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Dining in the Vancouver Island Region

Written by Eric Lucas

Dining at Sooke Harbour House

Dining at Sooke Harbour House.


 

It’s no surprise that Vancouver Island offers some of the finest dining in North America. Not only do we have on hand many of the ingredients for gourmet cuisine right here, our restaurant scene thrives with fervent support from both visitors and residents—Victoria is among the top cities in the continent measuring restaurants per capita. And along with all the culinary finery and abundance goes the simple fact that our settings enhance the experience beautifully.

 

Let’s start at the top, with the world famous Sooke Harbour House, often cited as the best-known restaurant in Canada, and a spot for culinary adventure that draws pilgrims from around the globe. Nestled on a gentle hillside overlooking Whiffin Spit in Sooke, 40 minutes west of Victoria, the inn enjoys a splendid vantage, with fresh sea air washing up from the shore, the sparkling waters of the bay reflecting light upward, the wooded headlands of East Sooke Regional Park in the near view field and the snowy peaks of the Olympic Mountains in the distance.

Frederique and Sinclair Philip settled here more than three decades ago expressly to practice a European culinary ethos that focused exclusively on local provender—the seafood, fruits and vegetables, forest products and meats that are all so abundant here on our island. Their arrival was literally the dawn of the slow food movement in North America, and the marvelous gardens surrounding the inn, along with the dozens of growers and foragers who supply the kitchen, have ever since been the foundation of a dining room menu still unique on the West Coast. Each night may bring to the table dishes as distinctive as octopus in aspic, lingcod with a sunflower seed/panko crust, plum lemon verbena sorbet and artisan cheeses from Island farms. A meal at Sooke Harbour House is sure to offer even the most experienced gourmand the chance to savour something new.

Imitation is the sincerest flattery—and the Philips’ invention is so much imitated that you could say it was the foundation of West Coast cuisine. Though Sooke Harbour’s dedication to its mission keeps it unmatched, innumerable worthy practitioners have joined the Island’s local food movement, ranging from resort dining rooms such as The Pointe at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn and Kingfisher Resort’s Breakwater, just south of Courtenay; all the way to breakfast nooks such as Sidney’s 3rd Street Café, famed for many iterations of eggs benedict that include such delights as local smoked salmon or Dungeness crab cakes.

West Coast cuisine, which blends European, Pacific Rim and local flavours, represents the 21st century amalgamation of culinary styles that have long inhabited our Island.

Asian, for example: Few midday meals are as satisfying, elegantly served and flavourful as dim sum at Don Mee in Victoria’s Chinatown. Adventurous, too—unless you are fluent in Cantonese or Mandarin, you may well be tempted by some delight (one translation of dim sum is “little treats”) that you do not know exactly what it is.

Cantonese dining has been here since the 19th century. So has ultra-elegant Victorian dining, exemplified in Victoria at the Fairmont Empress’s formal dining Empress Room. With polished wood-and-brass surroundings, tuxedoed waiters and a classic Continental menu, one can easily imagine being transported back a century. Those in search of real elegance can choose the “Royal Table” enhancement, which brings out glistening silver candelabras, extra attention and chef specials. But despite the European-style ambience, the menu is almost completely Island-focused … just as it would have been a century ago, actually.

Also in Victoria are two very fine representatives of French-bistro dining, at Brasserie L’ecole and 10 Acres (formerly Bon Rouge), both of which offer an experience fashioned after that you’d find at a neighborhood restaurant in, say, Toulouse. Like our other fine dining establishments, their take on classic dishes evokes both tradition and Island culinary philosophies: At 10 Acres, steamed mussels (local, of course) are embellished with green curry. At Brasserie, trout comes with a kale and pumpkin seed salad. Yes, both restaurants offer splendid versions of steak frites.

This theme continues across the Island. At Tofino’s high-style Shelter, glimmering with side-lit wood and polished metal, the fish burger is made with lingcod, a whole section of the menu is devoted to local waters (broiled oysters, smoked salmon chowder, albacore tuna with seaweed salad), and spaghetti features local shrimp.

Outside Nanaimo, The Crow & Gate (the province’s oldest pub) borrows a page from today’s British countryside pubs here, and there, some of the best dining is far outside city limits. The pan-fried local oysters are as good here as in any white-linen dining room; likewise for the crab cakes. Yes, you can get roast beef and Yorkshire pudding two nights a week, which is probably as often as one might have it at Downton Abbey.

Many of our best fine dining venues are at Island resorts, naturally. In Courtenay, the neo-heritage Old House Village’s Locals Restaurant offers Island style Provence cuisine—local crispy pork belly, Island seafood bouillabaisse, tournedos of bison tenderloin. At Black Rock Resort’s Fetch, in Ucluelet, squid ink risotto, local albacore tuna and roast BC halibut reflect the dining room’s name (fetch is the term for the distance over water that wind runs to make waves). At Painter’s Lodge, the world-famed fishing resort on Campbell River, Legends dining room also focuses on seafood, such as halibut fish ‘n chips made with panko crust, and roast halibut with blackberry sauce. At Salt Spring Island’s Hastings House, the Continental atmosphere is embellished with dishes such as venison tenderloin with cabbage and polenta, and apple and plum crumble.

Naturally, all these resorts—one facing the open Pacific on the Long Beach Peninsula, another overlooking the calmer waters of Discovery Passage, the last set on a hill above sparkling Ganges Harbour—offer splendid views along with exceptional meals. We’re sure the experience equals that almost anywhere in the world, but we wouldn’t trade our fine dining venues for anyone’s.



