Exploring the Wine Islands of British Columbia

Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands (known as the Wine Islands) embody the fastest growing wine region in Canada, home to a quarter of British Columbia’s wineries.

The region’s crisp and fruit-filled wines, cider and mead are matched by an astounding variety of vegetables, fruit, seafood, meat, poultry and herbs. Wherever you choose to stop, you’ll encounter friendliness, charm and artisanal production qualities, and you’ll know that the owner(s) are somewhere nearby – perhaps even pouring your libation.

The Saanich Peninsula lies just a few minutes north of Victoria, yet truly feels like a world apart. Driving along country lanes lined with arbutus and wild roses, gazing at the gently rolling landscape, it’s hard to believe that a major highway, ferry terminals and an international airport are nearby.

Sandwiched between a sun-warmed inlet and the island-dotted Strait of Georgia, the peninsula has a sheltered, mild and temperate nature. This is reflected in the variety of fresh-from-the-field bounty – ranging from strawberries to sunflowers – sold at numerous roadside stands and markets.

Saanich also is Vancouver Island’s newest viticultural hot spot, boasting the island’s only certified-organic vineyard. Winemakers produce fruit-forward, floral whites such as Bacchus and Ortega, and light-to-medium-bodied reds such as Pinot Noir and Marechal Foch.

The southwest coast of Vancouver Island, known as Sooke, is edged with sparkling and protected bays, and traversed with walking trails through the Sooke Hills and beyond. The views are spectacular.

A breathtaking drive over the Malahat or a picturesque ferry ride brings you to the southern end of Cowichan Valley and the communities of Shawnigan Lake, Mill Bay and Cobble Hill. Sheltered by a ridge of high mountains to the west and warmed by the Strait of Georgia to the east, the valley boasts the highest average temperature in Canada, which creates ideal growing conditions for almost any crop.

Keep an eye out for vineyards and orchards with “Tasting Room Open” signs, where you can sample traditional cider, fruit wines made from local berries, and elegant, aromatic wines that are nurtured by rich soil and the climatic combination of warmth and moisture. Local winemakers work with favorites such as Pinot Gris, Ortega and Pinot Noir, along with lesser-known varietals carefully matched to the maritime climate.

The “Warm Land” continues to Duncan, one of Vancouver Island’s best places to explore the art and culture of the region’s original inhabitants. The town itself is dotted with dozens of traditional totem carvings, and the Quw’utsun’ Cultural Centre showcases First Nations history.

You can stay for the unique experience of a traditional salmon feast, or seek out other fare in one of the city’s fine restaurants. Chances are your dinner will feature some of the local bounty, from herbs to organic vegetables to exotic game.

Houseboats bobbing gently on the water, kayaks gliding by, working fishing vessels – all of these provide real-life entertainment from the picturesque shoreline at Cowichan Bay. Wander the streets of this charming seaside village, stopping to browse in an eclectic boutique or watch an artist at work in the studio. Save time to sip wine and enjoy fresh-from-the-ocean seafood on a dockside restaurant, or sample handcrafted cheeses as you overlook the bay.

Salt Spring Island might just be the ultimate gastronomic getaway. More than 200 growers tend the meadows, fields and valleys of this largest of the Gulf Islands, cultivating everything from sheep to bamboo to grapevines.

Dotting the waters between mainland B.C. and Vancouver Island are hundreds of smaller islands, known as the Outer Islands, each with individual character that ranges from funky to sophisticated. Among the largest are Pender and Saturna, where you can travel by ferry for a day trip or stay for a while in a full-service luxury spa hotel or family-friendly resort. With the development of wineries on both islands, you can enjoy some island wine as you settle into island time.

Each of the communities on the stretch of coastline known as Central Island sports its own charm and character. Bustling Ladysmith is a favorite with gourmands and antique-seekers. Nanaimo boasts a lively cultural scene, and a great selection of restaurants. A wide range of accommodations is available to suit every visitor, along with an equally compelling mix of boutique shops, restaurants and gourmet food producers.

From the sandy shores of the Pacific to Vancouver Island’s highest peak, the North Island has an incredible array of outdoor adventure opportunities. The Comox Valley is a dream destination for “foodies,” as inspired growers and farmers work with farmers markets, restaurants and specialty shops to create amazing culinary experiences.

The theme here is quality food, with such delicacies as fresh wasabi, artisan cheese, organic pork and chicken, hand-made chocolates and fresh shellfish.

There’s more island-hopping to be had here, too. Just off the coast are two of the region’s best-kept secrets  – the islands of Denman and Hornby. You must traverse one to reach the other, but it’s a worthwhile trip with plenty to savor on the way.

Stop in at a sun-kissed rose nursery or a sheltered organic farm, hunt for clams and shrimp on pebbled shores, or enjoy home-style pizza and Hornby Island wine or mead picnic-style while listening to local musicians.

To learn more about Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands, visit: http://www.wineislands.ca

Posted in Our Wine Travel Log
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