Tale of Three Cities

In the scheme of things, most Canadians are now concentrating on trips within our own boundaries. And why not? For years we headed to the ski hills in the Swiss Alps when right in our own back yards we had Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains, equally challenging and even more picturesque. We visited vineyards for wine tasting experiences in France and Italy, the States of Washington and California , when in British Columbia there are perfectly acceptable wines. Speak to anyone from the Canadian westcoast and they’ll tell you the multitude of reasons to head west and stay. My discovery of this part of Canada can be called The Tale of Three Cities – Vancouver, Victoria and Whistler.

Did I know that the citizens of this ‘Valhalla on the west coast,’ could actually in one day, ski the snowy hills and still have the opportunity to sail and surf board? Despite all the advice from my very biased eastern friends, I decided to take the opportunity and “go west woman” trip. First stop was the capital of British Columbia, Victoria. And among my list of priorities written as I sat on Pacific Coastal Airlines seaplane from Vancouver was the very British ‘high tea’ at Victoria’s legendary Fairmont Empress Hotel’s Tea Lobby and the trolley filled with scones and Devon cream. But that would come later. My first stop was the English styled Butchart Gardens. I had no idea that after Niagara Falls, this was the second most visited tourist attraction in Canada catering to over 1.3 million guests. Nor did I expect the barrage of colours and scents on the135 acre (70 hectares) perfectly groomed estate. With 55 full time gardeners and many more part time staffers, there didn’t seem to be a leaf or flower that hadn’t been perfectly trimmed or deadheaded and the palette of colours seemed painted to perfection. “The beds are planted four times a year,” David Clarke one of the directors, told me as we followed several paths through a variety of venues from the Sunken Garden which was once a limestone quarry to a quasi Japanese Garden and the awesome Rose garden, still in bloom even in late September. Once the private home of the Butchart family, (he a cement manufacturer and she a keen lover of nature), the gardens continued to expand in both style and space. It’s still overseen by the Butchard family heirs and now open to the public, the admission fee helps with the expense of the 600 people employed on the property. (Days later, I would visited the Sun Yat Sen Gardens and park in Vancouver, a complete contrast in colour, style and size. The serenity at the typical Chinese garden seemed to demand an atmosphere of quietude as people talked in low reverent tones.) At Butchart Gardens, children meandered while parents kept a close eye to make sure they didn’t pick the lovely growing flora. Dogs are allowed, only if they are kept on leashes. Naturally, in a space that large there has to be eateries and gift shops, which unfortunately, for me were a visual intrusion into this legendary Victorian landmark on Vancouver Island. For gardeners, expect to see in early Spring, the flowering fruit trees, by March and by April there’s a profusion of daffodils followed by tulips. With the great Vancouver Island climate, rhododenroms begin about that time and June is one of the most colourful times with the huge variety of blossoming roses. Fall continues with begonias, gladiolas, dahlia and chrysanthemums. Christmas, I was told, was an esthetic treat for the eyes. Decorations were being prepared while I was there, three months before the holiday.

Although small in comparison to many of the California vineyards, I happily joined a tiny group for a private tour and lunch at the Venturi-SchulzeVineyards in Cobble Hill, a car ride from Victoria. The couple, Marilyn and Giordano, are so keen to keep this as private as possible that even our knowledgeable driver missed the gate off the Trans Canada Highway, RR1. Established in 1988 on only five acres, Marilyn Schulze-Venturi walked us through the meticulously tended vineyard with her amazing knowledge of the state-of -the-art winery. All the wines they grown are bottled on the property and the grapes frown are of the highest quality, without having to use any pesticides or herbicides. Although they don’t sell their wine across Canada due to various government restrictions, you can find a great selection at the Fairmont Empress Hotel and various other British Columbia resorts. Giordano, who was raised in Modena in Northern Italy, with a degree in education and several other degrees, always had a passion for wine. I soon discovered that food must be another since lunch for the ten of us was an epicurean treat, each course served with a different and wonderful wine- with the three bean soup we had Venturi-Schulze Brut Nature KAP (white), the traditional Modenese Lasagna was served with a 2000 Millefiori and 1998 Pale Alte and the darkly spiced chicken had a fine red 1999 Brandenburg No.3. Both husband and wife are uncompromising and dedicated making them one of the great winemaking teams on the island. And if you have the inclination along with few like- minded friends, the concierge may be able to set up a wine tasting and tour, no promises for lunch.

I’ve only been to Whistler once and that was mid winter. At the time, I couldn’t image that anything happened in the off season. Now I know, there isn’t an off season in this mountain aerie. After a very scenic flight over the Gulf Islands, Howe Sound and the Coastal Mountain Range, we landed on Green Lake approximately one hour later.

One of the top treats of this trip was North Arm Farm and a produce buying outing with the Chateau Whistler’s chef. North Arm Farm is laden with exotic and everyday vegetables. As we walked along the beds, we saw bear prints but also the excitement that emoted from chef. Right off, after smelling and tasting a leaf, he bought all the existing basil for pesto sauce. Next, his excitement mounted when he was introduced to something he had never seen before..pod radishes, which look like peas in the pod but with a distinctive but sweetish radish taste. He bought the entire stock. We continued and the Heirloom tomatoes were snapped up by the chef, who had handed us some to taste. Beyond delicious! Meanwhile, little did we know, that awaiting us in the kitchen behind the shop, sous chef had prepared a sumptuous meal made mostly from the produce from the farm. Salad with pine mushrooms, pancetta and cedar honey dressing, roasted butternut squash, carrot and sweet potato soup topped with fried basil. Exceptions were blackened Sable fish with the North Arm veggies for the roasted ratatouille slaw and Salt Spring Island lamb chops with baby vegetables. It was a chef’s table like none other I have ever eaten at.

Because of Vancouver’s proximity to Hong Kong and Asia, there is a thriving China Town, the hub being Pender and Main Streets. How lucky that cookbook author, food consultant and Chinese aficionado, Stephen Wong, was available to show us his favourite attractions. First stop was the Sam Kee Building, the narrowest building in the world just in front of Shanghai Alley, one of Vancouver’s first Chinese streets. Wong pointed out the beautifully carved typical Chinese balconies from the late 1800s. Chicochai Antiques, specialists in jade, was a short walk and from there into his favorite fish store, the ‘best” butcher and green grocer with strange looking vegetables like loofah squash, butter melon, water spinach. “Ah, a new cookware store had just opened,” exclaimed an enthusiastic Wong. The pharmaceutical store, with a “Ying and Yang” quality had labels with Latin names.

After an intensive walk, the pony-tailed writer had decided that Phnom Penh, an exotic Cambodian and Vietnamese restaurant, was our place for lunch. But not before we tasted some Moon Cake at his favourite bakery across the street. The sweetness of that pastry summed up the wonderful western Canadian trip.