May marks the Coronation of King Charles and Victoria Day in Canada, so I'm visiting Victoria’s historic British connections, from old world architecture to homegrown G&T cocktail culture, and the High Tea at the iconic Empress Hotel.
By CINDA CHAVICH
Whatever your opinion is of the British Royal Family, another in the House of Windsor just got the top job. And, when you live in a city that’s literally named for a former British monarch, a royal coronation is symbolic, time for celebration and historic reflection.
At the very least, with another Victoria Day upon us — a.k.a. the May Long Weekend — it’s an excuse to sip a G&T, indulge in afternoon tea, or hop on a red double decker bus for a very English escape around Victoria.
Victoria was the capital of the first British colony on North America’s west coast and named for the monarch in 1852. HRH Victoria has reigned, at least in spirit, over this very British corner of Canada ever since.
Queen Victoria's birthday, May 25, was declared a holiday in Canada in 1845. And the last Monday in May, closest to that date, is still celebrated from coast to coast.
During the national holiday weekend, Victoria's colonial history is marked with a huge parade and other events, from colourful Highland Games to giant pub crawls and elegant afternoon teas. This year, the 123rd Victoria Day Parade and One World Celebration goes Monday, May 22 at 9 a.m. with a route through the downtown core.
When Queen Victoria had her coronation in June 1838 at the age of 19, she became Canada’s first monarch. Though her reign through the Victorian Era of the 19th century is known for it’s strict morality and decorum, the young Queen Victoria was unpredictable and fun loving, too. Victoria had nine children with her beloved husband Albert and, after he died young of typhoid fever in 1861, she spent decades in mourning, always dressed in black.
But she loved visiting the far-flung corners of her empire (especially India) and the family’s Balmoral Castle in Scotland, references not lost in Victoria’s menus and celebrations.
While it’s become popular for Victoria to eschew its “English-ness” — with more comparisons to hip Portland, Oregon, than Portsmouth these days — there’s a bit of Britain lurking beneath it all.
And with its formal gardens and double-decker buses, Victorian architecture and high streets, there’s no better place for a royal-inspired adventure.
Some say Victoria is a town that’s more British than Britain, so it’s easy to dive into all things English while connecting with they city's royal roots.
The Empress Hotel celebrates Queen Victoria (the Empress of India) with a very British high tea, complete with dainty sandwiches and scones . Or simply contemplate Victoria’s reign while gazing upon her dramatic portraits and sipping a royal purple Empress Gin at the bar.
The oversized art depicting the queen that line the walls of Q dining room, and the lounge next door, are a larger-than-life chronology of Victoria’s 63 years on the throne, from girlish official portraits to those recognizable images of the aging sovereign in her mourning dress, all reimagined in colorful, Andy Warhol-esque pop art style.
There’s also a large bronze statue of the young Queen Victoria on the lawn alongside BC’s legislative buildings, and you may find her popping up in an outdoor mural or two on a downtown street.
IT’S ALL IN THE ARCHITECTURE
This grand old hotel set on Victoria’s downtown inner harbour is just one of the impressive historic buildings designed by British-born architect Francis Rattenbury, whose ambitious and scandalous life (and death) even inspired a local opera.
Along with a tour of the BC legislative buildings, the Crystal Garden, modeled after London’s Crystal Palace, and Rattenbury House, his original home (now part of the Glen Norfolk private school), an architectural tour is a great way to explore the city’s colonial past.
See it all on a hop on, hop off bus tour, the vintage red British buses, emblazoned with the Union Jack. Be sure to hop off at Government House — it’s the Lieutenant Governor’s residence and where the British royals stay when they’re in town.
You can stroll the same 36 acres of manicured gardens and natural Gary Oak meadows, have lunch or afternoon tea at Cary Castle Mews Tea Room set in the former gardeners’ cottage, and see the Victorian costume museum in the carriage house at this circa-1870 Rockland property and National Historic Site.
Of course, there's lots of Victorian history in our gardens and downtown city streets, too — colourful Lower Johnson, aka LoJo, has some love historic storefronts filled with some very modern opportunities for retail therapy!
A HIGHLAND FLING
Just in time to celebrate King Charles’ Coronation is the Tartan Parade and 160th Victoria Highland Games and Celtic Festival, May 21 and 22.
It’s the longest continually running Highland Games in North America, with pipe band competitions, highland dancers, and heavy event athletes competing in caber toss and hammer throw. Grab a pint of Lighthouse Brewing’s Highland Challenge Ale to watch the Games, trace your Scottish Clan and genealogy, or check out the Single Malt Whisky School, to celebrate all things Celtic.
And don’t miss the Victoria Highland Games Association new community centre, built on the provincial heritage property of Craigflower Manor, a national historic site, with a unique beam ceiling in the shape of a Celtic Knot and a fully sprung hardwood floor in the main hall to host future highland flings!
Or just take a tour of the baronial Craigdarroch Castle — a monument to Robert Dunsmuir, a Scottish immigrant and industrialist who made his fortune mining Vancouver Island coal.
TEA AND SCONES
Victoria is literally awash in tea houses — a city where you can find several spots serving high tea with all of the trimmings, learn everything about Asian tea from the tea masters at Silk Road, or sip a fruity carbonated tea and eat pink strawberry mouse cakes at Flourish BeauTea, a modern tea café.
