Travel: Hidden Gem

Alison Malone Eathorne | May 2012

Photos by Sooke Harbour House

Exterior: Sooke Harbour House

World-class waves and wilderness meet award-winning accommodations on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.

Blessed with spectacular beaches, Vancouver Island is a summer playground for lovers of sand and surf. While the Tofino and Ucluelet region is known internationally for its waves, oceanfront lodges, fine dining and art galleries, its neighbour to the southwest—the region stretching from Port Renfrew to Sooke—is a stunning destination perfect for those hoping to feel as though they’ve happened upon an unbeaten path.

STAY Situated on Whiffen Spit Beach, Sooke Harbour House is a destination inn renowned worldwide for its charming, West Coast-style accommodations and award-winning dining room. Dedicated to supporting local food producers and artisans, owners Frederique and Sinclair Philip have made their property a true showcase of the region’s natural bounty. Stunning original artworks by area artists line the walls throughout the inn, while guest rooms showcase locally crafted millwork and ceramics. Uniquely appointed with great attention to detail, each of the grand guest rooms features a wood-burning fireplace, an oversized soaker tub and/or misting shower, a bar stocked with port, coffee, tea and cookies and a private terrace—where guests take in views of the Olympic Mountains, the ocean and frolicking whales, seals and otters. Sooke Harbour House offers in-room spa treatments—including massages, wraps, scrubs, facials and aesthetics—that utilise herbal oils made with ingredients from the surrounding land and sea.

HISTORY Built in 1929, the idyllic clapboard farmhouse was purchased in 1979 by Frederique and Sinclair Philip. The couple had met in Nice in 1967 and soon discovered they shared a passion for cooking for friends, using local ingredients. With their children in tow, the Philips moved to Toronto in 1978. Having long dreamed of running a bed and breakfast in a way that echoed their lifestyle in France, the Philips were thrilled to come across Sooke Harbour House the following year. Since then, the couple has taken the property from five guest rooms to 28.

DINE Recipient of several culinary and wine awards over the years, the restaurant at Sooke Harbour House has long drawn food connoisseurs with its commitment to serving seasonal, organic cuisine sourced from the southwest coast of Vancouver Island. Seafood is served the day it is caught, while salad greens and herbs are pulled straight from the inn’s extensive on-site garden, where head gardener Byron Cook carefully tends to an oasis of over 200 edible plants. The restaurant’s daily-changing four-course menu might include dishes such as Vancouver Island freshwater crayfish tomato bisque, pan-fried Qualicum Beach scallops, roasted organic duck breast and artisan cheese from Hilary’s Cheese Company in Cowichan Bay and the Moonstruck Cheese Company on Salt Spring Island.

EXPLORE Under 40 kilometres from downtown Victoria, the hamlet of Sooke (population 10,000) is the gateway to Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, an area rich in old-growth forests, quiet beaches, marine life and wildlife (including bears and cougars). Within the 1,528 hectare park lies the Juan the Fuca Marine Trail, which stretches 47 kilometres along the rugged shoreline and is ideal for challenging multi-day hiking and camping expeditions. The village of Port Renfrew (population 200) is located 71 kilometres northwest of Sooke at the northwest tip of Juan de Fuca Provincial Park. The community serves as the southern entry point to the West Coast Trail, a strenuous, 75 kilometre hiking trail that runs north through Pacific Rim National Park Reserve to Bamfield. The region attracts all manner of nature lover, from seasoned surfers at Sombrio Beach and Jordan River to wildlife enthusiasts hoping to spot migrating gray whales and resident orca whales at French Beach Provincial Park. The crystal-clear waters at Sooke Potholes Provincial Park draw visitors wishing to swim and enjoy a picnic, while Avatar Grove—which garnered its nickname for its resemblance to the exotic forests in the movie Avatar—is home to stunning old-growth Douglas fir and red cedar trees. Intrepid travellers wishing to get a true feel for southern Vancouver Island can embark on the Pacific Marine Circle Route, which stretches from Sooke to Port Renfrew, turns inland to Lake Cowichan and Duncan and ends up back in Sooke.