VICTORIA, Canada — Set amid the lush forests and totem poles on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Victoria seems more British than London. With staunch devotion here behind the Tweed Curtain, old country traditions are carried on: croquet and cricket on the lawns, stout walking shoes for seaside constitutionals and, in the streets, red double-deckers that rattle past shops stocked with Wedgwood, tartans and Irish linen.
Victorians also have the British love of bed and breakfast inns, and have created a host of cozy establishments, ranging from classic antique stuffed mansions to contemporary California-style small hotels conveniently located around the Inner Harbor area of downtown Victoria and throughout the lush surrounding West Coast rain forest.
Beneath a canopy of chestnut trees, we followed a long driveway sloping toward a half-timbered Tudor mansion set on the shore of Lake Quamichan. Horses in a neighboring field glanced up lazily at our passing, the ambience and setting on this crisp sunny day weaving a nostalgic atmosphere as though we were arriving for a visit at a friend's rambling English country manor in the 1920s.
Under the portico's stained-glass skylight, Judy Oliver welcomed us to her home and into a cultural experience we never expected here in the countryside near the small town of Duncan, 38 miles north of Victoria on the scenic Malahat Drive.
From the moment we stepped across the threshold of Grove Hall Estate and slipped our feet into satin Oriental slippers, we were swept up in a voyage through exotic Asia in the lavish antiques and personal treasures collected by Judy and her husband, Capt. Frank Oliver, during their years working in Asia and the Middle East--he as a Coast Guard attache for the American Embassy, she as a Canadian trained nurse.
A scowling statue of Garuda, the Indonesian god of flight, guards the foyer as the flames from an entryway fireplace glitter off a brass temple gong. Across a vast expanse of deep Oriental rugs in the living room stands an antique Chinese opium bed, upon whose deep red velvet mattress the wife of a wealthy merchant once reclined as her servants refilled her pipe.
Though the house is stocked with the stuff of museums, Oliver is a warm and informal hostess and urges guests to poke through all the inviting and mysterious corners of her home. Sipping tea and nibbling dainties on the veranda under the wide-eyed gaze of Natasha and dour-looking Winston--a pair of Himalayan cats--she talked enthusiastically about her 18 years living abroad in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Borneo, Saudi Arabia and Singapore, where in 1974 she met her future husband.
On a visit to Vancouver Island a decade later, en route to resettling in Los Angeles, she was told by a real estate friend of a unique property for sale on 17 acres of lakefront. Though it was badly neglected and completely overgrown, Judy at once fell in love with Grove Hall. She laughed when recalling the look on her husband's face when he first saw the house she had bought. "Get rid of it!" was all he said.
Originally designed in 1906 as a bungalow, Grove Hall was expanded into a 22-room mansion in 1912 for its second owner, a former Hong Kong trader.
Each of the three guest rooms reached via the grand baronial staircase is lavishly decorated with the antiques, furnishings and artwork of a different Asian country. The biggest of the rooms, the Indonesian suite, has its own sitting room, bath and balcony.
On the walls are Balinese paintings, traditional Indonesian shadow puppets and batik textiles. From the cozy depths of a great round rattan chair in a bay window nook you can watch the birds on the lake.
The dramatic antique centerpiece of the Singapore Room is an ornately carved and gilded Chinese wedding bed of solid teak. The light and airy twin-bedded Siamese Room has a feel of tropical Bangkok with its wicker furnishings and a balcony overlooking the garden.
It shares with the Singapore Room a spacious bathroom with a free-standing claw-foot tub (the toilet is the classy but temperamental 80-year-old original with brass fixtures--there's a special knack to flushing this old-timer). All rooms have their original tiled fireplaces.
Returning to Grove Hall after a late dinner in Victoria, we glimpsed the inviting and comfortable English gentleman's domain of the Billiard Room. The evening, we decided, would be perfectly completed with a game on the full-sized 1920s billiard table with carved wooden legs as thick as tree trunks. Our hostess tiptoed in with nightcaps and added to the Old World atmosphere by winding up a Bombay gramophone to play a few oldies like Harry James' "But Not For Me."