Discovering gargoyles and ghosts at historic hotels

Posted By Mike Padgett

Oct. 26, 2014

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Gargoyles are perched outside our hotel window. A ghost in a red gown roams our hallway. And at the end of our journey, we watch several water taxis perform a ballet.

Our adventure began on a Tuesday afternoon. We opened the drapes and discovered two gargoyles outside our hotel window. From this vantage point on the 14th floor, these stone creatures have a view of the downtown of one of the world’s most beautiful cities.


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Gargoyles outside our hotel window, overlooking downtown Vancouver, B.C., were a pleasant surprise. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett

Our journey in Canada actually started nearly two hours earlier, after we landed at Vancouver International Airport. “Ever been here before?” the customs officer asked. She had our passports open in front of her. She glanced at us, then at our passport photos. She was youngish and all business.


“No,” I said. I wasn’t sure if “here” meant Canada or Vancouver. We visited a different part of Canada in 2012. And in the 1990s, we rode the Victoria Clipper ferry from Seattle to Victoria. That was years before 9/11. It was a time when travel across international borders was simpler.

“Why are you here?” the officer asked.

Vacation, we said.

“Where are you staying?”

“The Fairmont,” I said.

“Oh,” she said. She stamped our passports and returned them.

“Thank you,” I said. No response. The officer waved us through. She motioned to the next visitors in line to step forward.


My Best Friend and I headed for the luggage carousels. It was summer in Arizona and we longed for cooler weather. For weeks, we had been dreaming about British Columbia’s mountain scenery and two of Canada’s historic hotels. It’s now fall in Arizona, and we’re still thinking about our summer adventure in Canada.


The flight from Phoenix to Vancouver, B.C., is a short three hours. Another 90 minutes later, after walking the meandering line at customs, collecting our luggage and the ride from the airport to the neo-gothic Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, we checked into our room.


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The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is one of the city’s historic cornerstones. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


I joined my Best Friend at the window. We stood admiring the view of downtown Vancouver, the mountains in the distance across the harbor, and the gargoyles. I put my arm around her. She rested her head on my shoulder. British Columbia was another destination on our growing list of places to explore.


Once upon a time, travels for us were rare interludes in our high-energy careers. But no more. Today, with our careers behind us, travel is our priority. And with airlines increasing costs and charging for everything – from seats closer to the door, to luggage, to printing tickets – we’re giving more thought to trips closer to home. That way, we could drive to our destinations  and avoid check-in times and emptying pockets for intrusive security. And no angry passengers feuding over knee space.


We’re nearing a milestone year of our journey together, and it seems like the clock is running faster. Each day we anticipate tomorrow because yesterday was better than the day before. We plan to spend more time walking, holding hands and sharing sunrise with the quail.


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Five blocks from the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver is Burrard Inlet where floatplanes jockey for takeoff and landing. These planes resembling giant water striders share space on the water with private boats. A white cruise ship is docked nearby. Across the inlet are docked freighters. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


Vancouver has three Fairmont hotels downtown. Adjacent to the Vancouver Conference & Convention Centre is the Fairmont Waterfront. Nearby is the Fairmont Pacific Rim. History fans that we are, we chose the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, a historic hotel that opened in 1939 at Georgia and Burrard streets. This hotel, often called the “Castle in the City,” is a few blocks up the hill from the waterfront.


We learned that this majestic Fairmont is the third hotel bearing the Hotel Vancouver name. The first opened in 1888 at Georgia and Granville streets, two blocks from this location. It closed in 1916 and was replaced by a second one that had a short life because of “structural problems,” according to an account in USA Today.

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Historic hotels, with their roots in the city and distinctive architecture, offer much more than clean rooms and attentive staffs. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


Hilton Hotels bought the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver and later sold it to Canadian Pacific Hotels. In 2007, the hotel was purchased by Quebec’s public pension fund, the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, as part of its real estate expansion. Earlier this year, the pension fund announced its plans to sell the Hotel Vancouver and other hotels.


We had some time before dinner on our first day, so we explored the hotel. Outside our hotel room door is a brass framework that can be closed to create a security door for the other rooms down the corridor. Past the brass door a few more rooms is another brass security door.


