Where are you headed for Labour Day long weekend?
Read this before you make any final decisions
August 18, 2016
The Vancouver Island towns of Courtenay and Comox are exactly an eight-minute drive from each other, so a visit to one is really a visit to both. Courtenay distinguishes itself as the Comox Valley’s central “urban” hub (population 24,000) on the island’s middle-east side, which means a mix of restaurants, coastal treasures and wineries make CoCo the perfect summer stopover.
B.C.’s Best Oysters (That’s right, I said best)
Just like you start a Vegas trip off with shots, a coastal road trip should be christened with a round of fresh oysters. Twenty-ish minutes of driving south along the ocean from Courtenay proper (take the scenic route on Island Highway) lands you at Fanny Bay Oysters HQ.
This large oyster, clam and mussel farm grows its shellfish right out on the beach and in Baynes, Desolation and Okeover Sounds—significant because oysters, nature’s water filters, are only as good as the water they’re living in.
I had tried oysters reluctantly maybe once or twice before, but slurping back a Fanny Bay (even totally au naturel) was a transformative experience: where I expected fishiness, there was only the fresh, delicate taste of brine. It was like taking a sip of mild saltwater (but in the best way!). Fanny Bay tours typically run Tuesday and Thursday year-round at $10 a head, which includes an oyster tasting so long as they’re in season (call ahead to book: 250-335-0125).
Fuelling Up For Afternoon Activities
Back in quaint, downtown Courtenay, you’ll find local favourite Atlas Café on a sleepy store-lined street. The fare is somewhere between Earls and a home-style diner, with generously proportioned dishes that range from West Coast to Greek to Middle Eastern in cozy and colourful adjoining rooms. This adult paired a chocolate milkshake with my hearty chicken and mushroom quesadilla (stuffed with whole pieces of sautéed mushrooms and onions with roasted corn, spiced black beans and mozzarella)—and the friendly staff didn’t judge me one bit.
Your Afternoon Joy Ride
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, biking is the best way to explore new territory. Owner and operator of Island Joy Rides Laurel Cronk made the trip with her thoughtfully planned tour along the Vancouver-seawall-esque paths of Courtenay River (I thought I spotted a white shark, but it was a fat seal!), and around to beaches, farms, and highlights from the local food scene. Her hybrid bikes have all the gears so you easily transition from city hills to farmland roads, and before you go she puts out this amazing spread of snacks (there were healthier things, but I of course went straight for the jelly beans and M&Ms).
3 Notable Stops Along our Island Joy Ride
Blue Moon Winery and Ciderworx: Expansive and lush garden out back where the owners let us taste edible flowers—like the periwinkle-blue and white verbena (it tasted like a peppery radish)—along with award-winning sparkling ciders and fruit wines.
Hot Chocolates: Row upon row of handmade sweets (sea salt vanilla caramels and peanut butter Nanaimo bars—be still my heart), plus tons of chocolate gifts you can cart home to your favourite friends. The shop also shares space with Cakebread Artisan Bakery—make sure you tap every keg-like pot of ingredient-infused olive oils for a sample before you go.
Art Alchemy: Nine women have banded together to share a studio space downtown, so walking through the open-concept artists’ space isn’t intimidating or intrusive. I was instantly drawn to the work of Nicolette Valikoski, who creates abstract horizons and naturescapes in cupcake-pinks and -yellows that look like they’ve been spread on thick and creamy like icing.
Nothing “Small Town” about Dinner at Locals
Living in Vancouver sets the foodie bar pretty high (I suspect our McDonald’s will be the first to go organic-farm-to-table)—that’s what makes Locals in Courtenay an even more impressive gem. It’s housed in a 1938 residence called Old House, and close proximity to pastures and ocean waters means they can locally source bison, crab, oysters, rabbits, ducks and artisan cheeses. The jumbo scallop and pork belly on a dollop of carrot mash and oven-crisp kale was so good I almost felt bad about taking the extra portion (two of us, three scallops). Equally tasty, the prociutto-wrapped halibut was cooked perfectly on the dry-to-swimming scale and served with ample veg and baked polenta.
Your Waterfront Stay
The waterfront view from every room in my suite at Kingfisher Oceanside Resort and Spa had me gleefully prancing around like an idiot during a preliminary scope-out. I was right on the corner and at night splashy beach waves outside lulled me to sleep faster than a 100-level poli-sci lecture.
The Cave Kickstart
Kingfisher doesn’t have “spa” in the title for nothing. The resort’s unique hydrotherapy course (a.k.a. mixed-temp water treatments to relax and rejuvenate), isn’t your run-of-the-mill, splash through hot-and-cold pools—oh, no! After robing up you descend into a warm, dark, softly lit basement cave decorated with Disney-park rock walls and bleached driftwood. Your hydrotherapy concierge guides you through the course and moves your water and towel around for you like you’re a Kardashian. The alcove of high-pressured massage showers is amazing, but don’t be stupid and wear makeup like me because you have a scheduled event right after. You get absolutely drenched head-to-toe, so you’ll want to enjoy it, mascara-disaster-free. My favourite part was the sea kelp and salt scrub baths at the end. Portioned out in actual clam shells, you rub the handmade scrub all over and then soak in cozy one-person hot tubs carved into the ground. After showering off, you’ll be floating the rest of the day.
It’s Wine O’Clock Somewhere
They serve a fresh brunch at Kingfisher hotel’s Breakwater Restaurant (the best part is the view—eggs benny with a side of ocean panorama, don’t mind if I do), BUT you’ll want to save some room for what’s coming later.
The problem with wine tours and wine routes is that you need a designated driver to cart you around safely on those long farm roads. For my trip we booked a van and designated driver from Ambassador Transportation Corp who took us wherever our vino-chasing hearts desired ($70.75 per hour; another good reason to go with friends).
Stop at 40 Knots Vineyard and Estate Winery
This Comox winery is like a Texas ranch meets forest farm, and co-owner Brenda Hetman-Craig (who runs the place with husband Layne Robert Craig) is your friendly hostess with the mostess pouring the majority of your red and white tasters up front. (My fave summer bottle: the refreshing 2011 Spindrift Soleil Rose Brut.) In the back, rows of telltale vines are lightly fenced off to keep the natural lawn mowers from escaping (a crew of fuzzy, pet-able sheep, ducks and chickens). Back inside the airy tasting room you’ll see a host of recycled materials and vintage items, like the repurposed printing press tables and sewing machines.
Note: The problem with wine tours and wine routes is that you need adesignated driver to cart you around safely on those long farm roads. For my trip we booked a van and DD from Ambassador Transportation Corp who took us wherever our vino-chasing hearts desired ($70.75 per hour; another good reason to go with friends).
Pizza Paradise: Coastal Black Estate Winery
As soon as the toothsome waft of gourmet pizzas hits you outside Coastal Black, you’ll be thankful you skipped second breakfast.
Tucked into the forest in the Comox Valley’s northern Black Creek area, Coastal Black Estate Winery is an award-winning 600-acre fruit winery four generations of family farmers have called home. Besides a big tasting room for samples and browsing mead and merch, an expansive patio area beckons you out front. Post-tasting, I had a sunny patio table all to myself where I got to watch my pizza bake just steps away in the outdoor wood-fired oven. That flat-crust, pesto-arugula-goat-cheese-yam dream was worth the trip alone.