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By Jane Cassie

Every year I escape with my two best buds for a weekend of gal-pal-ing. We always try to combine our gab time with a tourist attraction or two, and during this particular escapade to BC's colonial capital, we are also privy to a taste of royalty.

The afternoon sun filters through century-old glass panes onto the Edwardian décor where Roman pillars and handcrafted tapestries depict bygone times. Classical favourites flow from the Baby Grand and we feel as if we've been magically zapped back to the early 1900's. But we work hard at staying in the moment. We don't want to miss a second of The Fairmont Empress's legendary afternoon tea.

"The hotel has honored the beloved British ritual since 1908," our gracious server says, while directing us to a formally set table, decked out with polished silver and Royal Doulton china.

Both the Tea Lobby and Library Lounge exude the era, and like princesses who have preceded our visit, we dine on delectable pastries, and scones topped with thick clotted cream.

The presiding portraits of Queen Mary and King George V are reminders that many Imperial icons, have made their way into this city's heart, and though the ranks of royalty certainly prevail, we later learn of two Victoria women who have different claims to fame. This sets us off on a trip to Craigdarroch Castle

Steep Chateau-style turrets, towers, and Elizabethan chimneys soar above the nearby thicket of opulent homes. Although the impressive structure could easily be a set for a Hollywood flick, Craigdarroch Castle and former residence of Joan Dunsmuir is the real McCoy.

The twenty-thousand square foot, thirty-nine room mansion, gleams with imported white oak and one of Canada's finest collections of leaded stained glass. Rooms are lavishly decorated with period pieces, and many of the coiffed ceilings display paintings of birds and bouquets. The drawing room is a focal point, with its massive brass chandeliers and mirrored mantel, and there were enough shelves in the library to store over one thousand leather-bound books.

We huff and puff up four and a half storeys to the top of the Tower where Joan once relaxed and reveled in the ownership of her twenty-eight embracing acres. And though it appears that she had a fairy-tale type lifestyle, her story doesn't have the typically happy ending.

We find out that her husband and wealthy coal baron, Robert Dunsmuir, died a year before the castle was completed, and though her name was on the will, it was unheard of for a woman, in this era, to manage a twenty million dollar estate.

"Most of the assets were handed over to her two boys, who Joan, unfortunately, did not see eye to eye with," says the attending tour guide. "In the year 1900, one of them died, and when the other fought for his brother's share of the estate, it started a major family rift." He went on to explain how Joan successfully sued him and when she died, left the entire estate to her five surviving daughters and three other heirs.

Since then, the castle has dubbed as a military hospital, a college, school board office and a conservatory of music. In 1979 it was finally opened as a historic house museum and, as they say, the rest is history.

Having been immersed in the Victorian era after our tour, we're lured a short distance away, to where another famous female made her roots. Instead of being rich or royal though, this lover of Mother Earth was considered to be more of a rebel in her time.

The yellow clapboard home is no competition for the mansion we'd just left behind, but the messages on posted placards convey the sensitive feelings of their world-renown creator. Emily Carr and Canadian icon of the arts had five older sisters, and during her childhood she had nick-named herself 'small.' Excerpts from The Book Of Small, and her other six manuscripts, capture her early years in this home that was built in 1864.

Carr's journey and vivid landscapes are also revealed a few blocks away, at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. We discover that Emily was inspired during her visits to remote BC native villages, and though she started painting at an early age, she wasn't fully recognized until she was in her late fifties.

After tracing these footsteps of time, we realize just how liberated women have become over the past century. This is even more evident when we return to our boutique hotel, the chic, contemporary Magnolia Hotel and Spa, for it's managed by a competent team of females. And within these cushy confines, over the regal two days, we giggle and gab, and share tales that will never escape the four walls. And though none of us have a drop of royal blood in our veins, we all declare that we've been treated like queens while gal-livanting Victoria!

How to Get There:
BC Ferries

Where to Stay:
The Magnolia Hotel & Spa
623 Courtney Street
Victoria, B.C. Canada V8W 1B8
Tel: 250-381-0999
Fax: 250-381-0988

Things To Do:
Craigdarroch Castle Historic House Museum

Carr House

Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

For More information check out:
Tourism Victoria

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Photos 1. Three ditsy duchesses dine on dainties
2. Gals gazing over the inner harbour of Victoria
3. Chateau-style turrets, towers, and Elizabethan chimneys of Craigdarroch Castle
4. Vendor ring Victoria's inner harbour walkway
5. Queens for 2 days!


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