There are a couple of ways to reach our hotel on Vancouver Island: you can fly in, landing at Victoria’s International Airport (small in size, easy to navigate and quick to get out of), or you can take BC’s ferry coming in from Vancouver. On this trip, we decided to take the ferry - which was actually a nice way of relaxing for a couple of hours - watching the waves lap against the bow and picking out the houses we dream of buying on the islands we passed coming into Swartz Bay.
We made a game plan this time out: take the ferry and before hitting our hotel (the Prestige Oceanfront Resort in Sooke) we wanted to stop in at a couple of places that you can visit just beyond the ferry terminal (or the airport). During this culinary discovery trip our mandate was to try to hit the ‘independents’ - businesses that were locally-owned and which supported the local economy.
I have a penchant for small business owners and independent operators - they not only help drive our economy but in most cases, they are the people who are “putting it on the line” for the sake of their businesses and are not only active in their community but vested in the local economy. That’s why I love to support them. The hotel we were slated to stay at during this trip to Vancouver Island, the Prestige Oceanfront Resort, is family-owned. Their story goes back a couple of generations when the family patriarch, Joe Huber emigrated to Canada, eventually buying a 10-unit motel in Penticton. Fast-forward 50 years and the family now boasts a collection of 13 hotels in communities in the province. Which brings me to our first stop - an independently-owned winery.
Muse Winery is about a 10-minute drive from the airport and a short ride from the Ferry terminal.
On arrival we found owners, Jane and Peter Ellman in the rows of grapes just beyond the back door of their tasting room. I don’t know what it is (lifestyle? enjoying what you’re doing in life? owning a winery?) but every winery owner I’ve met always has a smile on their face when I first meet them. I’m sure they have their ups and downs, struggles and challenges as any farmer would, but I could see right from the get go that both Jane and Peter were loving their place in the world at this moment. After a 16-year career with Marriott Hotels, Jane came to North Saanich (the location of their winery) and serves as our more than capable host. She’s the “face” of hospitality, while Peter’s role is that of winemaker. At one point in his career Peter worked as President & Director of Sales & Marketing at Lister Industries in Edmonton, Alberta. Lister is the world leader in rig mat production and has been supplying drilling companies around the world since 1968. He also did a stint as a former marketing executive with a Napa Valley winery. They make a great pair. While Peter is quick to pick up a paddle to “punch down the cap,” Jane has used her hospitality experience in broadening the tourist and social aspects of the winery, including hosting weddings, musical theatre, ballet, chamber music and art shows. In fact if you look closely outside (and on the walls in the hall used to host events) you’ll find the work of local artists. They also run a successful bistro on site.
Peter and Jane purchased this small farm gate winery in 2008 (Peter renamed it “Muse” in his wife’s honour). Since then they have steadily increased the bottle output, producing critically-acclaimed and award-winning wines (we would discover that the Prestige Oceanfront Resort stocked their wines). They’ve grown their wine production from 1,200 cases when they first purchased the winery, to over 4,000 cases. This increase has not impacted the quality of the wine found in the bottle - rather, their product just seems to be getting better and better with age.
On reflection it’s no wonder Peter and Jane are smiling today - they find themselves in a place “where we want to be,” she says. “And meeting people from all over the world is just fantastic.”
This would be a great first stop on our culinary discoveries on Vancouver Island, a place where food, agritourism and craft beverages are in abundance.
Leaving Muse Winery, we headed off for a quick drive (about 15 minutes) down the road to Sea Cider Farm & Ciderhouse.
Cruising up the long driveway to the cider house, we passed row on row of apple trees. We were told that they have 10 acres with over 1,300 apples trees, made up of over 50 varieties of heritage apples.
Sea Cider opened its farm gate for business in 2007 when owner Kristen Jordan purchased the property with a vision of creating an organic farm and orchard and producing traditional fermented artisan ciders. Since then, they’ve grown to an annual cider production of over 7,000 cases and growing. They pride ourselves on crafting traditionally fermented ciders from organically grown apples.
After parking and grabbing my camera I headed out into the orchard where a couple of pickers were plucking fruit from the trees. One of the pickers, Maddie, told me she was related to the owner and although, as family, she probably had to toil in the fields to help out, she looked happy in her role picking apples as a small breeze blew in off the Haro Straight and the sun kissed her cheeks. About a hundred yards away, Peter was perched on a spindly ladder, leaning over the edge, picking apples and inspecting each one as he either puts it in his cloth bag, or tosses it over his shoulder.
Agritourism is a growing market, drawing millions of visitors to farm operations across Canada and Sea Cider Farm has become one of the top agri-tourism attractions in Victoria and Vancouver Island. It’s a business founded on good principals: grow apples organically, make ciders in a traditionally fermented artisanal fashion. They are promoting local agriculture while supporting the local economy - enviable benchmarks that are a draw to socially conscious visitors.
