IF I HAD A MILLION DOLLARS, I’d whistle the classic Barenaked Ladies tune at the wheel of my yacht while island hopping in British Columbia’s Strait of Georgia, cruising from outdoor farmers’ market to seaside seafood cafe, organic winery to artisan cheesery, wood-fired bakery to chef-run eatery.
Or maybe not. With vessels like that, a million dollars probably wouldn’t do the trick — and anyway, who can pull off a captain’s hat? So on to Plan B. Same sparkling waters, same lush islands, same indulgent menu but an even bigger boat, this one owned by BC Ferries, and with room for the car.
On this voyage, a million dollars proves to be unnecessary. For $199, you can buy a four-day pass allowing unlimited travel between more than a dozen ports of call — an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord that could cause travel indigestion if consumed indiscriminately. Accordingly, my wife Jessie and I will try to keep it simple.
We’ll head from our home in Vancouver to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, then make a beeline south to the Cowichan Valley, which is rapidly emerging as the province’s locavore capital and a winery region nibbling at the heels of the Okanagan Valley. On the cruise back we’ll make two more stops: ever busier but eternally endearing Salt Spring Island and the more relaxed North Pender and South Pender islands, all of which have wineries as well. Any indigestion will be traceable to the food and drink.
THE COWICHAN VALLEY’S main population centre, the small city of Duncan, claims Canada’s warmest year-round climate and a tidy little downtown, with lots of totem poles, some decent restaurants and a nice spot for the Saturday morning farmers’ market in the central square. Still, we plough straight on through, intent on piercing the beating heart of Goodgrubland, the tiny adjacent communities of Cobble Hill and Cowichan Bay.
Some of Vancouver Island’s oldest wineries are here, including Blue Grouse and Venturi-Schulze, which is even better known for its balsamic vinegar, a Canadian first. Our destination, however, is Cobble Hill’s Merridale Estate Cidery, which for two decades has been turning the fruits of a hillside apple orchard into delicious ciders and recently began dishing out great meals too.
Merridale is famous for its Scrumpy, modelled after the rural ciders of southern England, but our favourites from a flight of six prove to be dry and oaky Normandie and effervescent Somerset. Below the deck, where we sit eating pizzas from the outdoor oven, a bride in gown and train walks by on her way to a banquet tent nestled into the valley below. The sun is setting, the moon is rising, twinkling stars will shortly appear. Even if the marriage doesn’t last till death do they part, the memory certainly will.
Next day there is a regatta in, as the locals would have it, Cow Bay. This has us briefly regretting our reliance on wheels rather than sails, if only because the maritime crowd cramming the sidewalk cafes seems to be having so much fun. Then again, how depressed would a person have to be for life not to seem good on a sunny day here? After all, Cowichan Bay has recently been confirmed as North America’s first “slow city” — basically, the kind of place where it’s easy to carry on the good life as interpreted by the Italy-based founders of the slow-food movement. The little village is also a great Canadian example of the classic seaside tourist town — gay, colourful and just a bit ramshackle.
Responsible tourists intent on milking every last ounce from the local terroir would have headed up the road to Cherry Point Vineyards. The winery, established 20 years ago on a former mink ranch, has an excellent restaurant overlooking the strait, but we get hung up at Hilary’s Cheese & Deli, the retail outlet of a local cheesery that also stocks prime examples from around the world and serves delicious cheese-centric soups and sandwiches to boot.
A responsible tourist would also take advantage of the short drive north to the Crofton ferry terminal by stopping in at two other wineries that show the potential of the Cowichan Valley. Alderlea Vineyards has been around since 1992 and was one of the first to deal with the area’s chief vinicultural drawback — a slight deficiency in summertime heat — by tenting the vines with polyethylene to give them a head start. Several of their whites have become “this-can’t-be-from-the-island!” startlers at some of Vancouver’s best restaurants, but they’re otherwise almost impossible to obtain except from the vineyard. Meanwhile, Averill Creek was planted only in 2001, by an Edmonton doctor who abandoned the profession and worked at wineries around the world with the single-minded obsession of learning how to make great pinot noir. Well, Miles from Sideways would be proud (or at least bitter and envious): with his first bottlings, Andy Johnston started winning prizes, most recently bringing home a gold from the All Canadian Wine Championships. Cool climate areas like the Cowichan exhibit considerable vintage variation, so visitors this summer should look for the first of the 2009s, which promise to be excellent.
