DREAMSCAPES Fall/Winter 2017
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AN ISLAND APART
 
(2016 - Fall Issue)

Writer: JIM BYERS



It was 2009, and environmentalist T.J. Watt was scouting out the forests near this logging town on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

“I was just driving around on this old road and I saw the way the landscape was shaped and saw some tree growth. I thought it might have some old-growth forest so I just pulled over and walked around.”

Only a few feet from the road he discovered a magical world of towering cedars and firs that are hundreds of years old, with gnarly “burls” the size of a Smart Car and lime green ferns and thick carpets of deep green moss. He also found tags on the trees that suggested they might soon be logged.

“I got back to Victoria and told a friend I was working with to help save local forests and he almost didn’t believe me. He kept saying, ‘You mean you were just driving around and pulled over and discovered this forest that’s not even on a map? And it’s 10 feet from the road? Yeah, right.’”

Watt and his friend, Ken Wu, went on to found the Ancient Forest Alliance in an attempt to protect the wondrous forests of British Columbia. They nicknamed this particular 50-hectare plot Avatar, after the movie of the same name.

MAJESTIC FORESTS

It’s a cool day in early June as we tour the forest. There’s a trace of rain, and the water is pitter-pattering through the tall stands of trees and forming small rivulets and even a baby waterfall. I’m grinning from ear to ear as I take in the soft sounds of the falling water, the purity of what’s all around me and the multiple shades of mind-bending green.

Volunteers have built a small viewing platform in the Avatar forest and have helped blaze a series of trails and steps to make it easier to navigate the thick undergrowth. The majestic trees seem safe from the buzzing action of chainsaws today, but Watt’s group is trying to make sure future generations can visit and marvel at one of the most overpowering and inspiring sights in Canada.

On another day I take a similar hike with a guide from Rain Forest Tours. She guides us through a thick forest to Mystic Beach, between Sooke and Port Renfrew, where a waterfall cascades over a towering slab of exposed rock, sending sheets of fresh water to grateful campers on the beach below.

TAKE THE SCENIC ROUTE

I’m enjoying a four-day sojourn on what’s called the Pacific Marine Circle Route around lower Vancouver Island, an easy but scenic route that slices along the south coast from Victoria to Sooke and then up the west coast to Port Renfrew. From there the road bends inward and curves through pretty valleys before depositing drivers in the Cowichan Valley, just north of Victoria.

Scenic beauty and rainforests are far from the only things you’ll find on the circuit.

In Sooke, we dine at one of Canada’s top restaurants, the Sooke Harbour House. Dinner includes a perfect tart with local asparagus (the restaurant was focusing on local food years before the phrase “farm to table” was invented), luscious salmon, wild mussels with pasta and unusual local wines.

On the beach near the Harbour House, we listen as Diane Bernard, known as “the Seaweed Lady,” shows off various types of seaweed and explains the benefits. Bernard makes a series of health and beauty products under the name Seaflora Skincare and has a small production centre in Sooke.

“Welcome to ‘British Health and Wellness Columbia,’” she says as she shows off a long strand of soft seaweed.

Well, yes and no. For all the stereotypes about West Coast yoga buffs clad head-to-toe in lululemon gear, there’s also a down-home, country feel to many parts of Vancouver Island that I find tremendously refreshing.

Just around the corner from Bernard’s shop is a place called Mom’s, which serves the thickest, juiciest slices of apple pie you’ve ever imagined—towering concoctions filled with up to 50 apples. They also do a ridiculously smooth chocolate pie and a tart lemon pie with feathery-light meringue that rises higher than Conan O’Brien’s hair.

We also indulge ourselves with homemade sweets and lovely tea at Teafarm in North Cowichan (they’re growing their own tea plants) and gorge on fresh octopus and shrimp at the newly renovated Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria, which now offers up trendy craft cocktails, a sleek dining room and a renovated patio area in addition to its famous afternoon tea.

Up at Bird’s Eye Cove Farm in Duncan, we snack on tasty sandwiches and admire their friendly and adorable Highland cattle.

UNSURPASSED BEAUTY

The food and drinks are great, but much of the appeal of Vancouver Island is the landscape and the surrounding water.

We see only a solitary juvenile whale during a trip out of Sidney with Sidney Whale Watching but take in a great chowder during our lunch at Poet’s Cove Resort on Pender Island. The resort also does weddings, and on the day we visit a bride with purple and auburn hair is sashaying around the docks in a black-and-white patterned bridal gown.

On our way back to the mainland we learn about orcas and whales and are told that cold water has more oxygen than warm water, which means more fish for bigger animals to eat. We also take a short walk on Sidney Spit, part of the massive Gulf Islands National Park Reserve.

I expected beautiful coastlines and rainforests. What I hadn’t counted on were inland lakes and beautiful rivers and waterfalls.

Just outside of Sooke, we rent fun electric bikes from a group called RUSH Adventures and head up to something called Sooke Pot Holes, riding along a former rail line called the Galloping Goose that’s been converted to an unpaved but smooth walking/biking trail.

We ride over a beautiful, wooden bridge and zip past grazing deer and families out for a walk. We ride up a small hill to an overlook, where I was told we’d be able to spot a small lake. Instead, we find ourselves gazing down at a stunning scene, with cool water slipping through a narrow chasm and cascading down into a series of small pools surrounded by deep green forest. I haven’t worked off nearly enough apple pie, but I’m content as can be.

IF YOU GO

Winters are mild on Vancouver Island, with daytime highs in Victoria in the high single digits. Spring and fall are ideal with comfortable temperatures and not so many crowds as summer.

The Fairmont Empress is one of Canada’s best hotels, with plush rooms and an ideal location next to the harbour. Forty minutes west of Victoria, the Sooke Harbour House has a wonderful waterfront setting and lush landscaping. You also can try the stylish Prestige Oceanfront Resort in Sooke. In Port Renfrew, Wild Renfrew offers lovely cottages on the water. In Sidney, the Sidney Pier Hotel has a nice restaurant and rooms overlooking the harbour. Bird’s Eye Cove Farm in Duncan also has rooms.

Victoria Distillers in Sidney produces some of Canada’s most-awarded gin (less juniper taste than many gins you’ll find) and other spirits. They’ve added a lounge and a café with an outdoor patio and have a great waterfront location in a town filled with fun shops and independent bookstores. Merridale cidery and distillery in Cobble Hill makes fine cider as well as vodka and other spirits and has lovely grounds and a restaurant, as well as yurts in which you can sleep.

Travel planner

For information on tourism on Vancouver Island, visit vancouverisland.travel. You can fly directly to Victoria from Vancouver as well as from other Canadian gateways. There also are ferries between the Vancouver area (Tsawwassen) and Victoria (Swartz Bay, north of the city).

 
 
 
 
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