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Happy Birthday, Queen Victoria!

Are you tired of all the royal baby talk? There’s been an awful lot of it this month. Bear with me though, because we should all take a moment to mark a significant anniversary of yet another royal birth.

Two hundred years ago today, Princess Alexandrina Victoria of Kent was born in Kensington Palace. With her birth, she became fifth in the line of succession to the British throne.

Fifth seems a long ways away from the throne these days. (Archie Mountbatten-Windsor is seventh at present.) But due to a series of monarchs and heirs to the throne dying without legitimate heirs, Princess Alexandrina Victoria ended up becoming Queen of the United Kingdom in 1837. She had just turned 18.

This statue of Queen Victoria stands in front of the Parliament Buildings in Victoria, British Columbia. Many places in the Commonwealth are named after Queen Victoria; Canada is the only country to honour her birthday with a statutory holiday. It falls on the Monday before May 24. I grew up referring to Victoria Day as the “May long weekend.” It wasn’t until I moved to Toronto that I first heard it called the “May two-four weekend.” For a long time, I thought that was because Queen Victoria’s birthday is actually on May 24.

But, no. It’s because beer is sold in cases of 24. I had never heard a case of beer called a “two-four” — that’s not a common term in Western Canada — and was completely oblivious to its link with beer.

And why is beer on the mind of patriotic Canadians during this particular weekend in May, you ask? It’s because the May long weekend is the unofficial start of Cottage Season in Ontario. (Don’t get me started on the whole cottage vs. cabin debate.)

Regional differences. Long may they reign. Just like British queens.

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Munro’s Books

Today is International Literacy Day so I am going to make a plug for reading while also posting about the last island I hopped to this summer.

That would be Vancouver Island. I finished off my visit with a day in Victoria, and I spent a good part of that day browsing in what I consider to be two of the best bookstores in Western Canada.

Maybe all of Canada.

One of those stores, Munro’s Books, is celebrating its 55th birthday this year. If you love books, this store alone is worth the trek to BC’s capital city.

Munro’s was founded by Jim Munro, former husband of Alice Munro. As the store’s own website puts it, that would be that Alice Munro. It’s in an exquisite setting — a stunning heritage building built in 1909 to house a branch of the Royal Bank of Canada. Jim Munro bought the building in 1984. When he retired in 2014, he sold the business to four long-time staff members.

The story has a loyal clientele. As you can see, I went home happy.

Canada 150: Broken Group Islands

Happy New Year, everyone! I think we’re all glad to see the backside of 2016, but the big question for today is: what will 2017 bring us?

For Canadians, 2017 is going to be one long party. Yup, it’s our sesquicentennial (enriching your word power, I am). All that fancy word means is this: we Canadians are celebrating our nation’s 150th birthday in 2017. Canada 150 is what we are calling this little party.

Canada came into existence, formally, on July 1, 1867, when the British Parliament passed the British North America Act of 1867 (commonly referred to as Confederation). But although our official birthday isn’t until July 1, the party is already well underway. Even Lonely Planet has taken note. It has Canada as the # 1 choice in its list of places to visit in 2017. It’s even posted a free PDF chapter of how to plan your trip. You can download it here.

The Canadian government is encouraging that spirit of travel and adventure by giving anyone and everyone (that’s you, me, and the entire world — everyone is invited!) free admission to any of its Parks Canada locations. Which are quite a few: 47 national parks, 171 national historic sites, and four marine conservation areas. You can order your 2017 Discovery Pass here.

As for my part in celebrating Canada’s sesquicentennial, I’ve decided to take you all on a cross-Canada photographic tour. I’ve been blessed by the opportunity to live in three different provinces of this great nation, and I have travelled from coast to coast to coast through much of the rest of the country. And so, at least once a month throughout 2017 (maybe more often if I get really excited about this), I will post a photo from a different province or territory of Canada.

To begin: the Broken Group Islands. Accessible only by boat, these islands are located on the west coast of Vancouver Island in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Your 2017 Discovery Pass will get you there!) I’ve camped and kayaked in the Broken Group Islands twice already and hope to go back many more times as they are, quite simply, one of the most spectacular places I’ve ever been to. Anywhere.

The Broken Group Islands are also the westernmost point of Canada that I’ve been to. I took this photo in August 2008 from the beach on Gibraltar Island where my friends and I were camped.

