Victoria: a capital experience

Old-fashioned service and luxury in the heart of Victoria as British charm meets Asian buzz in the city.

You don’t have to travel halfway around the world to find Old-World charm. In fact, it’s right here in British Columbia.

It’s only a short ferry ride from the Lower Mainland, but our provincial capital offers a taste of Britain that’s hard to duplicate on this continent.

Victoria’s historic Old Town, clustered around the Inner Harbour, is an eclectic mix of Edwardian British architecture, bustling Chinatown and modern amenities.

For mainlanders, it’s familiar and different at the same time. You’re still “at home,” but everything’s just a little bit different. Add in the fresh sea air and the earlier arrival of spring, and it really does feel like you’re a world away.

Lorded over by the stately legislature buildings – beautiful when they’re lit up at night – downtown Victoria is best discovered on foot. Everything from the Royal British Columbia Museum to high-end shopping, kitschy tourist shops and myriad dining and entertainment opportunities await within the radius of a few blocks – or you can simply relax by the waterfront and watch the boats bob in the harbour. Get tired of walking, and you can hop a horse-drawn carriage for a romantic tour of the city.

When you’re ready to rest your weary bones, The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is a hidden gem just off the waterfront. It offers a luxury, European-style boutique hotel experience with exceptional service. It’s tucked about a two-minute walk from the water and is a favoured spot of visiting political types and celebrities because of its low-key atmosphere and attentive staff.

“We’re a little more under the radar than the ‘big’ hotels,” says general manager Bill Lewis. “A lot of our guests don’t want to be noticed in the lobby.”

With just 64 rooms and a higher staff-to-guest ratio than typical chain hotels, it’s the extra touches that have guests raving about the Magnolia on popular travel websites, such as turn-down service, high-end toiletries, locally made chocolates in every room and more.

“The hotel is beautifully managed, in the artful way that emphasizes service while rendering the effort of management invisible,” gushed one reviewer.

The Magnolia has been voted one of the top hotels in Canada by Conde Nast Traveler readers and has a four-diamond rating from CAA. Privately and locally owned, it offers a more personal experience than its corporate competition. Such as front desk staff who’ve been known to offer impromptu concerts on the lobby’s baby grand piano.

Though built in 1998, the impressive structure was designed with its neighbours in mind and blends seamlessly into historic Old Town. High ceilings, real mahogany in the lobby, classically designed furniture and floor to ceiling windows give it a heritage feel.

“We like to add unexpected touches that people will remember, the little details,” said Lewis. “We try to hit the five-diamond service level as much as possible.”

Three types of room are offered – superior, superior corner and diamond – although all are luxuriously appointed with granite countertops, big-screen TVs and incredibly comfortable beds. Our enthusiastic aim of documenting a downtown pub crawl was derailed by the comfy quarters.

We found ourselves asleep by eight o’clock – or maybe that was just the reality of having a few peaceful days away from three teenagers. The bathrooms offer both a shower and a deep soaker tub.

Our top-floor room boasted a gas fireplace and a commanding view of the harbour with a peek at the legislature, just two blocks away. Off-season rates start at a surprising $169 given the outstanding level of service and peak at $349 for the diamond rooms in the summer. Packages are offered including spa treatments, dinners in the excellent Prime steakhouse, wine tours, whale watching (in season) and visits to Victoria’s renowned Butchart Gardens.

The hotel also offers meeting and conference rooms for up to 40 people and a fitness centre.

The seven-room in-house spa offers everything from facials to hot-stone massages and couples’ treatments, along with the most luxurious robes you will ever wear (my partner, Jacquie, insisted I mention that). She looked suitably relaxed after her massage and hydrotherapy session and ready to tackle more adventures in the heart of the city.

Across the lobby, we enjoyed a sumptuous meal of seafood, carpaccio and lamb, prepared by chef Bruce Batty. The service was again exceptional, and the staff’s knowledge of the menu – and the city – was impressive. A deluxe continental breakfast is included for hotel guests. Prime was named one of Canada’s best new restaurants in 2010. A short walk away, through the Gate of Harmonious Interest, you are transported to the Orient in Canada’s largest Chinatown, second only in North America to San Francisco’s. There, you can stroll through a labyrinth of narrow alleys to discover quaint courtyards, enjoy fresh dim sum or soak up the sights and smells of the sidewalk greengrocers. The many Asian novelty stores offer a great selection of teas and dried goods that are hard to find or much more expensive here in the Okanagan.

The colourful district is designated as a national historic site and features Canada’s oldest Buddhist temple. Victoria, nicknamed the City of Gardens, was named after the queen of the same name. It’s one of the oldest cities in the Pacific Northwest, with British settlement beginning in 1841. Much of that character remains, along with many interesting heritage buildings.

It’s well worth the visit.