Many visitors to Victoria head straight for the renowned Royal Provincial Museum to stroll through BC's past. Across the way, a costumed Queen Victoria and Sir James Douglas guide still other folks through the revered Parliament Buildings...
Exploring Victoria's Eccentric Past
Story by Chris Millikan
Photos by Rick Millikan
The historic Galloping Goose rail-line once linked Swartz Bay to Victoria; passengers paid 3-cents-a-mile to chug into BC's capital.

These days it's a scenic greenway, and we cycle the thirty-five kilometer trail and eventually cross the Johnson Street Bridge into the heart of old town. During several car-free days, we probe some of Victoria's beguiling eccentricities.

Many visitors to Victoria head straight for the renowned Royal Provincial Museum to stroll through BC's past. Across the way, a costumed Queen Victoria and Sir James Douglas guide still other folks through the revered Parliament Buildings...but we venture into the chateau-styled Empress Hotel for a tour and some memorable cups of English tea...

From stemmed goblets, we spoon sliced strawberries topped with Chantilly cream. Server Sean pours steaming signature-blend tea from silver pots into exclusive Royal Doulton cups, explaining, "In the 19th-century Queen Victoria's lady-in-waiting, Lady Bedford, began this custom, serving thin-buttered bread and little cakes." With that, a laden three-tiered plate arrives...

Nibbling tiny sandwiches filled with smoked BC salmon, curry-mango-chicken and shrimp mousse with papaya trimmings, we eye raisin scones, strawberry preserves, thick clotted cream and buttery shortbreads on the next tier. Miniature truffles and glazed tarts nestle on top.

As classical piano music floats unobtrusively across the opulent lobby, we visualize Kings, Queens and Hollywood celebrities taking Afternoon Tea at the Empress, exemplifying subdued elegance since 1908.

Greeting us at our table in authentic Edwardian traveling suit with hobble skirt, Mandy regales us with intriguing accounts of the hotel's eventful past.

She points out where 'official lobby-sitter' John Roland sat daily for years, never spending a dime. In the magnificent ballroom below, she beams, "The famous David Foster played here as a teenager...just imagine..."

Dowager-era tales follow, "Some interesting wealthy widows resided here for $300-a-month, including meals: while Lady Swettenham supported charities by contributing baskets of the embossed soaps provided for hotel-guests.

Leah Rogers gave away her entire chocolate fortune, dying penniless. A staff collection buried her like the lady she was."

When converting dowager accommodations into Romantic Attics during the 1980's, last dowager Sybil Martin left in a huff...and took a handsome bellman with her to Florida!

Pointing to the receiving balcony high above, Mandy twinkled impishly, "Seagulls often stole the ladies' bloomers from up there, right where Queen Elizabeth II later greeted adoring crowds and Goldie Hawn sunbathed nude."

Aboard a foot-ferry next morning, we cruise the Gorge Waterway to Point Ellice House, owned and maintained by the O'Reillys for over a century. Today, an audio taped rendition of their staff leads visitors through their originally furnished, authentically restored upper- middle-class home.

The Chinese houseboy lists our duties as if we're newly employed servants, carefully explaining 'modern' contrivances. The Irish maid chitchats about prominent guests as she conducts us to the ornate dining room; parlor, bedrooms and study prompt family gossip. Entering a daughter's bedroom, the maid praises Cathleen's artistic talents...and tells details of her romance.

The Scottish gardener points out heritage gardens and reflects on local politics and goings on. Showing off hollyhock glades 'fit for an emperor,' the houseboy concludes the tour by exalting a stately sequoia, flourishing since 1877. As afternoon tea-drinkers and croquet-players gather on rolling green lawns, we re-board the ferry.

Docking below North America's oldest Chinatown, we stroll to Swans Brewpub for lunch. Surrounded by oak, brick and extraordinary artwork, we sip traditional British-style ales. Buckerfield's once sold animal-feeds and grain here; today the on-site brewery ferments grains into eight hearty beers.

Beginning an art tour, Char introduces the Swans Hotel's past owner. "Michael Williams restored this derelict warehouse and preserved numerous other heritage properties in old-town. You'll also recognize his support for young artists."

Walking through spacious loft-suites, we spot early works of Tony Onley, Jack Shadboldt and Roy Henry Vickers. She later points out Pierre Trudeau's portrait by Myfanwy Spencer Pavelic, which also hangs in Ottawa's House of Commons.

Over 1600 artworks reside at The Swan; Maltwood Gallery exhibits others. Williams died in 2000 and left his entire legacy to the University of Victoria.

On our last day, the Galloping Goose trail leads us up to James Dunsmuir's astounding castle on Hatley Park Estate. Like his coal-baron father, he built an Edwardian castle outside downtown Victoria, declaring, "Money doesn't matter, just build me what I want."

This turn-of-the-century Premier and Lieutenant Governor contracted Samuel MacLure to create Hatley Castle, completed in 1908. Sixty masons built imposing granite and sandstone walls, battlements, towers, carriage gateway and baronial fireplaces.

Twenty-five English carpenters laid teak floors and paneled lavish interiors with golden oak and rosewood. The prestigious, specially designed electric light fixtures remain intact.

Including the Rose Arbor, croquet lawns and formal Italian garden off the spacious terrace where his wife Laura enjoyed tea, this luxurious 565-acre estate employed 100 gardeners. Soon-to-be-restored, the greenhouse once displayed exotic flowers year-round, including Laura's favorite white orchids from India.

In the masterfully planned Japanese Gardens, original stone lanterns and bowls rest at shaded bends. Guide Joan reveals some sensory secrets, inviting us to touch satiny-red paper bark maples or listen to 'dark and light sounds' in the trickling streamlet and to peek under "splendid foliage-skirts to discover venerable gnarled trunks."

We learn that James often sneaked off to 'the island of ten thousand years,' spending shady afternoons catching plump trout from the peaceful pavilion.

Nowadays a national historic park and administrative centre for Royal Roads University, the original outbuildings house various programs. This magnificent campus boasts a wildlife sanctuary in the saltwater lagoon and an urban forest with over 15 kilometers of nature trails.

Taking intimate tours into bygone days in BC's capital adds intriguing new dimensions to visiting Victoria.

This week Traveling Tales welcomes freelance travel writer Chris Millikan who lives in North Delta, a suburb of Vancouver B.C.

About the photo:
1: Mandy regales us with her stories.
2: The renowned Swans Holel.
3: Overview of Hatley Castle.

More information:

In the historic heart of the capital sprawls Laurel Point Inn Nearby Victoria Carriage Tours offer epic rides through historic Beacon Hill Park.

Iconic Empress Hotel captures the grandeur of a bygone era. Here you can take a Walkabout Historical Tour with Mandy Kray

Overlooking the scenic Gorge Waterway, Point Ellice House intrigues visitors with its extraordinary past.

Swans Suite Hotel offers a treasure trove of B.C. art, history and unique accommodations.

Join John Adams and his team of guides on ghost tours to Victoria’s spooky places.

Hatley Castle Victoria offers a unique look at B.C. history, gorgeous gardens and more… Joan Looy conducts Garden Tours all over Victoria