Broken Group Islands

Through My Lens: Departure Bay

Here’s one last photo before we leave Vancouver Island. This is what you see from the ferry as it leaves Departure Bay on the Island for Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver.

I never get tired of this view.

Departure Bay

Cathedral Grove

Cathedral Grove 1

On the way to Tofino is a unique little park known as Cathedral Grove. It straddles Highway 4 ― the road that meanders from the east coast of Vancouver Island to its west coast ― and is the perfect place to stretch your legs on the long drive cross Island.

Cathedral Grove 2

They say it first came to be called Cathedral Grove back in the 1920s, but it wasn’t made a provincial park until the 1940s after H.R. MacMillan, one of British Columbia’s lumber barons, donated the parcel of land to the province.

Cathedral Grove 3

Short walking trails form loops on both sides of the highway. The north side of the highway is populated with Western red cedar. On the south side, you get up close and personal with the Douglas fir trees: some of them have a circumference of nine metres and are as old as 800 years.

Cathedral Grove 4

As for the wow factor, this is as good as it gets in BC. I’ve been visiting this park since forever, and it never fails to impress.

Velella Velella

While my family and I were checking out the surf conditions at Long Beach the other weekend, we came across dozens of these.

Velella Velella

They’re velella velella ― a small animal about the length of my index finger. Related to the jelly fish, they are normally found hundreds of miles off shore. For some reason, they are sometimes washed ashore, which is what happened the other weekend on the beaches near Tofino. According to Tofino’s mayor, a marine biologist, it is a rare, but completely natural, event.

How cool that it happened the weekend we went to Tofino. (And how cool is it that Tofino’s mayor is a marine biologist?)

Tofino

Tofino VW Bus

I unexpectedly found myself in Tofino for a few hours on the long weekend ― and was so very pleased to be there.

Islands Off Tofino

The first Monday of August ― celebrated as BC Day in British Columbia ― is a statutory holiday in most of Canada, making the first weekend of August a blessed three days long just when you want it most: at the height of summer.

Float Plane

I say I “unexpectedly” found myself in Tofino because I was fully expecting to spend the entire weekend in and around the provincial park in mid-Vancouver Island where I was camping with almost half of my family. But when someone in your group rolls out of his tent and says, “Hey, let’s go to Tofino!” before you’ve even had a chance to finish that all-important first cup of coffee, you say, “OK?!”

I mean, what’s a few hours’ drive when you’re this close to the surfing capital of Canada?

Two Surfers

Located on the west coast of Vancouver Island (about a six-hour trip from Vancouver, including a 90-minute ferry ride), Tofino is one of the most spectacular places in Canada. The ocean temperature can vary from a low of 7°C in the winter to a high of 17°C in the summer, making it a popular year-round surfing destination.

Three Surfers

If those temperatures are a bit too brisk for you (they are for me!), there’s always beachcombing, kayaking, whale watching, and, in the winter, storm watching to keep you occupied.

Shed

Whatever your interests, the drive to Tofino is worth the effort for the scenery alone. (And if you are short on time, you can always take the plane!)

Float Plane and Fog Bank

Through My Lens: Bastion Square

Bastion Square

One last look at Victoria, and then we’ll leave what a friend of mine who lives there likes to call “City of the Newlywed and Nearly Dead.”

This photo was taken in Bastion Square, a pedestrian-only street that begins at the corner of View and Government, where the North Bastion of Fort Victoria once stood, and ends at Wharf Street, overlooking the Inner Harbour.

Magnolia Hotel and Spa

Magnolia Hotel Sign

When I travel, I try to arrange a home exchange, but when I’m not successful in finding one that suits my destination or my dates, I stay in hotels. I haven’t been blogging about the hotels I stay in because, to be quite frank, I usually bunk down in budget hotels that aren’t anything to write home about.

The other weekend I went to Victoria to visit a friend who was there on business, and I stayed with her as her guest at the Magnolia Hotel and Spa. This hotel is most definitely not a budget hotel and my two-night stay there was a real treat for me.

The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is rated by Tripadvisor.ca as the # 2 hotel in Victoria and # 11 of the Top 25 Luxury Hotels in Canada. The room my friend and I shared contained two queen-sized beds made up with fluffy white duvets and a mountain of soft and hard pillows to suit any preference. The ensuite bathroom was the size of my kitchen at home, with a soaker tub and separate spacious shower, and was fully stocked with Aveda bath and hair products.