Sea Cider’s founder and Cidermaster, Kristen Needham, is a sixth generation farmer who inherited the family orchard back in the ‘80s. She spent her early career working in rural Ethiopia with farmers, never thinking she would return to farming herself. That’s life for you … you never know where it will lead you and in Kristen’s case, life brought her back to Vancouver Island producing some great ciders. Once she decided to get into this business, it was a long time between conception to the first bottles coming off the cider line. After purchasing orchards and re-planting, Kristen went back to school - this time back to cider school. In between courses, she made cider and after five years of preparation, she finally was able to sell cider to her first customer. Time + determination + care + luck = great cider.
Up at the Ciderhouse (which is open for tastings and tours year round from 11 to 4) they were bottling Bramble Bubbly, a blackberry, semi dry sparkling cider.
We ordered a triple collection of cider. My favourite was “Rum Runner” which is made from home grown heritage apples, hand-pressed and aged in rum soaked bourbon barrels for 6 months. A semi-dry sparkling cider, it was tasty. Paired with a small tasting plate of a variety of local cheese, while sitting out in the sunshine, slowly sipping hand-made cider made for a great afternoon, before heading off to Sooke and our resort.
The next morning I was up with the sun streaming down on the porch overlooking Sooke Harbour. It was a great start to the day - coffee, newspaper and a few moments of quiet sitting on my balcony at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort, before heading off for another day of photographic adventures. This time, we would continue our theme of culinary discoveries with a couple of visits planned - both were brewers in their own right.
Affectionately known as “The Stick,” Stick In The Mud is much more than just a place to grab a quick coffee. It’s a great place to open up a laptop, relax for a few moments with a locally roasted cup of coffee while the smells emanating from the on-site kitchen waft over you in a wave of sensuous goodness.
Independently owned, “The Stick” is a favourite spot for a lot of Sooke regulars. Incidentally the name Stick in the Mud is a produce of wine, friends, a guitar and a ukulele. They write that there were dozens of not-quite-good-enough names one night until finally someone shouted: “Stop being such a Stick in the Mud and name the damn place!” The name stuck.
I arrived at the location, just a block off the main drag in Sooke downtown and was guided to a small room at the back of the coffee shop where David Evans, owner and coffee roaster was standing over what looked like an ancient mechanical machine with an Italian flair. He was monitoring this morning’s batch of beans as they tumbled in the drum. Every once in a while he would draw a short stick of beans from the roaster, lift it up to his nose and try to determine if the coffee had roasted to the flavour and level to his satisfaction.
Interestingly enough, David came to coffee late. Once a member of the media (he attended Ryerson in Toronto), he never took to coffee until his late 30’s. “I guess I never had a good cup of coffee before that,” he says. Once a rabid ‘tea guy’ he jumped on to the java express after discovering a great cup of expresso from a friend. He’s credited 2% Jazz Coffee in Victoria as an early inspiration and follows their philosophy of providing uncompromising quality that is accessible to all.
Before getting into the coffee shop ownership business, David went to Portland, Oregon for coffee and barista knowledge. After getting his papers, he came back to Sooke and opened “The Stick” which has become a community hub in Sooke.
The coffee beans David roasts come from Indonesia, Ethiopia, Brazil, Burundi, Nicaragua, to name a few countries. What I loved about David’s philosophy of knowing where his coffee comes from, he actually makes it a point to travel to his coffee sources, meeting the people who are growing the crops and harvesting the coffee beans. I couldn’t help but notice the coffee bean sacks strewn around the back shop thinking to myself that they would make cool pieces of art, or great covers for cushions. David told me later that a lot of people had those same thoughts and he sells the coffee sacks for at least a $2 donation with proceeds going to support an orphanage in Ethiopia. For trivia buffs, he tells me they go through 1500 lbs. of coffee beans per month which equates to 225 sacks.
Housed within a 150 year-old Tudor style building located just on the edge of Victoria, the Four Mile Brewing Company and adjacent pub exudes the air of an olde English Inn. Standing outside taking pictures, the sunflowers towered over my head, while gargoyles peered down at me from drainpipes. This pub is housed in the fourth oldest house in Victoria’s history.
There’s an interesting history attached to the pub. Built by a Scottish immigrant to the area who came as an indentured servant working for The Bay, Peter Calvert had purchased a six-acre parcel of land and hand-crafted the structure for his wife Elizabeth Montgomery (no … not the Bewitched actress). Over the years it served as a roadhouse, a dine-and-dance place and at one point, a notorious brothel until the police shut it down. From the early 50’s Four Mile stood neglected until the late 70s when it was bought by its present owners, Graham and Wendy Haymes.
Within the pub, on the lower level, sits a small brewery - which I’ve come to tour and taste. They write: “Our history brews a tale from 1858. From brothel to ghosts, sea captains & rogues - now beer,” which is a tribute to their storied past. The brewery is believed to be the first in the Pacific Northwest to use the Peter Austin Brick Kettle, a unique-looking piece of equipment developed by Austin, the man considered the “godfather” of English craft brewing.
