Which presumes I’ll actually get to the Part Two portion at some point…. I’ll do my best. But with a quiet Saturday morning sitting in my lovely large room at Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria, with the cry of seagulls and hum of float planes outside, I wanted to get at least part of the trip covered before returning to the real world early next week.
This may be a terrible comparison to make, but it just occurred to me that The Wickininnish Inn in Tofino on Vancouver Island was something like my “Disneyland” of adulthood. As a kid growing up in Seattle, it seemed everyone I knew had been to Disneyland but me. Whine whine. Of course it meant expectations built up greatly over the years, imagining it to be a magical, mystical place like none else on Earth. Finally, my dad and I made a trip down to Disneyland when I was in high school. And guess what? I loved it, lived up to pretty much all expectations. And I happily make return trips to get on Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean as many times as I can.
Ok. So the Wick is nothing at all like Disneyland, though it did prove to be a magical, mystical place that very much lived up to the expectations I’d built up over the years. And actually, I could probably be making my second trip down Splash Mountain in the same time it would take me to get from home to Tofino. We left the house at 6:oo am on Wednesday morning (not usually a great way to start a vacation, when the hub says “well, this is the same time I’d be getting up if I was going to work”!) and parked our car at the Wick just before 5:00 that afternoon. I very much wanted to have a car on this trip, rather than taking the Clipper boat trip or a Kenmore Air float plane ride to Victoria.
This trip was about exploring the island, getting off the beaten path just a bit (more so on my next trip, so many parks and other visits we didn’t get to). So it meant taking a ferry, we chose the BC Ferries option out of Tsawwassen, about halfway between the border and Vancouver, BC. Prices out roughly the same ($72 Can) as the Anacortes/Sydney option on Washington State Ferries, with far more sailings each day to choose from. And just a change of scenery, if nothing else. Nice thing too was the option to sail direct to Nanaimo, farther up-island than the Sydney landing near Victoria, so our drive time on landing was shorter–a mere three hours instead of about five. As if to welcome us on this adventure, a large pod of orcas cavorted around the ferry just as we were leaving the dock. Glorious!!
Once landing in Nanaimo, we were still in for a lot of driving. Lovely scenery
along the way, incredibly lush forests, windy roads slipping past lakes, inlets, vistas of mist-covered mountains. Some parts of Highway 4 merit the “narrow windy roads for the next 12 km” signage, and do they mean it! Actually, it reminded me of being on a roller coaster, so maybe there is something to that Disneyland-Tofino connection.
Along the way, we’d been alerted to the Old Country Market in Coombs, a touristy stop to be sure but a fun one that proved just right for lunch en route. Their famous gimmick is that their grass-covered roof is home to goats. Yes, goats on the roof. Which I guess is better than bats in the bellfry? Lunch was so-so, convenient, friendly, easy. The store sells everything from housemade baked goods (including a chocolate-chocolate chunk baguette!!) to gifty items. Broke up the long day in just the right fashion.
Onward toward Tofino. Just as we’d boarded the ferry around 10:00 am it began to rain, as if we were leaving mainland’s late summer and taking a quick trip to autumn on the island. Rain followed us off and on all day, a taste of the rugged weather that the west coast of the island is famous for. A little Peter Gabriel helped my intrepid driver power through that last stretch. It was bliss to pull in and unload, the warm greeting at the door, unfussy, genuine, natural. Just like pretty much everything about the Wick. Relais & Chateau-fancy, yes, but the “fancy” doesn’t mask in any way the natural beauty of the place. It just means ultra-comfy beds, lovely big bathtub, beautiful native art, creative local menu, top-shelf service and a determination to make the customer feel relaxed and well cared for.
I couldn’t NOT make an appointment for their Ancient Cedars Spa, felt it was the least I owed myself after the 60 miles of walking I did for the Breast Cancer 3-Day last weekend (BTW, the Seattle walk alone raised $5.5 million!!). After spending a little too much time considering all my options, I chose the West Coast Sacred Sea, 2 hours of bliss that included sea salt scrub, an amazing 144-jet bath, a light massage and wrap (with a big piece of kelp laid on my back for rejuvenation). All that’s great, but I’d have paid a hundred bucks just for the foot and scalp massage that’s included. Mmmmmm. Human again!!
