Living in Victoria, the Fairmont Empress Hotel can sometimes fall into the same category as Butchart Gardens or Fisherman's Wharf - not somewhere you frequent, but that you take out-of-town guests to see, enjoy and make a bit jealous that Victoria has it. Having tea in the Tea Lobby at the hotel is that for me - you hear about visitors "having-tea" but it's not the first thing that pops into your head for a unique experience for an afternoon.
But on a recent Saturday, after my friend decided to cross off something on her "things I still need to do in Victoria", we made reservations and headed there to cross it off. I have been to tea here before - having brought my mother and aunt here (and *hot tip* I've also been during the Feb/Mar Be-A-Tourist promotion when your ticket gets you tea for 50% off...but you gotta make that reservation pronto). Which brings us around to the price. Is it cheap? No. Is it a traditional tea with sandwiches, scones, desserts, tea and fruit served with CP Hotel stamped silver and in Royal Dalton bone china? Yes. Will you feel all fancy-pants as waiters treat you royally and your background music is a live pianist on a baby grand? Check and check.
We both opted for the Fairmont Empress blend of tea (but there are about eight choices including Earl Grey, Darjeeling, their Willow Stream spa blend and an orange-pineapple).
Ahhh - serving tea the right way.
And being a tea drinker...it's nice to be somewhere that is focused on tea. And I'm not being picky - but in a world of coffee drinkers getting refills left-right-centre - it's great to have a well steeped pot (with a side of hot water if you like it weaker - or 'needs-crutches', as my dad used to say) brought to your table and a fresh pot brought when the tea was exhausted (versus trying to get water from a stone...a.k.a. tea from a spent bag).
And, properly, milk (not cream) on the table...in the same silver service.
And cue the waiters, it's time for the food. A nice little bowl of fresh strawberries with cream to start us off.
Followed by the three-tiered tea offerings. Yes, it's called tea, but you really have to be substituting another meal when you're here - pencil this in as a late lunch or early dinner.
Starting at the savoury bottom layer. The sandwiches (sans crust, as they should be) included smoked salmon pinwheels with a light spread of cream cheese with dill, thinly sliced cucumber on saffron bread, curried chicken with mango on soft rye bread, house pate on sundried tomato bread and egg salad on mini croissants (just peeking out at the back of the pack in the picture).
For the second course - scones, jam and cream. Soft scones flecked with golden raisins, cute-as-a-button jars of Wilkin & Sons strawberry jam and a small bowl of "Empress cream" (heavier than whip cream, but not a clotted or Devonshire cream).
And, finally, the desserts - rose petal shortbread cookie, lemon curd tart with meringue dollop (hiding in the back of the photo), chocolate and vanilla macaron (with dipped chocolate "stands"), cappuccino mousse in a chocolate teacup and a chocolate/vanilla battenberg cake.
We did manage to eat all that we were served (well, truth be told - battenberg is not our favourite - but I was happily given a take-out container for it - and gave it to my mom, who appreciates this traditional English cake). We were also both given boxes of Empress tea-bags to take home with us.
It was a really wonderful way to spend the afternoon. The tea-lobby is quite beautiful - high ceilings with ornate columns and tall tapestry-curtained windows overlooking the harbour. The room is filled with antique tables, chairs and couches and bookended by two large fireplaces at either end.
Tea at the Empress is something I think everyone (who wants to) should try at least once. Sitting in that beautiful room, sipping from bone china and noshing crustless sandwiches...it's a truly charming way to experience an old English tradition.
Last hot-tip: Friends of the Empress. Check it out.