From land and sea: Vancouver Island’s
ingredient-driven food scene

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Farmlands in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island is blessed with a mild climate, fertile soil, and bountiful waters that surround it. Almost anything and everything grows here. Grapes for wine and barley for beer. Briny oysters, buttery Dungeness crab, and rosy sockeye salmon. Wild mushrooms and berries. Even truffles and tea thrive in this rich land.

It’s those ingredients that flavour the cuisine here, making it truly unique to this magical place on the planet. Here are just a few places to savour it.

Kayaking through Victoria’s Inner Harbour. | Reuben Krabbe

Greater Victoria

If your memories of British Columbia’s capital city are of cozy pubs, lingering afternoon teas and vintage “Tudorbethan” architecture, well, you’re not wrong, but that’s not all there is to Victoria’s vibrant and exciting food culture. This thriving, tech-forward city is surrounded by farmlands that feed a fiercely loyal farm-to-table dining scene. It’s led by restaurants such as Olo, Agrius, and 10 Acres Bistro, which even has its own farm. Spinnakers Gastro Pub is Canada’s original brewpub, and one of many craft breweries in Victoria, including several along the “Beer Mile” near the Inner Harbour.

Many local restaurants source ingredients from farms along the Saanich Peninsula, an arm of land that juts northeast into Haro Strait, ending at the Swartz Bay ferry terminal. Now Saanich is developing its own dining scene. Experiences range from the luxe afternoon tea at the famous Butchart Gardens to the cheese-and-wine flights at The Farmer’s Daughter in Sidney, and longtable dinners at the Fickle Fig Farm Market.

A man and his dog walking in the vineyard at Garry Oaks Vineyard & Winery on Salt Spring Island. | Andrea Johnson

Gulf Islands

The Gulf Islands, scattered between Vancouver Island and the mainland, attract artists and adventurers in equal measure. Remote and wild though they can be, they also boast dining experiences that are well worth the ferry ride. Note, though, that some islands are taking extra precautions to protect their residents, so check to make sure they are welcoming visitors at this time.

Salt Spring, the biggest of the southern Gulf Islands, is known for its tangy cheeses, grass-fed lamb, sweet bakeries, and one of the most abundant farmers markets in B.C. On the finer dining end of things, there’s the gracious, European-influenced Hastings House, a Relais & Château property, as well as craft cideries, distilleries, wineries, and breweries to quench your thirst. On nearby Galiano Island, tiny Pilgrimme transforms foraged ingredients into modern cuisine, inspired by Nordic restaurants like Noma. And on Pender, COFFEE + KITCHEN cooks up gourmet pizzas and burgers for take-out at a retro-cool Airstream trailer park.

Merridale Estate Cidery in the Cowichan Valley | Graeme Owsianski

Cowichan Valley

From Victoria, the breathtakingly high and winding Malahat Highway emerges into the sheltered Cowichan Valley, whose name in the local Indigenous language means “the warm lands.” Venture off the highway and you’ll find yourself travelling on narrow, twisting, tree-shaded roads past family-owned farms and wineries like Blue Grouse Estate, with its elegant Pinot Noirs, and Unsworth, with its appealing bubbles and farm-fresh restaurant.

You will also discover Deerholme Farm, where celebrated chef Bill Jones offers foraging classes and themed dinners straight from the garden. Stop by Merridale Cidery, with its hearty all-day brunch and stuffed-to-bursting sandwiches, as well as bakeries and fish and chip joints in the historic seaside village at Cowichan Bay.

Otter seaplane at the dock in Nanaimo. | Harbour Air Seaplanes

Nanaimo, Parksville, and Qualicum Beach

Along with their sweeping beaches and accessible adventures (such as hiking, kayaking, and eco-forest adventures), the charming ocean communities of Nanaimo, Parksville, and Qualicum Beach have a delicious flavour of their own.

Sweet tooths should head straight to the port city of Nanaimo. Long known for the chocolate-custard-and-coconut concoction that bears its name, it has established a “trail” of more than 30 stops featuring everything from Nanaimo bar cocktails to irresistibly crispy-gooey deep-fried Nanaimo bars.

Hedonists, on the other hand, should book a full- or half-day package at the Grotto Spa at Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort in Parksville, then slip into their bathrobes and take the elevator upstairs for an endless feast of Treetop Tapas (and plenty of wine to match).

