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.