Rule Victoria

January 2, 2008

Click to learn where to [list:105|eat], [list:107|sleep], and [list:106|shop] in Victoria.

On October 23, 1988, staff at the Empress Hotel locked the front doors on the "grande dame of Government Street" so that the hotel could undergo what they called its Royal Renovation (which cost in excess of $50 million). Paul Jeffery, 57, the operations manager, who's been at the hotel since 1980, was there the day Victoria first awoke without an Empress and was forced to reckon with itself. "People used to say, ‘As the Empress goes, so goes Victoria.'"

Tonight, Jeffery sits beneath punka fans in the decadent Bengal Lounge, a portly, jovial gentleman sipping his cup of Empress blend tea. Over his shoulder, the Parliament Buildings look like a gingerbread house, light-trimmed against the dark. This is the snow-globe fantasy the city is famous for, but these days that fantasy is a bit misleading. The entwined fates of Victoria and the Empress, which turns 100 this month, have hit a crossroads.

The city beyond the window, long considered a tidy town of well-lubricated politicians and doily-decked grandmas, is suddenly raising eyebrows. The population is expected to reach 600,000 by 2020. Cranes are everywhere. And so are iPhone-toting, high-tech professionals from local companies like InLight Entertainment and AbeBooks.com. Yes, there's still more saltwater taffy and moose-emblazoned sweatshirts than one might wish. Sure, the wax museum is still a bigger draw than local indie bands. And granted, the bored kid swigging Jack Daniels on the street at 10 p.m. is missing a certain je ne sais quoi. But Victoria has smartened up considerably, and it's got the boutiques, bistros, and hipsters to prove it.

These days, you can line up with 20-something ex-Vancouverites to score a hit of wheatgrass at Rebar in the morning, hunt all day for designer clothing in LoJo (Lower Johnson Street to those who haven't been by lately), and feel like a New Yorker at the chic, brick-walled Mo:Le in the evening. The guy making cappuccino has a haircut that would have earned him glares in the old Vic. "We're finally at the point now," he says, "where there's one cool thing to do every night." Tourism Victoria still spends millions trying to pass the place off as a charming village, full of horse-drawn carts and cucumber sandwiches, but the city isn't playing along anymore-no more Tea Town.

That said, back at the Bengal Lounge Jeffery is enjoying his Empress blend. He speaks with mock seriousness about days of yore, when the hotel was more British than the British. Ever since the well-heeled aristocrats of 1908 first checked in, travellers and locals have flocked to the ivy-dressed icon to garner the sense of distinction and legitimacy that imperial roots can lend. Jeffery once stood in the brass-and-mirror elevator with a pair of ladies who discussed in very British tones the daily news. "What part of England are you from?" he inquired.

"Actually, I'm from Oak Bay."

"Ah."

Jeffery takes another sip of tea and rolls his eyes. "But all that affectation's fading away now," he says. "It's not a bastion of British-ness anymore-those people are all dying off." Barbra Streisand was once refused admittance to the tearoom because she was wearing jeans. "Now we just ask guests to not wear muscle shirts and hoser hats. Those are the last rules."

With handsome rooms and suites going for up to $1,500, and with its dependably immaculate service, the Empress retains an air of quiet, well-appointed regality. But, like the tradition-steeped city she anchors, she's let her hair down. On her centennial, the grande dame may finally be relaxed enough to be called a true Victorian.

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