Lifestyle

Vancouver Island"s ultimate getaway hotel

By Bill Morton

Sooke Harbour House had been on my list to visit for years. ``Best Restaurant in Canada.'' ``Best Resort Inn in Canada.'' ``Chef of the Year in British Columbia.'' ``West Coast Center of the Slow Food Movement.'' ``Wine Spectator Grand Award.'' ``One of Canada's Five Best Wine Lists.'' ``Best Island Resort on the #1 Vacation Island in the World.''

The glossy travel magazines, the New York Times and hip travel Web sites fall over themselves in praise. Sooke Harbour House, 45 minutes west of Victoria on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, seems to win travel and food awards on a near-weekly basis. Now I know why.

Before I offer insights about arguably the Pacific Northwest's best getaway, a bit of perspective: Despite Oregon's fabulous coast and Washington's three national parks, and notwithstanding Montana's ``a river runs through it'' mystique, British Columbia is ``king'' of Pacific Northwest travel destinations.

A magnificent confluence of natural and man-made destinations accounts for its supremacy. Start with its cruise business. More passengers begin and/or end their cruises in Vancouver than any other city. People flock to Vancouver from Melbourne, Munich and Mumbai to experience B.C.'s Inside Passage. Vancouver's weekly inundation of visitors explains why it boasts more five-star hotels than any North American city. And attractive places like Victoria, Vancouver Island and Whistler/Blackcomb benefit from the cruise spillover.

Besides cruise lovers, British Columbia's island archipelago has captured the romance of the Greek Islands, amazingly even without the six-month Aegean summers.World-class resorts have sprouted on Saltspring and Pender Islands, like their famous autumnal mushrooms. Poet's Cove and Brentwood Bay are two top-of-the-line destinations.

Add its mild climate to Vancouver Island's blessings. Victoria is Canada's Miami Beach. Vancouver Island is its Florida. And as Canada's Boomers start to explore for retirement homes, the southern third of Vancouver Island is on their lists.

The result is an economy based on hospitality. Fine dining, elegant cuisines and luxurious inns and resorts are supported more than anywhere else in the Northwest. And the first resort to raise the bar and continue to raise it 26 years after its founding is Sooke Harbour House.

Sinclair Philip grew up on Vancouver Island. While studying for a doctorate in political science and economics in France Sinclair met his destiny. First, he was amazed that the foods and wines he enjoyed living in the southeastern Maritime Alps were from the surrounding area. Nothing was trucked! It was delicious, fresh and unique to his valley. What an idea! Local food served fresh -- be it rabbit, mushroom or herbs -- tasted better.

Secondly, Sinclair met and married Frederique, a woman with an eye for design, for art, for living and for enjoying people. Together they returned to Sinclair's roots and in 1979 purchased a modest B&B with an expansive view across the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountains and set out to make what Travel & Leisure Magazine consistently rates as one of the 10 best small hotels in the world.

Hotel? Yes, 30 rooms. No two rooms alike. But Sooke Harbour House is much more. It is B.C.'s finest art gallery. It is a laboratory of vegetables, herbs, and fruits -- so inventively conceived that the complimentary daily garden tour is a must. It's an aquatic dining table of seafood delights, with more than 40 varieties of seaweed harvested from tidelands that front Sooke. And the dining room is a graduate seminar of an experience for discriminating gourmands. The approximately $85(U.S.) ``Gastronomical Adventure'' is an eight to 10-course (I lost count) tasting of the sea, surrounding organic purveyors' offerings, same-day picked garden goodies and on-site made sorbets, with the option of enjoying wine pairings with each course at an additional cost.

For less adventuresome diners, the four-course dinner is about $61. It leans toward seafood with vegetables.

The rooms are equally inspired. All but one room has expansive views of the straits and bay with sun-catching rooms also abundant. Most rooms feature ample decks and many have outdoor hot tubs.

Ours was called the ``bird-watcher room,'' and the original wall art and carvings featured feathered friends. And while we saw eagles and other birds, our accommodations might have been called the ``sea lion'' room because we spied a number of them peering at us from the waters below.

Frederique has brought in local crafts people and artists to do original works for the large, multi-level rooms. Bedspreads and shams accent the rooms' themes. Sculpture and carvings from local woodworkers add to each sleeping quarters' uniqueness.

Breakfast is served in-room. Juices, eggs, pastries, jams, potatoes, tea, coffee -- all made to order. Very intimate and thoughtful.

Sooke Harbour House handles lunch in its own way. Since people come to Sooke to enjoy the outdoors, lunchboxes from its kitchen are perfect for the mile-long walk out Whiffen Spit or for a bike ride up the coast to Jordan River to watch the surfers.

In our three-day weekend stay, of all the enjoyable facets I delighted in, the art was the highlight. Frederique, with her European upbringing and university education, has exquisite artistic sensibilities. Her rooms, hallways, library, sitting rooms, potlatch meeting room and dining areas abound with the best of Northwest coastal art. Natural fir and cedar carvings, First Nation soapstone carvings, oils and acrylics, metal sculpture, and native basketry -- it's here to enjoy. Most of the pieces are for sale. And, while nothing the Philips display is cheap, the prices match the quality.

If you go:

For more information, go to www.sookeharbourhouse.com or call 250-642-3421.

Getting a room on a weekend in summer requires a reservation well in advance, in some cases a year ahead. But snagging one in the shoulder seasons (May 1-June 30 and Sept. 16-Oct. 15) and in the quiet season (Oct. 16-April 30, except Christmas and New Year's) is often possible with a few days notice. For best results, call at least two weeks ahead.

Sooke Harbour House is a very long, expensive taxi ride from downtown Victoria, so it's best to take a car and go by ferry. I like the much more frequent service and the faster crossings of the B.C. Ferry system, departing from Tsawwassen north of the Blaine crossing. Heads up: the latest upgrade to B.C.'s mega-ferries is the new ``first class'' service in the Sea-West Lounge. For a $7 (Canadian) premium, guests will enjoy complimentary Starbucks coffee, cheeses and pastries, the daily newspaper and extra comfortable lounge chairs.

Go to www.bcferries.bc.ca #

Two for the road

In this space our readers share their travel delights and discoveries.

Well-traveled longtime Mercer Islander Eric Meltzer offers recent discoveries, both also on Vancouver Island. ``Not to be missed, the oceanfront Stumble Inn B&B, www.stumbein.ca, at 466 Meredith Road, Mill Bay. The owners, Al and Bev Robinson, built a gorgeous home for their grown children to visit and decided during construction to add additional rooms for family and friends.''

Eric also discovered the Merridale Ciderworks, www.merridalecider.com, near Mill Bay at Cobble Hill. The Ciderworks provides tours as well as tastings. ``Furthermore,'' Eric adds, ``they have just recently begun a lunch service that is sumptuous.''

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