Rethinking the Island Part I: Distilling Victoria 

click to enlarge WHALE TALE Is there a whale in your immediate future? Sidney Whale Watching's Mike Child thinks so.
  • WHALE TALE Is there a whale in your immediate future? Sidney Whale Watching's Mike Child thinks so.

Victoria. I know. If it were any sleepier they'd have to bury it. But you know what? While most Whistlerites seek to help overpopulate Tofino any time we head to the island, I've learned something about the provincial capital: it's a foodie's dream and sweet urban hub for some interesting adventuring and day-tripping — and a hell of a lot easier to get to.

I start a recent three-day sojourn by flying from Vancouver via Harbour Air (there's also a daily Whistler-Victoria direct), a short, scenic hop that conveniently deposits me in the city's downtown harbour where I'm easily located by friends. It's early, so our first stop is food and coffee at one of Victoria's abundant breakfasterias. Celebrated Fol Epi isn't your typical organic bakery, with grains stone-milled on site and bread baked in a wood-fired brick oven. Add in locally sourced everything and in-house charcuterie, and my ham and organic cheddar on demi-baguette is one of the tastiest things I've ever downed — enough to staunch my melancholy over being too early for adjacent Agrius, the contemporary regional, French-inspired restaurant where "...every single bite was divine... everything a great casual restaurant should be," according to Globe & Mail food critic Alexandra Gill, who bestowed the joint her very first four-star review.

Thus reinforced, we head west toward Schwartz Bay. We're not aiming for the ferry, but the charming town you tend to blow through once you've debarked from the mainland — Sidney-by-the-Sea. You may know it simply as Sidney, but it comes by this more provincial appellation honestly. Despite obdurate, gunmetal skies and a stiff wind, within minutes we've pulled on full-body drysuits at Sidney Whale Watching and launched onto the cold Pacific. Sidney sits in the middle of resident orca feeding grounds, so you needn't go far, allowing guests to average more "whale time" than from other departure points. Propelled by the impressive power of twin 225 hp outboard motors, we peel off into the Salish Sea sheltered by the Gulf Islands. But before we start to poke around, owner/operator Mike Child receives notice of a humpback on the other side of Saanich Peninsula. Genial and knowledgeable, Child is immediately set on tracking down the beast. And so, with Salt Spring Island rising ahead, we cruise into Saanich Inlet. After an hour of squinting through binoculars, however, the only thing we've found is yet another place where Christy Clark's maniacal government wants to put an LNG terminal. That and something strange happening underwater that causes long, sinuous waves on the surface; is it a whale or just another marine mystery? Arrr.

We'll never know, but it isn't a full defeat for Child. As we peel across Swanson Channel, we encounter a juvenile humpback cruising the coast of North Pender Island that allows us to follow at a respectful distance; surfacing every few minutes, its nonchalant pace suggests leisurely grazing. Which makes us hungry again. Good thing we're not far from a burger repast at Poet's Cove, a luxury resort tucked so completely out of sight on Pender Island you'd never know it was there were it not for the steady ingress/egress of yachties and kayakers.

After lunch the Salish seems fresh out of whales, but we continue our eco tour on the return journey by pulling in at Sidney Spit, a local's favourite summer destination and part of multipartite Gulf Islands National Park. Hugging the edge of the Pacific flyway, the island's towering bluffs, tidal flats and salt marshes attract huge numbers of birds during spring and fall migrations. The spit also features several sensitive ecosystems, and as we wander salal-lined pathways, an affable Parks Canada ranger explains an ongoing ecological restoration project — which mostly seems to involve culling too-numerous destructive deer.

Back in town, it takes about two steps from doffing my suit to land in my room at Sidney Pier Hotel, a contemporary, boutique-ish place anchoring the town's waterfront. I could talk about how it's steps from Sidney's long-running nightmarket, or the pungent Umbria coffee at Georgia Café, or the casual dining in Haro's Restaurant, with its ultra-fresh regional seafood and meats (Salt Spring Island mussels, Cowichan Valley chicken), and local dairy and produce, but, ha ha, I just did. So better to move on to the outstanding selection of B.C. wines, the startling array of artisan brews Victoria is famous for, and craft cocktails — the latter of which put me in the mood to head next door to Sidney's ne plus ultra draw — the new home of Victoria Distillers.

Having opened just before the Victoria Day weekend, the venerable brand's upscale location offers not only the usual educational distillery tours, but also a chic lounge space in which to kick back and sample award-winning spirits and inventive cocktails. Here, while I gnaw on gin-spiced almonds and marinated olives, they make me feel useful as bartenders seek feedback on new experimental cocktails. In front of me is placed a Spring Thaw — Victoria Gin, house-made gin and tonic sorbet, and Prosecco. After drinking it I don't have much to say except Mmmm... can I have another?

Next week—Rethinking the Island II: Sooke, Port Renfrew and other mysteries.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.



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