Wednesday, July 25, 2012


Standing in my underwear looking out our fifth floor window of the Empress Hotel in Victoria, British Columbia, I stumbled off our ice chest when the first lightning and thunder struck, so close it scared me witless.

As the evening storm raced toward the city, however, most of the lightning exploded at a safe distance over the Juan de Fuca Strait. But you know how unpredictable lightning can be out front of an approaching thunderstorm.

Or maybe you don’t. The crowd gathered under an immense red maple leaf flag pole in front of the provincial Parliament Buildings across the street sure didn’t seem to know. A uniformed military band on the lawn was playing a march. Maybe their last one, I thought, as they blew their lovely brass horns (perfect lightning attractors?) to the sky.

These folks definitely were not Midwesterners, where lightning is commonplace and therefore respected for its capricious lethality. The band’s music finally stopped only when rain reached soaking level and by then, most of the tourists had scurried away leaving only the band’s loyal family members (I surmised) listening in misery.

They say that God looks out for children and fools, and these people standing in the open in a thunderstorm under a giant flag pole must have qualified; no damage done that I could tell. The brunt of the storm was unleashed across the strait on western Washington, which got 700 lightning strikes per hour.

A mile away on the waterfront, a cruise ship in port loomed on the darkening horizon like an ominous, lightning-lit mountain from Middle-earth, ready at any moment to unleash legions of orcs to swarm Victoria. In fact, this is just about what happens when hordes of tourists are disgorged from the ship, first, into a fleet of monster “Cruise Victoria” buses, and then, onto the city streets. They attack with cameras and iPhones and clumsy iPads held high – click, click, click, click – often not even pausing in their rush to digitally capture every moment. Pity future audiences of their blurry keepsakes.

Our extraordinary hotel room view was a fluke. Bad luck turned good. We checked in late and, despite a reservation made three months in advance, nothing was yet available in the entire 477-room hotel. But they were all very nice about it and, while a room was being made ready, sent us to the veranda restaurant for free drinks with our dinner. Soon, an effervescent front desk manager, Nathan, found us to apologize and make sure we were happy. How could you not be, dining on wonderful local fare and watching the sun drop over Victoria’s Inner Harbour on a lovely summer evening?

That’s what I wanted to ask the guy at the next table, who groused loudly at the waiter about one thing or another, embarrassing his blond wife with the gigantic fake boobs, trophies paid for, I’m sure, by the complainer. Apparently, big tits won’t necessarily buy you happiness.

I happily gave Nathan our bag check and a generous tip for our “mountain of luggage” that we needed transported to our room.

Once there, though, we found it hard to maneuver the cramped space furnished with a small queen bed. Before we could decide whether or not to complain about it, the phone rang and it was Nathan: “I just feel like that room is too small for you and all your belongings. But we’re completely sold out tonight so we couldn’t move you until tomorrow.”

My wife asked what time we could move.

“Check out is at eleven, but we have to live in reality, so we never can say for sure.”

Late the next day when we picked up our fresh keys for the room right next door, the chipper front desk clerk said, “I think you will quite like it.”

Quite so! Our old room might have served as a large closet for the suite that we now occupied. Nathan, you did good.

The elegant Empress, built in 1908, was named after Queen Victoria, who also was the “Empress of India.” The massive, stone, chateau-style hotel is surrounded by gardens and is now a National Historic Site of Canada. Once, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stayed there, topping the hotel’s bragging list of rich and famous visitors.

Thousands of guests over the past century, maybe even celebrities, had stayed in our suite. I suspect that few enjoyed it more than us. The view to the south: Washington’s snow-capped Olympic Mountains distant; the Parliament Buildings and the Royal BC Museum and gardens close. To the west: mountains and sea afar, and Government Street below, filled with all manner of tourist conveyances – double-decker tour buses, antique cars, stretch limos, taxis, horse-drawn carriages, and sinewy-guy-pedaled tricycles – all pausing out front for pictures of our hotel – click, click, click, click.

 Across the street, a perpetual parade of humanity rushed along the waterfront of the Inner Harbour. Sidewalks were clogged with gawking tourists stopping abruptly for street performers, picture taking, or no apparent reason at all. Vendors hawked food, your portrait in fifteen minutes, and Indian carvings. Their art wasn’t very good, certainly compared to the First Peoples masterpieces of native carving in the museum across the street. Nevertheless, these young native men who were just trying to make a living shared an unbroken Northwestern cultural and artistic tradition that stretches back thousands of years.    

Among the fancy yachts docked across the street in the harbor, the Change Order stayed the week. I figured with a name like that, the red-skinned, porcine owner must be a retired contractor of some kind. We’d see him walking back from nearby shops sometimes, and once we saw a woman on his boat. Most of the time, however, he seemed to just sit alone in his lawn chair on his boat’s rear deck, drink, and watch the tourists. I wonder if his life of leisure was all he had dreamed.

For three days, we didn’t cross paths again with Nathan. On our last morning, however, as we savored our luxury suite right up to the 11:00 checkout, Nathan called our room: “Just wanted to make sure everything was chicka-dee-boom!”


Postscript: After posting this story, I got a nice email from Nathan that included the following:

“It’s funny, and I hardly have the heart to tell you, but what I actually said in checking on your room was ensuring that everything was ‘tickety-boo’ (it’s a famous English colloquialism that my dad uses often). However, I much prefer your interpretation of ‘chick-a-dee-boom’. It just has a better ring to it!”


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