I used to believe that New Orleans was the only place where a person could confidently purchase seafood at a gas station. But after a trip to Vancouver Island, I can’t say this anymore. When my wife and I arrived in Buckley Bay, we discovered that the internationally renowned Fanny Bay Oysters came from the waters bordering our rental house and were sold behind the nearby Petrocan station. Searching for a distinction, the best I came up with was that shrimp boots here are white, while the Canadian versions are canary yellow.
That is not to say that Vancouver Island and New Orleans are alike in other ways. Compared to the stultifying heat of our local summer, Vancouver’s highs in the mid-70s and lows dipping into the 50s make for quite a pleasant distinction. Also pleasant are the mountains, the fragrant forests of cedar and fir marching down to rocky shorelines and the surrounding clear, cold water that helps keep the temperature just so. With this kind of ambiance, Fanny Bay oysters were just tasty lagniappe.
Lately, my wife and I have been exploring a new approach to vacation that melds our mutual love of food and travel. The premise is simple: we rent a house, shop the local farms and markets then cook our own meals with the goods that we buy.
Typically, this costs less than a hotel room while offering a whole lot more in terms of local immersion. In this case, we had our own waterfront home with a loaded kitchen supplemented by a backyard grill, all for less than $150 a night. Since we mostly dine in, we save on dining expenses, even when we splurge on fancy ingredients.
Indeed, splurging on fancy ingredients is one of our objectives. Vancouver Island has a booming reputation as a food lovers’ destination. Ecologically sustainable, regionally-produced fare is the name of the game here. Known for its produce, especially berries, along with world-class seafood such as wild-caught salmon, the region also abounds with national parks, fantastic fishing and scuba diving. At 285 miles long and 50 miles wide, Vancouver Island is huge. And with almost half its total population of 723,000 concentrated in Victoria, there’s plenty of room to spread out.
A car is essential, so we rented one in Bellingham, Wash., and crossed the border just north of there. A ferry ride took us to the island proper where our first stop was at Claudean’s Meats, a working farm in the town of Parksville. There a lush green landscape of rolling hills rose westward toward the mountains and cows and other creatures grazed contently about us. I asked owner Dean Bruyckere, who raises all his animals without hormones and antibiotics, if he had anything for sale and he said he could sell us some halves. Half a cow being a bit too much for four days, I inquired about smaller portions and he rustled up some homemade links of lean, smoked sausage and a cross-section of beef tenderloin large enough to supply six filet mignons. This, along with one dozen farm-raised eggs, cost us about $24 Canadian.
Just down the gravel road was Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, a cheerful dairy farm and cheese making operation open to visitors. Guests can pick up brochures for a self-guided walking tour and the tone of the operation was offbeat and individualistic. There were a lot of kid-friendly animals to be seen in a laid back, bucolic setting. Judging by attendance, it was a popular stop for families. However, I headed straight for the cheese case. They make a wide variety of cheeses on site, with samples freely given, and after tasting a bleu, cheddar and Brie-style, I left with a hunk of raclette.
Loaded now with seafood, beef and cheeses we rounded it out with some fresh produce at a small market encountered not long after I missed our turn for the house. Circling around, I finally located the rental house tucked away just off the highway, bordered by a tangle of blackberry brambles. For dinner that first night we poached some Fanny Bay oysters with a little cream, leek and garlic, grilled the smoked sausage and smothered boiled new potatoes with the raclette. Delicious.
Farmers Market. The next morning we headed up the coast to a farmers market in the town of Comox. We purchased fresh-picked raspberries and tiny sweet strawberries, along with shelling peas and beautiful rainbow chard. Among the more interesting vendors was Big Buzz Acres, which offered a large selection of heirloom garlic. When I mentioned that we were from New Orleans, owner Lynn Shelley smiled and produced some beautiful red okra. “I’ve finally managed to grow these up here in a greenhouse,” she said. “Now I have something to thicken my gumbo!”
A garlic menu is available to assist with choosing between varieties but I deferred to Shelley and asked her to pick a few out. I walked away with Persian Star (spicy zing, red-tipped, purple streaks, easy to peel), Georgian Fire (pleasant hotness raw or baked, good in salsa, easy peel) and Fish Lake 3 (very hot, white, easy peel, good storage). For good measure, Shelley threw in an “Indian Gherkin” which looked like an angry little green durian and tasted like raw cucumber.
On the way home we reloaded on Fanny Bay oysters and added some large scallops. We then took a ferry across the bay to nearby Denhamn Island. Superb beachcombing was to be found along the water at Fillongley Park and perfectly blue skies made for a great afternoon. My wife collected shells on the beach and I kept a watch out for bears along the tree line. Later that evening I dusted the scallops with curry powder and seared them with some chopped apple and shelled peas. We wound out the evening building a beach fire and roasting marshmallows while the sun set spectacularly behind the mountains.
