Drink Lover's Guide to Vancouver Island
With its bucolic farmland, rugged wilderness, and cultural vibrancy, Vancouver Island tends to stun first-time visitors. Add the islanders' enthusiasm for the art of the beverage, and Vancouver Island makes a strong case for itself. Whether you are a beer, wine, coffee, or tea lover—or a connoisseur of them all—you could spend a week on the island just drinking. Fortunately, there's an abundance of fresh, local food to keep your stomach full, too. Here's our guide to the best drinking trails of Vancouver Island and what to eat along the way.
Cowichan Valley Artisan Route
This region sits northwest of Victoria and boasts the highest average year-round temperature in Canada. To access this pastoral valley teeming with drink artisans, take the scenic car ferry across the conifer-lined shores of the Saanich Inlet, from Brentwood Bay to Mill Bay.
Once off the ferry, head north for a superb view of the valley at Averill Creek Vineyard, the island's largest estate winery. Proprietor Andy Johnston produces fine-tuned, cherry-scented Pinot Noir utilizing a unique growing method: He wraps his vines in plastic to create a pseudo-greenhouse effect. Before heading east to Alderlea Vineyards (appointment necessary), take a detour north. A curvy, country road leads to an oasis of organic tea plants. The owners of Teafarm start harvesting the plants this year; in the meantime, they source and sell organic, loose teas, handcrafted ceramics, and perform Moroccan and Japanese tea ceremonies in their garden.
Circling south, grab a bite in the quaint fishing village of Cowichan Bay from the sustainable seafood purveyor of the same name, before sampling local fizz from Vigneti Zanatta Winery. For those with an adventurous palate, swing down to Venturi-Schulze Vineyards and taste their polarizing and puzzling "Terracotta" wine. Produced from 100% Siegerrebe, the production notes are a well-kept secret. They also craft terrific traditional Modena-style balsamic vinegar. Take a coffee and panini break at the island's superlative Drumroaster Coffee: All beans are roasted on-site, and they offer multiple brew methods. Wrap-up the day with a sampling of unusual German grapes such as Bacchus, Ortega, and Black Muscat in Blue Grouse's farmhouse tasting room.
Beer Trail in Victoria
Known as the "Craft Beer Capital" of British Columbia (although rapidly being surpassed by Vancouver's recent surge in urban breweries), Victoria brims with a staggering number of breweries, brewpubs, and taphouses for a city with a population of 80,000.
For a brewery-focused circuit, hoof it to Phillips Beer, or take the ferry from the Empress Hotel to the Swift Street Landing and walk the last five minutes. Phillips' friendly staff will take you through their rotation of offerings like the hop-infused Electric Unicorn IPA, or the Hop Circle, featuring four varieties of hops. A short stroll from Philips, Vancouver Island Brewery, in business 30 years, is one of B.C.'s original microbreweries. Pass through their storefront and growler station to sample their latest creation, the Sabotage India Session Ale. Another 15 minute walk and you'll reach Hoyne Brewing Co. and Driftwood Brewery, two highly praised breweries within beer geek circles. Sean Hoyne honed his craft for 13 years at Canoe Brewpub, before finally opening his own eponymous outfit. Driftwood, conveniently next door, created the wildly successful Fat Tug IPA—a must-visit, just be sure to confirm they're open.
Victoria's brewpubs include the aforementioned Canoe, situated on the water in a stunning heritage building that once housed the city's coal-fired generators. Score a patio seat and watch the sun set with a hop-heavy IPA. Swans, set in the ground floor of a boutique hotel, is another old-timer known for its litany of awards and live music. Take a picturesque walk across the harbor bridge to visit Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub; their line-up of beers includes cask-conditioned ales served with elevated cuisine—think a farm-fresh beet salad and a brett-inoculated beer. Finally, for a taphouse that serves everyone else's beer, Garrick’s Head Pub, one of Canada's oldest English pubs founded in 1867, offers almost 50 beers.
Note: For an in-depth look that serves as a practical guide to Victoria and Vancouver's beer scene, pick-up a copy of Craft Beer Revolution, The Insider's Guide to B.C. Breweries by Victoria local Joe Wiebe.
Victoria's Caffeine Crawl
Coffee enthusiasts are spoiled for choice when it comes to choosing the perfect cup, with as many as 11 independent shops dotting the island. Local favorite roaster Bows & Arrows, founded in 2011, doesn't run a café, though you can visit their operation to sample coffee. They supply seven cafés in Victoria, plus shops throughout Canada and the U.S. Their beans are exclusively carried by Habit, its owners champions of sustainability: they purchase carbon offsets and transport supplies by Dutch cargo bike. Habit has two locations, the original in Chinatown, and a second at The Atrium, with floor to ceiling windows and sleek, modern design. Another roaster-cum-café called Fernwood was opened by a chef-journalist duo, and the adjacent café Parsonage sells the espresso-based drinks, hand brews, and a full breakfast and lunch menu. Other honorable mentions include Heist (727 Courtney St.), a small shop oddly located in a parking lot, which sources its beans from multiple roasters around North America, and 2% Jazz (2621 Douglas St.), a roaster and café open late in the evening and known for unusual coffee-based specialties like coffee-flavored cotton candy and foie gras ice cream affogato.
Mainland tea lovers heading to Victoria should replenish their pantries at Silk Road Tea (two locations), stocked with a range of teas from green, to white, to Yunnan province specialty Pu-erh. If you'd prefer to participate in the traditional British ritual of afternoon tea, served in delicate china on sterling silver platters with cakes and scones, reserve a table at grande dame The Fairmont Empress.
Where to Stay
Vancouver Island has a wide range of lodging, from farmstays to ocean front inns, but for short visits, Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula function best as a base. For urban digs, consider downtown boutique property Magnolia Hotel and Spa. Rooms furnished in a cool palette of grey, lavender, and sand, soothe travel nerves, as does the attentive, informed staff. If you prefer to sleep where you drink, book one of the modern suites at historic Swans Hotel & Brewpub, located in a beautifully restored 1913 heritage building. Nestled in a serene setting near a small fishing village, Brentwood Bay Resort &Spa boasts two on-site restaurants, a spa, spacious rooms (and bathtubs) with water views, and quick access to the Cowichan Valley ferry.
Photo Credit: All photos by Lauren Mowery
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