 




 

Discovering Cumberland

Written by Eric Lucas

“Shaker” mountain bike trail in Cumberland, Vancouver Island


While many Canadian towns have reinvented themselves in the 21st century’s new economy—like communities around the world—few have undergone as great an identity change as Cumberland. Once a coal town, now a trail-biking capital: From gritty below-ground industry to free-wheeling forest fun. That’s quite a transformation.

Cumberland revels in it. Thousands of bicycle fans, from leisure trail riders to hard-core single-track enthusiasts, flock here from around North America to take advantage of the extensive trail network, to blend into the outdoor recreation ethos and savor the ancillary developments that have accompanied the town’s renaissance.

Perched astride the foothills of the Beaufort Mountains, about 15 minutes southwest of Comox, the town of almost 3,500 residents watched the last shipment of coal depart in 1966 after almost a century of mining. Timber production continues, but has also been declining. Both industries have left behind several legacies—most notably, for Cumberland, an extensive network of old roads that formed the foundation of what’s now one of the best such systems on Vancouver Island, more than 20 kilometers of single-track trail, plus miles more mountain roads for less strenuous rides.

Trails range from moderate (with moderate names, such as Soggy Biscuit) to expert downhill tracks more fearsomely labeled: Bucket of Blood, Pity the Fool and so on. Visitors who’d rather keep their feet on the ground can enjoy numerous hikes, also ranging from strenuous—a 13km loop up to the summit of Boston Ridge, overlooking Comox Lake and the Comox Valley—to the leisurely and fascinating Cumberland Heritage Experience walking tours through the village, which boasts many well-preserved Victorian buildings. Just uphill is Comox Lake, whose waters offer cooling summer respite and miles of aquatic adventure for boaters.

Cumberland also has the Riding Fool hostel, famous in biking circles, housed in what used to be the hardware store. The adjacent Dodge City Cycles offers maps, rentals, gear and advice; equally important is the selection of bakeries and cafes in town that offers fuel for riders and visitors.

The Cumberland Museum tells the whole tale, from First Nations history to modern times. A walk-in replica of a coal mine illustrates the way things were for thousands of below-ground workers who helped Island industry grow; today’s identity as a recreation capital is simply one more facet of a town that makes the most of its enterprising residents and its marvelous locale. For more information, visit cumberlandbc.org.



 

 

Live Theatre in the Vancouver Island Region

Written by Eric Lucas

Chemainus Theatre Festival

No technology can replace, or even much improve, the sheer up-close pleasures of live theatre. The same proximity that makes drama compelling, melody and verse memorable, humor irresistible, is what audiences have been appreciating for literally thousands of years, from the early days of Greek civilization through the rowdy outdoors ethos of the Elizabethan Globe Theatre. That same palpable immediacy heightens the many theatre offerings Vancouver Island visitors and residents enjoy—especially in fall and winter, when indoor pleasures return to prominence in Island life.

Our theatre companies, large and small, produce a wide variety of dramas, comedies and musicals that embrace everything from Shakespeare to Broadway classics to lesser-known scripts that focus on Canadian and Island life. This past spring, for example, the justly famed Chemainus Theatre Festival mounted a production of Big Timber, a musical revue of songs and skits devoted to logging in the West… “Rollicking” was the description unsurprisingly applied to that. Singin’ in the Rain (yes, more music) was the main summer production in Chemainus; this holiday season brings a musical version of the famous uplifting film It’s a Wonderful Life.

Belfry Theatre, Victoria’s resident troupe, has offered comedies by Canadian playwrights, such as the hilarious Mom’s the Word; and memorable dramas such as Where the Blood Mixes, a provocative examination of the residential schools that sought to erase First Nations culture. More than half of Belfry’s productions in its 30 years have been by Canadian authors.

The Belfry operates in a restored 19th century church in Victoria’s Fernwood neighborhood; Chemainus Theatre brings audiences to enjoy not only live theatre, but buffet dinner, in a charming purpose-built venue whose light pink Italianate tower has become a local landmark.

The Oak Bay Beach Hotel, another famous Island landmark in north Victoria, offers dinner theatre in its own facility throughout the winter months, with shows ranging from rock musicals to big band revues. Comox Valley’s local theatre group, Sid Williams, operates in a historic 1936 building first opened by local movie impresario E.W. Bickle. Local theatre groups on Salt Spring Island, in Nanaimo, Campbell River, Ucluelet and many other small towns around our Island provide fun and entertainment, all live, through the rainy months.

Live theatre doesn’t subside just because the rains do, either. Outdoor productions take place on Salt Spring, in Victoria, and in many other local venues across the Island. Is there anything better than spreading a picnic supper on a blanket beneath a rosy sunset to watch a stage show on a summer eve? “Repertory theatre is all about being part of the whole, one of the many colours in this vast palette,” says Tom Hanks. On our Island, that includes everything here.



 

 

Top Ten...

Fine Dining Restaurants

For this edition of islandMOMENTS, we asked our Facebook Fans, Twitter followers and TVI Staff, what their FAVORITE Fine Dining Restaurant is in the Vancouver Island Region.

Here are their Top Ten...

  1. Stone Soup Inn - Cowichan Valley
  2. Sooke Harbour House - Sooke
  3. Westwood Lake Bistro - Nanaimo
  4. The Pointe Reataurant - Tofino
  5. The Mahle House - Cedar
  6. Il Terrazzo - Victoria
  7. Cedar Room - Parksville
  8. Locals - Courtenay
  9. Amuse on the Vineyard - Cobble Hill
  10. Restaurant House Piccolo - Salt Spring Island

Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island

Stone Soup Inn - Cowichan



 

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