A short BC Ferries ride away from Vancouver is Gabriola Island, a place where everything slows down, where the food tastes better, and the salty air works miracles on your tired soul. Here are three reasons why you should plan a trip there soon.
What’s the biggest challenge in planning a vacation? When you’ve got kids, the mere thought of organizing them (snacks, activities to keep them entertained, etc) and yourself can lead to a dizzy feeling and a general sense of malaise. It might sound crazy, but sometimes just getting in the car and hitting the road is the best plan. Why? Because a short drive and a couple tranquil ferry rides away lives a serene world where the city buzz fades away, mossy green forests whisper your name and the ocean air replenishes even the most come-undone souls. Gabriola Island personifies the term Supernatural with a truly irie* island vibe.
*i·rie – adjective
1. nice, good, or pleasing (used as a general term of approval) “the place is jumping with irie vibes”
2. used by Rastafarians as friendly greeting
My wife, two-year-old and I spent three days on Gabriola tasting mouthwatering food, frolicking with alpaca’s and deepening our connection to nature. Read on to see what you could experience with a gust of motivation and sprinkle of adventure.
BRUNCH SPOT – Robert’s Place
You could easily stumble upon Robert’s Place as you drive off the ferry looking for sustenance, but why leave it to chance? Punch 560 North Road into your GPS and in a quick minute you arrive at a quaint little spot flipping through a menu featuring delicious, uncomplicated good eats. “I am very intentional with my food and for it to be straight forward honest food. I keep the processed stuff to a minimum,” says owner/operator Robert Stutzman. You might wonder how he is able to offer such a wide variety of food on an island with a population of only 4,000 people (at peak season). “Part of the challenge with food service is when you find a good product that’s made with good ingredients, I have no problem sticking with that. It’s a balance between labour and good products. Food is experiential but it should also be sustainable,” he says.
Robert sits down with us to enjoy brunch while he shares his story about how an entrepreneurial soul managed to land as a full-time resident on Gabriola Island and turning a cafe into the beloved Robert’s Place. Robert was raised on a farm in Edmonton under the watchful eye of his mom who constantly encouraged him to be creative (and messy) in the kitchen. That upbringing was the seed for what is now a life passion.
“Go up to the very end of Berry Point Road and just sit and look at the snow-capped mountains and think,” he says. “Some people pay millions of dollars on property here just to see this view.” He also recommends we visit the Malaspina Galleries and the petroglyphs.
With our bellies full of artisan bacon and local eggs, fresh fruit, pancakes and coffee we say goodbye to Robert certain we will be back soon to check out his homemade pies, pastries and cakes.
LLAMAS, PONIES, ALPACAS, OH MY! – Paradise Island Alpaca Farms
If you are looking for a storybook adventure you cannot skip Paradise Island Alpaca Farms. It transforms even the most hardened adults into giggling, inquisitive five-year-olds only interested in one thing: more playtime. Imagine a small herd of fuzzy, friendly quadrupeds just as curious about you as you are of them, checking you out with luxuriant lash adorned eyes, wanting nothing more than a big hug and a handful of oats.
The farm is a shining example of a near self sustaining ecosystem that doubles as a life passion for Taylor Turrie and husband Dave, as well as an educational resource for school groups, youth interns and tourists looking to experience something exceptional.
The farm is home to a dozen alpacas, one llama, half a dozen miniature horses (ponies), and two dozen chickens. Taylor developed trails that wind and twist around the property for guests and interns to explore the farm. Each trail is themed to engage the creative minds of those interested in exploring the world of dragons and fairy tales. Her latest project is a Japanese garden themed trail. As she tells it, Taylor’s vision is to develop the farm into a multi-faceted ranch with a focus on sustainable farming practice and a section dedicated to the study of different fibres, including alpaca, milk silk, bamboo, merino, and soy silk. There is also a studio where folks young and old can take part in spinning fibers into yarn and experience first-hand the steps that go into what we wear (or don’t wear). There’s also a retail space featuring garments made by Taylor herself or by Peruvian weavers she has partnered with. We indulged in one of Taylor’s handmade three-layer scarves and some reversible mittens made out of alpaca from the farm.
