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Way West Coast

A Vancouver Island culinary road trip yields bold libations, divine seafood, big hikes and heavenly hydrotherapy…
 
Salmon candy is the carrot on the stick. You dangle that in front of me and I will walk for miles. When I’m lucky enough to get my hands on these sweet and salty smoked-salmon morsels, I ration them for weeks, savouring every molecule.
 
It’s with this tasty treat in the back of my mind that we hop into a flash Buick Regal in Vancouver and head out on the ferry to Vancouver Island for a culinary road trip from one side of the island to the other. When all you have to do every day is drive around one of the most beautiful places on earth looking for your next meal, life is good.
 
The eating extravaganza starts in Courtney-Comox, a two-pronged town nestled between the Beaufort Mountains and the Strait of Georgia, north of Nanaimo. And with our visit in June, almost every storefront is done up in rainbow whatnot for Pride Month, despite a population of only 40,000. One of the main intersections even has a rainbow crosswalk. This town could give some of the bigger cities a lesson on how to properly gay things up.
 
Even though it isn’t quite noon, we wander into Gladstone Brewery for pints at its barn-sized digs, kitted out with plain wooden tables, the big tanks clanging away in the far end of the room. Brawny, baseball cap-wearing locals belly up to their lunch at the bar, and the local office people start communing around tables on the patio. It doesn’t take long before I’m staring straight in the face of a giant pork-belly burrito, from which I don’t look away until it is gone. The distillery, in the centre of Courtney, focuses on Belgian ales, European lagers and Pacific Northwest-style India pale ales, all dolled up in cool, colour-blocked labels. I like it so much, I buy the hat. (Really, I just want to fit in.)
 
I’m stuffed to the gills when we relocate to nearby Wayward Distillation House, the first distillery in Canada to make all its craft spirits out of honey. We try the signature vodka and gin before moving on to the spiced honey liqueur and a very smooth rum. It’s the Unruly Gin that makes it into my suitcase back at the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa, our home for the next couple of days.
 
The Kingfisher is one of those places where the blend of tourists and locals benefits everyone. People are drawn to the busy yoga studio, the gym, the bar with its outdoor patio, the fine dining at Ocean 7 and the Pacific Mist Spa, where we book in for the signature Hydropath water circuit. I zoom into the reception area with a “What’s the drill?” to be told that Step 1 for me is the relaxation lounge. “I’m on a schedule!” I tease her back. We are soon taking the waters in an almost Flintstones-like cave, guided through five different sandstone-sculpted alcoves and pools – a shower, a pool, a waterfall, a steam, an ice-cold waterfall, a hot-cold bath, a mineral soak and a scrub. We emerge remineralized and detoxified, even though I’ve worked very hard on those toxins (and they cost money).
 
The Kingfisher people stop by with a message: 40 Knotts Estate Winery is having a party tonight and would we like to go? No arm-twisting is necessary, and a cinq-à-sept in the vineyard is spot-on gorgeous, with a local musician strumming away, eagles circling overhead. Co-owner Brenda laments that a few of their chickens have gone missing thanks to the aggressive eagles, but this is the rugged West Coast after all. In honour of Pride Month, she pops open a special, LGBTQ-inspired sparkling rosé, before ushering us on to a taste-test of one of the winery’s showpieces, an orange wine made with Schonberger and Pinot Gris grapes fermented and aged on skins in Italian Terracotta Amphora. We are in heaven. I close my eyes and let the flavours melt into my brain.
 
Ucluelet is the new Tofino
One of my big travel tips is to have something in the car to eat. On the advice of practically everyone in the area, we stop at a community called Coombs, hearing something about goats on the roof. Sure enough, there are actually goats grazing away on a grass-covered rooftop of the main grocery and marketplace, where I can’t stop laughing long enough to order a sandwich. The story goes that the owners were wondering how they were going to mow the grass on the green roof, before hoisting a goat up there, which never left. Now there are a few of them, keeping the roof tidy and posing unawares for thousands of photographs, including my own.
 
