Rethinking the Island Part III: Cowichan, more than a sweater 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY LESLIE ANTHONY - STRIKING A POSE Highland cattle — a.k.a. Donald Trump and friends — at Bird's Eye Cove Farm in the Cowichan Valley.
  • PHOTO by leslie anthony
  • STRIKING A POSE Highland cattle — a.k.a. Donald Trump and friends — at Bird's Eye Cove Farm in the Cowichan Valley.

When I read "6 oz. of redneck heaven" on the menu of the Coastal Kitchen Café in Port Renfrew, my eyes light up and my mouth starts to water. Unfortunately, it's 8 a.m., and the referenced "Coastal Burger" isn't available. No worries, I satisfy myself with some excellent locally sourced sausage, eggs and sourdough toast. Still, I see from such offerings and the clientele how this laidback eatery has become a local institution: modern West Coast fare, fresh local fish, clams galore, rich chowders, organic salads and power-packed smoothies.

I'll just have to take their word on the burger, though, because today's mission on our three-day tour of southern Vancouver Island involves heading inland. So we point it east. But while the empty cross-island road spools through not-so-heavenly clearcuts, wildfire-ravaged ravines, and thick stands of invasive Scotch broom, heaven — or a little slice thereof — is nevertheless in the cards.

At scenic Lake Cowichan we turn south, following the eponymous valley toward Duncan. Burrowing through increasingly lush countryside along diminishing roadways, we eventually reach our quirky destination: Teafarm. Here, proprietors Victor and Margit blend their own organically grown botanicals with fine loose-leaf teas carefully selected from estates around the globe, creating something so Vancouver Island it can't be found anywhere else in the country. As Victor avers, they "curate experiences," and ours is one of surprise and discovery as we sample teas paired with baked goods and confections (like chocolate — divine!). Poured and served from innovative ceramics hand-crafted by Margit in an adjacent studio, TeaFarm honours millennia of tea tradition while drawing inspiration from its Pacific Northwest terroir. Victor, a natural storyteller who requires little prompting to unleash a tale of passion and perseverance on any number of projects, is particularly effusive when it comes to his own burgeoning plantation of 800 Camellia sinensis — the tea shrub. That's because from successful plantings begun six years ago, have now been culled Canada's first commercial teas. Released on July 1 of this year, they comprise two single-origin types — spring harvest TreeFrog Green and a roasted Swallowtail Oolong.

Enticing as it is, we're careful not to consume enough to spoil our planned lunch at Bird's Eye Cove Farm — 120 rolling hectares hugged by two forested mountains above a lake. Outside an airy, hand-cut timber dance-and-dining facility known as The Barn, Highland cattle with Donald Trump coifs (not kidding) graze lush grasses while barn swallows dive-bomb chickens scampering in a warm sun. With floor-to-ceiling windows, the visage is practically inside, too, where we're served curried squash soup with sandwiches of Philly cheesesteak and local pancetta on homemade rustica bread. The tranquility of this place — not to mention our full bellies — have us wanting to kick back with a sprig of grass in our teeth, but after only a brief stroll we're on the move again.

Merridale Cidery and Distillery — a longstanding Cowichan destination and popular wedding and event venue — features an apple orchard, craft cider house, and real-booze distillery. Co-proprietor Janet Docherty guides us on a tour that includes sipping our way through various spirits (I loved the Copper Gin) and a range of ciders. Here you can also enjoy locally sourced food in an outdoor bistro, baked goods from a wood-fired brick oven, and stay in a yurt if you hit the cider too hard — which, sadly, we could not, as we had one final stop.

We close the circle where it began, in Victoria, opting for a night of class and tradition at the Fairmont Empress, where a restoration project is transforming the iconic property into an elegant celebration of West Coast history and natural beauty, while also moving it into a new era of luxury. Phase 1 launched in June with lavishly retooled spaces and guest rooms, as well as the opening of Q — a bold new restaurant/bar that occupies the most storied heritage room in Victoria but somehow manages a fresh, contemporary feel. The now-expected Pac Nor'west cuisine based on regional ingredients and partnerships with local farmers and artisans is taken to new heights with Q's carefully curated menu and a wine list that includes the region's best bottles. It adds up to a meal so relentlessly enchanting that even the thought still makes me smile — the perfect way to end a trip.

Sidney, Pender Island, Sooke, Port Renfrew, Cowichan, Victoria. Three action-packed days of whale-watching, cycling, zip-lining, seaweed foraging, hiking, old-growth, national, provincial and regional parks — not to mention eating and drinking our way around the coast and countryside. Had we missed anything? Plenty, and right here in Victoria, where self-guided culinary walks now reveal funky coffee and ice-cream shops, exceptional bakeries and a plethora of innovative restaurants; where SUP and kayak tours offer unique perspectives from the water; and where attractions include the Royal BC Museum, Butchart Gardens, and exploration charming 'hoods like Chinatown, Cook Street Village and James Bay.

Though our little slice of island bounty has been filling, there is, it appears, plenty more to digest.

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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