It is only 81km away but it takes nearly 4 hours to get there, sometimes 6 if you don’t book the ferry. And no matter how prepared you are to leave, you are inevitably racing down highway 99 with minutes left to catch the boat. Time then slows down as the strange purgatory filled with White Spot food and countless island stops gets under way. The fabulous scenery glides past you unwatched as you wait, listening to the tinned sounds of angry birds from the multiple devices handed over to children. I’ve done this route a few times.
But if you persevere and are lucky enough to have fabulous in-laws that have a great house near the beach, the ails of the journey slip away as quickly as the dock at Long Harbour and you can finally relax. We manage to get over 3-4 times a year, spending plenty of time at Beddis Beach, hiking through Ruckle park and eating our weight in everything Salt Spring has to offer. Cheese, Beer, Coffee, Wine, Bread, Mussels, Cosmic Munchies, they have it all. This time round, my brother in law and family were visiting too, giving us the excuse to re-visit some favourite farm stands and get acquainted with some new ones.
Our first stop was Salt Spring Cheese, makers of the exquisite soft goat cheese that is irresistible to pass up when spotted in any Vancouver shop. Their farm is a great place to take kids, not only for the goats and chickens, but for the goat ice cream. I’m not a huge fan of goat milk but their ice-cream is amazing, and the kids don’t blink an eye while slurping it back full speed. After a quick tour of the cheese making process, we stepped inside their tasting room. The full compliment of all their cheeses were spread out before us with several jams, chutneys, crackers and olives. Honestly, it’s a trap. Every time I go in there, I think to myself, they really shouldn’t have so many samples because I’m going to eat them all. And every time, I walk out with $50 less and a bundle of cheese under my arm. My favourite this time (and last) was the Ruckles, fresh goat cheese cylinders drizzled in garlic and fresh herbs. I could eat it directly out of the container with a spoon. We also grabbed the truffle topped chèvre, the camembert styled Juliet and just a chunk of their freshest plain to drop on beet salad later that day.
Back outside, we mopped up the dregs of ice cream from the boys faces and headed down the road and around the corner to Gulf Islands Brewery, nestled at the foot of Mt Bruce. Less exciting for the kids, but they tolerated it as we walked upstairs into their pint sized tasting room to find 5 beers ready to be sampled. It was a lot like a Vancouver tasting room, but far less crowded and with far fewer beards. I’ve always been a fan of their Golden Ale, made with local hops grown in the field next door but it was the aromatic Heather Ale that took our fancy, made with heather from Butchart Gardens, a short ferry ride away from Fulford harbour. We grabbed a growler of it, and with our stomachs rumbling, we headed back to the house to drink beer and eat cheese.
The next day, we got an opportunity to check out Mt. Maxwell Coffee. Most of the best things on Saltspring have already made it to the mainland, and in fact Salt Spring Coffee itself roasts in Richmond now. But Mt Maxwell Roasters, started 4 years ago by John and Lara, is only available on island. And it’s delicious. I know because every time I’m at the Saturday market, I grab a pound or two of their Existential Espresso and a fresh Aeropress brew to sip on as I pass by all the hippy soap booths. My brother in law Neil is thinking of starting up a roasting outfit in Germany so he was our excuse to check out their operation. Just a few minutes up Cranberry Road, past a farm stand stocked with bags of coffee (awesome!), we cruised up to a massive yurt with a open shipping container parked next to it. The smell was unmistakable, there was coffee roasting here.
We arrived just in time to catch a batch coming out of the roaster into the cooling tray. John had recently upgraded to a Diedrich 13kg roaster and it was very shiny. As the coffee cooled, we learned a few things from John about starting a coffee company. First, buy the biggest machine you can afford and train yourself on it. John started small and every time he upgraded, he had to relearn the process. It meant a lot of burnt beans in the backyard. Which leads to the second thing, always have a big pit out back for the learning/burnt batches. Coffee has a narrow window between the first crack and burnt, so figuring that out on a specific machine can take time. Third, leave those dark roasts for the people who love them, that’s where a lot of coffee producers can hide their suspect batches. When Neil asked him how long it took him before he was confident his coffee was good, John laughed and told us he still didn’t think he was there. But they must be doing something right, because they do roast a mean bean with their Banditos Breakfast blend on the light side all the way to the Evil Brew on the darkest side. We grabbed a few bags for the house and said our goodbyes.
After a couple of rainy days, we finally ventured out to Ruckle Park for a family hike and a couple more stops. The Kizmit cafe, open Thursday through Sunday, 11-4, is a must stop for my wife Clare. I think she would be happy spending her entire holiday there, drinking chai and relaxing in one of the more eclectic artsy cafes you can find on Salt Spring (and that is saying something). This cafe/art gallery always has great coffee and an assortment of locally made tarts, cakes and cookies from the neighbouring bakeries. We all had the soup, a homemade thai yam and veg served up with a slab of cheesy foccacia from Salt Spring Bread, perfect after chasing boys through the damp forest. We managed to eat outside at a picnic bench in between rain showers as the boys piled onto an old wooden rocking horse and Clare shopped for a new scarf in the adjacent outdoor clothing and craft shop.
Fueled up, we were ready for our next stop about 500 metres away at the wood-fired Saltspring Bread where the “Bread Lady”, Heather Campbell was baking up a storm as usual. We popped into their beautiful bakery which overlooks a fabulous view above Ruckle Park. Stacks of familiar foccacia rested by the door with racks full of an amazing variety of fresh organic bread. My father in law Simon bought his customary spelt loaves, which makes for the delicious toast. I often have up to four slices of each morning and a couple more at lunch. My son Rowan immediately gravitated to the Chocolate Bread which he spent his full pocket money of $5 on. I don’t know if there was caramel in there with chunks of dark chocolate throughout but that was some scrumptious bread too. We left quickly before we spent the last of our dollars. We needed to save some room for pie, Jana’s Pie.
Back in town, in a little tiny storefront behind Ganges gas is some of the best pie in the west. No Saltspring trip is complete without at least one pie from Jana. This time round there were two, both Mango Blueberry Ginger. Not a conventional combination but it worked. Add your cream or custard and you have yourself a great finish to the evening. And in my case, a great start to the morning too. And some more for lunch.
Which lead to my run the next day, all the way into Ganges. Eight and a half kilometres nearly worked off the pie, especially with all the hills. However, I ended up at Barb’s Buns, another family favourite, where I sucked back a Canadiano (Americano with coffee instead of hot water) and a few thousand more calories in chocolate croissants and cheese twists. I don’t know what they put in their cheese twists, but once you start eating them, you cannot stop. But at least I was keeping the White Spot at bay on the return voyage. With our bellies full, we headed back to the mainland, feeling like we had just nibbled the outer crust of what’s was available. This is the one problem with Saltspring. There is too much good stuff to eat. A good problem to have.