And since no visit to the Island is complete without seafood chowder, a trip to Qualicum Beach should be on the itinerary—the waterfront of this quaint village is lined with old-school eateries serving bowls of rich, creamy broth filled with plump clams, mussels, and oysters.

Something else is brewing in this part of the Island: beer, and plenty of it, making this a must stop along the BC Ale Trail. Nanaimo alone is home to four craft breweries (Longwood Brewing, Wolf Brewing, White Sails Brewing, and the new Cliffside Brewing), with two more in Parksville (Mount Arrowsmith Brewing) and Qualicum Beach (Love Shack Libations).

 

Sunrise over a marina from Goose Spit in Comox | Boomer Jerritt

Comox Valley

The farther north you travel on the Island, the wilder, more rugged, and more remote things become. The food scene changes, too. Although the Comox Valley’s 400 or so farms grow everything from blackberries to bison, this area is perhaps better known for seafood, thanks to its numerous aquaculture operations as well as commercial and sport-fishing ventures.

The cold, clean waters around the twin cities of Courtenay-Comox produce a bounty of shellfish, especially the small, sweet, deep-cupped kusshi and robust, briny Fanny Bay oysters. Meanwhile, up the highway, Campbell River is justly considered the “salmon capital of the world,” and while many visitors come here to catch the pink-fleshed fish, many others prefer to enjoy it baked, grilled, or battered in the city’s many seafood eateries.

Of course, seafood also features prominently on the menus of Courtenay-Comox’s cluster of fine farm-to-table (and boat-to-bowl) restaurants, which include Locals Restaurant in the historic Old House, the chic new Oceans 7 at the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort & Spa and Il Falcone, where traditional Italian fare is made the way it’s supposed to be: with ingredients grown nearby.

Wandering the beach in San Josef Bay in Cape Scott Provincial Park. | Shayd Johnson

Northern Vancouver Island

North of Campbell River, the landscape becomes wilder, the communities more remote. This is a place to get immersed in nature, to be awed by the sight of orcas frolicking along the coast, eagles soaring overheard, or black bears drifting through the rainforest. This is also the home of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations, and their thriving art, culture, and culinary traditions, which for millennia have been fed by the wild foods produced by land and sea.

In Port McNeill, the waterfront bistro at the Kwakiutl-owned Cluxewe Resort serves an ever-changing menu of local prawns, mussels, crab and fin fish, prepared simply and deftly. Even further north, in Port Hardy, those same ingredients shine at the Ha’me Restaurant in the Indigenous-owned Kwa’lilas Hotel, in dishes like the k’utala (salmon) platter and rich, creamy, clam-and-halibut-stuffed Walkum Bay chowder.

 

Surfing at Florencia Bay in Ucluelet, Mike Seehagel

West Coast

The mountains that snake down the centre of the island protect the eastern communities from the storms that brew over the Pacific Ocean, leaving the west to face the relentless rain and wild wind full on.

Luckily, all that wet weather makes the wild things grow, and the rainforests around Tofino and Ucluelet are abundant with wild mushrooms, Nootka roses, spruce tips, and cynamoka berries. For chefs here, foraging often replaces farming as a source of ingredients—and that includes seaweeds, gooseneck barnacles, and sweet, tender Dungeness crab from the local waters.

Quirky, artsy Tofino has long been known for its food scene, thanks to famed hotspots like the Wickaninnish Inn, SoBo, and Wolf in the Fog. But recently, its bluer-collared neighbour Ucluelet has become a dining destination of its own, with Pluvio Restaurant and Rooms and Heartwood Kitchen serving elevated cuisine with a casual approach.

But no matter where you are on Vancouver Island, something delicious is growing nearby, and someone is already planning to make it into something even better. Word to the wise: arrive hungry.

Please note that many of the restaurants listed above are at various stages of opening—some have limited hours, others offer take-out only, and some are open for full service. Call ahead to reserve your seat at the table.

Featured image: Farmlands in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island | Boomer Jerritt

MENTIONED IN THIS STORY

Wineries & Wine Tours, Accessibility

Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard

One of the oldest Estate Wineries in all of British Columbia, Blue Grouse is truly a magical place! Nestled on a 32arce piece of unspoiled...

