The International Writers Magazine: John M. Edwards, the only smoker ever allowed onto the premises of snooty “Sooke Harbour House,” visits beautiful Vancouver Island in the Pacific Northwest on his own terms.
Sooke Harbour House:
Dining On Vancouver Island
John M. Edwards
Vancouver is indeed an “international city,” on par with other slightly vanilla claimants like Portland or Seattle, with many fabulous bistros to recommend it, many of them proudly locavore and buttonholed into the so-called Slow Food movement.
I decided to go native and visit a globally renowned restaurant on Vancouver Island, purportedly a favorite of Canadian musicians Randy Bachman, Anne Wilson, Geddy Lee, and Brian Adams (“PROACTIVE ™: It’s safe, it’s effective”), as well as SCTV comics like Candy, Ramis, and Moranis, that uses only local indigenous ingredients: Sooke Harbour House.
Since this famously expensive restaurant did not allow smoking on their premises, I booked a space in a little “Norman Bates” style motel with a flashing neon sign and a hot tub a couple of clicks down the road.
Off a boat and onto a gangplank, my Rockports landed on the wonderful cityscape fantasia of the ersatz capital of Victoria on Vancouver Island, named after George Vancouver, who explored the Pacific Northwest between 1791 and 1794. Giddy with vertigo, I wondered, blinking in the twinkling out-of-season Christmas lights, as was so often the case, what were the island’s exact measurements? A speedy perusal of my braindead Fodor’s Guide exacted the info: 460 kilometers (290 miles) long and 80 kilometers (50 miles) wide. Especially memorable when lit up at night, unique Victoria and I found ourselves suddenly feeling very British and patriotic:
I eventually left this festive outpost with my eyes welling up like, er, Duke Wellington? In no time at all, I parked “Avis” outside Sooke Harbour, set in a pleasant arbory setting of mostly Douglas firs and Western red cedars, with its very own herb garden.
As I stepped out of “Avis,” I felt like Canadian Mounty Dudley Dooright disturbing a sleeping marmocet, who scampered across the gravel driveway willynilly in a most amusing manner.
“After all, tobacco is a kind of herb!” I later reasoned, spurred by oh-so-insistent nicotine withdrawals, with the oversensitive waiter, whom I suspected was only the arch master chef in disguise.
“I suppose you can smoke outside on the beach,” the morose waiter relented. This server sported a rather sad-looking and ridiculous Van Dyke beard. I felt like snapping my fingers under his chin and saying, “Fiddlesticks!”
Outside, I memorized the egregiously gorgeous view resembling an infinity pool where earth meets horizon. I imbibed the native Native American weed down to its caramel-colored stub. Not bad, Du Mauriers! Not bad at all. All except for the graphic warning label on the pack, featuring the diseased gums of an anonymous cancer victim.
Consistently ranked in the top ten lists of various magazines, the Sooke Harbour House, occupying a sumptuous pre-Crash 1929 clapboard farmhouse, is owned by Fredérique and Sinclair Philip, offering 28 beachside NO SMOKING rooms (until I came, including outside) and does not come cheap at over 300 Canadian dollars plus a fifteen-percent tax.
I felt like a character out of “Finding Nemo” as I immersed myself in the Philip’s octopuses’ garden with no shade. Although, as a “gourmand” rather than a “gourmet” I was excellent at isolating ingredients, with this completely original restaurant I had to ask a lot of questions: sea urchins, triton snails, sea cucumber, abalone, squid, gooseneck barnacles, crabs, scallops, and, my favorite “geoduck” (the largest Pacific clam).
A serious locavore PC eatery, with an attitude, Sooke Harbour House always gets high marks for its food (a mélange of French, Japanese, and Pacific Northwest Indian), but many unprofessional reviewers on the Internet give it a thumb’s down on service, one of whom claimed that the waitstaff were “abysmal.”
What comes to mind for my own experience is “snarky.”
Even though local seal lions and seals and otters are not served, one suspects that occasionally native killer whales, lolling directly off the menu, make a surprise appearance as “blubber.”
Needless to say why, the Philips grow over 500 kinds of edible flowers in their private gardens.
Overwhelmed by their Inner Space menu, I at last ordered the Merlot-braised venison shoulder with buttermilk and Hyssop spaetzel, savoy cabbage with green apple, oregano, braisage, and hazelnut—all of it locavore and from its gardens and nearby wilderness. “Are these truffles?” I ask, a little unsure what these world-famous bonbons look like whole. “No, bear!” the master chef disguised as a waiter admits sotto voce, with an amuse bouche (amused mouth).
When I mentioned I would like to try “moose,” the waiter rolled his eyes and orbited his pointer finger around his head.
Not much else happened. I ate well, went back to my motel for a spin in the hottub, and then went to sleep, radiating with a mean nicotine buzz, combined with British Columbian ice wine.
As I was driving with "Avis" back to Vancouver proper, passing by some chicks in orange down vests whom are known here in this mostly Protestant and Satanist enclave as “Orange Girls,” I spotted an outrageous too-good gift of serendipity: a Black Bear!
I parked “Avis” and whipped out my digital Elf, as a couple of other candyass tourists with white “Hunter S. Thompson” floppy hats ever-so-reluctantly joined in on the potentially dangerous stalking of the beast.
The poor bear, a crybaby killer separated from his mama, just stood there flinching from a barrage of paparrazi flashbulb clicks: The Black Bear then did a doubletake and abruptly bounded back into the dense woods, while we fraidycats, the three and the twee, more chicken than the few and the brave, overtly thrilled to be way out here in the so-called wilderness, experiencing authentic non-zoo wildlife. At last, nature had dropped her knickers and put out, but now it was time to track down a different kind of nifty wildlife, following the patchouli-like scent of female arousal, which smelled an awful lot like the mozzie repellant Cutter ™.
Say hello to the gorgeous “Orange Girls”!
(Sooke Harbour House, 1528 Whiffen Spit Road, Sooke, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada, VOS INO, tel: 1 250-642-3421, e-mail: SookeILA@ila-chateau.com.)
© John M. Edwards, May 2014
e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org
P.S. I just won 22 NATJA Awards. I also won 2 Transitions Abroad Narrative Essay Contest Awards (2009 and 2012), as well as 3 Notable Essays nods in The Best American Essays (2011/2012/2013).
e-mail me: email@example.com
More travel stories