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In the waning days of November, a chill descends that tells me winter's not far off. To jumpstart the holiday season, I'm making my way by ferry to Victoria for a two-night girlfriend getaway. Why get spirited in Victoria? There’s something deeply nostalgic about the provincial capital at Christmastime that emotes a snug, analogue-brand of holiday cheer. Perhaps it’s a nod to a time when the Christmas season wasn't bookended by Black Friday and Boxing Day sales. From savouring a holiday-inspired high tea service in a prince and princess’s elaborate garden to wandering the rooms of a garland-draped castle, here’s where we found a simpler, slower, softer type of holiday cheer in Victoria. 
  

Cloves and Crumpets

Festive Christmas High Tea Abkhazi GardenThe Festive Christmas High Tea | Jennifer Hubbert

Nestled obscurely in a neighbourhood filled with historic dollhouse homes dripping with curb appeal, we arrive at The Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden. Here, on a one-acre parcel of land, stands “the garden that love built.” Prince and Princess Abkhazi settled in Victoria in 1946 and were prolific gardeners. Visiting The Teahouse in late November, I’m forced to imagine how the shivering Garry oaks and bare rhododendrons might look in the vibrancy of spring.

The Festive Christmas High Tea | Jennifer HubbertThe Festive Christmas High Tea | Jennifer Hubbert

Inside the smart yet humble space that houses The Teahouse, steam dances in curlicues from a cup of Royal Abkhazi, which I gingerly poured from a vintage teapot. The server delivers a three-plate tower stacked with Christmas-inspired sweets and savoury bites. On the lowest plate there are tourtières, triangular egg salad sandwiches on rye and smoked salmon profiteroles. Fluffy scones with house-made preserves overlook them and the upper plate is loaded with holiday baking. There are mincemeat tarts, dark brandied Christmas cake and Granny’s butter shortbread. It's a spread fit for royalty. 

The Festive Christmas High Tea menu is $55 per person; garden admission is by donation.
  

A Very Vintage Christmas

Craigdarroch CastleCraigdarroch Castle | Jennifer Hubbert

It might not be Downton Abbey, but Victoria’s meticulously restored Craigdarroch Castle reveals the privileged lives of the Dunsmuir Family (complete with servant quarters and a dance hall) of a similar era.

On this quiet late autumn afternoon, we admire green garlands tracing the entirety of the handsome wooden staircase, the magnificent Christmas tree that has been erected in the drawing room and fireplace mantels draped with greenery and accented by holly berries and peacock feathers.

Craigdarroch CastleCraigdarroch Castle | Jennifer Hubbert

Robert Dunsmuir never lived at Craigdarroch – he passed before its completion – but placards tell me his widow Joan hosted elaborate social assemblies. Highly doubting my relatives would have made the list of socialite attendees, I take an extended pause to contemplate a gilded Victorian Christmas of yore. 

Holiday programming at Craigdarroch Castle kicks off December 1. 

  

Stay Here: The Magnolia Hotel & Spa

The Magnolia Hotel and SpaThe Magnolia Hotel & Spa | Jennifer Hubbert

When we arrive at The Magnolia Hotel, the elegant lobby has already been dressed for Christmas. An oversize wreath greets me at check-in and later, I sink into the plush sofas of the lobby lounge, next to a towering Christmas tree which twinkles from tip-to-trunk.

The Magnolia Hotel and Spa | View from Room 506 |The Magnolia Hotel & Spa, view from room 506 | Jennifer Hubbert

At this multi award-wining boutique hotel, our south-facing superior two queen room offers a peekaboo view of the Parliament Buildings. The washroom is stocked with L’Occitane toiletries and there's even a Dyson hairdryer. I find complimentary comforts every direction I turn, from coffee and refreshments in the lobby to daily newspaper delivery to in-room bottled water and turn-down service which deposits a chocolate to my nightstand.
  

