All-Natural Adventures on Vancouver Island

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Jun 16, 2015

by SUSAN KUROSAWA, Travel Editor at The Australian

Surfing year round, winter storm-watching and, yes, there are bears.

Sooke Harbour House, my destination on the so-called Sea Lion Coast, is a good 45-minute drive west from Victoria, capital of British Columbia. I am on Canada's Vancouver Island which, confusingly, is not where you will find the lovely, mountain-backed city of Vancouver, although the two are but a short flight or ferry hop apart.

I have landed by seaplane in Victoria, which is a fine way to arrive, skimming to a stop on the downtown harbour amid water taxis and houseboats painted in cheering colours.

My 30-minute journey started in the Flying Beaver Bar & Grill, a tavern on the Fraser River across from Vancouver airport's south terminal; it's a first for me to be summoned from the lunch table to the departure ramp but that's how it's done, with nothing as new-fangled as boarding passes, on Harbour Air Seaplanes.

Victoria -- British Columbia's so-called Garden City -- is a genteel place to tarry, with its homewares shops, boutique breweries, hanging flower baskets, Canada's oldest Chinatown (and the nation's most slender street, Fan Tan Alley), classy cocktail bars and the grand and looming Fairmont Empress Hotel, where English-style afternoon tea is a spiffing institution.

But I have been assured Sooke Harbour House will make an agreeable base, amid honey farms and seaweed gatherers, to hole up before setting off to explore a portion of this agreeable island of almost 32,300sq km.

This 28-room white clapboard "little inn by the sea" at the evocatively named Whiffen Spit on the outskirts of Sooke was built in 1929 and has been run by French-born Frederique Philip and her husband Sinclair as a simple guesthouse and then an expanded hotel since 1979.

To describe it as eclectic would barely do the decor justice; Frederique's design style is forthright and she champions local artists and designers, whose works make for a vast array of hangings and installations, some of which are frankly odd.

Guestrooms, all with fireplaces and steam showers, and some with additional loft beds for kids, rejoice in names such as Sea Song and Raven's Nest. My chamber, room 26, is an avian bower, with motifs of ducks, seagulls and raptors on just about everything, from teapots and cushion covers to hooks and a winged mobile over the bath tub.

Even the elevator is plastered with murals, but no matter, chez Frederique is all about the arms-out hospitality and the food, which I venture is the best on the island, complemented by an award-winning cellar, including top Vancouver Island labels such as Venturi Schulze.

California-born executive chef Robin Jackson believes in a "collaborative kitchen" and he and his crew dish up four-course degustation menus that typically include delicious provincial seafood such as Dungeness crab with fennel butter or pan-fried Hecate Strait halibut accompanied by an heirloom tomato, cucumber and nasturtium salad, fruit sage and begonia vinaigrette, and toasted walnuts. He is dotty about mushrooms and a committed forager around the parish of Sooke; you could find chanterelle and leek quiche on the menu, or butter-poached hedgehog mushrooms, or a wild mushroom strudel.

Jackson's pretty dishes are plated with herbs and edible flowers from the organic beds you can almost see from the dining room's picture windows; be sure to order a salad of greens and blossoms tossed in a white peach and lemon verbena vinaigrette, or a trio of "garden-inspired sorbets" of blackberry and mint, plum and lemon verbena, and apricot and sage.

The bountiful grounds are tended by head gardener Byron Cook, who has curated a selection of books on edible gardens in the hotel's library; he also conducts daily walks at 10.30am amid the sea-hardy plants and coastal shrubbery; if you are not staying at Sooke Harbour House, the walks cost $C10 ($9.65) a person.

The feel here is triumphantly of the sea, with good views from all guestrooms of the beach, of harbour seals draped on rocks and, during my visit, migrating orca passing like a convoy of surfacing submarines. Across the Juan de Fuca Strait is Washington State and the peaks of the Olympic Mountains range, a reminder of how close Vancouver Island is to the northwest border of the US mainland.

From Sooke Harbour House I head out with driver and guide Tom Ryan, fresh from an assignment with Charley Boorman, who's been riding across Canada with a crew filming his Extreme Frontiers telly show. We don't have hordes of biker fans in our wake but we do set a cracking pace towards Tofino on the "wild west coast", known for its good surf and whale-watching tours of the Clayquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (I recommend operator Remote Passages; aside from humpbacks and grey whales, you should also spot river otters and harbour seals).

It's easy driving across the island and up north on good highways and occasional tunnel-like backroads arched with greenery. The coastline is resoundingly beautiful, with forests meeting the foreshores, and the must-stop towns are all cute and welcoming, each with a selling point. The Cowichan region is known for its artisans and lavender farms, 15 thriving wineries and farm gates (myriad types of berries by the bucketload in season), as well as a full calendar of markets and summer regattas.

