I'll never forget my first impression of Vancouver Island. As my husband and I flew over Puget Sound one fall day nearly five years ago, it was storming. But once we arrived in Tofino, the air was balmy, the tide low. We felt as if we'd been transported to Malibu, except that here the beaches are surrounded by miles of old-growth rain forest—moss-covered maples, ancient cedars, twisted Sitka spruce. At the Wickaninnish Inn, we ate local oysters and perused a 27-page wine list in a dining room cantilevered above the crashing surf. We discussed whether or not to spring for hot-stone massages the next day. Although we'd traveled to many out-of-the-way places over the years, we'd never experienced this level of luxury on the edge of the wild.
A sprawling, timber-clad slice of British Columbia, Vancouver Island has always had its share of pine cabins, but until the Wickaninnish opened seven years ago, there were few hotels for which people would actually cross continents. Now, a handful of inns, lodges, and restaurants in remote settings on the island's western coast are breaking boundaries in design and in cuisine, much of it made with fresh products from the island's Cowichan Valley. People have been calling this rich farmland the Provence of Canada. The sheer abundance of ingredients and the way they are simply prepared calls to mind the best of French country fare. But here, the dollar stretches far.
Since that first trip, I've returned to this quiet island numerous times. On my most recent visit, I start off on the southern tip, in Victoria, British Columbia's capital, just outside the Cowichan Valley. The town has a buzzing new food scene, and its main hotel, the 95-year-old Fairmont Empress—a towering, turreted creation, with Edwardian-inspired interiors—recently opened the Willow Stream Spa. My room at the Empress is one of the smallest, but it has a spectacular view of Victoria's Inner Harbour. From here, I can also glimpse the steady stream of guests arriving for afternoon tea. Queen Elizabeth II, Rudyard Kipling, Shirley Temple, and even Mel Gibson have eaten smoked salmon sandwiches and sipped the house blend (China black, Ceylon, Darjeeling) in the famously ornate, high-ceilinged lobby. In the morning, I push open my window. The air smells salty, gulls wheel and cry, and a thick curtain of fog hangs over the water. I indulge in the two-hour Island Senses body treatment (a sea-salt body scrub, pine hydrotherapy bath, mud wrap, and lavender oil massage), before heading into town.
The Empress is within walking distance of a half-dozen small restaurants whose owners all belong to the Island Chef's Collaborative. Founded four years ago, this group of progressive thinkers discourages buying from large suppliers and is zealously committed to using ingredients from the area. "We work with the island's small farmers," says chef Sean Brennan, owner of Victoria's Brasserie L'École and the group's past president. At his restaurant—with its vermilion walls, artsy clientele, and country French bistro menu—Vancouver Island products show up as an arugula and Cox pippin salad from nearby Ragley Farm, or a pan-fried halibut, supplied by local fishermen. Nearby is Zambri's, an Italian restaurant where chef-owner Peter Zambri presides over an open kitchen; in his organic green salad with anchovy lemon dressing, the lettuce looks as if it's just been plucked from the ground. Another noteworthy restaurant is the dining room at the Aerie Resort, about a 30-minute drive north of the city. Executive chef Christophe Letard greets guests and personally presents the menu. The night I'm there, Letard has me and the nine other patrons (there are only 24 tables) tasting farmstead cheeses and seaweed harvested on the island.
Many of Canada's top chefs were trained at Sooke Harbour House, an hour's drive southwest of Victoria and home to one of the country's best restaurants. Having heard so much about the Harbour House, I am taken aback to find the white clapboard inn tucked at the end of a residential street. But when I settle in, I discover that it's as far from suburbia as you can get. The wind-whipped grounds lie on an exposed promontory facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Bald eagles nest in the trees, and river otters slink across the lawns.
Northwest pioneers of terroir cuisine (the idea that food's flavor comes from its soil and climate), Sinclair and Fredérique Philip have transformed their backyard into nearly two acres of herbs, vegetables, and edible flowers. A six- or seven-course culinary adventure unfolds each night in the candlelit dining room. The innovative dishes —seared sablefish in a pine mushroom fish broth, served with pea shoot-cucumber steamed dumplings, golden beets, and turban squash —might sound daunting at first but come together beautifully. I find myself trying to identify the subtle flavor pairings, even comparing notes with an anniversary couple seated at the next table.
"It tastes like British Columbia," she says.
"No, it tastes more like Japan," he says.
The Philips stumbled upon the property and decided to turn it into an inn 23 years ago; for 16 of those years, they lived in the basement with their four children and worked upstairs. "I ran the gardens pretty much by myself in the early days," Sinclair says. "We also tried to raise our own ducks and geese, but unfortunately, they all became pets." The head chef, Edward Tuson, creates a daily menu incorporating not only produce from the garden, but wild local products such as sea asparagus, sea cucumber, nodding onion, and silverweed. Sinclair concedes that he does allow a few items that aren't from the area because the guests just can't do without them: chocolate, coffee, orange juice, lemons for mixed drinks, and olives for martinis.