IN CONTRAST TO THE COLOSSAL SHIPS that run between the mainland and Vancouver Island, some of BC Ferries’ island hoppers are downright human in scale, including our ride between Crofton and Vesuvius, one of three terminals on Salt Spring. Coincidentally, there are also three wineries on the island, and naturally we visit them all. We also check out a trio of foodie meccas.
The Salt Spring Island Cheese Company was launched in the mid-1990s by David Wood, who moved his family from Toronto, where he had been a high-profile caterer. His daughter Thea, who is behind the counter when we drop by, sends us away with a truffle-flavoured chevre and a hard Spanish-style sheep’s cheese that they call Montaña. Some of it only makes it as far as the next stop, the Salt Spring Island Bread Co., a beautifully situated bakery run by Heather Campbell, locally known as the Bread Lady. A few years back Campbell moved her wood-fired oven onto the front garden of her lovely rural home, a place that happens to overlook the channel separating Salt Spring from Pender. Could there be a better place to pair a chunk of cheese with a loaf of crusty bread, a jug of wine and thou?
On balance, probably not, but for a meal that’s a little more complex — while still absolutely fresh, local and seasonal, mind you — a stop at Bruce’s Kitchen in Salt Spring’s main village of Ganges is also in order. Bruce Wood is yet another Ontario refugee with a cheese connection, yet both he and the connection are unrelated to David Wood. He and his wife departed Ottawa three years ago after visiting relatives who run a second Salt Spring cheese producer, Moonstruck Organic Cheese Inc., and he launched the restaurant in 2009. Imagine a Michelin-starred chef gone all healthy and island time and you’ve pretty much got the picture: my halibut arrived amid a merry mess of greens and seeds that would have solved any omnivore’s dilemma.
Ho hum, another sunny day, another perfect meal, though now it’s one sleep later and I’m referring to lunch of yet more fresh-beyond-belief fish, this time served more traditionally, at the Hope Bay Cafe on North Pender Island (which is connected to South Pender Island by a short bridge). Situated in a fine old building reconstructed a few years back following a fire, the cafe commands the northeastern tip of the island, with views of at least three other Gulf Islands.
A short drive away is Morning Bay Vineyards, where we pick up a second case of wine — riesling this time — to go with one we’d filled a bottle or two at a time at various previous stops. Proprietors Keith Watt and Barbara Reid have precisely the backgrounds expected of winery owners, which is to say pretty much random: he was a CBC Radio producer, she worked in the fashion industry. We find ourselves wishing we could stay a couple more weeks, until Labour Day, when they throw an annual one-day party starring bands and musicians from near and far. They call it Winestock, as if any other name were possible.
TOO SOON, IT IS TIME TO BOARD the ferry for home — somewhat unexpectedly, with money still in our jeans. The scores of bed and breakfasts in these parts aren’t necessarily expensive, and we’d further economized by bunking with friends. Nevertheless, a holiday’s a holiday, and we’d certainly done ours up properly, especially on Salt Spring. There we booked into Hastings House, which regularly features in surveys of the world’s most amazing places to stay.
Hotels like to refer to themselves as “properties,” but Hastings House genuinely is: nine hectares of gardens and sculpture gardens situated on the quiet side of Ganges’ marina and centring on a mansion built in the style of an 11th-century Sussex manor house by a retired British naval architect who arrived in 1937 with his new wife and furniture of appropriately Medieval heft. We bunked a few steps away in the “Farmhouse,” a 110-year-old residence converted into two impressive suites, awakening in the morning to find a basket of coffee and muffins on our doorstep.
That night, we ate an astonishingly good dinner that stretched over three courses and involved all manner of fish and seafood as well as Salt Spring lamb and British Columbia wine (or maybe that was wines). Over dessert, we struck up a conversation with the couple at the next table. It turned out their yacht was docked down in the marina and that they were gourmands, hopping around the Gulf Islands.
Whether they had a million dollars, who can guess. I can’t even confirm that they felt like a million dollars. But I know that we certainly did.
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