Vancouver Island is so much more than Victoria. When the air turns chilly, I make an annual pilgrimage to the island’s Cowichan Valley to savor fall before winter beds down for its long stay.
The valley is the region of Canada with the warmest average temperatures. Its scenic beauty is renowned but it’s also growing a reputation as British Columbia’s other wine country.
Basing yourself between Duncan in the south and Nanaimo in the north gives you access to wineries, coastal villages and the awe-inspiring nature of southeastern Vancouver Island.
Hard cider is getting bigger and bigger in the Pacific Northwest, and B.C. hasn’t escaped the trend. Merridale Ciderworks is a picturesque apple farm in the heart of the region’s wine country. A retail store and restaurant sit on the property surrounded by apple orchards.
On my visit I heard the steady drumbeat of apples being tossed into plastic buckets in the orchard. In the tasting room, we sampled the end results. From cloyingly sweet to bone dry, Merridale makes a wide variety of sparkling ciders, brandies and fortified apple spirits. I always leave with a few bottles of Scrumpy cider – the essence of fall in a bottle.
What: Merridale Ciderworks
Where: 1230 Merridale Road, Cobble Hill
Info: 800-998-9908, merridalecider.com
UNSWORTH VINEYARDS AND AMUSE ON THE VINEYARD
After Merridale, we headed to Unsworth Vineyards for lunch at Amuse on the Vineyard. The restaurant is in a 118-year-old house and the experience is not unlike dining in someone’s home. Our server greeted us at the door and gave us a short tour of the home, letting us choose our table in one of several rooms.
Outside, the winery’s grapes were ripening under netting – a common sight on the island. Hundreds of frustrated blackbirds squawked in nearby trees.
The food was inventive, delicious and artistically presented. We tried the Vintner’s Plate that came with house-cured meats, island cheeses, olives, bread and chutneys. Lunch items included fried green tomatoes and a squash flan.
Practically all ingredients are local – even the marble on the bar counter, we were told. After lunch we wandered to the tasting room and purchased some of the dry, but lively rose wine we had at lunch.
What: Amuse on the Vineyard
Where: Unsworth Vineyards, 2915 Cameron Taggart Road
Hours: Dinner from 5 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays; lunch 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays
KIWI COVE LODGE
Vancouver Island has many accommodations and they’re easy to book when the high season is over. I like to stay in the countryside, specifically at what could be North America’s only kiwi farm/bed and breakfast.
The 10-acre Kiwi Cove Lodge sits on the shore of an inlet off the Strait of Georgia, just north of Ladysmith. It’s owned by Peggy and Doug Kolosoff. The well-kept rambling lodge offers quiet rooms with water and vineyard views. Not grape vines, mind you, but kiwi vines.
It was here that I first encountered the seldom seen Arguta kiwi. Sometimes called grape kiwis, the Arguta is a sweeter and smaller cousin of the fuzzy variety. The smooth-skinned fruit is eaten without peeling. The Kolosoffs serve a hearty breakfast with, of course, fresh kiwis and kiwi preserves.
Inspired by the Kolosoffs, I came home and planted seven kiwi vines a few years ago. I harvested my first crop this fall.
What: Kiwi Cove Lodge
Where: 5130 Brenton Page Road, Ladysmith
Info: 866-303-5494, kiwicovelodge.com
CROW AND GATE PUB
You don’t need to walk the streets of Victoria to feel like you’re in England. Just head to the Crow and Gate Pub. Looking as if it were ripped from England’s Cotswolds, the pub sits by itself in a country setting. Outside, gardens and duck ponds surround the Tudor-style building. Inside you almost expect to find Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn enjoying a romantic night out.
The pub has an extensive menu, but I always go for one of the English dishes: steak and mushroom pie, Scotch eggs, Stilton and leek quiche, and trifle.
What: Crow and Gate Pub
Where: 2313 Yellow Point Road, Nanaimo
Open: 11 a.m.-midnight daily
Info: 250-722-3731, crowandgate.ca
TOP BRIDGE TRAIL
A whole world of nature opens up north of Nanaimo with hikes, rivers, forests and waterfalls. An easy and interesting walk on the Top Bridge Trail at Parksville is a good introduction to the area. The 3-mile trail goes through prairie and cottonwood forests before reaching the banks of the Englishman River. Fern-covered cliffs and mushroom-filled shadows line the walk to a new suspension bridge over the river seemingly carved from solid rock.
