Overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbour, the iconic Fairmont Empress opened its doors in 1908. The Edwardian, château-style hotel was designed by Francis Rattenbury for Canadian Pacific Hotels as a terminus hotel for the Canadian Pacific Railway. The stunning gardens were developed soon after opening. Three Head Gardeners shaped the Fairmont Empress Grounds: Fred Saunders, Art Sanders and Stig Karlsson.
Fred started to work in 1908 as an assistant gardener and except for the three years he spent overseas with the 88th Battalion during the Great War, he devoted his working life to the garden’s perfection. Fred was born in England in 1890 and did his apprenticeship in the gardens of Gatton Park, the Surrey estate owned by Jeremiha Colman, the “mustard millionaire”. The Gardens he developed for the Empress were reminiscent of the Grounds of an English county estate with wide herbaceous borders, climbing wisteria and pergolas entwined with perfumed roses.
To ensure the hotel was well-stocked with decorative blooms, Fred raised 20,000 square feet of glass greenhouses where he grew annuals, perennials, amaryllis, poinsettias, tropical plants including orchids. All of which would find their way into the hotel’s conservatory and the Crystal Garden.
The next Head Gardener, Art Sanders, built on Fred Saunder’s original plan and legacy. Every year 125,000 plants were set out in beds around the hotel, including 3,000 begonias, 2,600 chrysanthemums and 3,000 brick red geraniums, developed, as Sanders liked to boast, from merely six cuttings from the gardens of Buckingham Palace. In addition, the gardens contained 3,500 wallflowers, 120 varieties of roses and 308 varieties of Dahlias.
In the Conservatory, the palms had reached 18 feet tall and the lemon tree planted in 1929 was producing fruit. A few years after Art Sanders retired, the next significant Head Gardener, Stig Karlsson took over for the next 47 years.
The gardens today
Today guests can unwind with a leisurely walk through the famous flower- filled grounds, lined with blooming beds flitting with butterflies and well-manicured greenery, maintained year-round by their hardworking gardening team. The Empress front lawns are among the most photographed in Victoria. In spring, the bright tulips and cherry blossoms waving in the breeze are nothing short of dazzling, and in summer, their fragrant Rose Garden is a guest favourite. Guests can stroll through three hundred metres of pathways, with benches to enjoy the Roses, Hydrangeas, Rhododendrons, Azalea, Camelias, Magnolias, Mahonia, Japanese Maples, Boxwood, Windmill Palms, Himalayan Cedar, Sycamore. The plants were chosen for their textures, colours and hardiness.
The northwest garden, or the Centennial Garden is lined with arbutus and garry oak trees and within the iron fence, you’ll find 10 bee colonies during the summer months. Each one has 50,000 bees. They help pollinate the flowers in the garden, the herbs in our rooftop garden and they produce nearly 700 pounds of honey every year! LEARN MORE
Roger the Marmot
Since 2008, a friendly yellow-bellied marmot has been living the Centennial Garden at Fairmont Empress. You can often find him among the beehives. Named after one of the hotel’s General Managers, Roger is not native to Vancouver Island. It is believed that he hitched a ride from Alberta on someone’s vehicle. After thwarting multiple attempts to capture him and return him to his natural environment, Roger was offered a permanent residency in the gardens.
Roger has been spotted as portly and healthy as ever again this spring. This friendly fellow will often come out of hiding when called and is happy to pose for photos.
Home to the mildest median climate in Canada and some of the country’s most admired gardens, it is no wonder Victoria, BC has been named The City of Gardens.
Experience it yourself – STAY WITH US
Head to the gorgeous gardens with our expertly-curated packages for all ages. Book Now.