The afternoon tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel in Victoria is so iconic that I knew I’d be walking into a tourist trap. But I didn’t want to let John Travolta, Shirley Temple, and Mel Gibson (past Empress afternoon tea guests) one-up me in my own home province, so I agreed to join my sister and her Toronto friends there one sunny afternoon.

Empress Hotel afternoon tea, VictoriaMy iPhone died right before our reservation so I had to rely on everyone else for photos. However, the hotel concierge was gracious enough to charge it for me during our tea which was incredibly nice since I wasn’t staying there. Then again, I was paying $59.95 for the afternoon tea

Yes, you read correctly. $59.95. So it should have been damn near perfect. Unfortunately, the experience was completely underwhelming.

The sounds of a live piano greeted our entrance to the elegant tea lobby. Despite it being an average early summer afternoon, it was quite warm in the room. Not sure if any air conditioning was available but if there isn’t, I can’t imagine what it’d be like during a heat wave.

Our server was an older bespectacled Chinese gentleman — who was in a rushed mood throughout our service. The room was not full and we were the last sitting of the afternoon so it certainly did not appear that he was swamped. It dampened the entire experience in several ways.

This was supposed to be one of the highlights for the girls who were visiting from out of town, and they wanted to learn more about the tradition of afternoon tea. But he barely stopped to acknowledge their questions, much less answer them appropriately.

He asked if anyone wanted sugar and milk/cream with our tea, which is a standard question of course. But being newbies to the Empress afternoon tea, we were all quite startled when he furiously began adding the sugar/milk/cream directly to our cups without warning or asking about quantities (ie, “how much sugar?”)… Is this a traditional part of afternoon tea? No idea, see above paragraph.

He also did not keep track of our tea orders so refilled the wrong cups when he speed-walked around our table. Overall, the service was awkward and uncomfortable which made it difficult to fully enjoy this $59.95 experience.

Before you think I’m a whiny, high-maintenance customer, let us move on to the tea and the food, shall we?

Empress Hotel afternoon tea, Victoria

Most of us chose the Empress blend tea, created exclusively for the Fairmont Empress by the Metropolitan Tea Company. Billed as a blend of full bodied, malty Assam, floral Kenyan, fruity and sprightly South Indian, airy Ceylon, and light oaky Chinese notes, the tea was honestly just bland.

A starter of fresh strawberries and cream was followed by three tiers of pastries and baked goods. The bottom sandwich tier:

    • Smoked salmon pinwheel: the best of the savouries mainly because it was inoffensive.
    • Mango and curried chicken: Tasted just plain weird. The flavours somehow did not mesh.
    • Sundried tomato tapenade on crostini: Also weird in terms of texture and no flavour.
    • Ham and cucumber with tarragon mayo: Forgettable.
    • Free range egg salad croissant: It was OK.

Empress Hotel afternoon tea, Victoria

The rare bright spot came on the middle tier. The freshly baked raisin scones were soft and lovely, especially paired with strawberry jam that came in cute little pots and the clotted cream.

The top dessert level turned out to disappoint. A pretty looking chocolate and pistachio battenburg cake was just too gooey and sweet for our tastes. Granted, I hate marzipan so this one wasn’t going anywhere with me anyway. A sable breton and pear cheesecake was again bland.

Empress Hotel afternoon tea, Victoria

Getting a passing grade were the lemon curd tartlet, chocolate shortbread and macarons.

I really wanted to love this experience but there were just too many disappointments, especially at that cost. Let’s just cross this one off the foodie bucket list and move on.

Empress Hotel afternoon tea, Victoria

Fairmont Empress afternoon tea, 721 Government St., Victoria, B.C. 1-866-540-4429.

Dress code in effect (casual elegant: “no torn/ripped jeans, short shorts, beach wear, flip flops or baseball caps”). Reservations recommended. Afternoon tea is $59.95 CAD from May 1, 2012 to September 30, 2012 and $47.95 in the off season (Jan. 1-April 30, 2012 & Oct. 1-Dec. 31, 2012).