On my last day on Vancouver Island, my generous hostess, Valerie Murray, arranged for me to travel westward to visit a coastal inn run by "the father of Slow Food in Canada," as she described him. It didn't take more than ten seconds to convince me.
Sooke Harbour House on Whiffen Spit Beach is an enchanting place. You can see the refined touch of its owners, Sinclair and Frederique Philip, at every turn. On my arrival, the rain began to let up, so I took a long walk around the grounds with Byron Cook, the head gardener. "Everything in this garden is edible," he began. "We don't grow anything we cannot eat." The young leaves of the Petasites japonicus are used to wrap food for steaming and served in broth.
Everything was beginning to poke its way up out of the rich soil; like every gardener I met in Victoria, Byron noted that spring was late. But I love this stage of a garden; everything is gangly and awkward; you cannot believe that twisted stub is going to become the elegantly leggy Angelica.
Byron began nipping the flowers off some of the plants, urging me to pop them in my mouth.
arugula; it was a revelation. All this time I've been tossing away the flowers when the arugula gets out of hand. What a waste. But I had no idea.
We went on from there--grazing our way through the red, pink, blue and yellow blossoms of sage, rosemary, geranium. Each blossom tasted like its plant, but with a sweet snap to it, because, of course, it had a drop of nectar at its base. I couldn't get enough of eating flowers. I began to understand the wisdom of the rabbits that grazed the tops off everything in my garden.
I love a garden where things are casually but artfully arranged; everything looks handsome because it is a pure and simply expression of someone's distinctive sensibility.
A metal lid becomes a basin for some stones and shells and a tiny moss garden.
A light for the path becomes a pendant dangling from the arm of a large piece of polished drift wood. Such good, easy ideas for anyone's garden.
I was somewhat soaked, and having skipped breakfast, I indulged in a grilled cheese sandwich and a salad for lunch. It was classy, unlike any I had ever made for myself before. Profound Comfort Food. I knew enough to eat every flower on my salad. There was a bathtub outside on my balcony; I eyed it warily, as it was quite chilly.
Sooke Harbour House is set on a gorgeous spit of land, so the views from the garden, and from the bedrooms, are breathtaking. I sat in a chair and watched sea otters play, and watched eagles patrol the beach. The inn is a simple, unpretentious place; what makes it so special is its idiosyncratic approach to everything from decor to dining.
The walls are covered with the art and craft of local artists, all for sale; I particularly admired a couple of paintings by Ken Kirkby (detail above).
The gift shop is a treasure trove of seeds packets, seaweed scrubs, hand-loomed scarves, hand-needled coats of many colors, and eccentric, colorful pieced wool quilts--the last by Anita van Dijk.
Things you've never seen anywhere else, in other words; that kind of foraging for goods is a lost art in hotel and museum gift shops, I've noticed. They are all beginning to look like they are using the same vendors, so when I stumble on what that is a true expression of its origin, I'm impressed.
Sinclair gave me a ride back into town so I could meet Valerie Murray (and tour the family distillery). He talked about his mushroom obsession. He is a forager. He keeps a diary of his finds on the inn's website. There was a huge cooler in the back of his car; I got the distinct impression that he was the sort of person who would run right off the road if he saw a particularly promising patch of habitat. He told me stories about his foraging pals, including the redoubtable David Arora, who wrote the mushroom bible in the seventies. From Sinclair's tales I had the impression that this gang was the Incredible String Band of the mushroom world and I felt nostalgic for youthful days of looking for the meaning of life on forest floors. When I asked Sinclair where he found places to forage, he said, "where the mushrooms are". He's not giving away too many secrets.
Sooke Harbour House is no secret, either; it is repeatedly included in international travel magazines' top destinations lists. It is the kind of place people love so deeply that they weave visits into the very fabric of their memories; they return year after year. What a pleasure to be the beneficiary of true hospitality.