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Imperial Tea

Started: 2022-09-14 20:50:49

Submitted: 2022-09-14 22:50:22

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Tea at the Fairmont Empress; also kayaking; also beach

At the top of every "what to do in Victoria" list is high tea. There's the afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress, which sets the standard for every other tea in the city. (Not every afternoon tea aspires to the same standards as the Empress, but they end up compared against it anyway. Many reinterpret tea in their own way, but most high tea aspires to the glory days of the British Empire rather than engaging with the legacy of imperialism and the cost of the globe-spanning empire necessary to bring tea and sugar back to the British Isles.) We decided to go straight for the top and get tea at the Empress (in part because they had a convenient online scheduling system) on the afternoon of our last full day in Victoria.

Before tea, though, I had the morning free, so I went kayaking.

MV Coho cruises into Victoria Harbour
MV Coho cruises into Victoria Harbour

I picked up a rental kayak at Victoria Kayak Tours & Rentals, just north of the seaplane terminal in the harbour, opposite the ferry docks. From the kayak dock I paddled north, under the Johnson Street Bridge (between the piers left over from the earlier drawbridge that I saw in 2002, which had been replaced by the current bridge in time for my last visit in 2019) into the upper harbour.

Kayak approaches Johnson Street Bridge
Kayak approaches Johnson Street Bridge

The upper harbour housed Victoria's maritime industries: ship-building and dry docks, a dock filled with water taxis, and a large sand-and-gravel operation with various barges tied up in the water waiting to be loaded and unloaded with aggregates. Under the next bridge (which my map identifies as the Point Ellice Bridge) most of the industry disappeared, with the exception of a metal recycling operation. Several harbour seals hauled out to sun themselves on a rock below the recycling operation, opposite townhomes peeking above a wooded slope.

Kayaking towards Selkirk Trestle
Kayaking towards Selkirk Trestle

Further north a new office building with a large dock on the water overlooked a small rugged island and a large trestle crossing the widest spot of the bay. This looked like an old railroad trestle that had been converted as a bike path, with the middle section replaced by a gentle ramp that raised the bridge deck one or two meters, which was apparently enough to satisfy the access needs of any any upstream boats.

The last section, labeled on my map as Victoria Gorge, was a narrow section of water, with a public park and swim beach on one side and (it reminded me of the Fremont Canal, though this appeared to be a natural waterway, and the trestle blocked any large boats) with houses on both sides, most with some sort of boat dock in the water, in various stages of repair. One of the houses was new construction for sale for CA$4 million; I saw the deck chairs on the dock (and the real estate sign, which led me to look for the listing) but I failed to appreciate that the deck chairs were specifically staged for the sale.

Kayaking towards Reversing Falls
Kayaking towards Reversing Falls

The furthest upstream I could easily paddle turned out to be Reversing Falls, a chokepoint in the waterway where the tidal current is squeezed into a narrow neck, creating the appearance of a low waterfall that flows one way or the other depending on whether the tide is ebbing or flooding. When I arrived at the bridge, the tide was ebbing, and water was flowing out from under the bridge fast enough that it reminded me of Deception Pass; the water on the other side of the bridge looked like it was at least a foot higher than the water on my side. I approached the flow of water from the side, where the flow was more gentle so I could paddle, then injected myself into the stream and rode the water down. I saw several other kayaks in the falls, some of them more obviously equipped for playing in the tidal current than I was.

Kayak at Reversing Falls
Kayak at Reversing Falls

I turned around and paddled back down the gorge towards the upper harbour. The scenery was the same, but I saw it from the opposite direction, interpreting the scenery in a different context.

Jaeger kayaks in Victoria
Jaeger kayaks in Victoria

I returned to the kayak dock to drop off the kayak, then returned to the hotel to change for tea.

Kiesa and Jaeger at tea at the Fairmont Empress
Kiesa and Jaeger at tea at the Fairmont Empress

The tea service featured a long menu of loose-leaf tea (long enough to have interesting variety, not so long as to be overwhelming). When we chose our tea we got a stand filled with snacks to go along with the tea, with the suggestion to start at the bottom (scones) through the middle (the savory sandwiches) and work our way to the top (the dessert). There were exactly enough pieces for each of us to have two bite-sized pieces of everything.

High tea at the Fairmont Empress
High tea at the Fairmont Empress

One of the interesting parts about the whole experience was seeing the other people. They were all tourists in Victoria, but they represented a cross-section of the tourists in the city. (One family had brought their young children and was trying to have an experience, with mixed results.) I felt like I had an important cultural experience.

Then we had the rest of the afternoon free. It was British Columbia Day (which I had not realized in advance, probably because my calendar only shows me holidays that are relevant on my side of the border); some restaurants and museums were closed, and there was some sort of festival underway in front of the provincial capital building. We had seen enough of the tiny downtown, so we went for a walk through Beacon Hill Park, past a cricket match in the park, past the world's tallest free-standing totem pole, down a tiny stair nearly overgrown by brush to a narrow rocky beach.

Spiral Beach, Victoria
Spiral Beach, Victoria

It was a bright sunny late-summer afternoon, with a brisk breeze blowing from the west, whipping up whitecaps on the strait. The beach was covered in small fist-sized round rocks, clearly worn down by the action of the waves, but it would take another eon to wear the rocks down to sand. The rocks made it hard to walk on the beach, on the narrow space between the cliff and the waves breaking on the rocks, around the driftwood strewn haphazardly on the beach.

Kiteboarding in the air
Kiteboarding in the air

The narrow rocky beach would have been dramatic enough by itself without the addition of kiteboarders sailing back and forth in the water in front of the beach. One boarder close to us cut close to the waves then pulled on their kite to get enough lift to rise out of the water, ten meters above the water, flying their kite to soar over the beach, then somehow landed gently back in the water every time. It was a sight to behold.

Kiteboarding at Spiral Beach, Victoria
Kiteboarding at Spiral Beach, Victoria

We made our way to Clover Point and climbed away from the beach up to the bluff above the water, where park chairs had been set up in what looked like a parking lot.

Chairs set up on Clover Point
Chairs set up on Clover Point

I got the impression that it was a repurposing of outdoor spaces during the COVID-19 pandemic; it was unclear what the long-term plans for the space might be or whether the parking lot might be someday reclaimed by cars, or whether the park benches and plastic lounging chairs were a new equilibrium for the new normal.

Kiesa sitting at Clover Point
Kiesa sitting at Clover Point

We made our way back to the hotel along the paved trail following the top of the bluff. My first choice for supper was closed for the holiday, so we found another place to eat, then returned again to the hotel to pack to get ready to leave Victoria in the morning.

IIS on NT is like a screen door on a submarine made of Swiss cheese.
- Jaeger