On first glance, what attracts me is the label on some of the beers. Locally drawn, they feature images of fantastical animals in Victorian costume. The labels state that: “Our history brews a tale from 1858. From brothel to ghosts, sea captains and rogues … now beer,” which is a tribute to their storied past.
Graham Haymes Jr. said that there was an intent right off the bat for the company’s stark pen-and-ink drawings, unique names and the interesting stories found on the back label, in order to help make his products “jump off the shelf.” But marketing and labels only get you so far in the highly competitive craft beer market. It’s what’s inside the bottle that counts and in this matter, Four-Mile’s beer exceeds expectations.
Graham was telling me they use New World hops, primarily sourced from the Pacific Northwest and “of course, we only use clean, clear water from our home province, beautiful BC.” They brew their beers in the traditional English fashion staying the course on only using barley, wheat, hops and pure water. Their malts are all of British origin and their yeast strain has it’s roots traced back centuries. Off to a corner, near the downstairs bar, if you’ve been there you can’t help but notice two-tiers of barrels. When I asked what their use was, Graham told me they’re there to age beer in bourbon whiskey casks sourced from Kentucky. That particular beer will be released in early December. I had an opportunity to taste a couple of beers including Prickly Pear Cactus Wheat Ale and their India Pale Ale but my favourite was “Tangerine Dream” an ale with slight orange flavours - it was refreshing and tasty without being overly fruity.
For the first couple of days when I was staying at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort, I would wander through the lobby and see a restaurant that was closed on most evenings. After checking in with the Front Desk upon my arrival I asked about Yesaki’s, a sushi restaurant I’d read about on one of those popular dining apps where it was getting great reviews from both travellers and locals. Online reviews were saying: “Fun place for dinner” “Fantastic” “Love love love - Excellent take on sushi and global fusion. Great pad Thai, pho soup and spicy tuna Maki. Local wines, sake menu.” reviewers had written.
I was told the restaurant was only open on the weekends, so this being a Saturday night (and my last evening at the hotel) I made it a point to give a call down and make reservations for the evening. I’m glad I did.
He told me he grew up in Sri Lanka, where his son still lived (his wife resided in Australia - talk about long distance relationships!). Anyway Channa received his chef training there and then left to begin a stint in the Far East to learn the intricacies of sushi. He further honed his skills working in Dubai, Abu Dhabi until finally landing here at the Prestige.
I was surprised to find a sushi spot in Sooke, but after a bit of consideration I thought: “why not?” With the hotel’s location on the ‘Left Side of Canada’ it was a ‘natural,’ giving that fresh seafood would be easy to access.
For those unfamiliar with sushi, maybe having heard the term, but not sure what’s happening on the plate - sushi is a Japanese food consisting of good vinegared rice combined with other ingredients such as seafood, vegetables and sometimes tropical fruits. While the ingredients and forms of sushi presentation vary widely, the main ingredient which all sushi have in common is rice. The great thing about having sushi for me is that, for the most part, it’s either vegetarian or uses seafood. Served with pickled ginger, wasabi and soy sauce and paired with an Asian beer, it’s one of my favourite foods.
I found it interesting to learn that sushi was one of the earliest forms of “fast foods.” Created in the early 1800s it eschewed the earlier fermented way of cooking fish, producing tasty morsels of raw fish wrapped in rice that could be conveniently eaten with one’s hands. Beer in hand, I sat back and watched Channa create his magic.
Looking around it wasn’t difficult to spot both tourists and ‘locals’ in the restaurant. The tourists were freshly scrubbed, some having come from the Spa at the Resort, while the ‘locals’ looked like they had just come off the water - faces wind and sun-burned, rough hands from pulling in fishing lines and filleting fish on the dock, baseball caps tilted back and local beers in hand.
I spoke with a few of the locals and they told me this was “THE best spot for sushi on the Island” while tipping their drinks toward Channa. The CFA’s (“come from afar”) were surprised not only to find a sushi restaurant right in the lobby of their hotel, but were delighted with the variety of dishes.
Eating sushi is a relaxing way of dining. You order a dish, watch as it’s being prepared (with intricate cuts and an artist’s eye for colour and composition) and then get to enjoy small bites before looking up at the chalkboard menu on the far wall, trying to figure out what to have next. It’s variety - which I love. California maki, spicy tuna maki, curry salmon maki, ginger miso prawn temaki, salmon sashimi - all made it to my corner of the bar (we were sharing with another couple … I definitely couldn’t eat a spread like that myself). Stuffed and satisfied I was surprised when Channa told me that to ‘complete your meal’ I’m making you something special.
His pièce de résistance was a carved ice bowl, with fresh seafood wrapped around the multiple levels. Words are difficult to find to describe the dish. What a great way to end our stay at the resort before heading back to the ferry in the morning - and our trip back home. We can’t wait to return to Sooke and continue to discover the great people, places and things that make this area such a wonderful place to visit and live.