Want to celebrate the holidays — or escape from them altogether? Hop a boat to Victoria for high tea, cozy reading spots, chocolate and festive booze.
When I made the trip to Victoria in search of holiday entertainment, ’twas still more than 50 nights before Christmas and 19 days before post-turkey antacids started flying off the shelves. On top of that, a stomach bug had taken my partner out of the equation, so I was flying solo.
But the holidays are supposed to be more than pretty lights, right?
And I don’t buy the Christmas-movie myth that a solo holiday is a sad one.
So I set out for a city known for enchanting Christmas festivities. Victoria was practically bursting with anticipation to launch — ugly sweater first — into the holiday season. Jazzy music just one jingle bell shy of a Bing Crosby Christmas album played on the patio speakers at Bard & Banker Public House. At the Chocolat Chocolatiere, customers and chocolatiers whispered conspiratorially about cozy winter days curled up with a mug of hot chocolate.
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Before I knew it, I too was lulled into this premature holiday vibe. I embraced it with gusto and soon found myself on a quest for coziness. Comfy sweater clad, I hunted down every cushy chair, fireplace, hot beverage and peaceful shop.
I am now a firm believer in the kind of seasonal trip that gets you away from the holidays. Victoria is a great place for this kind of journey — you’ll enjoy seasonal warm fuzzies without turning into a grinch. Here’s how.
Pack for ultimate coziness — but leave the rest of the planning to someone else
Armed with several oversize sweaters and the stack of books from my nightstand, I set out on a smooth, vista-filled journey across the Strait of Juan de Fuca aboard the Victoria Clipper.
It’s only about a three-hour journey from Seattle aboard the Clipper, and Clipper Vacations lets you book a ferry ticket, a hotel and any number of activities in Victoria in just a few clicks. My Clipper Vacation would take me to the Inn at Laurel Point, usually just a four-minute harborside walk from where the Clipper docks. But the Inn is undergoing renovations until spring 2019, which means the scenic path to the hotel is blocked — and the rates are cheaper.
I managed to get a harbor view, and the room came with robes and leather chairs (and, as if to stoke conflict, only one foot rest). The ice bucket and glasses on the coffee table basically begged for a quiet bathrobed night in reading, sipping whiskey and taking in the view. But it was still early.
(Tea) party like a queen at the Fairmont Empress
Because it’s Victoria, a city literally named for Queen Victoria (there’s even a bronze statue of her standing tall and no-nonsense outside the imposing British Columbia Parliament Buildings), I really had no choice but to have afternoon tea at the famed Fairmont Empress.
Tea at the Empress is enchanting, especially if you have the privilege — as I did — of sitting across from a little girl in a tiara and puffy pink dress who was celebrating her birthday with a tea party. The tiny sandwiches and pastries are little works of art, and the grand tearoom architecture gives you plenty to feast your eyes upon as you enjoy your miniature feast.
I enjoyed my tea in a tall, regal chair right next to a pianist, which might’ve felt more Victorian if the piano player hadn’t been playing Elton John covers (although it did take the edge off being in such a stately room in such a historical building, which might otherwise leave you feeling like a barbarian should you drop your teaspoon too loudly).
The Empress’ afternoon tea service will set you back $60 per person. But never fear: Afternoon tea is hardly an anomaly in Victoria and there are plenty of cheaper options. For a spot with less regal pricing that still ranks high on comfort and beauty, try the Pendray Inn or the Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden.
Explore all three floors of used books at Russell Books
Russell Books is a booklover’s paradise. With three stories of floor-to-ceiling books — including a basement level dedicated to antiquarian books and fancy old hardcovers — it’s a place where you can get happily lost. (And wandering the three floors is a decent way to burn some energy after all those mini tarts and tiny cucumber sandwiches.)
Sip hot chocolate at Chocolat Chocolatiere
Once you’ve got a bunch of new (to you) books, head across the street to a place that has chocolate in its name twice. It’s not a difficult equation. You + books + cup of spicy chili-steeped hot chocolate = joy.
Get into the (other kind of) holiday spirit
Victoria may conjure up images from a Jane Austen novel, but that doesn’t mean your getaway has to be all tea and crumpets. Coziness can also come in the form of a cocktail.
At Bard & Banker, warm lights feel festive even without decorations. Throw in an oversize wool sweater and a hot cocktail and you might as well be at a holiday party (only you don’t have to make awkward social conversation with tipsy colleagues).
Six drinks make up the hot cocktail menu at Bard & Banker. The Blueberry Tea pairs amaretto and Grand Marnier with hot tea and two cinnamon sticks for a cocktail that tastes delightfully (if unexpectedly) more like a cinnamon candied orange than anything to do with blueberries.
When I spotted a glass of something bright purple pass by on a tray, I put in my order for the Poetic Justice, a citrusy mix of Empress gin, elderflower liqueur, lemon juice and sugar. It was so pretty! And it was particularly refreshing after the house special — fish and chips — turned out to be a little too heavy on the salt.
As the cocktails did their job and the atmosphere grew even warmer, I found myself trying to decide between returning to the hotel for a glass of wine in one of those cozy leather chairs, or enjoying another cocktail — hopefully as colorful — while waiting for the nightly live music to start.
The wool socks awaiting me in my hotel room won out this time, but the long line that formed as I left indicated I would’ve had a good time either way.
Eat pasta for breakfast and bone broth for lunch
On Sunday, a 4 p.m. boarding time for the Clipper left me with ample time to wander the streets in search of a decent brunch. At every recommended spot — Jam, Blue Fox Cafe, Floyd’s Diner — I found lines longer than my hunger would abide, so I took a chance on the more austere, sparsely populated digs at Zambri’s.
It was the right call. I was rewarded with breakfast spaghetti! Technically, uovo fritto con spaghetti aglio olio peperoncino, but I mean … spaghetti for breakfast is a win no matter what language.
I continued the trend of genius decisions with a stop at Roger’s Chocolates. Munching on chocolate-covered almonds, I made my way to Nourish Kitchen & Cafe to laze away the day in the heritage house-turned-restaurant/cafe.
Nourish really does make you feel at home the minute you walk in. Breakfast, brunch and dinner are served in the main-floor dining room, and there’s counter service for lighter fare like pastries, coffee and bone broth.
The rooms on the second floor serve as a cafe space where you could stay all day, which is essentially what I did. I tried my first-ever cup of bone broth (it tasted like liquid breakfast!) and moved from cafe table to couches until closing time at 3 p.m., just in time to take a circuitous route back to the docks.
As the ferry pulled swiftly away from the city, I joined others on the deck and toasted the sunset with a plastic cup of prosecco. It might not be the holidays yet, but this cozy little visit had me ready to cue up the Mariah Carey Christmas album.
If you go
Take the ferry. The Victoria Clipper takes you from Seattle to Victoria’s Inner Harbour at Belleville Terminal in just under three hours, and along the way you’ll have beautiful views of Puget Sound and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. ($112 per person round-trip from Nov. 1-Dec. 31).
Stay downtown. There’s a lot to do right in the downtown Victoria, and plenty of hotels including the Inn at Laurel Point. (It’s currently undergoing renovations, but they aren’t too invasive.)
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated that the Victoria Clipper port was at Ogden Point.