Vancouver Island, Canada —
When I was a kid, I visited Vancouver Island with my family; my mother wanted to stay at the Empress Hotel, drink tea and see the famous Butchart Gardens. This is what we did, and until this year this formed my impression of this island off the coast of British Columbia and the U.S. state of Washington.
This all changed when I traveled north this spring to see the island once again. My ostensible reason was to taste the wines of the island — which I did, and they were outstanding — but then I lingered to see a little more.
I’d no idea how big this island is: It’s nearly the size of England (217,291 sq. km., compared to 243,610 sq. km.) Victoria, its capital, lies on the southeastern tip but beyond it are worlds to explore.
But first, Victoria. While the city retains the charm of a Victorian out-post in the Wild West, the past few years, I learned, have sparked a explosion of imaginative new restaurants and food shops, and bars — for cocktails, cider, craft brews, and even coffee. I spent a morning exploring the scene with local foodie Andy Olson, who runs A Taste of Victoria food tours. (http://www.atasteofvictoriafoodtours.com/tours.html).
Highly recommended, the two-hour tour begins in the new Victoria Public Market (you could spend the whole two hours and more there), and heads under the Harmonious Gates into the old Chinatown, through the Old Town and to the inner harbor. A highlight was the tiny La Tana Bakery tucked into an alley, owned by Claudio Costi, an immigrant from Italy, who delivers his scrumptious fresh breads by bicycle. Another special stop is the Bard and Banker, a converted 19th century bank, now serving whiskey and 30 beers on tap, in a glittering atmosphere of chandeliers and brass.
But I was in Victoria to attend the first wine-makers dinner held at the Oak Bay Hotel, which has gone through several incarnations since it first opened as a luxury seaside hotel in 1927. The English manor house style remains, as do the spectacular views, but as of 2012 the rooms have been renovated into spacious suites. Its pub and cafe are local favorites but the dinner, highlighting some of the wines produced on the island, was held outside near the warm mineral spring pools that were built into the shoreline.
Since tea was the only beverage I’d tried on my previous visit to Vancouver Island, I was in for a pleasant surprise with the wines we sampled at dinner, especially the sparkling wines. The wines of Vancouver Island seemed well worth exploring, so the following morning I set off to visit the island wineries.
Vancouver is an island of staggering beauty as well as surprises. Roads wind through dense forests and emerge to views of the sea and distant islands. While I was there the dogwoods were in bloom and lilacs were flowering. And everywhere I stopped someone was doing something, well, unusual.
For instance, not far from the Victoria International Airport (tiny, friendly and you can fly direct from San Francisco), I was invited to stop by Snowdon House Gourmet & Gifts. A gift shop? But it turned out to be owned by a remarkable woman, Laura Waters who bought a run-down tree farm and began to explore uses for 1,500 fir trees besides cutting them down at Christmas.
Learning that the first indigenous West Coast people made tea from the fresh spring fir tips, she went on to create all kinds of products, including a sparkling fir essence (non-alcoholic but popular for cocktails) and spiced fir brie topper. Her cozy little shop, on her farm, which is also a B&B, is brim full of infused vinegars and soup and baking mixes, and she has a flock of extremely happy looking chickens.
Not far from her establishment is the Fickle Fig Farm and Restaurant, run by relocated New Yorker, Mitchell Morse, who bakes, raises pigs, hosts long-table dinners, brews excellent coffee and is growing not only figs but citrus (and other fruit trees). He sells produce from local farmers and preserves any that doesn’t sell, and local artisans are invited to sell products like yarn and home-made socks and hats.
It took another Vancouver Islander, Janet Docherty, to explain what I was sensing as an imaginative eccentricity pervading Vancouver Island. “There are a lot of jobs here, so if you want to live here, you have to be creative.”
She would know. A career businesswoman, she and her lawyer husband decided to find work they could do together and so they bought a cider farm in the Cowichan Valley, north of Victoria, not that they knew the first thing about making cider.
Today it’s a thriving — and charming enterprise to visit, where they grow apples, make a range of ciders (including a Scrumpie) and spirits, offer tours and cider tastings, run a restaurant, host weddings, and they have yurts for overnight stays.
This is how I came to sleep, for the first time in my life, in a yurt in an apple orchard. And as I was ambling back to my yurt after an extensive cider tasting (complimented by a charcuterie platter, mostly of local products), I noticed Lilliputian houses under bushes off the path. Fairy houses, explained Docherty; there’s also a fairy general store and a fairy guard house. So while the parents are sampling the excellent ciders, kids can go on fairy hunts. merridalecider.com
I also discovered there is the Westholme Tea Farm in the lush Cowichan Valley, one of the few (if there are other) places in Northern California where tea is grown. It’s a small scale adventure set in a forest but the teas (they do import some) are excellent. www.teafarm.ca.
The view from above
Although everywhere you look on Vancouver Island, you find a spectacular view (along with someone doing something interesting), I have to admit that on my last night on the island, the view, even by these standards, was breath-taking, mind-boggling and sheer magic.
The Villa Eyrie resort took its original inspiration from the Italian lakes. The owner wanted to recreate that sensation that you are gazing down from your villa at Lake Como. Only here you are on a Canadian mountainside, up with the eagles. Mists sweep in and this is all you can see, for a moment; seconds later they are gone, revealing a wilderness of mountains and the sea.
A new owner has renovated the old villa, expanding it into a series of luxurious suites on the mountain; you can admire the view from your enormous bed, or from a soaking tub, or from the spa, covered pool or superb restaurant.
In an interesting twist, the owner, an importer of luxury cars in eastern Canada, has built, a few miles from the resort, a Motorsport Circuit where people who purchase his Lamborghinis or Ferraris can drive them (or learn to drive them as the case may be). Guests at the Villa Eyrie (http://www.villaeyrie.com) can arrange for excursions to the circuit.
Bearing in mind that I was on the island to taste wines, I still accepted an invitation to visit the racetrack, where a former race car driver offered to take me on a spin around the track.
Although, as I explained, race-car driving was probably more to the taste of my son, it occurred to me that, just as I didn’t know if I would ever again be invited to sleep in a yurt, the likelihood of going racing with someone who knew what he was doing was slim. I put on a helmet and got in his car. The first loop, he said, he’d take it easy; and since I didn’t die of a heart-attack, on the second loop he sped up.
“By the way,” he said, when we landed back on planet Earth, “we made a dual video, of your face and the course — for your son. He’ll be impressed.”
After this I retreated to my aerie, and a glass of wine.
Vancouver Island: you may go for the wine but you’ll stay for a million other reasons.
I have to return, so I can go to Buchart Gardens and have a glass of tea at the Empress.