June 07, 2013

To talk of many things

Mea Culpa.  I take back all my weather whining and am officially in love with the Vancouver climate - for now. The last week has been glorious - warm, gentle breezes, clear visibility, no nasty humidity, great sunsets, sun streaming in through open windows at 4:30am, (OK perhaps not that) and, as an added bonus, no mosquitoes. I'm told that it can change in a heartbeat but, for now, we're good with weather and I won't mention it again, unless something catastrophic happens.
Ten days ago, we headed off to Vancouver Island for the weekend. The 90 minute ferry crossing was a delight, and we had great views of the Gulf islands, various stretches of water, and many mountains, which was a good thing, as the return trip with car and reservations was over $200.
Now, just to get it out of the way, I should say, here and now, that West Coast BC living is not cheap. The cost of housing is legendary, "attractions" are pricey, gas pricing is among the highest in the country, a grocery shopping expedition can clean out your wallet, and I've previously mentioned that other staple - alcohol. But, on the other hand, look at what you get - oceans, mountains, islands, fish, crisp, clean air, lots to do....... So, we'll just enjoy and add "cost of living" to the taboo list.
On the Friday night, we explored Victoria à pied, in all its twinkly light splendour; took a couple of water taxis, ate fish and, oddly enough, drank wine in a  recommended brew pub. We took some photos of the Fairmont Empress Hotel, where we were not staying, and took no photos of the chain hotel, which shall be nameless, where we were staying.
On Saturday morning, we went whale watching with Eagle Wing Tours. There are about a dozen whale watching companies to choose from, and I selected them because of their Trip Advisor #1 rating, their fast stable boats and their carbon neutral eco stuff.
There are about 90 orcas that reside in the waters near Victoria, dining on yummy salmon, and generally enjoying life. Of course, they're not so easy to find when the salmon restaurants are closed. In the capable hands of our enthusiastic guide, Chris, and our Captain, also Chris, but nicknamed Five O, as he comes from Hawaii, and bears a fleeting resemblance to Alex O'Loughlin, we saw about 30 different orcas, swimming around, playing, breaching and generally looking pretty majestic. There are rules about keeping distance from the orcas, and with two mobile phones to take photos, I don't have anything spectacular to wow you with, but they looked pretty impressive to us. Here are some orca whales. 
See what I mean.
On the other hand, this is a life-size metal elephant  in a garden near our place. I kid you not.
We also saw huge numbers of seals around a lighthouse and made a fair, though unsuccessful, attempt at spotting humpback and grey whales. If you go, take note that I was very comfortable with five upper layers, including a Goretex jacket and an Eagle Wing oilskin coat, two hats, gloves, hiking socks, and three leg layers. They also have blankets to offer. Don't turn up in your shorts and tank top!
After a late, and again fishy, lunch at Fisherman's Wharf, we took off for Butchart Gardens. We're not normally garden-visiting kind of people, but we did have fond memories of the famous and beautiful Reford Gardens in Québec, a national historic site, so we decided to give it a whirl. They're both fabulous gardens to visit. I know I promised not to harp on, but adult entry to Reford is $15.65 and adult entry to Butchart is $28.10.
Butchart Gardens started in the early 1900's as a project devised by Jennie Butchart, the wife of a cement factory owner, who decided to beautify a spent limestone quarry. It sounds like an unlikely and difficult project to turn an old quarry into beautiful gardens, but that's just what Jennie did!
Cafe Brio
Saturday dinner was at the fantastic Cafe Brio, to which we walked about 4kms - not an unreasonable distance on a nice evening in sensible shoes, which I was not wearing. The dishes were inventive and ours featured salmon (surprise), duck and local cheeses. We had a nice Pinot Noir from Blue Mountain Vineyard and Cellars in the Okanagan Valley, pictured here all nicely decanted, and resting in a  cooler for a while, as it was a little toasty for my taste.
I find that too many restaurants serve their reds too warm. Lighter reds, especially, often benefit from being served at something less than restaurant room temperature to bring out more acidity and to make the wine more vibrant and food friendly. If you find that your wine is on the hot side, don't hesitate to ask for a cooling bucket for a while. 
Vancouver Island Wine
Blue Grouse Vineyards
Our ferry back to the mainland was from Nanaimo, about 110kms north of Victoria, through the Cowichan Valley, home to some of Vancouver and the Gulf Islands two dozen or so wineries. I knew next to nothing about Vancouver Island wineries, so did some quick research over coffee before we set off. A few of them claimed various awards for this or that, so we were keen to investigate.
We visited three, then called it a day, as we were largely underwhelmed. There were some quite nice crisp whites made from Ortega and Siegerrebe that I liked. Particularly Enrico Winery and Rocky Creek offered up some nice Siegerrebe - aromatic and fruity, with good flavours and acidity.
Nothing in the red or rosé department appealed and, unfortunately, my notes contain too many words and phrases like thin, abrasive, slightly bitter, very odd, lacking in fruit. To be fair, we only visited three wineries, but I wonder whether the climate on the island is rather difficult. At least one winery brings in grapes from the Okanagan Valley, to supplement local production and make more full-bodied wines. Others are only, and proudly, using local grapes; some are growing organically. It's possible to grow grapes almost everywhere, but not so easy to produce great wine.
Despite my opinions, others have raved about wines from the area, so I certainly wouldn't discourage a visit up the valley. Additionally, it was a great drive with amazing scenery and we met a lot of nice people, which is probably why we ended up bringing home several bottles - all white, except the best of the Pinot.
Vancouver Island Single Malt Whisky
I had hoped to make a trip up to Shelter Point Distillery to meet the folks who are making Single Malt Whisky up there, but it's quite a bit further north than Nanaimo, so it didn't happen on this trip. The first Single Malts, although young, will be ready to purchase next year. Exciting things are happening in the Single Malt Whisky industry in Canada. Glenora Distillery is well established in Cape Breton; Still Waters Distillery in Concord released its first Single Malt Whisky in April; and we can look forward to some product from Shelter Point next year.
My 'hoods
John Fluevog shoes - Gastown
I've been exploring surrounding neighbourhoods by foot, fast foot, bicycle and car. It seems that Vancouver is divided into areas, like little villages, each with its own shopping core, surrounded by houses. We live in West Point Grey which, my new hairdresser/historian, Gina, tells me is one of the most expensive areas in Vancouver for housing. Our shopping area covers about 5 blocks along West 10th and includes a grocery store, liquor store, many pharmacies selling nothing I need, a bike store, some clothing boutiques, a few bars, cafes and restaurants, a whole host of specialty shops, and at least 14 hairdressers.
Famous Gas clock in Gastown
Gina suggested that I explore the nearby neighbourhood of Dunbar, which seems more vibrant and has a Shoppers Drug Mart (yeah) and a brilliant grocery store called Stong's Market, which has been around for about 100 years. The delight at finding a Shoppers Drug Mart is ironic as I despair of the fact that we have about 10 in Ottawa, including three on Bank Street alone, but when you need one, nothing else will do.
Also close by is West 4th Street in Kitsilano, a great neighbourhood, close to English Bay and downtown and just oozing with specialty food shops and restaurants.So many choices!
Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts
Last week, three of us headed out for dinner. The restaurant at PICA,cleverly named Bistro 101 is a fabulous venue, rather like Restaurant International at Algonquin College in Ottawa, where diners are fed and served by culinary students. Wednesdays are particularly popular, as the entire wine list is 1/2 price, although that prompted us to buy a second bottle of the one we liked, the substantial remains of which we took home.