The Wick lived up to its reputation as storm-watching central. It sits on a
rocky outcrop to one side of a cove, anchored at the other edge by the accessible-at-low-tide Frank Island. Pretty much all daylight hours while we were there, surfers (sometimes dozens of them) were bobbing in the water waiting for just the right wave. Um. No thanks. It was great to watch from the beach though, we managed to catch an hour of just light spitting of rain for a really refreshing walk out to Frank and back. With surfing on the list, it makes Tofino a destination with a delightfully odd range of activities to choose from. Rainforest exploration, beach hiking, bear watching, whale watching, surfing, spa-ing, eating well, kayaking, golfing (yes they golf in all weather, one local told me “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes” — so dress right and anything’s game!).
Oh, speaking of eating well. We did. First night, after that long haul, we were so very happy to “stay in” and eat at The Pointe restaurant, perched out on the edge of the rocks overlooking the beach and some nearby islands. Total bliss of a dining room setting, I’d say one of the most beautiful in the world. To be honest, the menu was wonderful, the dishes themselves didn’t always live up to quite what we’d expected. I started with a whole scallop that was wrapped in a Dungeness crab mousse and lightly battered for a decadent fritter, served with a rich seafood bisque as a sauce (kind of a disappearing sauce, like that poivre sauce on a recent episode of Top Chef, I really wish there had been more). My main course of black cod had a ginger-tamarind glaze (outrageously delicious), Bob reveled in his seemingly simple roasted local chicken, served with white beans and artichokes and a rosemary jus he raved about (clearly sauces are winners here!).
The next night, we went into town. Tofino proper is at the very end of this peninsula, about 800 year-round inhabitants though peak of summer tens of thousands of visitors might pass through. Ugh. DON’T come up here in
summer! We met with a number of RVs en route as it was, mid-week in September. To really appreciate the beauty and serenity that’s possible here, I highly recommend a shoulder season for getting up here.
Sobo came highly recommended. In 2003 it was named one of Canada’s top new restaurants for that year. Not bad for an operation that began in a purple catering truck! (A longtime customer at the next table was wearing an early Sobo t-shirt, which said on the back something to the effect of “the second most exciting thing to do in a parking lot.”) I’d hoped to make it to Sooke Harbour House on this trip for a visit with my old pal Sinclair Philip, but it just didn’t work out. Ended up he was in Tofino as well for a couple of days and joined us for dinner. What a treat that was, this man has meant so much to the culinary inspirations of Vancouver Island. I had the honor of writing a profile of him for Time magazine in Canada a number of years ago when they celebrated ten people from the country’s hospitality industry who have contributed the most to Canada’s culinary culture. He’s become a manic mushroomer of late, tromping through the woods with the vigor he had early on for donning that wet suit to dive for sea treats just off the Whiffen Spit where the inn sits. Sobo owners Lisa (chef, a Texan transplant) and Artie (front of the house host-par-excellance) Ahier in fact cite their time with Sinclair years back as inspiration for setting down roots on the island and following their passions here. Dinner was lovely, local halibut and shrimp ceviche to start, oysters both raw (with wasabi butter) and roasted (with bacon), a salad of duck confit with beets, caught-that-day halibut simply served with carrot-ginger sauce. Everything wonderful, simple, delicious, pure and of-the-season.
We tried to pack as much as we could into the time in Tofino. My top recommendation would be to not stay just 2 nights as we did. It’s a trek to get out there, a remote outpost you may not get to again for a few years. Make the most of the trip and plan on 4 or 5 nights to take in as much of the region as you can, while scheduling some down time to sit by the fire a read a book, distracted occasionally by staring into the roaring surf. The Wick is pricey, to be sure, so maybe you split thing up, start with a couple nights at one of the many other inns/hotels/B&Bs in the area, then cap things off with a couple luxe nights at the Wick.
