Victoria’s Proper Side
The Oak Bay Beach Hotel gets new life in Vancouver Island’s historic harbor city.
Of course Victoria, BC, is named after Queen Victoria. It just fits. Queen Victoria gave us the gilded age of corsets, fanciful architecture, and straightlaced propriety (and, okay, sexual repression and a reputation for fussiness). Victoria the city gives Canada’s wild west coast a jewel of historic, reputable finery.
And how Queen Vicky would love this town, even today. At the tip of wild, barely inhabited Vancouver Island, Victoria is a perfectly proper mini England, where hotels might as well be manors. Queen V would happily settle all her lace and petticoats into a lobby table in the ivy-covered Empress Hotel, where afternoon tea means reservations and adherence to a “casually elegant” dress code. The queen would feel right at home with the tea menu—the house variety combines teas from such British Empire highlights as Assam, Kenya, South India, China, and Ceylon. The sun never sets on the Empress tea blend.
Sure, the monarch might find the chatter a bit loud—half a million cups of tea are poured every year. Patrons clink and rattle their china at tables separated by palm fronds, nibbling from a tower of tiny sandwiches and sweets that taste so much better than they sound: sable bretons, lemon curd, clotted cream.
The redbrick Empress is the cake topper on Victoria’s prim and proper town, maybe, but the whole town is a cake. A stone wall circles the harbor outside, where floatplanes land in sequence all day. Floral baskets hang from light poles and double-decker buses roam the streets. At Christmas, the home of a coal baron, Craigdarroch Castle, is decked with turn-of-the-century decorations and toys, the halls ringing with performances by Celtic bands and madrigal singers.
Both the Empress and the city’s green-domed Parliament buildings were designed by the architect Francis Rattenbury; the man was, like Victoria, perfectly British. He embraced Romanesque and Chateau styles for Victoria’s signature buildings, but the respected man had a dark side. After leaving his wife for his mistress, Rattenbury was famously bludgeoned to death in 1935 by his new wife’s teenage lover-slash-chauffeur. It was an ignoble end to Victoria’s most ambitious visionary.
But that’s Victoria—prim and proper on the surface with a wild west current underneath. When the Fraser River Gold Rush hit Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, Victoria became a boomtown like any other, erupting in prostitution, bars, and seedy establishments. In the country’s first and then-largest Chinatown, Fan Tan Alley is barely a shoulder’s width across but the passage once led to half a dozen Chinese gambling dens.
The Empress has anchored Victoria for 104 years; it shows up on worldwide best-of lists. Afternoon tea isn’t going anywhere, but not all of Victoria’s history is quite so permanent. One November day in 2006, Kevin Walker let his staff exit the Oak Bay Beach Hotel for the last time, leaving him alone in the 80-year-old building. The four-story Tudor was the last of Victoria’s waterfront hotels on the shores of Oak Bay, six kilometers from the city’s harbor center. This used to be Canada’s own version of Brighton or Bournemouth, a seaside retreat in the British style.
“There are people born and raised in Oak Bay that still have British accents. We don’t quite know where they came from,” says Walker. A golf course remains, but the Oak Bay Beach was the only grand dame hotel left; some had burned, others had been replaced by homes as the area became a tony suburb. And now Kevin was saying goodbye to the hotel his family had owned for more than three decades: The Oak Bay Beach was about to be torn down.
Walker gave himself a few hours in the empty shell before the bulldozers arrived. He said goodbye to the dining room where, as a 16-year-old just relocated from Winnipeg and trying to impress a date, he’d come to his father’s hotel for the first time. He wandered the lobby where he’d greeted stars like James Garner and Perry Como, then strolled the halls where his own wedding reception was held.
And then Walker exited the building and locked the door. The hotel was completely disassembled so he could build it all over again.
It took six years to reconstruct the Oak Bay Beach from the bottom up. Starting from scratch turned out to be more reasonable than performing a seismic upgrade. Old elements were carefully recreated: The Snug Pub, a neighborhood favorite, is clad in salvaged ceiling beams, light fixtures, and herringbone oak flooring, and the popular dinner theater has been rebuilt and named for the charitable David Foster Foundation. Where there once was a saltwater pool out back, there are now three, with a spa building tucked into the downward slope of the back lawn.
The new Oak Bay Beach is very much of old Victoria. You want fancy? Try a diamond-dust facial at that waterfront spa. A butler greets guests at the door, where a Rolls Royce waits to make runs to the seaplane docks or ferry terminals. It’s such an English manor house fantasy that the hotel will offer a Downton Abbey special named for the BBC television series: butler service included, but sadly no access into a gossipy servants’ wing. The dinner theater plans to screen Downton’s third season in January.
This old burg is always fondly looking back in time. The whole town long ago doubled down on English finery and stately hotels. Tea is still served every afternoon in both the Oak Bay Beach and the Empress, and cricket is still played in Oak Bay’s Windsor Park.
But the twenty-first century hasn’t skipped the seaside town; ocean kayaking has become all the rage and electric golf carts are offered to Oak Bay Beach’s sightseers. The fashions sold in Victoria’s clothing boutiques are getting more stylish and the food just a little more global. Even historian John Adams, long the storytelling bard of Victoria’s walking tours, has seen increased interest
in Victoria’s dark side. His Extreme Ghost Tours include hands-on jolts and pokes as groups tour dark alleys and a courthouse haunted by a tall, aristocratic chief justice from the nineteenth century.
That’s Victoria; still proper, if not all that prim.