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Culinary Tour of Vancouver's Cowichan Valley

Picking white turnips and lettuce at Vancouver Island’s Fairburn Farm.

Photo: Tara Donne

If you live anywhere south or east of, say, Vancouver, you’ve probably not heard of the Cowichan Valley. This bucolic corner of Vancouver Island keeps a low profile, even by Canadian standards, which hold humility next to godliness. Residents prefer to let the valley’s food and wine do the talking. The Cowichan’s Mediterranean-like microclimate (with more sunny days than anywhere else in Canada) sustains an impressive range of small farms, vineyards, and artisanal producers, whose bounty is increasingly sought after by B.C. chefs. Comparisons to Napa and Provence miss the point: the Cowichan is far more rustic and homespun than either, not to mention more affordable. What the region lacks in high-end hotels—there are only a handful of inns and B&B’s—it makes up for with simpler delights: communal farm suppers, roadside honey stands, craft cider and microbrews, and the tastiest buffalo mozzarella this side of the Atlantic.

But the valley is just the highlight of Vancouver Island’s culinary circuit, which includes the nearby city of Victoria, with its own farm-to-table tradition, and the southwestern coast, the setting for the island’s finest restaurant. To experience all the region has to offer, we’ve mapped out the perfect three-day drive.

Day 1: Victoria to Duncan

Start in Victoria, a 25-minute flight or 1 1/2-hour ferry ride from Vancouver. With its prim flower gardens, Victorian follies, and mahogany-trimmed pubs, B.C.’s capital feels like a prosperous English city circa 1950, save for the floatplanes buzzing across the harbor and the occasional stuffed grizzly bear. Your first stop: the waterfront gastropub Spinnakers for creamy Fanny Bay oysters, rich seafood chowder, and the pub’s own ESB cask ale, served on a deck overlooking the harbor.

After renting a car, make your way out of town heading north. A 26-mile drive leads into the thickly forested Malahat range, where a 1,155-foot pass takes you over the mountains then down, down into the Cowichan Valley proper.

Highway 1, running north-south through the valley, is a remarkably dull stretch of road. It’s along the quiet back roads and gravel lanes jutting off of it that the Cowichan’s riches fully reveal themselves. At the end of one especially rutted drive is Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat & Guesthouse, the crown jewel of the Cowichan food scene, thanks to proprietor and chef Mara Jernigan, who also leads a terrific Saturday cooking class. Five guest rooms are upstairs in the 1896 farmhouse, with interiors that are just the right side of twee: patchwork quilts; tulip sconces; flatiron doorstops. Wander the farm’s 130 acres and visit the resident herd of water buffalo, source of Fairburn’s decadently creamy and tangy mozzarella. After a sound night’s sleep, you’ll wake to their distant lowing and the aroma of a hearty farm breakfast.

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