“Start packing,” I tell my gal pal Lorian. “You’re navigating and eating shotgun for the next week. And you might want to bring some comfy clothes, the kind with the elastic waist.” Just the description of our road trip on Vancouver Island and the Sunshine Coast, focused almost exclusively food, wine, spas and posh accommodations, prompts Lorian to start throwing things in a suitcase.
Although food is the raison d’etre for this trip, I’ve squeezed a few spa treatments into the agenda. Frizzy and frazzled, I’m desperate for a polish and pamper. And I get my first one on the trip from Vancouver to Victoria — did you know the two “Spirit” vessels have a spa? To cater to my inner princess, I fork over $60 for a mini-massage and manicure (and hey guys, I noticed three men booking appointments too).
Bypassing Victoria, we head for Sooke and arrive in time for lunch at The Edge, renowned for Chef Edward Tuson’s charcuterie. Edward and his wife Gemma (Ed-Ge, get it?) raise Berkshire-cross pigs that now grace my plate as ethereal prosciutto and delightfully fatty salami.
I make it only halfway through my pulled pork sandwich. “Everything is big in here — and the napkins are absorbent for us old folks,” says a local man next to me, who adds that his ties are the colour of gravy to cut down on laundry bills. I consider asking for the uneaten half of my sandwich to go, but a good foodie knows when to pace herself and a five-course dinner is in store.
“Here’s the plan,” I say to Lorian in my usual bossy tone when we’re installed in my favourite room (Raven, 27) at Sooke Harbour House. “We’ll spend two nights luxuriating here then head west to Port Renfrew, swing over to Cowichan Bay, up to Nanaimo, head north to the Comox Valley and ferry to the Sunshine Coast. One big loop back to Vancouver with plenty of R&R. Heehaw!”
I adore Sooke Harbour House. Even in rainy April, our amuse bouche is a tangle of sunny baby greens and flowers picked that morning. From begonias to Grand Fir transformed into sauces and foams, the abundance of the inn’s famous edible garden gives the kitchen crew their inventive edge.
And it just gets better. I’ve been known to have hissy fits if seafood is overcooked, but chef Robin Jackson elevates lowly lingcod to the heights of bluefin tuna. None of the courses disappoint and Lorian, a vegetarian, is likewise thrilled.
Room-service breakfast is cleared and Le Sooke Spa ladies are here for our en suite treatments. Lorian goes for a facial and I opt for the body wrap with Seaflora products, made from seaweed hand-harvested locally from the Juan de Fuca Strait. Maybe last night’s lingcod once swam amongst the green bits now slathered on my body.
Dewy and glowing, we stop for a tasting at the Meadery and chuck a few bottles of Vintage Sac, a honey mead aged for three years and based on a pre-Tudor family recipe — in the trunk. Lunch is atPoint No Point, where chef Jason Nienaber says the smoked oyster chowder spiked with house-cured bacon has been a staple for 17 years — I could have eaten a bucketful, and it pairs perfectly with the Blue Grouse Ortega.
Back on the road to Port Renfrew, we hike the Botanical Beach tide pools to work off a few calories and head toward Merridale Cidery near Cobble Hill. “I just had the best apple pie in my life and Ilove apple pie,” says an elderly gentleman as we enter La Pommeraie, a bistro set in the apple orchard. We sip a flight of ciders as Lorian tucks into a gargantuan wedge of pie. My burger, made with locally raised lamb, is spot on.
If there’s no room at the Stone Soup Inn, site of our next dinner reservation, drive another 20 minutes to the Damali Lavender Farm, which will place you in the “Provence of Canada”. The side trip is worthwhile to awake in a French-style farmhouse surrounded by 12,000 lavender plants. Breakfast consists of lavender-spiced muffins and baked eggs courtesy of owners Alison Philp’s and Marsha and Dave Stanley’s “girls” in the chicken coop. Oops, I’m getting ahead of myself — back to Stone Soup Inn.
