Escape from Seattle: Vancouver Island’s Sooke Harbour House
Food and wine pairing is a fabulous thing, but perhaps even better: a culinary experience combined with a world-class inn stay.
I sang the praises of the Inn at Langley and Cave B Inn in the past. How many superlatives can I sling about Sooke Harbour House, my third and final stop in my Escape from Seattle to Vancouver Island?
This is a true destination location, just 25 west of Victoria, on the southern tip of the island. I’d heard about Sooke Harbour House from an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations,” and seeing his extravagant meal, made a mental note that I simply had to visit sometime. After all, Gourmet magazine bestowed it with the honor of Best Restaurant in the World for Authentic, Local Cuisine.
It’s an odd-looking place upon arrival, conjuring up images of tacky little tourist shops I’ve seen in southern New Hampshire. But that’s because you’re seeing it from the back side.
Once inside your room (there are 28 total), you may never want to leave. Mine had the features you’ll find in most (configurations vary). In the center of the entire space, overlooking a wood-burning fireplace and adjoining sitting area, a deep whirlpool bathtub also had a view to the outside. For more water fun, the bathroom had a misting shower for two. A little upstairs bedroom made my room more like a suite, but I never ventured up there, as the main bed (see photo) was beautiful. Oh, and might I mention a basket of fresh-baked cookies, along with some port?
Walk out to the balcony (some rooms have terraces), and there’s an incredible view of Whiffen Spit, the natural breakwater between the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Sooke Harbour. It’s nice to lounge here if the weather’s nice, but it’s also worth getting out of your room.
There are some interesting things to do nearby. My partner and I took a light lunch at Point-No-Point Resort, where the dining room offers a breathtaking view. (If you’re looking for an alternative place to stay, the rustic cabins make for a great getaway.)
Creamy seafood chowder (at Point-No-Point)
Steamed local shellfish with saffron, leeks, house bacon, tomato, and preserved citrus (at Point-No-Point)
We made a stop at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery, where you can sample a variety of very good meads—and learn about the process of making them. And there’s hiking at nearby Sooke Potholes Regional Park and East Sooke Regional Park. But as we wanted to maximize our time at Sooke Harbour House, we limited our hiking to a wonderful little stroll along Whiffen Spit, where the inn is pretty much always in sight.
I contributed photos for the article my colleague Angela Allen authored about Sooke Harbour House in the current issue of Northwest Palate. Pulling from her introduction and closing, Allen wrote, “Art is a way of life at Sooke Harbour House…from the art that decorates the place, to the culinary art on the plate, Sooke Harbour House is an art lover’s paradise.”
The emphasis is local. Go ahead and explore! Check out the First Nations totem pole in front of the water. Make a point to walk through all the halls, where you’ll see the work of local artists throughout the building. There’s even local music to enjoy in your room.
You can learn more about the art and the area in the cozy library.
So much of the food is local, too. Owners Sinclair and Frederique Philip strive to source from local seas and farms (Sinclair himself has quite the foraging spirit, as he regaled me with tales of mushroom hunting), and much of the kitchen’s inspiration comes from the on-site organic garden. The two buildings are surrounded by 350 edible flowers, herbs, greens, and unusual vegetables. Be sure to take a tour, as everything grown on the grounds is edible—you’ll get to see, sniff, and sample so many things you might later see on your plate. (There’s also a seaweed tour in season.) I even got a peek inside the kitchen, and was treated to some candied morels. Mmm…candied morels!
Eventually, it was time to take a table in the 55-seat, quaint and comfortable (and, yes, artistic) dining room. With an emphasis on local products and seasonality, it’s not surprising that the menu changes daily, with dishes that appeal to all the senses.
With a wine cellar boasting over 15,000 bottles of wine, (featuring over 2,755 choices, including the world’s largest collection of Canadian ice wines), expect first-class wine pairings. But note that while Sooke Harbour House has earned well-deserved recognition with a Wine Spectator Grand Award, you can tap into the garden goodness by ordering herbal-infused non-alcoholic cocktails, too—reminding me of my experience at The Herbfarm.
The food is simply fabulous. Fresh, vibrant, and artistic are words that jump to mind. And, as I appreciate at a restaurant, educational. It was my first time to try barnacles! The photos tell the story of the meal:
A welcoming herbal beverage
Dungeness crab bisque garnished with a blue cheese crème fraiche and roast garlic crostini topped with garden chives
Grilled Qualicum Beach scallops with roasted peppers, Sooke Farms radish, grilled green onion, Otter Point gooseneck barnacles and cucumber horseradish vinaigrette (I believe there’s also tuna paste in this preparation)
Cowichan Bay duck leg presented on thyme-roasted chanterelles, braised zucchini and Blue Russian potato frites with a raclette cream and rosemary blackberry syrup
Miso and basil-glazed sockeye salmon served with herbed spaetzle, green beans wrapped with eggplant and Sea Bluff Farm kohlrabi, drizzled with a Dungeness crab, cucumber and borage sauce
Cowichan Bay chicken breast stuffed with leeks and ham and served with Black Turtle-Cranberry beans, sautéed kale and chanterelle mushrooms in a sweet and sour chicken stock reduction with mint and cilantro oil
Blackberry mousse on a Marble Grey scented sponge cake, with black currant jelly and served with a red currant fruit sage sorbet (this followed a selection of cheeses from Moonstruck on Salt Spring Island and Hilarys in Cowichan Bay, and preceded a final plate of sweets)
It’s not just humans who come to Sooke Harbour House to be nurtured. Like us, you might see deer searching for food, as well as enjoy front-row seats for otters frolicking in the fountain just outside the dining room.
You’ll appreciate staying at the inn after a wonderful meal—and with knowledge that breakfast, full of more edible flowers, will be delivered to your room to help wake you up the next morning. Indeed, Sooke Harbour House is the perfect place for rest, relaxation, and a really memorable culinary experience.