast of potato pancake with cream salmon and prawns topped with a poached egg as coming an awfully close second.
Beaconsfield’s manicured gardens are an inviting place to relax after a day of Victoria sightseeing. Beaconsfield Inn
Another gathering place where food and drink play a big part is the spacious, leather-furnished library. Each day, guests are invited to join in on the very British ritual of afternoon tea and a complimentary pre-dinner glass of sherry or two poured from an antique crystal decanter. This room is a relaxing magnet to share new discoveries and recommendations after a day of exploration and a chance to savor this sample of Edwardian magic, deservedly saved from demolition a quarter century ago.
The library is a traditional gathering place for afternoon tea and homemade treats, a glass of sherry and stimulating conversation. Beaconsfield Inn
Swans Suite Hotel, www.swanshotel.com, has so many original features it is hard to know where to start. As a 100-year-old granary and feed store with train tracks running through its ground floor on Victoria’s Store Street waterfront, it was converted to an elegant 30-condo-style suites in the late 1980s while still retaining much of its historic life story. Thus it was transformed from Victoria’s ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.
Swans suites are self-catering and graced with original art from the largest private art collection in Western Canada. Swans Suite Hotel
Abundant flower baskets decorate the street level lining two sides of Swans Suite Hotel. Swans Suite Hotel
From an unlikely background of British teenage immigrant sheep herder and rural dog kennel owner, Michael Williams turned heritage land developer in middle age. In earlier days, he had regularly journeyed into Victoria to buy farm supplies from the warehouse, and his acquired developer eye saw potential in its building lines, pioneer history and its strategic location.
Today, Swans Suite Hotel reflects his powerful sense of historical integrity with the original oak and brick prominently integrated, an artistic flare for comfort and design, and his passion for art collection which took place over a period of two decades until his untimely death in 2000.
Both the self-catering suites and the hotel’s relaxing public spaces, such as the Brew Pub and the deliciously intimate Wild Saffron Bistro, are abundantly decorated with examples – small, medium and enormous – of what became the largest private art collection of commissioned and collected works in Western Canada. With a creative range of its own micro-beers, Swans Brewpub has been awarded the coveted National Brewpub of the Year prize, just one of many honors during its history. Live music, singing and dancing happen every evening enlivening the pub’s traditional surroundings.
Contemporary West Coast Native art and sculpture are a significant theme in Swans interior design. Swans Suite Hotel
Unusual for such a small property, the hotel also maintains its own florist who creates art in her own right with fresh arrangements in a seemingly serendipitous fashion that colorfully complements the art and fills spaces you hadn’t even noticed. Guests who use the hotel’s thoughtfully-prepared brochure to take themselves on a self-guided tour of the art collection will experience many floral surprises.
When Michael Williams died unexpectedly in his early seventies, he left his very considerable estate to the University of Victoria in the city he loved. The university’s mandate has been to carry on his style, vision and dedicated sense of hospitality as though he were still the man in charge of the hotel that he considered to be his “home”. His dynamic presence and personality continue to live in all aspects of this unique property. How many crown jewels do you know that belong to a university?
Abigail’s Hotel, www.abigailshotel.com, a 23-room historic gem of Tudor transformation from the 1930s, nestles in a quiet residential setting just ten minutes walk downhill to the Empress herself! Fresh flowers in every room, luxurious jacuzzi bathrooms, one-of-a-kind beds and furnishings, and cosy fireplaces are the norm. The personal signature of owner, Ellen Cmolik, is everywhere in the hotel in terms of the style of service, the brilliantly cosy spa tucked away upstairs, the staff you want to take home with you, and a creative, humorous spirit that lifts the soul. It sets you wondering about managing your own small hotel, but don’t try it until you stay at Abigail’s. It is a lot harder than Ellen makes it look!
Two daily events have a lot to do with Abigail’s unique hospitality and both of them make your mouth water! “This is the best breakfast I ever had. Can I come back?” the man at the table next to mine called out to the chef buzzing around his open-design mini-kitchen. Another guest at a table across the room got into the act, “It may be lousy weather, but, WOW, this breakfast makes up for it!” I particularly paid attention because men don’t usually get on public soapboxes about food.