Shake, Sip, Savour

Merridale CideryTourism Victoria

Beneath an inky black early evening sky, our car approaches the backlit timber buildings of Merridale Cidery & Distillery. In the courtyard, there is no mistaking the season; twinkling Christmas lights are affixed to all available surfaces and an inflatable elf, Santa and Nutcracker greet visitors. Merridale’s 20-acre orchard churns out its namesake libation but also a creative lineup of apple derivatives including vodka, brandy, gins and fortified ciders. There’s "rhumb" (made from honey, it can't technically be labelled as rum), simple syrups and loaves of fresh-baked sourdough, too. But our visit serves as more than an exploratory tasting; the cidery operates holiday programming throughout the festive season.

Merridale Cidery & DistilleryMerridale Cidery & Distillery | Jennifer Hubbert

Over the course of two hours I am a thirsty understudy, participating in a “Getting into the Spirits Holiday Entertaining Workshop,” which includes practical takeaways like charcuterie plating (led by Cure Artisan Meat and Cheese) and holiday cocktail blending with the cidery’s bartender, Josh Nelson. He shares with us a pair of signature seasonal cocktails:
  

HOLIDAY PIE

A shaken cocktail with holiday flavours like cinamon and ginger, with a fun gin twist. Dress it up with a sprig of rosemary and cranberry garnish. 

Ingredients:
1 ounce Cowichan Gin
1 ounce Merridale Hop Honey Syrup
Ginger ale
Merridale Apple Pie Cider

Instructions: Mix gin and syrup in a shaker. Shake vigorously. Pour into a glass and add ice. Fill the glass to half with ginger ale and the rest with Merridale Apple Pie Cider. Give it a stir and enjoy. 
    

SPICED RHUMB PUNCH

An easy-to-make, crowd pleasing punch. 

Ingredients:
12 ounces Cowichan Spiced Rhumb
12 ounces Merridale Fennel Citrus Syrup
One litre of Merridale Merri Berri Cider
One litre of Ocean Spray White Cranberry Cocktail.

Instructions: Combine all ingredients in a large punch bowl and garnish with orange slices and rosemary springs. This recipe makes four litres.
  

A visit to Merridale Cidery requires a 45-minute detour north of Victoria to Cobble Hill but a trip to The Cowichan Valley rewards peckish travellers with a thriving local food movement buoyed by gourmand makers, farm stands, wineries and produce purveyors. (Get a taste of the spoils in downtown Victoria at The Courtney Room, an unmissable restaurant.) While at Merridale, pick up the necessary ingredients for a Holiday Pie or Spiced Rhumb Punch, or tuck into a Christmas Long Table Dinner, hosted on Fridays and Saturdays through to December 28.
   

Shop the Neighbourhood

On our second day in Victoria, we depart The Magnolia Hotel with a Beautiful Boutiques Trail map in hand. Threaded together on this curated walking route is a collection of thoughtful boutiques. Wandering from shop-to-shop, chatting with owners and petting a sentinel pup stationed near the door feels like choosing paper over plastic. I trace my fingertips over soft leather goods at She She Bags, inspect the refined yet approachable baubles of Violette Boutique, slip into some slow fashion at Amelia Lee Boutique and admire the displays of West Coast home décor at Fan Tan Home & Style.

28th Annual Festival of Trees | The Bay Centre | Jennifer Hubbert28th Annual Festival of Trees | The Bay Centre | Jennifer Hubbert

Shoppers scouting for big brand stores in downtown will find them tucked neatly into The Bay Centre, a three-storey indoor shopping centre which is currently hosting the 28th-annual Festival of Trees. Stop by to vote for your favourite while supporting the BC Children’s Hospital Foundation. The trees stick around until January 5, 2020. 
  

Taste the Terroir

magnolia hotel and spaThe Courtney Room, Lois Lake Steelhead | Jennifer Hubbert

For dinner, we dine in at The Courtney Room, The Magnolia Hotel’s one-year-old restaurant which EnRoute magazine ranked the #10 best new restaurant in Canada, 2018. My friend and I let the kitchen make the decisions, opting for the seven-course Chef’s Tasting Menu. What ensues is a deep dive into Pacific Northwest gourmet, enlivened by Vancouver Island ingredients and provisions. I melt for the à la minute-smoked Lois Lake Steelhead with fermented ginger purée and Sitka spruce, but my knees buckle for the melt-in-your-mouth butternut squash charcoal ravioli topped with black garlic foam. The walnut and honey tart is a sublime ending.
   