What: Top Bridge Trail
ENGLISHMAN RIVER FALLS PROVINCIAL PARK
It could have been the drizzle falling or the serpentine drive that kept other tourists away. Whatever the reason, we had Englishman River Park to ourselves. Sure, the rainforest is beautiful, but visitors come for the waterfall. And what a dramatic drop it is. Ribbons of white water cascade over black rock into a crevasse so deep it disappears out of sight. A gorge-spanning foot bridge gets you a bird’s eye view of the falls.
What: Englishman River Falls Provincial Park
Where: End of Errington Road, Parksville
LITTLE QUALICUM CHEESEWORKS
This creamery, part of Morningstar Farm, produces more than a dozen cheeses such as brie, Raclette and fresh curds. MooBerry Winery shares the farm and has a small tasting bar in the farm store. They make a variety of unusual wines. I took home a bottle of gooseberry wine.
Steps away from the store and creamery is a barn that is open to visitors. On our visit, a days-old calf sat in a straw-filled stall while older calves and a pair of hogs occupied other pens.
What: Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and MooBerry Wintery at Morningstar Farm
Where: 403 Lowry’s Road, Parksville
Info: 250-954-3931, cheeseworks.ca
This park that straddles Highway 4 on the way to Port Alberni from Qualicum Beach contains some of the most impressive old-growth trees on the island – or anywhere else, for that matter. Towering Douglas firs, some 800 years old, claim the air rights in this primordial forest.
Nearby Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park doesn’t contain as impressive falls as Englishman River, but it does offer a long riverside walk through a dramatic whitewater-filled chasm.
What: MacMillan Provincial Park
Where: On Highway 4, 20 kilometers (12 miles) east of Port Alberni
Cowichan Bay is about 10 feet wide and 100 yards long. Wedged in between the coastal road and the Strait of Georgia, the village can pass in the blink of an eye. But I always make a stop to visit Hillary’s Cheese and the attached True Grain Bread bakery. The bakery’s rustic bread looks like it belongs in a history museum, but tastes like it’s just minutes from the oven. There’s nothing quick or mass produced here in this small seaside town that time seems to have forgotten.
CHERRY POINT ESTATE WINERY
Vintner Xavier Bonilla grows 12 varieties of grapes that he has meticulously matched to different soil types at his vineyard.
“I am a farmer first and then I am a winemaker,” Bonilla tells me in his tasting room. “In North America, they make wine by the grape. I disagree. I make wine by the soil. It’s the earth that makes the wine.”
His theory must be sound because it’s hard to walk away from Bonilla’s winery without making some purchases. (The U.S. customs officer in Port Angeles informed us we bought too much wine, but waved us through anyway.)
Bonilla’s blackberry dessert wine is fruit lightning caught in a bottle, and his sublime Gewrztraminer is so sought after, he limits his bottles to one per customer. Despite that, he still was sold out when I visited. That means I’ll have to come back next year.
What: Cherry Point Estate Winery
Where: 840 Cherry Point Road, Cowichan Valley
Info: 250-743-1272, cherrypointestatewines.com
The best way to get to Vancouver Island from South Sound is on the MV Coho/Black Ball Ferry Line that runs between Port Angeles and Victoria, B.C. And you’ll need to take your car to see the sights in the countryside.
Where to catch the ferry: 101 E. Railroad Ave., Port Angeles. It will take about 21/2 hours to get there from South Sound, and you should arrive at least 30 minutes before your ferry departs.
Departs Port Angeles: 8:20 a.m. and 2 p.m. through Jan. 5
Departs Victoria: 10:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. through Jan. 5
Fares: Vehicle (18 feet and smaller) and driver is $60.50 one way. Adult passengers are $17. A portion of every sailing is offered for non-reserved vehicles; however, reservations are recommended to secure a specific sailing time. If you make reservations, it will cost you an additional $16 (online) or $26 (phone) per round trip.
Sailing time: 90 minutes
More information: 360-457-4491, cohoferry.com
A U.S. passport or enhanced Washington state driver license are two of the most common. Go to getyouhome.gov for a full list of valid documents. Regular driver licenses and birth certificates are no longer valid for international travel.Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 email@example.com