Once on the famed Pacific Rim Highway No. 4, I realize I have to ease up on the running commentary because my partner needs to concentrate on his driving, what with the twists and turns, the narrow bits and the traffic. And then, the rain. I hold my breath, pumping my brake foot more than a few times and audibly gasping at the scenery, which is literally breathtaking. It’s one of those drives where a lake suddenly blasts into view as you reach a break in the forest, a series of staggeringly pure Canadiana moments.
 

About two hours later, we pull into the parking lot of The Francis, a high-design, four-room self-catered inn with all the comforts of home in the Pacific coastal town of Ucluelet. It’s the lesser-known cousin of Tofino: same rugged beauty with fewer boats, a more contemplative tourist crowd and a higher local-to-tourist ratio. We suggest “Ucluelet is the New Tofino” T-shirts to our host, who isn’t buying it. After getting a tutorial on how to turn on the hot tub and info on where to find ice, we stash our uneaten goat-shop goodies in the fridge and head out to walk off the quickly accumulating calories.
 
Happily, this town is built for walking. A hike around the southern tip of the peninsula, anchored by the Amphitrite Lighthouse, primes our legs for the next day’s adventure along the famed Wild Pacific Trail, an eight-kilometre stretch of hiking through old-growth coastal rainforest, the ocean churning away at our elbows. Whatever tiny cares I have abruptly melt away into the forest.
 
But it doesn’t take eight kilometres before my ass is grass, so we break for a wind-down with a walk through the Ucluelet Aquarium, Canada’s first catch-and-release aquarium, a public non-profit. Inside, it’s like a warehouse filled with rows of tanks and tubs and hoses, the kids all sticking their little hands into things and squealing. The fish and invertebrates are from the Clayoquot and Barkley Sounds. I’ve never touched a live starfish before, so here I am petting a starfish, who is just clinging onto his rock for dear life, like he knows anything else. The sea anemones and feather worms are gorgeous as usual. The headlining giant octopus is fast asleep – surprise, surprise. I become infatuated with a tiny crab that appears to be eating everything in sight, most of it microscopic. He is my Instagram star of the day.
 
There is really just the one Tofino
Tofino, a half-hour up the road, is a paradise of food, forest, sand and surfing. We hit the ground running with Kate McCallum from Tofino Food Tours, whom I love from the moment she hands me a maple doughnut with bacon on it. This is just scratching the surface, I soon discover, as we meander through town learning bits of local lore and present-day news punctuated by stops at a local pub for chowder and beer, a waterfront patio for charcuterie and cheese, an oyster bar built into an ice house at the end of a pier, and a shop specializing in my precious cured and smoked and jerked salmon. At last, I think! I become really chummy with the wild chum salmon jerky and buy a mittful. No one really bats an eye when I begin talking to the food. At Sobo Restaurant, we buy a cookbook and get it signed by the chef, formerly a local food-truck star, who is happy to learn that her restaurant comes highly recommended. Word of good food travels fast.
 
After the tour, we roll our bellies up to the front desk at the Tofino Resort + Marina on the edge of town, noted specifically for its all-in-one strategy: comfortable fuss-free rooms, the only pub in town where the locals and tourists actually hang out together, and an adventure centre that will take you whale-watching, fishing, seaplane sightseeing and more. Dinner at the resort’s 1909 Kitchen is a smorgasbord of taste sensations, including wood-fired pizza and fresh seafood, including anything you yourself might have caught on the ocean that morning.
 
On our last day, we load up with salmon sandwiches at the Common Loaf Bake Shop and head out for a few hours on the water with Jamie’s Adventures. We boat over to the famed Hot Springs Cove in Maquinna Marine Provincial Park and follow the winding boardwalk through the forest, over to the natural pools of mineral-rich water just above the shoreline. We find a steamy, rocky crevice to sink into and sun ourselves on the wet boulders like lizards. Is there any more of that salmon jerky left? What little there is, I’m happy to have it.
 

 
DOUG WALLACE is the editor and publisher of travel resource TravelRight.Today.
 

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