Toasty Warm

Q at The EmpressQ at The Empress

Walking off the meal in the crisp evening air, we find two of Victoria’s signature landmarks entirely crowd-free: The Empress and the Parliament Buildings. Baby, it might be cold outside but the Harbour-framing views from the veranda of Q at The Empress is a choice vantage point from which to drink it all in. And not to worry, the warmth of the season expresses in a uniquely Canadian way: outdoor firepits and marshmallow toasting. I debate ordering a hot cider but opt for a Q Old Fashioned instead, and then spear a marshmallow to craft my D-I-Y dessert. Or more precisely, my second dessert of the evening.

S’mores are available Friday, Saturday and Sunday after 4 p.m. (walk-ins only) through December 23.
   

More Spirited Events to Look Forward To

christmas

11th Annual Habitat for Humanity Victoria Gingerbread Showcase
When: Daily from November 16 – January 5
Where: The Parkside Hotel and Spa

About: Come admire the handiwork of professional and amateur bakers competing for a good cause. This year’s theme is “Building a diverse community.”
  

Nutcracker with Ukranian Shumka Dancers & Victorian Symphony
Dates: Novmeber 29 – December 1
Times: Friday 7:00 p.m. | Saturday 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. | Sunday 1:00 p.m.
Where: Royal Theatre

About: Shumka’s Nutcracker blends the grace and lyricism of classical movement with the strength and power of Ukrainian folk and character dance. This classic tale of young Clara and her dream Prince incorporates Ukrainian traditions and symbols, grand orchestral versions of Tchaikovsky's legendary score and lavish sets and costumes designed by National Opera of Ukraine’s Maria Levitska.
  

Christmas at The Royal BC Museum
When: November 22 – January 9
Where: 675 Belleville Street

About: For more vintage history dressed up in Christmas décor, head to the Royal BC Museum’s permeant “Old Town” exhibit which details the post-contact history of an industrializing British Columbia. There will be opportunities to meet Santa, too. 
     

The Magic of Christmas at The Butchart Gardens
When: December 1 – January 6
Hours: 9 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Where: 800 Benvenuto Ave, Brentwood Bay

About: Grab your friends and family, lace up your skates and indulge in copious amounts of hot cocoa during The Magic of Christmas at The Butchart Gardens. The festivities include colourful lights, Christmas carols, gingerbread and holiday cheer. 
  

Lights of Wonder
Dates: December 13 - 30
Hours: Sunday to Thursday 4 - 9 p.m. | Friday & Saturday 4 - 10 p.m.

About: For two week,s downtown Victoria transforms Centennial Square into a holiday wonderland. This outdoor event features themed light exhibits, four interactive light tunnels and a 40-foot festive tree. Lights of Wonder offers live entertainment, warm nibbles and magical light displays for all ages. Admission is free. 
  

Click here for a complete holiday event calendar

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Disclosure: My visit was supported by Tourism Victoria; all opinions are my own. 

   

A Gift for You From The Magnolia Hotel & Spa

Magnolia Hotel and SpaThe Magnolia Hotel & Spa | Jennifer Hubbert

The Magnolia Hotel & Spa is currently offering two holiday promotions to ensure a merry ending to 2019: A Holiday Shopping Package which includes a $50 valet or dining credit (per night) at The Courtney Room, daily continental breakfast, a reusable shopping tote and curated maps. Prices start from $249 per night and the package runs through to December 15th, 2019. The Victoria Christmas Package offers a $75 credit (per day) which can be used for pampering at Spa Magnolia or for dining (don’t choose – do both!), daily continental breakfast and a holiday-themed welcome gift from The Courtney Room. Rates start at $259 per night and are available 12/15/19 – 1/5/2020.