If you get a chance to go out and visit Paradise Island be sure to ask Taylor about how she met the love of her life and what he bought her as an engagement present. Hint: it wasn’t a ring. Think four legs and long eyelashes times two.
EAT & SLEEP HERE – Surf Lodge and Pub
The Surf Lodge and Pub has been a beacon on Gabriola Island for decades. It recently had an overhaul in staffing, management and visioning. We arrive just as the rain stops and take a tour of the property, which includes eight cabins and two large lodges that house the main restaurant and pub. At the restaurant we are greeted by Linsay, the manager, who ushers us to a table snuggled beside two large bay windows with a stunning view. The atmosphere is serene and just what we need after a soggy day at the beach. Linsay tells us she has spotted more porpoises that you could count. So we keep an eye out for them as well as whales, otters, eagles, and, of course, cruise ships.
Turns out Linsay got involved at the Surf Lodge by accident. “I just came to see if I could get a job throwing parties,” she says. “I’m an artist, I do lots of things, I build anything, I don’t care what the medium is. I vision and build. The circumstances were that the timing was right in my life and now I’m here,” she adds. With a background in jewelry and product design it makes sense that Linsay is at the helm of the historic landmark. “The owners have been very gracious in encouraging all the staff here to participate in making it great. And so we are. We are inventing the kinds of events that we have, we are inventing the kind of entertainment we bring in, we are inventing the kind of food that gets served. We are unique on the island, we don’t want to be like anybody else. So it’s very satisfying.”
Every one on staff has some artistic superpower that made me feel that maybe the magic behind the place isn’t mere coincidence. From bartenders who have traveling bands, to a head housekeeper who is an accomplished vocalist, wood-worker and theater actor, to the freestyle rapper washing dishes. “We are the living room for the community. We do the funerals, weddings, barmitzvahs, batmitzvahs, birthday parties for the little kids, for the old people, anniversary dinners. We can morph the big beautiful rooms and move all the stuff around,” Linsay adds as she leads me beyond the fireplace to the location of a 72-person Thanksgiving dinner table getting set up for the weekend.
The Lodge’s most recent addition is head chef Aaron Pope, who sends out a scrumptious salmon lox crostini that all but disappears shortly after a soft landing on the table. The Denman Island savoury clams with a freshly baked baguette are also a hit at our table. We also try the ladies lunch special, an open-faced sandwich with back-bacon and Swiss cheese, a Jerk Chicken BLT, and the seafood chowder. All that food makes us parched, so we drink one (or maybe two) glasses of red wine from Robin Ridge Winery – a Gamay that is light and fruity with aromas and flavours of plums and cherries, backed up with notes of mocha and a touch of oak. Wine with lunch? Why not. Don’t judge until you’ve tried it.
Before arriving at the Lodge, Chef Pope worked in fine dining spots in Victoria, the Comox Valley and Maple Ridge. “I saw the job advertised and applied for fun. I’d never seriously considered living on one of the Gulf Islands,” he says. Lindsay called him in, Pope stayed two nights on Gabriola and made the move from the Comox Valley a month later. So how did he come up with the menu? “I spoke to the front of house manager Brent O’Brien a lot as he’s lived on the island for 13 years,” he says. “I ended up with the idea of downhome approachable food without the pretence and without ingredients that nobody would understand. I wanted to create a menu that is as comfortable and yet fresh like the island. Something for everybody and any age, or state of finances,” he adds. Pope sources many of the ingredients locally and has developed a close relationship with Slow Rise Bakery on the island.
Our meal ends with a light-as-island-air cheesecake set atop a light fluffy filo pastry. Before the food coma sets in, we speed off to catch our ferry back to Vancouver.
We spend the next couple of hours exploring the ferry, Queen of Oak Bay, which thankfully offers plenty of distractions for both adults and kids. We hit up the children’s play zone as a better option than chasing my son in circles around the main deck. Oh how quickly that irie vibe slips away. The good news is we are well rested, very well fed and feeling good about heading out this way again during the winter storm season. We hear storm watching is the new fun family adventure. Perhaps we will pay a visit to Ucluelet next month.
Photos: Justine Summers