Sooke‘s popularity as a scenic tourist destination has existed for generations. Well-known highlights in the area include the Sooke Potholes Regional Park, whale watching in the Juan de Fuca Strait and a great fishing culture that attracts visitors both locally and from around the world. The moment we arrived in Sooke, our new friends at the hotel we were staying at - the Prestige Oceanfront Resort - advised us to we stop off at Whiffin Spit Park, a small stretch of land jutting out in the harbour. They told us this was a popular spot for locals to walk their dogs, catch a bit of the salt air and watch the sun drift down over the horizon. It was actually a great suggestion that enabled us to begin our “debrief” from our hectic city life and start to feel a part of this small community that sits on the southwestern tip of Vancouver Island.
A short three minute drive led us to our next adventure - whale watching with Dan Pudwell (Sooke Coastal Explorations). The 500hp high-speed Zodiac piloted by Dan slipped around Wiffen Spit and headed out to the Juan de Fuca Strait. Sitting at the bow, I watched as Southern Vancouver Island’s dramatic, windswept coastline peacefully glided by on our quest to encounter Resident & Transient Killer Whales (Orcas); Humpbacks, Minke, & Gray Whales as well as White Sided Dolphins. We were told that 95% of the time, whales are sighted but after three hours they proved to be elusive.
Still it was great to sit in the front of the Zodiac, have a warm breeze blow over my face as I closed my eyes and took in the sun. We did encounter some wildlife - eagles cruising high looking for fish with some landing on the rocky shores of Race Rocks, and a lazy groups of seals and sea lions basking in the sun. The average adult male Steller sea lion is about 1,250 lbs. They can get up to 10-11 ft in lenght and weigh up to 2,500 lbs! While staying within the limits of contact, I pulled out my 70-200 lens and grabbed a group shot, trying to time the moment when one would hit the water, sending up a spray of salt water.
For the shot of the sea lions on Race Rocks, I wanted to do a black and white treatment to get an idea of what it must have been like for the early settlers who sailed into Victoria Harbour and took photos using an old wooden large format camera.
Sooke is known as a great location to head out early in the morning, catching the tides and heading for the halibut grounds. Lucky for us, the fishing boats are mere steps away from our hotel, Prestige Oceanfront Resort. We were fortunate to pair up with Jesse Legg (Sea Leggs Fishing Adventures), a local tour operator (fisherman) who was living his passion. For a good part of the year, Jessie worked as a lead hand on the oil rigs - working long hours in what he told me was “the hardest job he’s ever done.” The oil prices plummeted to about 50 bucks a barrel and Jessie, along with thousands of others working in the Alberta Oil Patch found they had lost their jobs and were on their own. From making “huge bucks” to “zip”, Jessie at least was able to parlay the job loss into following work that he says he was born to do. At one point, Jessie toiled at three jobs: in the oil patch; tour guide; irrigation specialist. Out on the water, you could see his passion. He would be constantly thinking about what we were doing. While Alison and I kind of let our minds wander, Jessie was plotting his next strategy in trying to hook on to “the big one.”
The day was sunny with calm waters. We did leave a little later than Jessie wanted (sorry, we needed our latte) and probably blew our chances to catch our limit, but we were successful in our own way. Alison caught her first salmon. I hit a rockfish. It wasn’t up to Jessie’s standards - he swore under his breath when a couple of big hits seem to slip off the line - but when you’re on a guy’s boat for about three hours, it’s just as important that the man at the helm and you get along, as it is reeling in the big one.
Working his magic in the kitchen of the West Coast Grill at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort, Chef Adam Guther is happy to deal with a whole variety of seafoot brought into his kitchen from locally-sourced purveyors. He considers the ocean, just steps away from his kitchen, his pantry and loves to put his own twist on classics like ‘Mac and Cheese’ , loading up fresh crab into the dish; calamari, intricately spiced; prawn sliders with a jalapeno aioli; raw oysters which come with a wasabi horseradish crema.
What Chef Adam offered on his menu the weekend we were there, was much more than we could have imagined. Suffice to say, Alison and I talked little during our many meals there, preferring to tuck into salmon ceviche, followed by a massive platter of seafood featuring cedar-wrapped salmon, as well as my favorite dish - Pacific Rim Cioppino - which was a medley of mussels, clams, prawns, scallops, fresh fish cooked in a savory broth.
Fresh ingredients are one thing - but what elevated our dining experience were the people who went out of their way to make our time in the dining room memorable. From my early morning latte, expertly prepared by Steven; to the four-course wine pairing Val put together; the permanent smile on the local “Brit”, Dan (a man who knows his way around the bar); and of course Elden Smith, a long-time resident who delivers crab 100 yards from his shack on the ocean, to the West Coast Grill. They went out of their way to make us feel at home - you can’t ask for more than that.
One of the great things about our location at the Prestige Oceanfront Resort was that it was minutes away from everything - ziplining, kayaking and tours of the local farms.
The Adrenaline Zipline Adventure Tour lived up to its name. A series of 8 ziplines that take two hours to navigate was a little daunting (one zipline was about 150 ft. above the ground and ran for 1000 ft.) but with a competent staff who made you feel confident that you were safe, it turned out to be a great experience. I had previously ziplined in Puerto Rico, but this was so much easier (there you controlled you speed and stopping with a gloved hand). The stops at the end of each run were accomplished with a wooden block, so you didn’t have to worry about anything - other than hanging on.
The next morning, in a much-needed restful recreation we slipped into Hobie kayaks with Adam from West Coast Outdoor Adventure in Sooke. From the moment we met Adam at the dock you could feel his passion for the water and everything outdoors. He quickly showed us the ropes of handling the kayak which was operated like a recumbent bicycle (as opposed to using the paddle) - extremely easy. We did a three-hour tour of Sooke Harbour and encountered seals and eagles and searching for leather sea stars. It’s a great low-angle viewpoint of the water, slowly pedalling while zipping through the water (even against waves it was simple to navigate).
We also took the time to visit Tugwell Creek Honey Farm & Meadery where we enjoyed meade wine like the royals. On a tour of the small farm we discovered curious sheep and “attack geese”. My only regret was that we weren’t staying in the area longer to take in more adventures.