The very upscale tearoom at the Empress Hotel offers afternoon tea with all the sweet and savoury trimmings, but their raisin scones, served with clotted cream and jam, are a local tradition, baked daily in the hotel kitchens since the last Coronation and beyond.
They serve about 200,000 scones every year at The Empress, and one baker there estimated he’s made millions over his career. (see recipe at the end of this post).
Other spots serving high tea in the city — along with teatime scones — include The Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden and The White Heather Tearoom on Oak Bay Avenue, famed for its variations on the traditional afternoon tea service, from the Big Muckle to the Wee Tea, and fluffy, Scottish-style scones.
A PINT AND A PEDAL
If bus touring is too sedate, you can move on to the very British pastime of pub crawling, an organized sport in Victoria that you can enjoy on foot or by other local conveyance.
Cyclists can join a Hoppy Hour Ride with The Pedlar guided bike tours. Or sign up, as any thirsty tourist might, with The Rolling Barrel to pedal your way around town with a group of friends (old or new) on a two-hour tour.
You can also get a Pickle Pub Crawl pass from Victoria Harbour Ferry, including four hops on the water taxi and free appetizers at participating pubs.
The BCAleTrail guide makes it easy to plan a self-guided brewery tour through Greater Victoria, with Phillips, Hoyne, Driftwood and newcomers Whistle Buoy and Ile Sauvage, all must stops for craft beer aficionados. Herald Street Brew Works is a new brewery, along with Sidney’s Small Gods Brewing and Category 12, a great craft brewery and eatery in nearby Saanich.
Craft beer may be Victoria's most popular local beverage — “real ale” made according to the British CAMRA rules — but artisan gin is an important driver of the city's cocktail culture. Top local gin makers include Ampersand, Sheringham and Victoria Distillers, makers of the colourful Empress 1908 Indigo Gin, — all are perfect to enjoy in a gin martini or G&T.
Empress Gin gets its deep violet hue from butterfly pea flowers, and it turns a lovely mauve or pink when combined with anything acidic, from tonic to lemon.
Order the signature 1908 cocktail in the Q lounge at the Empress Hotel, a frothy pastel flip, and from your seat at the bar, take in Victoria’s view across the inner harbour, where the Parliament Buildings are outlined in twinkly white lights every night, the dome a perfect facsimile of Queen Victoria’s tiny crown.
British-inspired pub food is also a high art in Victoria, so whether you hit The Penny Farthing for their Whole Beast Banger’s and Mash, or have the shepherd’s pie at the historic Six Mile Pub there’s plenty to match with that pint.
Dig into the farm-to-table gastro-pub menu at Spinnaker’s Brewpub, or visit The Drake Eatery and Craft Beer Parlour is a hip spot to try a variety of local brews along with some very good pub grub, while the Garrick’s Head, circa 1867 and one of the oldest English pubs in Canada, boasts 65 taps. Six Mile Pub is the oldest pub in BC (first opened in 1855), with an old British pub vibe and locally-sourced food, in Langford.
Downtown, two historic bank buildings turned UK-centric watering holes include the Bard & Banker and the Irish Times, named best Irish pub in North America, with the largest selection of Irish whiskeys in Canada.
Further afield, you’ll find the very British Crow & Gate Pub, along rural roads north of Nanaimo, and the friendly Fox & Hounds Pub in Ladysmith, with its excellent selection of savoury British meat pies, all made in house.
You can also hit the take-out window at Finest At Sea for the best fish and chips, or grab a take-out curry and masala dosa at Dosa Paragon, then toast the Empress of India and her namesake city with a hoppy Fat Tug India Pale Ale at home.
Her/His Majesty would surely be amused.
Pastry chef Joga (a.k.a. Yogi) Kaler shared this recipe with me several years ago, and told me the original recipe for the famous Empress Hotel scones came directly from Buckingham Palace. This is a pared down version of their usual massive batch to try at home – it makes 35 scones but they caution, don’t try to cut it in half.
8 1/2 cups (2 pounds 4 oz.) all-purpose flour
1 cup + 2 teaspoons (9 oz.) sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup + 2 teaspoons (9 oz.) butter
4 tablespoons (2 oz.) baking powder
6 eggs, divided (see note)
3/4 cup (6 oz.) golden raisins
2 cups (16 oz.) whipping cream
Egg wash (reserved egg yolk beaten with 2 tablespoons cream or water)
Using a large stand mixer, slowly blend flour, sugar, salt, butter and baking powder together. Mix slowly for about 5 minutes. The mixture should be crumbly but hold together when squeezed.
Beat the eggs lightly and, with the machine running slowly add the eggs along with the raisins.
With the mixer still running on low speed, add just enough cream to make a soft but smooth dough; do not over mix – the dough should gather and be slightly sticky but not wet.
Dump the mixture out onto a floured surface and knead gently together for a minute, just until the dough is smooth. Don’t overwork.
Roll out into a large, thick round (about ½-3/4 inches thick) and cut into 2.5-inch rounds using a biscuit cutter or glass. Reroll any scraps and cut more biscuits.
Set them on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the tops with the egg wash.
Bake in a preheated 350 F oven for 25-35 minutes until golden brown. Makes 35 scones.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Bake time: 30 minutes
NOTE: Lightly beat 5 of the eggs and separate the 6th – use the egg white in the batter and save the yolk for the egg wash
Click here for more sweet and savoury scone recipes fit for a King!