Travel: Taking tea on Vancouver Island, Canada's most British city

Small sandwiches are one of three courses in a full afternoon tea, such as that served at The Empress, a historic hotel in Victoria, BC. The tea is served on a historic china pattern, which is sold in the hotel’s gift shop.
Small sandwiches are one of three courses in a full afternoon tea, such as that served at The Empress, a historic hotel in Victoria, BC. The tea is served on a historic china pattern, which is sold in the hotel’s gift shop.

As I departed baggage claim at Victoria International Airport, I overheard a man asking the tourism desk: “Where am I? When I booked this trip in Orange County, I thought I was going to Vancouver.”

“You’re on Vancouver Island,” the woman began, pulling out a map.

I hurried out, though I really wanted to tell him, “Stay here, you won’t regret it.” I hope he took a few serendipitous days in Victoria.

It’s an easy-enough confusion. Vancouver Island is the largest of many islands off Canada and the U.S. Pacific Coast.

The city of Vancouver is on the mainland, separated from the Island by the Strait of Georgia.

To the south of Vancouver Island, across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, you can see the Olympic Mountains in Washington state. Sometimes snowcapped peaks were visible when I was there in October. But at other times, the misty mountains appeared like clouds themselves.

And on the southernmost tip of Vancouver Island is the city of Victoria.

Founded as an outpost of Hudson’s Bay Co. and named for a queen, Victoria has been called Canada’s most British city. That’s why here, the tradition of tea reigns.

Victoria and environs boast eight tea houses with a formal service of afternoon tea.

Still other shops offer a casual counter service, such as Murchie’s, whose big cream scones sell out fast, and where there are a couple dozen varieties of tea.

On a recent trip, I had afternoon tea at three places. While all three locations I visited were as different as can be, all were warm and friendly and conveyed a certain pride and excitement in the tea tradition.


The most formal and famous was at the Fairmont Empress Hotel — this Chateau-style hotel was built in 1908 as the terminus of Canada’s steamship system. Added tourism bonus: The Empress is perched on Victoria’s Inner Harbour next door to the British Columbia House of Parliament.

The Lobby Lounge, where tea is served, boasts high ceilings, tall columns and a wall of windows overlooking the Inner Harbor. There’s also live piano music and the option to have a glass of Champagne with your tea.

The White Heather Tea Room operates from a storefront in Victoria’s East Bay neighborhood. The tables are a bit closer together and the atmosphere is cheerful, cozy and casual.

At Venus Sophia Tea Room and Vegetarian Eatery, however, there was an eclectic city vibe. Located in Victoria’s historic Chinatown, Venus Sophia is decorated with odds and ends furniture, assorted artwork and two bicycles hanging on the wall.

Though each tea house is unique in ambience and menu offerings, the experience follows a similar pattern. It’s a good idea to make a reservation because many shops have set booking times. You should set aside about 90 minutes for the experience.

While each shop has a set fixed price menu for a full afternoon tea, some accommodation can be made for dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free.

How to Take Tea

Once seated, you begin by selecting your tea. There’ll be a menu describing each variety, from black to herbal. The Empress has a wooden box with small windows to view the tea leaves. The server pointed out Rose Congou, a black tea with rose petals said to be a favorite of the late Princess Diana.

White Heather has a collection of small vials of loose-leaf tea you can sniff before making your selection. Those who prefer can order coffee instead of tea.


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Tea arrives with an instruction of how long the tea should steep — shorter for white and green teas, longer for black and herbals. There’s sugar and a small pot of milk.

Then arrives an impressive three-tiered tray. The offerings will vary from one venue to the next, but all include warm scones with clotted cream and jam and an urging to eat that first. These are British style scones, taller and lighter than the denser versions typically seen in the United States. Venus Sophia’s buttery cranberry vanilla scones might be closer to the American variety.

On another tier, are the savory items. Here you might find the classic finger sandwiches of cucumber and cream cheese. Coronation Chicken Salad, first served at Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, is tucked into a small brioche roll at the Empress.

There also was smoked salmon on blini at the Empress and smoked salmon mousse on pumpernickel at White Heather. White Heather’s recent Canadian Thanksgiving menu included a pinwheel sandwich of roast turkey and cranberry mayonnaise, and small sweet potato biscuits stuffed with ham and cheese.

Venus Sophia’s entirely vegetarian menu did not disappoint, particularly the sandwiches of caramelized fig and mascarpone and of wild mushroom mousse.

Crowning the experience is a tray of assorted small and pretty desserts. At Venus Sophia, the offerings included a dense and spicy Egyptian date cake and a lemon cheesecake. Also served was an apple caramel cake at White Heather, along with tiny pumpkin tarts and chocolate brownies.

Desserts at the Empress included a chocolate pastry filled with passion fruit cream and an apple spice cake frosted with blackberry butter. When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge visited last year, the Empress commemorated the occasion with a special tea menu of dishes popular with the royal family, such as Chocolate Biscuit Cake, a favorite of Queen Elizabeth and of Prince William.

It’s not possible or even advisable to visit all the tea houses on one trip to Victoria, but it’s a good reason to return.


I’ll always wonder what happened to the man who accidentally arrived on Vancouver Island. I hope he stayed and had tea.



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