It was raining when I arrived in Vancouver, and the showers continued relentlessly. Would Orca Airways take off from YVR to Tofino? Would BC Ferries budge from their docks? Yes, indeed. From mile one of the Trans Canada Highway in Tofino, to the artisanal enclave of Salt Spring, to the manicured landscape of Victoria, the rainfall varied from downpour to drizzle. It may have slackened off for an hour or two, but always returned with a merciless tenacity to do the right thing: to keep the west coast green.
And yet, this is a good thing. They call it liquid sunshine; there is a freshness and sprightliness in the air that exists nowhere else I’ve been.
Planes, boats and automobiles: These are the ways to get the biggest bang from an island adventure. BC Ferries comfortably transports us (and our car) from Tsawwassen Terminal in Vancouver to Swartz Bay in Victoria. I feel like I’m on a floating cafeteria. It’s a new experience for me, to drive smoothly off of the ferry and into Victoria, and head for The Oak Bay Beach Hotel.
I had been looking forward to exploring Victoria, and I see that much has changed since my last visit quite a few decades ago. The handsome new Oak Bay Beach Hotel was rebuilt on the original grounds of the old hotel, circa 1927. After a day of travelling, my luxurious room with its fireplace and large spa bathroom offers a cozy welcome. It is our HQ for our tour of discovery.
Afternoon tea is part of the culinary landscape of Victoria. In the oldest Chinatown in Canada, we pause at Daniela Cubelic’s pretty emporium, the Silk Road Aromatherapy & Tea Company. A student of Chinese tea masters and herbalists, she has recently expanded to include a tea-tasting bar. An informal tea tasting with an educational component adds to the pleasure. Refreshed, we head for the Dutch Bakery and Coffee Shop, a family establishment since the ’50s, to admire and sample their special chocolates and handmade pastries. On to Hilary’s Cheese Shop to catch a glimpse of her local cheeses and a vast selection of cheeses from around the world. Olive oil and balsamic are treated with respect at Olive the Senses. It’s a family recipe that comes from the Marche region of Italy, and here it is hand-bottled and presented with love. Choux Choux lends itself to having its name repeated twice. It’s said that at this quaint and busy outpost of France, the pâté is twice as good as elsewhere. Ambitions run high while the cost of grazing along Fort Street remains low.
Tasting and nibbling all day has given us an appetite for dinner, which, tonight, is at an award winner. If the question is, “what is the traditional Victoria restaurant?” the answer is “The Stage Wine Bar.” Since we’re not in the market for a classic three-course dinner, clearly we have come to the right place. Duck confit, crispy octopus, made-in-house sausage catch our eye. And of course, there are the appropriate wines cheese to finish the wine, and then a little more wine to finish the cheese.
Breakfast comes bright and early at Kates Café at the Oak Bay. The original hotel entrance and several handhewn beams have been reclaimed. When you can smell the aroma of fresh baked bread, the message is that breakfast will be praiseworthy.
Only in Victoria would there be a feast concierge. Karma Brophy leads us on a merry three-hour tour of Oak Bay and its delightful gastronomy scene, one bite at a time. We taste delicious house-cured meats at Cory Pelan’s Whole Beast Artisan Salumeria, and hear his philosophy of the local food security. What better to follow than a glass of Oak Bay’s British heritage at the Penny Farthing Pub and Vis-à-vis Wine Bar to listen to whimsical historical tales.
Just down the street, Andrew Moyer presides over the vast and delectable cheese selection at Ottavio Italian Bakery, Delicatessen and Café. Now, there is some excitement afoot at The Oak Bay Marina Restaurant on the docks with chef Jeff Keenliside. We watch them fish giant crab from the sea, and see the critters – combined with other shellfish and mollusks – steamed in a pail that is then dumped unceremoniously on the paper-covered table. That, my friends, is good eating. But there is more. Back at The Oak Bay Beach Hotel, we taste and compare three spirits, each paired with a sweet bite.
Perhaps it is the stroll in the freshest air in the country that has given us such an appetite a mere few hours later, as we join our hosts, Kevin and Shawna Walker, and hotel manager Michelle Le Sage and her spouse, Earl, for a splendid dinner in the dining room. Executive chef Iain Rennie, acclaimed as the Island Chef of the Year by the CCFCC has outdone himself. Kevin and Shawna are justifiably proud of this hotel, and regale us with the trials and tribulations of constructing this magnificent property. Chef Rennie is the star of the evening, and it is no surprise that the locals and tourists alike flock to taste his dazzling fare.
In tiny Duncan, BC, on the road to the BC Ferries Crofton Terminal to take the Ferry to Salt Spring Island, we stop for lunch at an impeccable 106-yearold heritage home on a tiny perfect street. This is Hudson’s on First, and here’s a good tip: If you are anywhere near Daniel Hudson’s neighborhood, go out of your way to make a special trip to his splendid restaurant. It is more than a restaurant; this is an intimate dining experience – the kind we foodies spend our lives hoping to encounter. You might lunch on halibut gravalax with lemon peel purée and Vancouver Island wasabi, inventive pasta, pankocrusted fish cakes, or other choices from his carefully crafted seasonal menu.
Driving into Salt Spring Island in the rain is like entering the pages of an old picture book. A rustic road leads to Hastings House Country House Hotel, in an 11th-century Sussex- style manor house overlooking the Ganges Harbour. We arrive in the misty rain at a small waterfront luxury country resort surrounded by fresh green foliage. We feel we have reached a lovely sanctuary. In the handsome dining room, all the hotel guests acknowledge each other and sit down for an elegant three-course prix fixe dinner. The chef knows his clientele and offers hearty local fare: peppered venison carpaccio with house-made onion-caper marmalade, and his rendition of herb-crusted wild Pacific halibut with cilantro couscous. This is the kind of food we’ve come to the west coast to enjoy.
It seems that if there is someone you want to run into, you would have a good chance of seeing them at Auntie Pesto’s, nestled on the waterfront boardwalk in the heart of Ganges Village. A kitchy name cloaks the very serious kitchen of chef Shawn Walton. The island is his pantry, and you can almost set your seasonal calendar by his daily menus. On a clear day, a table at the waterfront boardwalk offers a beautiful view with dinner.
The Salt Spring Island Saturday Market is the highlight of the week for both tourists and locals. A few come to see a unique brand of island ingenuity. The artisans’ booths are almost irresistible, and yes, we must buy a few of these lovely glass heart necklaces; and chocolate from several purveyors. We are pleased to see David Wood (he once enthralled us with his fine-food shop on Yonge Street in Toronto); he is now one of the area’s largest goat cheese makers. Salt Spring Island Cheese loves to have visitors wander the farm and taste their offerings, fresh. Weavers, sculptors, organic farmers, wood carvers and glass blowers, 140 in all, show their arts. Every product is certified “vendor produced and sold,” making each piece a one-of-a-kind treasure.
There is a sense of calmness here – a stress-free feeling of people communing with nature on their own terms, reminiscent of the late ’60s. Peace and love, man; peace and love.