I experienced Brock Windsor’s exemplary cooking years ago at Barefoot Bistro, and he’s now creating superb dishes at his own place, tucked in the Cowichan Valley forest. When we’re there, he’s also serving and clearing plates. But the lamb shank and shoulder duo (from “down the road”) in an unctuous mellow broth, with sweet roast carrots from his garden, makes up for the slow service.
Who would think of Nanaimo as a culinary destination? But in addition to the Nanaimo bar, it’s also the birthplace of other epicurean delights, such as the Nanaimo Bar martini at Modern Cafe. There’s a low-cal Nanaimo bar at Mon Petit Choux and the original version at McLean’s Specialty Foods. “The recipe from England is made with Bird’s custard and originally walnuts, because there aren’t any almond trees growing here or in England,” says Sandy McLean as she cuts my bar in half and plies a willing couple from Hong Kong with the rest — at this point in the trip, I’m only good for one bite.
We heave ourselves down the road and sample a Nanaimo bar cheesecake at Minnoz Restaurant (which also serves up excellent halibut and chips) in the Coast Bastion Inn, then collapse in our room in a sugar stupor.
But wait, the day isn’t over: we’re off to Mahle House, a short jaunt south on the Island Highway to Cedar. Charming Steve Wilson, who has been working here greets us with a glass of pinot gris from a winery just north of Duncan. Although the dining room is stuck in the ’70s, the food is au courant. I tuck into a Flintstone-sized pork chop from Quist Farms that spent 15 hours immersed in a maple brine with secret seasonings. “If I told you the recipe, I would have to kill you,” says Wilson, laughing.
It’s about one hour north to Courtenay and Hot Chocolate, an amazing bakery and pastry shop (and, we’re told, the best ice cream, but we’ve got to draw the line somewhere). We’ve hired Gaetane Palardy of Island Gourmet Trails to drive us around. It proves to be a good idea — with just a few hours before the ferry from Comox to Powell River, Lorian and I don’t want to waste time finding Nature’s Way Farm and Moon Estate Winery.
Neither of us are fans of fruit wine, but the Dark Side 2009 made with local blackberries changes my mind. With just enough time for terrific wild salmon tacos at The Atlas Café and a bag of fresh cheese curds from Natural Pastures Cheese Company, we bid farewell to Gaetane. (If you’re in town on June 17, Comox is hosting the BC Shellfish Festival.)
We plan to hike part of the Sunshine Coast trail, but it’s pouring rain and our room at Beyond Bliss in Powell River is, well, blissful. And how convenient, the spa is downstairs!
On our next ferry ride from Saltery Bay south of Powell River to Earls Cove on the lower Sunshine Coast, Lorian is nibbling on the cheese curds like popcorn as both of us stare out the window, gobsmacked by the scenery. We head for Painted Boat Resort, where chef Spencer Watts’ tasting menu paired with boutique wines spreads over three hours. We’re off to a great start with a deconstructed beet and grapefruit salad, almost too beautiful to eat. House-cured duck prosciutto and Island scallops score direct hits, and I can’t eat any more — except for one bite of lemon tart before bed.
You can wallow away hours at the Painted Boat’s spa, enjoying their steam bath and outdoor hot tubs with waterfalls (free with any treatment, or $40 without). “Can a steam bath really shed some of this excess weight?” I ask Lorian, not expecting an answer.
Our tent at Rockwater Secret Cove Resort awaits just down the road. This is our kind of camping! Even though the weather is snarly, our tent on stilts above the rocky shore has a heated floor and Jacuzzi bath. As for the resort’s cuisine, it’s another superlative night. I never order chicken, but the game hen is remarkably tender with a heady au jus, and is perfectly paired with a Sandhill 2008 Viognier.
Sporting our comfy pants, we take the scenic drive down the coast to Langdale the next day and board the ferry to Vancouver. Get thee to the gym!