The dining area is elegant and friendly and the kitchens are behind glass, where large numbers of capable students produce culinary delights. The food was inventive and very good, and the service fun and attentive. A mere query about gluten content produced some specialty products. When a bread was pronounced to be delicious, the teacher who had created the bread came to visit and share the recipe. Bistro 101 is a great venue near Granville Island. We'll definitely return. Reservations are recommended.
I came across this while I was out running. I was going to go on about it, but I won't. For the record, there are some great butcher shops in Vancouver.
Wine and Thai Food
We ate some pretty tasty Thai Food at Maenam, whose friendly and competent mixologist, Kristi, comes from Ottawa. Kristi, selected some BC wines by the glass to pair with a range of food from a spicy Thai soup, through fish dishes, salads, and delicious sweet and spicy ribs - not an easy task.
She did well. They were all from the Okanagan valley or BC interior and all very good. From Baillie-Grohman, we tasted an excellent 2012 blend of 86% Gewürztraminer, 8% Kerner and 6% Schoenburger; from Pentage Winery, we had a very quaff-able 2012 Gamay, Syrah, Pinot rosé blend; and from Lake Breeze, the 2010 Seven Poplars Pinot Noir was also really tasty. The upcoming trip to the Okanagan Valley is much anticipated!
Bicycle Friendly City
This past weekend we did a lot of biking around the city, which possibly explains why I'm standing now, as I type. From our place, it's a great downhill run towards Kitsilano beach and from there, we cycled through Vanier Park (kite festival),
around False Creek (DragonBoat Festival) and around the Stanley Park seawall, which is brilliantly divided for walkers and cyclists, with the cycle lane one way anticlockwise.
Then we hopped on a water taxi over to Granville Island and had salmon and chips at the Go Fish shack. Brilliant! I really have to cut back on the salmon, or the orcas are going to be disadvantaged. Then we had to cycle home - uphill.
According to the British Columbia Beer Guide, there are 68 craft breweries in BC, with quite a number in Vancouver. We made a start with Red Truck.

We have about 7 weeks to go. Let's see.........
This week's adventures will include some Bard on the Beach on Wednesday evening and a trip to Whistler at the weekend. Thanks for stopping by. I'll be back.