During our stay, we were pampered by the dedicated and attentive hotel staff. Our well-appointed room was clean and neat. Each day, after a visit by housekeeping, a note listing the following day’s weather forecast was left on our pillows.



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The 14th floor of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, with elaborate brass hallway security doors off the elevator lobby. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


Whenever we visit historic hotels, our curiosity powers up. One can only imagine the hotel’s previous guests. Who else stood at the window in our 14th floor room and enjoyed the views? What decisions or deals did they make during their stay? Were they local or foreign politicians? Business tycoons? Did they appreciate the gargoyles outside our window?


On our first day, we spotted a construction crane towering over a high-rise building near the waterfront. We saw many other cranes at construction sites during our ride from the airport. Vancouver is a city undergoing major growth. It would be interesting to see a time-lapse video comprised of photos of this city’s skyline shot from the same vantage point once a month since the city’s earliest years.


Such a video would show one downtown Vancouver building changing very little, if at all – Christ Church Cathedral, which opened in 1894. The church, built with local stone and wood, was founded in 1888. It is across Georgia Street from our hotel. The church once was “the brightest and tallest building” in Vancouver, according to the church’s website.



A historic hotel’s link to the past

There are many fine contemporary hotels offering luxurious accommodations. But historic hotels offer something found nowhere else ­– a glimpse of life in another era.


The architecture and interior design of a historic building are from another time. The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver’s high ceilings, interior arches, seating areas in elevator lobbies and stone gargoyles on the structure’s highest corners are reminiscent of Vancouver’s earlier years.


Historic hotels are a combination of unique architecture, influences of architects and owners, and dedication of conscientious employees. A few, like the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver, have a ghost story for intrigue.


According to a narrative on the hotel’s website, the friendly apparition wearing an elegant red gown has been spotted on the 14th floor. Some say her name is Jennie and that she and her husband and their daughter began frequenting the hotel after it opened in 1939. They died in an automobile accident in 1944.


Hotel guests and employees have reported seeing a lady in red in the hall and in one of the rooms on the 14th floor. The hotel bar has named a drink honoring the ghost.


We learned about the hotel ghost while riding the hop-on, hop-off trolley. It was in her narrative about Vancouver that the trolley driver shared the ghost story. We later verified her yarn with a hotel employee and by checking the hotel website.


The trolley driver’s energetic narrative also answered our questions about the city and its history, parks and neighborhoods. She told us about Robson Street, lined with many fine restaurants and exclusive shops.


At one of the trolley stops, we stepped off to walk to the waterfront for lunch at Mahony & Sons Restaurant. From the promenade, we watched Harbour Air’s floatplanes arrive and take off.


The Fairmont has its own fine restaurant, and many other restaurants are within walking distance. We enjoyed dinners at Joe Fortes and Cin-Cin. For lunch one Sunday, after services at a downtown church, we stopped at YEW seafood + bar, the Four Seasons hotel restaurant. The restaurant’s 40-foot ceiling and the towering sandstone fireplace mimic Canada’s great outdoors.


To Victoria B.C. by bus and ferry


After a few days in Vancouver, we boarded a Pacific Coach bus for the short trip to Victoria on Vancouver Island. The bus took us from the hotel to the ferry landing at Tsawwassen, a suburb of Vancouver. After a short wait, the bus driver drove onto the ferry. He parked second in line to drive off the ferry. The crossing to Swartz Bay, a distance of 24 nautical miles, lasts about 95 minutes.


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Sailboats are a regular sight during ferry trips to and from Vancouver Island. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


During the crossing, we and the other passengers left the bus to find seats on the observation floors. We returned to the bus prior to docking at Swartz Bay.


Fairmont Empress 

Once at the Victoria bus station, we retrieved our luggage. Our destination was the Fairmont Empress Hotel. It is about a block from the bus station, so we walked. After sitting much of the morning, the walk was invigorating.


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The Fairmont Empress Hotel was built in 1908 in the style of a French chateau. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


In 1965, the hotel’s supporters rallied against a proposal to demolish this historical centerpiece of downtown Victoria and replace it with a modern high-rise hotel. A local newspaper, calling the iconic Empress “the heart and soul of this city,” opposed demolition. “Without this splendid relic of the Edwardian era,” the newspaper warned, “literally tens of thousands of tourists will never return.”


