All photos by La Carmina
As a travel blogger who typically visits a dozen countries a year, I feel as if I’m at a standstill in 2020. Since mid-March, when the Canadian government declared COVID-19 a public health emergency, I’ve been sheltering in place in Vancouver. I miss traveling, but I don’t know when I’ll feel comfortable getting on an airplane again.
On June 24, British Columbia entered Phase 3 of re-opening, which meant locals could engage in “smart, safe and respectful travel within B.C.” I studied the guidelines carefully, and debated taking a four-day trip from Vancouver to Victoria. But I had concerns: Would it be safe to stay in a hotel? What would the experience be like?
My curiosity won out when I learned the Fairmont Empress was re-opening with exceptional sanitation and distancing measures. I booked a room, loaded my car with face masks and snacks, and took the ferry to Vancouver Island.
As I approached downtown Victoria, I spotted the peaked roofs of the hotel, which could be mistaken for a fairytale castle. The Empress first welcomed visitors in 1908, and became one of the most famous Canadian “railway hotels” built to accommodate wealthy train travelers.
In 2017, the Châteauesque building went through a $60 million CDN restoration that removed the exterior ivy and restored the original stone facade. The architects preserved the hotel’s classic features—moulded cherry wood ceilings and a Tiffany-style stained glass rotunda—while updating the interiors with modern glamour. I was charmed by the lobby’s free-form chandelier made of 250,000 Swarovski crystals, and gold staircase accented by royal purple and grey.
My first experience with the “new normal” occurred as soon as I pulled into the Fairmont Empress’s majestic driveway. Staff in surgical masks greeted me at the entrance, and told me that valet service was temporarily suspended. Fortunately, it was easy to self-park in the underground lot and take the elevator to the lobby. There, a staff member read my temperature with an infrared gun thermometer, a precaution performed daily on all guests.
The Fairmont seamlessly outfitted its regal interiors to meet the new COVID-19 safety protocols. The check-in staff stood behind clear Plexiglass counters, and offered hand sanitizer in chic black-and-gold bottles. On the floors, elegant physical distancing stickers encouraged guests to stay two metres apart. Before the re-opening, health inspectors checked these measures to ensure that they met the All Stay Well regulations.
The hotel currently allows only 100 guests to stay at a time, with separate entrances for restaurant diners. The common areas also have capacity limits, such as 20 people maximum in the swimming pool. This meant that the Fairmont Empress was always quiet and uncrowded, and I felt safe wherever I wandered.
I checked into a suite overlooking Victoria’s harbour, and was delighted to find a welcome package of hand sanitizer and disposable masks. Nowadays, housekeeping does not come in unless you request a cleaning. The hotel also leaves each room unoccupied for 48 hours before the next check-in.
During my stay, I discovered unexpected upsides to the new restrictions. Afternoon tea at The Empress, for example, is typically jammed with tourists. But now, locals can enjoy Earl Gray and fresh baked delicacies in peace, at well-distanced tables that provide a more exclusive experience.
Since Canadians are encouraged to dine outdoors, the hotel launched a novel Lunch on the Lawn package. Guests can indulge in champagne and finger foods while relaxing on a blanket, facing the harbour and surrounded by flowers.
The Fairmont also introduced al fresco dining on the Veranda. I was surprised to see a QR code at each table; when I scanned it with my smartphone, it opened up the menu on my screen. Gazing out at the water, I lingered over an Empress purple gin cocktail, locally-sourced tomato salad, and handmade pasta.
The Fairmont Empress did an outstanding job at re-opening with measures to keep guests safe. I was pleasantly surprised by the positives that stemmed from these changes, including a more peaceful atmosphere and imaginative new dining options. If you’re in British Columbia where mindful local tourism is permitted, I encourage you to venture to Victoria to experience the royal treatment for yourself. •