The Lady Novelist and The Empress
I have survived bears only to be buffeted about in a series of unlikely aircraft. The seaplane that nearly ended my career on the flight out to the Lodge was less unruly on the return journey, but the small aeroplane to Vancouver was late and flew turbulent skies. Nevertheless, our small band of explorers bound for Victoria, on the southern end of Vancouver Island, made the connecting flight. Which appeared to be an Airfix model kit with an engine strapped to it. This newfangled air flight is wonderously fast and packed with adrenalln-spiking thrills, but I confess, I miss the days of leisurely travel by palanquin.
Yet our skilled pilots brought us safely back to the solid surface of the planet, and thus my companion and I found ourselves ensconced in a large, comfortable room at The Empress, of the Fairmont line of hotels. This grand and picturesque pile opened in 1908, and its Edwardian elegance remains. It is certainly not the hotel’s fault that its wide corridors, wallpapered and carpeted in period glamour, leave me with a certain sensation of the collywobbles. Too many films like The Shining and episodes of Doctor Who have simply left me with a persistent distrust of corridors.
The hotel looks out upon the inner boat harbour, and a friendly gull landed on our sill in order to assess our suitability as residents of the fine old Empress. In this regard, the gull was not dissimilar to its distant cousin, the bald eagle, and seemed to find us wanting; although this may be due to the fact that I refused to share my dinner with the beast.
Victoria of course has more to offer the traveller than Edwardian grandeur. The town is the capital of British Columbia, and its Parliament House is decked out festively in fairy lights. Surely that speaks well of the politics of the town?
The Royal BC Museum’s Thunderbird Park is filled with striking and beautiful totems, while inside a current exhibition tells of the race to the South Pole, with text and artefacts from both the Amundsen and Scott parties. I have seen the original of the last page of Scott’s diary at the British Library, and even the replica here was deeply touching. What is this thing we have, being drawn to heroic failures of this kind? Perhaps it is that we would all hope to meet our ends, however desperate, with some measure of courage and grace.
A more encouraging note was struck on our visit to Emily Carr House. I hadn’t heard of this artist and writer before coming to Canada, but I’ve become an admirer. She was one of the early modernist painters, and her work is vivid and robust. She was originally spurned before finally becoming admired in later years, and Canadians are all now very proud of her. There is a book and documentary exploring the connections between her, Georgia O’Keefe and Freda Kahlo, which is an interesting juxtaposition between women of fierce talent and fiercer character.
The neighbourhood around the Carr house is also very pretty, filled with period homes of wood and bright colours. Only a few streets back from the harbour, it feels almost like a different town. The harbour is bustling with tourists and passengers from the docking cruise ships, but only these few blocks away there is beautiful architecture, wonderful little cafes like Tre Fantastico and space to take a calming breath or two.
Our days in Victoria are too few, but our next leg – on The Canadian train across the Rocky Mountains to Jasper, in true Edwardian style – promises gorgeous scenery. Onward, ever onward.
Thank you once more to our hosts, Canadian Tourism.