A year later, it was announced that the Empress would remain. The resulting renovation cost about $4 million.


In 1989, more then $45 million was spent on a more extensive renovation and the addition of a health club, indoor swimming pool and guest reception, according to the hotel website.


Earlier this year, Vancouver developer and philanthropist Nat Bosa and his wife Flora, bought the 477-room hotel from a subsidiary of the Quebec pension fund. Fairmont Hotels & Resorts will continue as manager, according to news accounts.


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One window of our corner room offered a view of the Inner Harbour across Government Street from the hotel. We watched ferries arriving from Seattle and Port Angeles, Wash., private boats, and the local water taxis. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett


The Empress’ guestroom floors have wide hallways with occasional seating areas where one could enjoy reading during inclement weather.


We wandered the hotel and found the Tea Room, which we discovered is a victim of its own popularity. Too busy for our liking. But we enjoyed meals at the hotel’s Veranda restaurant. Most days we sat at one of its outside tables. One evening we sat inside and enjoyed the brilliant sunset.


Earlier that evening, we crossed the street to walk along the harbor. On the sidewalk were a few arts and crafts vendors. A fortuneteller sat at her table waiting for a client. Behind us, the hotel took on a glow from the setting summer sun. To our left, across the street, are the British Columbia Parliament Buildings.


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The British Columbia Parliament buildings were designed by Francis Mawson Rattenbury, the English architect who also designed the Fairmont Empress. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


The Empress has its own permanent residents, according to the hotel history. A guest several years ago wrote about “a little girl who had watched over her bed and then floated across the room.” The hotel history also mentions “an early 20th Century maid” who sometimes helps with cleaning on the sixth floor.


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The Fairmont Empress’ gardens welcome visitors seeking quiet and beauty. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett 

In the hotel garden on a late afternoon, we walked the path slowly, absorbing the beauty and the quiet. A couple sat quietly on a nearby bench tucked into the flowerbeds. The late July weather is perfect, with an occasional light breeze. White roses and other flowers and a patch of lavender next to a trellis punctuated the lush lawn.


The Empress’ roses were a prelude to our visit to the Butchart Gardens, a series of gardens that has been blooming since its beginnings more than 100 years ago.


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Butchart Gardens occupy a worked-out limestone quarry established by Robert Butchart in the early 1900s. Butchart and his wife, Jennie, completed the first part of their home nearby in 1904. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett


A friend gave the Butcharts a rose and some sweet peas to celebrate their new home. A garden publication says Jennie Butchart, in planting the rose and sweet peas by their home, “probably little realized this was the modest start to one of the world’s great horticultural adventures.”


As limestone in the quarry was exhausted, Jennie Butchart and workers recruited from the quarry crews added more flowers, shrubs and trees in establishing the 55 acres of Japanese, Italian, Rose and other gardens. Tour buses run hourly between downtown Victoria and the gardens 14 miles north of the city.


In 2004, its centennial year, the gardens was named a designated National Historic Site of Canada. The Butchart residence houses a historical display of the development of the gardens.


An elegant end to a memorable vacation

The morning we were packing for our return to Vancouver, we glanced out our window and saw several water taxis performing a ballet in the middle of the harbor. They were accompanied by classical music broadcast on loudspeakers. The unexpected visual treat was an elegant end to our summer adventure in Canada.

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From our hotel room, we watched water taxis perform a water ballet in the harbor across the street from the Fairmont Empress Hotel. Photo copyright © by Mike Padgett



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Oct 26th, 2014

One Comment to 'Discovering gargoyles and ghosts at historic hotels'

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  1. Peggy Hodges said,

    Just in time for Halloween, you’ve covered a few ghost stories in a very beautiful part of the West. It’s so interesting to read about the history of these very unique hotels and your pictures add a great deal to the descriptions of the buildings. I was quite taken with the brass hallway doors – works of art!

    Hope you and your best friend get to take many more trips to lovely and quiet places and enjoy those special walks.

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