Phone: (250) 743-3834

View Listing

Wineries & Wine Tours, Accessibility

Unsworth Vineyards Tasting Room

Located on a picturesque country road in beautiful Mill Bay, British Columbia, Unsworth Vineyards invites you to experience the Cowichan Valley's...

Phone: (250) 929-2292

View Listing

Breweries, Distilleries & Cideries, Accessibility

Merridale Cidery & Distillery

Merridale is a delicious destination in Cowichan —an apple orchard, craft cider house, small batch distillery, and wedding/event venue. Join us...

Phone: (800) 998-9908

View Listing

Spas & Wellness, Cabins & Cottages, Hotels, Resorts & Wilderness Lodges, Accessibility

Tigh-Na-Mara Resort

Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort is located in 22 acres of forest beside the ocean. From our picturesque forested Oceanviews, to our comfortable...

Phone: (250) 248-2072

View Listing

Breweries, Distilleries & Cideries, Accessibility

Wolf Brewing Company

View Listing

Spas & Wellness, Hotels, Resorts & Wilderness Lodges

Kingfisher Oceanside Resort and Spa

Nestled in a coastal forest on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort and Spa offers breathtaking ocean and...

Phone: (250) 338-1323

View Listing

Indigenous Culture, Hotels

Kwa'lilas Hotel

The Kwa’lilas Hotel (meaning a ‘place to sleep’) is a premier First Nations four-star destination hotel located on the North Island. The...

Phone: (250) 949-8525

View Listing

Spas & Wellness, Storm Watching, Hotels, Accessibility

Wickaninnish Inn

Wickaninnish Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property since 1997, overlooks the Pacific Ocean from a rocky point on Vancouver Island’s rugged west...

Phone: (250) 725-3100

View Listing

Wineries & Wine Tours, Accessibility

Blue Grouse Estate Winery and Vineyard

One of the oldest Estate Wineries in all of British Columbia, Blue Grouse is truly a magical place! Nestled on a 32arce piece of unspoiled...

Phone: (250) 743-3834

View Listing

Wineries & Wine Tours, Accessibility

Unsworth Vineyards Tasting Room

Located on a picturesque country road in beautiful Mill Bay, British Columbia, Unsworth Vineyards invites you to experience the Cowichan Valley's...

Phone: (250) 929-2292

View Listing

Breweries, Distilleries & Cideries, Accessibility

Merridale Cidery & Distillery

Merridale is a delicious destination in Cowichan —an apple orchard, craft cider house, small batch distillery, and wedding/event venue. Join us...

Phone: (800) 998-9908

View Listing

Spas & Wellness, Cabins & Cottages, Hotels, Resorts & Wilderness Lodges, Accessibility

Tigh-Na-Mara Resort

Tigh-Na-Mara Seaside Spa Resort is located in 22 acres of forest beside the ocean. From our picturesque forested Oceanviews, to our comfortable...

Phone: (250) 248-2072

View Listing

Breweries, Distilleries & Cideries, Accessibility

Wolf Brewing Company

View Listing

Spas & Wellness, Hotels, Resorts & Wilderness Lodges

Kingfisher Oceanside Resort and Spa

Nestled in a coastal forest on the eastern shore of Vancouver Island, the Kingfisher Oceanside Resort and Spa offers breathtaking ocean and...

Phone: (250) 338-1323

View Listing

Indigenous Culture, Hotels

Kwa'lilas Hotel

The Kwa’lilas Hotel (meaning a ‘place to sleep’) is a premier First Nations four-star destination hotel located on the North Island. The...

Phone: (250) 949-8525

View Listing

Spas & Wellness, Storm Watching, Hotels, Accessibility

Wickaninnish Inn

Wickaninnish Inn, a Relais & Chateaux property since 1997, overlooks the Pacific Ocean from a rocky point on Vancouver Island’s rugged west...

Phone: (250) 725-3100

View Listing

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WRITTEN BY: Joanne Sasvari

From: North Vancouver
Joanne Sasvari has travelled to many places around the globe, writing about food, drink and culture, but her favourite destination is right here at home in British Columbia. Based in North Vancouver, she writes about BC for a variety of print and online publications, and is also the author of Frommer’s EasyGuide to Vancouver & Victoria. When not exploring the most delicious corners of the province, she edits Westcoast Homes & Design magazine and uses her Wine and Spirits Education Trust training to savour the best local libations.