Abigail’s morning chef offers a choice of Slow Breakfasts each day. Abigail’s Hotel
Abigail’s prides itself on Slow Breakfasts with every ingredient carefully selected, custom ordered and combined in a demonstration of artistic as well as culinary wizardry. Because of the intimate nature of the hotel, the morning chef admits he can be whimsical, often printing off the menu, complete with the day’s weather forecast, just as the tables are being set. “There is no formula rotation of menus,” he emphasizes, “and I am always happy to share my signature recipes with our guests.”
Complimentary hot apple cider and gourmet snacks are served from 5 to 7 p.m. each evening in the hotel’s inviting library with ceiling-to-floor polished wood bookcases stuffed with reading, viewing and listening material for a decade of enjoyment, a fire crackling and the scent of leather furniture as seems fitting for a room designed in the 1930s when a library room was still an element of every civilized household. Wine and beer for a modest cost are available from one of those cabinets, further enlivening this opportunity for guests to mingle and share their best vacation discoveries of the day.
Abigail’s cosy library is another gathering place for amazing snacks and conversation. Abigail’s Hotel
The abundance, flavors and colorful presentations of these snack trays are sufficient to dissuade guests from bothering with dinner at all ….. lavish skewers of marinated meat or shellfish, whole camembert cooked in filo pastry, homemade humus, and fruit trays the size of manhole covers laden with fresh slices of melon, pineapple, strawberries and mango. Next evening, expect something totally different from this crown jewel of Victoria accommodation.
Country King bedroom. Abigail’s Hotel
The Magnolia Hotel & Spa, www.magnoliahotel.com, within sight of the Empress Hotel herself, the stunning provincial legislative buildings and the strollable Inner Harbor, is a modern crown jewel with 64 rooms on seven floors. It cleverly gives the impression of being a well-entrenched historical renovation among the most Edwardian heartland of this capital city.
The Magnolia’s interior attention to detail is, perhaps oddly, more European than North American. It seems natural to lower one’s voice within public spaces that anticipate old world aristocracy. Could a crown prince be passing through the relaxing yet elegant lounge at any minute?
The Magnolia sparkles at sunset as night descends over Victoria’s Inner Harbour. Magnolia Hotel & Spa
The Magnolia lounge has a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere. Magnolia Hotel & Spa
The staff at every level of service is unusually relaxed and friendly, like you are staying at their house. “Help yourself to coffee, fresh fruit and homemade cookies while we share some ideas for your day, let me go find you an umbrella, or I’ll point out on the map the best place to walk your dog.” Yes, the hotel is pet friendly too! But don’t take my word: Condé Nast Traveler Reader’s Choice Awards rated the Magnolia Hotel as one of Canada’s Top Ten Hotels every year from 2014 to 2018, Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Awards placed it as a Top Hotel in Canada every year from 2014 to 2018, and Travel + Leisure World’s Best Awards declared it to be Canada’s #1 Best City Hotel in 2017.
Step out the door of The Magnolia and step into Antique Row with more antiques and collectibles than a dozen Christie’s auctions, or stroll a couple of blocks to explore the shopping opportunities and do a walking tour of the oldest Chinatown in Canada. Expect nothing less than an effortless vacation home-base while headquartered at this crown jewel of Victoria.
Now in its 15th year of operation, Spa Magnolia is committed to the environment, walking the walk with its Green Circle Spa status, and being able to boast that it is a 95% waste diverted facility. It is equally attractive to Victoria residents and out-of-town guests. Every treatment is customized to the individual’s specific needs using the power of touch, the cornerstone of Aveda spa philosophy.
With its moderate climate and year round roster of indoor and outdoor activities, festivals and attractions, here is a trusted destination that appeals equally to Americans, Europeans and fellow Canadians without reservation. Check Tourism Victoria’s website to see what this small but abundantly-blessed vacation city has to offer, www.tourismvictoria.com.
Also in our web magazine’s feature article collection, enjoy other richly-illustrated articles: Victoria’s best known garden in an unfamiliar season, The Winter Face of Butchart Gardens; and easy, accessible ways for families and senior travelers to get very close to the local marine wildlife and marvel at the colorful underwater environment near Victoria, Pacific Coast Marine Encounters.
Whether it’s a rainy day that calls for a little indoor diversion or just a case of traveler’s sore feet, IMAX Victoria Theatre is the perfect prescription for all ages. Presenting a variety of award-winning educational documentaries or a current first-run movie, the theatre’s six-storey-high screen and wrap-around sound system will leave you dazzled! Located on Victoria’s Inner Harbour next to the acclaimed Royal BC Museum. www.imaxvictoria.com.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.