Magnolia Beds

Turn-down service included chocolates on the bedside table ― very good chocolate, I should add. I enjoyed the best sleep I’ve had in months and did not want to get out of bed come morning. My friend took advantage of the spa facilities and went for a massage to help her get over her jetlag.

The complementary breakfast was continental, but don’t think small when you read “continental.” Served buffet style, it included your choice of carb (croissants, toast, waffles, oatmeal, and a variety of cold cereals), yogurt or made-to-order smoothies, fresh fruit, cheese, boiled eggs, and cold cuts. After my arrival on Friday night, my friend and I caught up on each other’s lives over drinks and tapas in the hotel bar, the Catalano Restaurant & Cicchetti Bar, which sources its seafood and produce from local fishers and farmers.

The Magnolia Hotel and Spa is located one block from the Inner Harbour. I highly recommend it.

Magnolia Hotel and Spa

Afternoon Tea at the Empress

Tea Lobby 1

Most afternoons, I have a cup of tea. With milk. It’s such a part of my routine that this past week there was an “incident” (shall we say) at work when I discovered someone had used up the milk I keep for my tea in the office fridge, thinking it was hers. My co-workers laughed at my distress, but I can’t drink tea without milk. And I really enjoy my afternoon cup of tea.

Tea Cup

So last weekend, while I was in Victoria visiting a friend there on business who told me she really wanted to someday, one day, have afternoon tea at the Empress, it didn’t take much for me to decide I liked that idea very much. “And what’s stopping us from having tea at the Empress this weekend?” I asked. Within minutes, we had a reservation in the hotel’s Tea Lobby for the next day.

Victoria, BC, has been called the most English city in Canada, and the city definitely plays up that reputation for the tourists. Afternoon Tea at the Empress Hotel is a big part of that playing up, and there is no setting more lovely than the Empress Hotel. One of Canada’s iconic “railway hotels,” it has been a landmark on Victoria’s Inner Harbour since its opening in 1908.

Tiered Plate

We both skipped breakfast and arrived at the hotel’s Tea Lobby appropriately famished. It’s located off the main lobby and its windows overlook the Inner Harbour. We were seated near those windows at a low table.

(And here’s an aside for you: I learned that high tea is actually the supper-type meal the English eat in the early evening, while afternoon tea or low tea is always taken in the afternoon. It’s called low tea because typically you sit at a low table.)

The meal began with cups of seasonal fruit served with cream ― in our case, strawberries. I’m a bit of a strawberry snob and unless the berries are grown locally and are in season, I really don’t think much of their taste. Such was the case with these strawberries, shipped in from California, I’m sure, but hey, what seasonal fruit would you find anywhere in Canada in mid-April?

Savouries and Scones

We were given a choice of eight teas ― I chose the Empress Blend, a tea that “boasts a bright coppery colour and takes milk exceedingly well.” My friend chose Margaret’s Hope Darjeeling, which offered “the distinctive character of Muscat grapes and hints of current.” Clearly tea can be as sophisticated as wine.

Along with our pots of tea came the three-tiered plate of … well … the main event. Our little table was packed, what with the silver teapots, china teacups and small plates, and the tower of savouries, scones, and sweets, but the server positioned everything on the table with expertise and, remarkably, it all fit. Then, after pouring our tea and ensuring we had everything we needed, he offered to take photos of us with our own cameras. He definitely had the routine down pat.

And then? And then we dug in!

Savouries and Scones

The savoury level of the tiered plate consisted of tiny sandwiches: smoked salmon pinwheels, cucumber sandwiches (of course!) with saffron loaf, mango & curried chicken sandwiches (my favourite), free-range egg salad croissants (also very tasty), and cognac pork pâté on sundried tomato bread.

Then we moved up a level to the fresh baked raisin scones with clotted cream and the Empress’s own strawberry jam.Sweets

On the final, upper-most tier were the pastries: lemon curd tartlets, cappuccino chocolate tea cups, rose petal shortbread, chocolate and pistachio Battenberg cakes, and the one I’d been waiting for: Parisian style macaroons.

Sigh.

It was heavenly. And when we were finished, our server presented each of us with a small box of the tea we had been drinking.

I didn’t eat dinner that night. Who knew afternoon tea could sustain your body for an entire day?

Tea Lobby 2