Quick breakfast Friday morning, then it was time to hit the trail heading south to Victoria for a couple nights. We were sent off with the stormy grey skies, which cleared and became full blue and sunny by the time we arrived at Venturi Schulze winery in the Cowichan Valley for a visit with such gracious people as Giordano and Marilyn Venturi. The
island’s first estate winery, this high-end wine is made–amazingly–with nothing but grapes that are grown on the 15 acres right there on their property. Rightfully famous for their sparkling wine, it’s what was poured for the traditional bubbly beginning for The Herbfarm dinner last month; Ron Zimmerman was clearly happy that this spot on Vancouver Island fell within the 100-mile radius he’d established for that fully local meal. Venturi Schulze has also gained quite a reputation for their balsamic vinegar. Giordano hails from the Modena region of Italy, the motherland of balsamico. It’s in his blood, clearly a great passion, something he takes very seriously. After having visited their vinegary, I much better appreciate the $50 price tag on one of their bottles; I feel very fortunate to have a bottle on
my shelf at home, given me on a previous trip to the island. A couple of hours later, after sipping everything from their celebrated brut sparkling wine to a sample of the verjus they began making last year, it was off to the final stop of the day before we trekked on to Victoria.
Not far down the highway we came to Merridale Cider, a somewhat remote spot up a couple side roads, which opened into a most inviting setting lush with apple orchards that this time of year are packed with fruit. Yet another friendly, generous host here in Janet Docherty who owns Merridale with her lawyer-turned-cider-master husband Rick Pipes.
They currently make 9 different ciders with apples grown on their property (plus some from a couple orchards they have in the Okanagan Valley on the mainland). I particularly loved those that fell in the middle of the dry-to-sweet spectrum, the Champagne Style Sommerset and the Traditional Cider. Nice acid balance, a touch of fruit, moderate sparkle — they’d be amazing beverages with food. A couple of years ago, Rick added “distiller” to his job description, they now make apple and blackberry eau de vie, as well as pommeau (they call it Pomme Oh!) which blends cider with some of the eau de vie, also made in a blackberry version (Mure Oh!). The restaurant here is a perfect oasis for a bite while travelling and tasting your way through the Cowichan Valley. I only wish it had been Sunday evening, when they fire up the wood oven out on the patio and serve pizzas. Plaquards around the property, both in the cellar and
throughout the orchards, allow guests to take a self-guided tour to learn about the cider making process and history of the place.
Finally, at about our wits’ end with traffic and being on the road, we pulled into the driveway of the Inn at Laurel Point, right on the harbor in Victoria, at about 6:00 last night. Their new addition, the Erickson Wing, houses their most contemporary rooms, with lush bedding, stylish decor, beautiful pieces of artwork (which make me slightly nervous, worried I’ll knock over one of the lovely pieces!). They even have a “bath butler” service, going beyond the upscale Molton Brown amenities already sitting at the edge of the tub. The “butler” will deliver to the room more specialized bath accoutrements (ginseng to boost circulation, sea elements to detox and relax) paired with a nibble and something to drink. I take slight issue with the fact that all the pairings are sweet (late harvest pinot with toffee, pommeau with pâté de fruits) — why not a nice piece of blue cheese with cabernet??? I suppose I can create that myself, though, later today!
So, I guess I had a great night’s sleep, since I’ve powered through such a long recap this morning. Thanks for bearing
with me. It had been another long, lovely day, capped off with an amazingly perfect dinner at Zambri’s last night. No reservations taken, but our “30 to 40 minute wait” proved to be less than 20 minutes. I started with perfect panzanella and a lovely cocktail of prosecco, Campari and grapefruit liqueur, then I continued with halibut (cheek and fillet, poached) with tomato, olive, and rapini sauces. Bob had a stracciatella, an “Italian egg drop soup” as it was described. The rich chicken-and-pork broth had generous amounts of lacy beaten egg (with minced parsley added) dropped in to cook in the hot broth just before serving. His tenderloin was outstanding, with a rich blue cheese sauce and perfect polenta alongside. Happy, happy, joy, joy. Such a meal! The restaurant was a nice walk from the hotel, it gave us a chance to take in the city, get some fresh air, and get in the mood for our more urban couple days at the south tip of the island.
When I get to Part Two, it will include today’s visit to the maker of Victoria Gin, and another cider maker that’s on the
Saanich Peninsula, Sea Cider. Tomorrow, we attend the delicious annual event Feast of Fields and stay at Fairburn Farm, where my great friend Mara Jernigan has created quite an astonishing culinary destination that goes all out to sing the praises of the foods of Vancouver Island. Can’t wait!