Tofino. Thursday we focused on nature, taking a long drive over the mountains to the Pacific Rim National Park on the west coast. On a short hike through the shortpine bog, we saw pine trees stunted into bonzai-esque shapes by exposure to wind and elements and the thick carpet of spaghumn moss dictated a remarkably different ecosystem than the surrounding temperate rainforest. But the kicker was the Schooner Rock hike. A 30-minute hike on a boardwalk through the rainforest led us to Long Beach, where the forest met the shore in a wild and rugged expanse of rock, sand, water, trees, wind and sky. Giant cedars and hemlocks grew clear down to the beach and the low tide allowed us to properly explore Schooner Rock. Tidal pools lay exposed on the crags and rocks, filled with green sea anemones and plump orange and purple starfish. Long strands of kelp decorated the beach and the expanse of Long Beach recurved back to the south in an elegant sweep. Ahead of us was nothing but Pacific, with the next stop being Japan.
Brentwood. Life is about finding balance of course, and vacations should have a little pampering as well, so I took all the extra money I saved by renting and then blew it on a luxury spa for the last two nights. The Brentwood Lodge and Spa on the Sannich Peninsula (northeast of Victoria proper), was the recipient of my largesse. A contemporary building sculpted out of cedar, cement and glass, it blends well with its surroundings on this relatively developed stretch of coast. My wife enjoyed spa services during the day and we booked passage on an “Eco-Tour” of the surrounding inlet, where we saw harbor seals, bald eagles, otters and other wildlife. We also availed ourselves of the nearby Butchart Gardens, a former quarry transformed into a jaw-dropping horticultural display through the singular devotion of a local socialite with apparently a lot of time on her hands.
Sooke. On our last night on Vancouver Island we dined at the Sooke Harbour House, a rambling, art-filled inn on a bluff overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Across the water, the mountains of the Olympic Penninsula rise in the distance through a bluish haze and the possibility of whale sightings precipitate continuous glances out the windows. Surrounded by gardens, the restaurant draws upon the hundreds of herbs, vegetables and edible flowers grown on site to create dishes such as Grilled Sablefish with blueberry, Mable Grey Geranium Reduction, Green Bean Morel Mushroom, Scallion Saute Oxalis and Begonia. The restaurant is truly unique in both view and taste.
Yet as wonderful an experience as this was, the real pleasure of the trip came from the rental house and how at low tide we could explore the rocky beach. “With a big tide, you can walk out there and grab some oysters,” our neighbor told us not long after we arrived. Fair enough – that’ll save us another trip to the gas station.
A downside to Vancouver Island can be its weather and rugged terrain. In terms of weather, summer is the best time to visit, especially July and August, when the gray lifts and sunny days are most likely. Consequently it’s also the most crowded and it’s a popular destination for Canadian families, so planning ahead is essential. It can be prudent to rent well in advance and book ferry reservations as well. At Tofino (on the west coast) the road ends and the only way north is by boat or float plane. Outside of Victoria, travelers will need a rental car. In addition, you can save money by flying into Seattle or Bellingham and crossing the border by car or you can save time by flying directly into Victoria.
Getting there. Fly into Seattle or Bellingham, Wash., and cross the border by car or ferry. We paid a $200 weekly rate for a car from Avis in Bellingham, just south of the Canadian border, with no restrictions or extra charges for taking the car into Canada (not all rental agencies permit a border crossing). The ferry from the city of Vancouver to Victoria takes an hour and 35 minutes. It’s two hours to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island; (888) 223-3779 or visitwww.bcferries.com. Note that gas is more expensive in Canada, so fill up the tank in the United States before you return it.
Car ferries to Victoria from Port Angeles, Wash. (about three-hours from the Seattle airport), in the San Juan Islands, take 90 minutes; (206)-283-4400 or visitwww.cohoferry.com.
For accommodations in Port Angeles, visitwww.portangeles.org.
The Washington State Ferry, a car ferry, travels in three hours from Anacortes, Wash., 90 miles north of Seattle, to Sidney, south of Victoria on Vancouver Island; (888) 808-7977 or visitwww.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.
The Victoria Clipper is a walk-on ferry (no cars) from Seattle. (800) 889-2535,www.victoriaclipper.com.
Required documents. A passport may not be required until mid-2008 if you cross the border by vehicle or boat. Without a passport, you need a government photo ID such as a driver’s license; proof of citizenship is recommended (an original or certified copy of a birth certificate). If you fly to Canada, you must have a passport.
House rental. We used www.ownerdirect.com, paying $533 for three nights for a house in Buckley Bay, about 15 miles south of Comox, 2 1/2 hours north of Victoria. Another source of rentals iswww.vrbo.com.
Brentwood Bay Lodge, just north of Victoria. The luxury lodge on Brentwood Bay has 33 suites with water views. We paid $369 a night for two nights, which included a $100 spa credit; (888) 544-2079 or visitwww.brentwoodbaylodge.com.
Exchange rate. Bad news. Recently, $1 U.S. was worth 98.6 cents Canadian.
Places to go. Claudean’s Meats, Parksville; (250) 951-0124.
Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, Parksville; (250) 954-3931 or visitwww.cheeseworks.ca.
Comox Valley Farmers’ Market;www.comoxvalleyfarmersmarket.com.
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve; (250) 726-7721 or visitwww.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/pacificrim/index_E.asp.
Sooke Harbour House; (800) 889-9688 or visitwww.sookeharbourhouse.com