At Cowichan Bay, North America's first certified Cittaslow (slow food movement) member town, it's all about paddock to plate. Many of the shops, eateries and guesthouses stretch on stilts over the bay, like an assembly of wading birds. We stop at the Udder Guy's Ice Cream Company to investigate flavours such as lemon zest, roasted coconut, red-wine grape and chai, and (inevitably) combinations with maple. There are plentiful cafes in which to take lunch at Cowichan Bay -- but Canada, listen up, maple syrup may be the national obsession but, believe me, salmon and syrup on the same plate just frightens tourists.

Almost next door to the Udder Guy's, Hilary's Cheese & Deli (also with a shop in Victoria) is a terrific find; go for Yoo Boo Blue or a bloomy white mould-encrusted camembert or brie, all artisan-made in the Cowichan Valley.

It's a good plan to then make a (maple-free) picnic with, say, a dark rye or raisin-studded organic loaf, and cranberry and pecan slices or carrot spelt cookies, from neighbouring True Grain Bread. Here the bakery items are made with stone-milled heirloom grains and the coffee is properly good.

Cowichan Bay also boasts the world's second-oldest lawn tennis court (after Wimbledon) and the Butter Church, named not for any resemblance to a cruise-ship buffet carving but because its construction in 1870 was funded with sales of butter, which makes for a nice, lateral link to the town's present Slow Food status.

A little further north we pause at Chemainus, where 40 big murals decorate public buildings, shops and walls; the seaside village has been dubbed the world's largest outdoor gallery and there are about a dozen sculptures in the mix, with all the artworks relating to chapters of the town's First Nations, forestry and early-settler history.

Streets are named as Maple, Pine, Oak and the like, and there's fish and chips at Barnacle Barney's and piles of timber on the docks ready to be shipped to Japan for post-tsunami housing.

On Wednesdays there's a lively little market in Waterwheel Park: look for goat's-milk soap from Sandy's Old Fashioned Bathworks in fragrances such as blackberry with sage, or pink grapefruit.

Offshore from Chemainus are the Gulf Islands, across the Strait of Georgia from the city of Vancouver, and with time on hand you could take a ferry from Crofton, just south of Chemainus, to Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring Island and strike out for hiking, sailing, cycling and vineyard visits.

But we have a date with whales and must push on, now barrelling across the island from Parksville to Tofino, via Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park, where we walk through a natural colonnade of giant Douglas firs and western red cedars, marvelling at the height and girth of these giant trees, many of which are more than 800 years old.

The seaside hamlet of Tofino is snapshot-cute in a Murder, She Wrote and make-believe Cabot Cove kind of way; it would seem just right if Angela Lansbury were to appear in the guise of Jessica Fletcher, with stout shoes and sleuthing eyes.

There's also a superannuated hippie vibe and I feel as if I should be carrying a wicker basket full of flowers and organic tomatoes.

There's surfing year round and this is winter storm-watching territory -- those untiring Canadian fresh-air fiends get togged up in sou'-westers and galoshes to view the wild weather rolling in from the Pacific in winter, which nicely fills the hotels in an otherwise slow season.

The recommended place to stay, whether raincoat-kitted or not, is the 75-room Relais & Chateaux member Wickaninnish Inn just outside Tofino, with a splendid seaside location, crab cook-outs on Chesterman Beach and snug rooms that feature stone fireplaces and lodge-style decor.

Best dining in Tofino is at the family-casual Sobo (restaurant owners Lisa and Artie Ahier used to run a taco van in the car park of the Tofino Botanical Gardens, also worth a visit, particularly for its pristine shoreline walks and forest clearings).

Shop at Covet on Main Street for divine homewares and local crafts, including jewellery and hand-printed cushion covers.

There is a sense that everyone on Vancouver Island is invested in some sort of sustaining craft or healthy practice. Locals are at pains to point out they have the nation's mildest climate. But, by Australian standards, winters are cold and Canadians do hibernate; then, at the first sign of spring, they are out and about on bicycles and in kayaks, kitted up in strictly accessorised costumes, supported by hiking sticks to repel cougars, black bears and who knows what other forest creatures.

Headline in today's Times Colonist: "Brazen bear prompts camp site closure".

"Never let a bear get between you and a barbecue," the shop assistant tells me as I buy a great big jacket at an adventure suppliers in Tofino in preparation for the next stage of the trip at Clayoquot Wilderness Resort, where I'll be sleeping in a tent, viewing black bears, zooming in Zodiacs and valley trekking.

I feel rather ungainly under padded layers and fear I am no match for even a sleeping bear. I think wistfully of Frederique back at Sooke Harbour House as she discusses the day's menu with chef Jackson while gardener Cook arrives with armfuls of borage, nasturtiums, fennel flowers and chandelier sage freshly torn from the garden.

Susan Kurosawa was a guest of Tourism British Columbia.

This article originally appeared as 'All-natural adventureson www.theaustralian.com.au and is re-published here under license.Susan Kurosawa is a writer at The Australian and is not affiliated with Qantas.