Each of the 28 guest rooms at Sooke Harbour House is different; most are spacious suites. I am staying in the water-view Seagull. My four-poster cherry bed is just steps from the sitting area, but it suits me fine. I find the room's rusticity charming. It has cotton slipcovered sofas, a kilim rug, a fireplace ready for lighting, and an antique chest piled with books. French doors open to a porch overlooking the strait. Everything about Sooke Harbour House conspires to let you do absolutely nothing—or at most, to pour a glass of port from the decanter the Philips have conveniently left on your bureau, strike a match to the kindling, and curl up with a good book. I love unwinding beside a beach that's too cold for swimming, on a storm-battered coast thick with red cedar and hemlock. Walking along the shore one day, I spot killer whales. Other guests prefer to stroll the paths through the garden, checking out the 50 varieties of greens, or hike along Whiffen Spit, a thin sandbar that curls around Sooke like a comma.
When it comes time to leave, the Philips send me on my way with a box lunch containing a sandwich of thick ham slices, slathered in the Harbour House's homemade honey mustard. I'm headed north, to the Wickaninnish Inn, in Tofino. As I speed through the Cowichan Valley, I pass farms with roadside stands advertising dahlia tubers, free-range eggs, hazelnuts, and Holsteins. It's not easy to get to Tofino—it's accessed by car on Route 4 (one of the few roads crossing the mountains), which winds through two hours of snowcapped peaks, cedar forests, and gin-clear streams. This only adds to the Wickaninnish's otherworldly, end-of-the-road appeal.
"We're not a place for everyone," says Charles McDiarmid, manager and co-owner of the Wickaninnish. But pull under the inn's porte cochère, with its hand-carved columns just steps from the beach, and you instantly sense why the Wickaninnish has helped put these reaches on the map. Europeans come regularly for winter "storm-watching" (Tofino can get two to three inches of rain an hour), and the hotel is a member of the Relais & Châteaux group. McDiarmid, a son of Tofino's sole physician, spent 13 years with Four Seasons Resorts but had always dreamed of returning home to build a small hotel.
He opened the Wickaninnish in 1996, just up the coast from Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which his father was instrumental in creating. This month, McDiarmid is introducing an adjacent property, Wickaninnish on the Beach. Its 30 rooms will look much like the 46 existing ones, but will be much larger and will have higher-end finishes—radiant heat in the bathroom floors, beach views from the showers. Some will have chef's kitchens with slate counters and gas ranges. "You can confer with our concierge, find out what's fresh, then decide to cook Tofino halibut one night and Tofino scallops the next," McDiarmid says.
It's the juxtaposition of forest, beach, and mountains that makes Tofino special. When McDiarmid's parents first arrived in 1954, the town's population was 300, and it was accessible only by boat or floatplane; the first road to Tofino wasn't completed until 1959. Today, there are 1,500 residents, whale-watching Zodiacs depart from the town dock, and a few surfing schools and surfboard-rental shops have sprung up, but the place still feels isolated. On one trip, my husband felt so inspired by the scene that he rented a longboard and a five-millimeter-thick neoprene wet suit. Looking more like a seal than a spouse, he ventured out to brave the hypothermia-inducing water and winter wave conditions. "It feels like there's nothing out there between you and Japan," he said afterward, numb but elated.
Capitalizing on the Wick's success, the Long Beach Lodge Resort opened just down the road last spring and will be building 10 cabins in the woods this summer. (Big news considering how far-off this coastline can feel.) Set on Cox Bay, a wide sweep of sand bordered by windblown Sitka spruce and salal, and opening onto some of the area's most consistent surfing waves, the Long Beach Lodge focuses on comfort. Children fit right in, unlike at the Wickaninnish and Sooke Harbour House, which are more geared toward adults. "We're surrounded by nature," says owner Tim Hackett. "I don't want people to think that they have to dress up or wipe their feet every two minutes."
The centerpiece of the lodge is the enormous great room, which has a stone fireplace, Persian rugs, oversized chairs and sofas covered in nubby chenilles, books and board games scattered about, and 270-degree views of the Pacific. Guests gather here to sip Torrefazione coffee and watch surfers sprint past, then return at sunset for a glass of B.C. Pinot Noir.
It's a bit surreal to step from your room (one of 43), with its cocoon-like mix of latte-colored walls, Craftsman-inspired fir furniture, tiled gas fireplace, and double soaker tub, right onto a beach. But then again, this is Vancouver Island, a place where it's not unusual to see loggers in one lane of the road, surfers in the other.
Kim Brown Seely writes for Town & Country and Outside.
Most visitors to Vancouver Island arrive in the capital, Victoria, which can be reached by high-speed ferry from Seattle (a two-hour trip) or Vancouver (90 minutes). You can also fly to Victoria (the airport is 30 minutes outside the city) or Tofino.
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont Empress Doubles from $136. 721 Government St., Victoria; 800/441-1414 or 250/384-8111; www.fairmont.com
Sooke Harbour House Doubles from $172. 1528 Whiffen Spit Rd., Sooke; 800/889-9688 or 250/642-3421; www.sookeharbourhouse.com
Wickaninnish Inn Doubles from $260. Osprey Lane at Chesterman Beach, Tofino; 800/333-4604 or 250/725-3100; www.wickinn.com
Long Beach Lodge Resort Doubles from $116. 1441 Pacific Rim Hwy., Tofino; 877/844-7873 or 250/725-2442; www.longbeachlodgeresort.com
WHERE TO EAT
Brasserie L'École Dinner for two $42. 1715 Government St., Victoria; 250/475-6260
Zambri's Dinner for two $55. 110-911 Yates St., Victoria; 250/360-1171
Aerie Resort Dinner for two $100. 600 Ebedora Lane, Malahat; 250/743-7115.