Behind the Revamp of a Celeb-Loved British Columbia Landmark

Fairmont Empress - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Fairmont Empress

Everyone from Shirley Temple to Katharine Hepburn has called Victoria’s royal Fairmont Empress Hotel a temporary home.

It may be surprising to hear that Victoria, British Columbia, is a Hollywood hotspot, but that’s because so often those who go there are looking to get away. With Vancouver a major filming destination (Johnny Depp is currently filming in British Columbia), breaks can mean a quick trip to the stunning Vancouver Island city just a floatplane flight or several-hour luxury-boat ride away. And the only place to stay once there is the Fairmont Empress, named for Queen Victoria and attracting a global who’s who since it opened in 1908.

A regular stop for members of the royal family (like Queen Elizabeth with Prince Philip), Winston Churchill, Rita Hayworth, Douglas Fairbanks, Katharine Hepburn and Roger Moore, the landmark overlooking the harbor just unveiled a $60 million renovation that updated and elevated the design of the hallowed halls and brought it fully into Instagrammable territory. Rich Kinnard of Hirsch Bedner Associates, who oversaw the redesign of the lobby, guest rooms and Fairmont Gold, says, “We wanted to bring a sense of grandeur to the Empress that it was lacking, give it a sense of time and place.”

The feeling of rich history pervades, a reminder of times like the night the Russian satellite Sputnik was scheduled to pass over Victoria, and Princess Margaret wanted to climb a set of shaky stairs on a dark, windy night to a rooftop platform to see it. In the '50s when he stayed, Bob Hope would chip golf balls on the lawn, as well as on the carpet of Suite 330 into a shot glass, which he frequently broke (he also was known for requesting his favorite ice cream by local Island Farms). Bing Crosby was so relaxed he went without his toupee while at the hotel, and Churchill drank gin out of a teapot during Prohibition. Ginger Rogers was pursued through the lobby by fans. Shirley Temple arrived with her parents and two giant bodyguards amid threats of kidnapping in California.

Now, Academy Award winners, world leaders, film and television producers and TV franchise creators — as well as A-listers like John Travolta, Barbra Streisand and Harrison Ford — enter in the lobby, which features an almost 20-foot deconstructed rose chandelier hand-woven with wire mesh with 250,000 hand-cut crystals floating in its center (it weighs 2 tons). It, like the commissioned artwork throughout the hotel, references the famous gardens of Victoria.


Throwback to dinner service in 1940, and to what is now @QattheEmpress

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Virtually everything that’s been replaced in the hotel is custom-made (casegoods in the rooms are Canadian-made), creating a feeling of residential living on an extremely grand scale. The new palette of regal purple and gold harks to 18th century European palaces for a much subtler and more sophisticated look than the previous red and green shades that felt very '80s (think Laura Ashley).

Some original elements were refurbished and repurposed, like ram's-head brass sconces from the original tea lobby, and on the terrace of the expanded exclusive Fairmont Gold Lounge (which boasts a glowing onyx desk, an ambient wine case, a library and original brick archways), a pair of antique light fixtures frame the harbor view and fire pit. They were in the original hotel, but were sold in auction 30 years ago, and the new owner gave them back.


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In the event spaces on the lowest level, the team combed through Canadian Pacific archives and a giant box of memorabilia to pull out and hang the most interesting pieces, like photos of visiting royals, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Helen Keller and John Wayne and menus from special events. Other revamped shared spaces include a stunning stained-glass dome (long-forgotten and restored in the previous renovation) and the Bengal Room, which served a famous curry buffet and had a Bengal tiger skin hanging over the fireplace. Midrenovation, the pelt was stolen, and despite many offers to replace it, the hotel has decided that nod to colonialism is not something they need to continue. Instead, “We designed an Indian-inspired mirror for the mantle in a geometric pattern with a mirror behind it to capture the essence of what the Bengal Room was without being politically incorrect,” says Kinnard. Murals from the 1950s depicting traders in India remain.

Beyond the Empress and her face-lift, Victoria is an attractive destination of late, thanks in part to its incredible natural beauty — humpback whales and orcas can be spotted easily on boat tours, and along with lakes and mountains, there are opportunities to go forest bathing, that trendy immersive experience. In addition, foodies find a lot to get excited about, like the addictive new eatery Agrius (where the bread is so good it’s worth eating gluten); Olo, with its constantly evolving eclectic tasting menus; Hanks A Restaurant, which serves creative and hyperlocal meat-centric inventions; and Little Jumbo, the popular cocktail-forward eatery serving sustainable New Canadian cuisine.


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Clusters of craft breweries — making IPAs and apple-pie beer — can be found a short walk from the Empress, as well as Fan Tan Alley, the narrowest street in Canada, where the Asian eats are known to be some of the best in North America. Getting in on the small distillery scene, too, is an Empress 1908 local operation made expressly for the hotel. The handcrafted indigo-hued gin is colored naturally by the charmingly named butterfly pea blossom and celebrates the Empress’ spectacular return.


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