The Cowichan Valley – also known as the land warmed by the sun – is a Vancouver Island region between Nanaimo and Victoria known for its award–winning vintages and wealth of seasonal ingredients that help make the 100–mile diet a reality here. The area is home to the largest First Nation population in B.C., the Quw’utsun (which is “Cowichan” in English), one of the Coast Salish peoples of the West Coast. The lush valley, rich Indigenous history and sustainable fare – from organic bakery goods to local seafood – makes for a perfect day trip.
From birding in old–growth forests to sipping homegrown gamay noir in award–winning wineries, the “Provence of Canada” on Vancouver Island is the ideal day trip when you want to indulge in the best of the West Coast.
Start the day in the welcoming harbour town of Cowichan Bay, the first North American community designated as a Cittaslow, one of 278 cities around the world embracing a slower pace of life (the 54–point charter includes prohibiting GMOs in agriculture and adopting renewable energy). Pop into True Grain Bakery, where every bread, pastry and sweet treat is made with organic B.C. flour, like the sticky cinnamon buns and flaky almond croissant (there are several gluten–free options, too). Next, go for a stroll past the harbour to take in the colourful boats dotting the water’s edge or get your step count up by walking in the lush surroundings of Bright Angel Park, a 10–minute drive from Cowichan Bay. There’s an easy Cowichan Valley trail through the old–growth forest that leads to the area’s only suspension bridge, giving you a panoramic view of the slow–moving Koksilah River.
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Known for mild winters and warm summers similar to the South of France, it’s no surprise that Cowichan Valley wineries are plentiful, including Blue Grouse Estate Winery, whose winemaker Bailey Williamson was instrumental in the area receiving B.C.’s most recent sub–appellation (a geographical area used to define where grapes are grown) last year. Head to its striking modern tasting room near Duncan (it opens at 11 a.m.) and enjoy the view over rolling hills and vineyards planted with eight varietals, including Ortega, gamay noir and the winery’s award–winning pinot gris and pinot noir.
After your tasting, check the skies for the stunning variety of birds in the area – the winery is part of the B.C. Bird Trail, inaugurated last year. The Cowichan Valley section – the Central Vancouver Island Bird Trail – lies beneath the Pacific Flyway, the major north–south migratory bird route from Alaska to Patagonia. Walk the nearby Kinsol Trestle. At a dizzying 44 metres above the Koksilah River, it’s one of the highest free–standing wooden railway trestles in the world, and a great spot to watch for different varieties of hummingbirds, robins, turkey vultures and B.C.’s provincial bird, the bright blue Steller’s jay.
Be sure to make time for the Totem Tour Walk in Duncan, home to one of the world’s largest collections of publicly displayed totem poles. The 44th totem pole – named Clan Totem of our Nations – was created for Canada 150 and installed in 2018.
Book a lunch reservation at Unsworth Vineyards. The restaurant is nestled inside the winery’s restored early 1900s farmhouse, and the food is truly local with many ingredients coming straight out of the organic herb and vegetable garden. Choose from small plates of seasonally influenced menus from chef Maartyn Hoogeveen, like the smoky seafood chowder bursting with wild–caught seafood from the Salish Sea. Make sure to taste (and take home) a bottle of the winery’s 2020 amiel, one of the world’s rarest grape varieties.
Related: Exploring the Oldest Wine Region in Canada (Spoiler: It Isn’t in Ontario or B.C.)
Drop into nearby Cobble Hill post–lunch, for a caffeine hit from family–owned Drumroaster Coffee (and snag a bag of their ethically sourced small–batch beans to take home). Then head south on the highway to the valley’s newest attraction, the Malahat SkyWalk. The elevated wooden walkway twists through the arbutus forest up to an accessible, gently sloped spiral walkway, which leads to a 32–metre–high perch, with great views of the Coast Mountains, Mount Baker and the Saanich Peninsula. Daredevils can take the quick way down: an exhilarating 10–second ride on the spiral slide.
A 30–minute drive from the Malahat SkyWalk is the Judy Hill Gallery where you will find a wide variety of Coast Salish arts and crafts, including jewellery, carved masks, cedar boxes and the distinctive Cowichan sweaters that evolved from traditional blankets made by Quw’utsun weavers, featuring geometric and zigzag patterns in naturally coloured wool.
Linger over an aperitif in the courtyard garden among the apple trees at Merridale Cidery & Distillery, offering flights of old– and new–world ciders (and friendly staff who will gladly explain the difference in flavours). For those who prefer a non–alcoholic flight, pick from fresh–pressed apple juice and their signature sodas, like lavender–lemon, ginger or fennel fizz. Shop the cidery’s homemade vinaigrettes, chutneys and baked goods, such as espresso brownies, strawberry rhubarb pie and their signature apple pie.
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Open for dinner Thursday to Monday, welcoming Cowichan Valley restaurant Masthead, best known for vegetarian and wild–caught seafood dishes, is the ideal date–night destination, with its Italian–influenced offerings (indulge in the B.C. halibut if available, for its delicate, almost sweet flavour.)
After dinner, visit Red Arrow Brewery Company to taste their signature Hop Shop Imperial and Chocolate Milk Stout. Located within the Arrow Custom Cycle building, beer samples can be enjoyed in the brewery’s tasting room or in the outdoor area featuring a historic Cowichan totem pole.
Make it a weekend
The cozy boutique Magnolia Hotel & Spa has just 64 guest suites, alongside the in–house spa (try their signature hydrafacial or Himalayan salt treatment) and the award–winning Courtney Room, where executive chef Brian Tesolin offers a six–course paired meal created with the day’s freshest Island ingredients. A bonus for guests: complimentary hotel bicycle rental and the Cowichan Valley Flavour Trail map, a hotel–curated list of the valley’s best foodie stops and natural attractions.