21 AUG 2018;: British Columbia’s capital, Victoria, has long been associated with “The newly wed and nearly dead.” But as Bob Dylan sang, “The Times They Are A Changin” and a recent visit to Victoria provided me with a new perspective and admiration. The beautifully landscaped English gardens, seafood restaurants and scenic harbour are still there but what has emerged is a city with a new vitality and dare I say even a shade of hipness. Tagging along for this city reformation is one of Victoria’s iconic symbols, the Fairmont Empress.

I first visited Victoria in the late 1980’s and various times through the 90’s. Back then, there was a definitive British influence. The English gardens, the pubs, the cuisine scene all reflected more conservative British tastes. Bridal parties battled one another for the best wedding pictures taken in the city’s numerous gardens including of course the famous Butchart Gardens. The green spaces remain but today Victoria has added to its tourism line-up in the form of ethnically diverse restaurants, one-of-a-kind boutiques, trendy bars, upgraded street landscaping and even yes, colourful murals and graffiti on buildings.

Victoria’s “secret” is out and it has nothing to do with scantily clad women in lingerie and more to do with becoming a tech mecca – home to established tech companies as well as new upstarts. They have even nicknamed the city, “Techtoria.” There has been an influx of younger families and millennials in recent years which has transformed the city and given it a more youthful and livelier vibe.

OUT WITH THE OLD (MOSTLY), IN WITH THE NEW

The Fairmont Empress opened its doors in 1908. Many celebrities have stayed here including movie stars Shirley Temple, Douglas Fairbanks, Rita Hayworth, Harrison Ford and John Travolta. Being a very British influenced hotel, royalty of course have paid visits over the years from Edward, Prince of Wales in 1919, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1939 to Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip in 2002. Prince Charles and Camilla also visited in 2010.

In 2017, more than $60 million dollars was pumped into a major renovation that included a new airy lobby and porte-cochere, revitalized pool and health club, updated meeting and event spaces, Q at the Empress and Q bar, and renos to the 464 guest rooms.

One thing that hasn’t changed since 1908 is the popular traditional Afternoon Tea. The Empress serves more tea (about 400 people daily) than most hotels in London!

BODY RENOVATION & REVITALIZATION

The Willow Stream Spa was a key part of the 2017 renovation. Since the spa is very popular with both locals and hotel guests a lot of consideration was put into the design and decor elements, treatment areas as well as spa flow.

I had a refreshing cocktail (try their Empress 1908 gin cocktail for a taste of history and exquisite flavour) with the Spa Sales Manager Anita Voorsluys at the Q Bar verandah overlooking Victoria’s charming Inner Harbour. We discussed the spa’s philosophy which Voorsluys says is about rejuvenation, re-energizing and finding a sense of calm in this stress-filled world. Voorsluys certainly has been drinking the Willow Stream potion with infectious youthful exuberance and passion. Sipping a cocktail and chatting about spas was a spa treatment in itself for me.

I’m greedy when it comes to stress relief and spa treatments. My body and mind desired more wellness. Deciding which treatment from their extensive menu of massages, wraps, scrubs, facials and aesthetic services will be the biggest stress you will experience when you enter the spa.

SEA THERAPY

I decided on one of their Authentic Experiences – when in Rome, or this case Victoria, go local. My choice was the 90-minute Salish Sea Vitality Body treatment. The Salish Sea is the coastal waterway between southwest BC and the northwest region of Washington State.

I’m advised to experience their spa ritual. Always the obedient one, I agree, and find myself starting off in the Finnish sauna for some initial sweating, followed by my favourite - the steam inhalation room- and then a relaxing soak in the mineral pool. Sweat, inhale, relax and the cleansing, warming and detoxifying begins.

My Salish Sea Vitality Body treatment journey began with an invigorating scrub consisting of locally harvested goodness to cast away my big city toxins. It’s then time to be wrapped up in a very innovative wild seaweed chamois (not the typical foil wrap) soaking and savouring all this nourishment and ridding myself of impurities – too bad it doesn’t work the same on my mind!

While wrapped up, the therapist skillfully massages my scalp with her soft hands – I can feel the stress heading for the exits and hopefully the brain cells I possess will take advantage of the extra room now in my head.

My body gets unwrapped - I wanted to tell the therapist she is welcome to unwrap and discard my layers of fat too) and then rinsed off. My Salish Sea voyage continued with a soothing massage. Not the usual selection but a delightfully and energetic local blend of sea kelp lotion and seaweed gel. It’s a wellness lotion cocktail infused with antioxidants and vitamins.

Deadlines and big city stresses felt like an ocean away as her silky smooth hands gently kneaded my body into blissful oblivion. I managed a snoring snort or two as I laid on the table in a near comatose state.

My skin felt silky smooth – if only my dance moves were as smooth! My body feels like it had a fresh start. The spa can also provide the Salish Sea Vitality treatment focusing only on the feet, hands or face.

I love the fact the Willow Stream Spa enlists the expertise of local companies for the ingredients they use in this treatment and others. Seaflora Skincare is a Vancouver Island based company that produces the highest quality seaweed based skincare products. Diane Bernard, nicknamed “The Seaweed Lady” is a passionate environmentalist from Seaflora who has created a line of seaweed products that are certified organic, using sustainable hand-harvesting techniques.

The Fairmont Empress and the city of Victoria have demonstrated you can still maintain your roots but blossom into something more invigorating and fresh. No need for the energizer bunny to make a pit stop here, the city and hotel are doing just fine on their own.

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Chris Ryall

An industry insider with strong, outspoken opinions that readers enjoy, whether they agree, or take issue with his point of view.

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