I made us makeshift huevos rancheros on the morning of his 30th birthday, with bulked out tomato passata and some coriander I found in the garden of his rented flat – still lush from the days of rain that had cried on Vancouver since I arrived. I scattered grated Parmesan and dried chilli flakes over the fried eggs and finished it all with a glossy dollop of sour cream. He liked it. I told him it was always a rule in my family to eat eggs before a ferry trip.
A few days before, I’d stepped tentatively out of the arrival gate to find him standing with a bunch of flowers – his face the colour of the Canadian flag’s maple leaf. It had been two and a half months apart, and only three together before then. Leaps of faith were always my thing.
Thank god for Skype.
And now here we were, two almost-grown ups plucked from the streets of London to the frankly absurd beauty of British Columbia, renting a big, over-designed car, squealing at the touch-screen music system which we hooked up to his iPod – our road trip jukebox – and chomping on Parma Violets as we boarded the ferry.
Nothing had prepared us for the loveliness of the crossing to Vancouver Island, where the sun was shining, but then BC doesn’t do scenic in half measures. It’s all about those looming mountains, dramatic rocky coves and soaring rainforests. Wildlife takes the opportunity to delight you wherever it can.
We saw a hummingbird outside our bedroom at the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria. Through the half drawn curtains that protected our modesty from the town’s famous, bustling Inner Harbour, we spotted it hovering, wings a blur of colour, moving faster than our colonial ceiling fan and pollinating the tropical flowers we’d taste in the hotel’s own honey at breakfast.
“Your accents are fabulous, absolutely fabulous,” said the Gold Lounge waiter approvingly with a flutter of his not un-hummingbird like eyelids
“Your accents are fabulous, absolutely fabulous,” said the Gold Lounge waiter approvingly with a flutter of his not un-hummingbird like eyelids. “Try the peanut butter, it’s my favourite.” He did us a favour. The hotel puts the honey and – as the chef later told us – “just a dash of chocolate” in its salty, crunchy homemade peanut butter. Eating this, slathered on hot buttered toast (yes, butter + peanut butter = sexual!), was one of my favourite things about staying there.
Another was a meal in the brilliantly old school Empress Room restaurant. I say old school, because aesthetically, with its dark wood panelling, deep, patterned carpet, throne-like antique wooden chairs and crisp linen tablecloths, that’s what it is. I could imagine the cast of Game of Thrones enjoying a right royal feast here. But the staff and the food stave off any fust. “Some Empress Ale?” offered Marc, our silver fox of a waiter, brandishing a metal jug frosted with condensation, along with a perfect white smile.
“Empress Ale” is Marc’s little joke name for tap water. It’s one that’s got him into trouble before now: “It backfired when I offered it to a recovering alcoholic who made a high volume rebuttal. I didn’t bust it out for a while after that little run-in, but I’m feeling OK with it again now.”
Fresh brioche buns, aromatic with rosemary, were his next offering, along with gorgeous little pearls of butter – just call me “Double Butter” Birkett. We toasted the big birthday with glasses of deliciously rich BC sparkling, made with Riesling and Pinot Gris. Marc took great care to explain to me what sablefish was: a local fish with all the meaty luxuriousness of halibut, but with lots of oil, which makes it softer. I devoured it, after my lobster and sweetbread risotto.
He loved his butter-poached lobster with popcorn foam, and Dungeness crab and avocado salad, and blushed when Marc brought a trio of desserts with a little candle in. Sommelier Kirk (a formidably knowledgeable character) matched incredible BC wines for us throughout the whole meal, intent on giving us a taste of the terroir – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Mission Hill Winery in the Okanagan Valley were standouts.
The chef Graham Smith came to chat with us at the end of the meal and explained that the delicious cheeses in front of me were, like the wines, local to BC, many coming from artisan foodie haven Salt Spring Island, where “long, temperate growing seasons” make it a foodie haven.
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I was tempted to scope it out the following day, during the five hour drive up to Tofino, but as the car’s thermometer soared into the early twenties, I changed my mind: we found a lake and took an afternoon dip, surrounded by primroses, mountains, and a bobbing sky plane.
Tofino is a surfer town with a hippy history that’s somehow preserved itself without becoming too twee or touristy. That said, we were there out of season – it could become a meat market stag weekend nightmare à la Newquay in high season for all I know. But I doubt it. Because if that were the case there would surely be no place for the Wickaninnish Inn, a Relais & Châteaux property and one of the single most spectacular places I have ever stayed. What the Empress did to court our love for British Columbia – with its beehives, red-barked arbutus trees and fierce championing of BC food and wines, The Wickaninnish Inn did to consummate it.
In that room we fell asleep, woke up – and everything in between – with the sound of the ocean gently slooshing at us, breaking over the rocks below our balcony, where we had sipped stunning blonde ale carried from the local micro brewery. From our sun trap we blinked through the room’s binoculars at the McDiarmid family’s cabin, which, like the hotel they own, grows out of the rocks on Chesterman Beach, where waves crash onto the vast flat sands, carrying driftwood and boarders to its shore.
Despite all its luxury – the rooms are decked out with gas fires, soaker tubs and hidden flat screens – this is a hotel through a prism of nature and West Coast style: full of carvings and fixtures fashioned out of the materials that surround it – driftwood, cedar, stone and fir carved by the hand of legendary local carver and hippy, the late Henry Nolla, among other local artisans. We visited the beach’s Carving Shed where generations of wood carvers, spurred on by the legend of Nolla, create art from what they salvage.
We cycled the path into town on the hotel’s dapper black Raleigh bikes, comfy on their roomy tan leather saddles, looking out at the coast and stopping for famous Tacofino seared albacore tuna tacos, with seaweed salad and wasabi along the way. We clambered over the rocks, clustered with mussel banks and barnacles, and I fished hermit crabs out of rock pools like my 11-year-old self had done in Brittany almost two decades before. I wore his dark blue woollen jumper and no shoes, and he wrote about us in the sand with half a mussel shell.
“I don’t want to leave,” he said to me at dinner. Nor did I. We finished our pork and clams and Szechuan brisket broiled oysters, booked another night at the Wickaninnish, and lost ourselves in the wilderness for just a little bit longer. C
The Wickaninnish Inn – Relaischateaux.com
The Empress Hotel, Victoria – Fairmont.com
Rosie Birkett is a Brixton, London-based author and journalist. Follow her on Twitter @rosiefoodie