Welcome to the Cowichan Valley, BC | Hometown Hostess

cowichan valley
Cowichan Valley - Photo: Manda of "Her Van Isle Life"
We started the Hometown Hostess series in Charlottetown, PEI and now we have landed on another beautiful island on the opposite side of our great country. 

This week's hostess and I have known each other practically all of our lives but have never lived in the same place, have never gone to school together, and have never worked in the same industry. We were brought together by the location of Heather's grandparents' house... a few houses away from where I grew up. She and her family visited every summer and so although we have never lived in the same place there are very few of my birthday parties that Heather missed.                                                                                                                                                                      Gifted with a witty sense of humour just like her Mom, Heather has always been a delight to call upon during my west coast travels and still today, although we do not live near one another she was more than happy to share her insight for her adopted hometown in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island.

An Explorer's Paradise in the Cowichan Valley, BC
by Heather Cooke
cowichan valley
I wasn’t born on the west coast but it’s my home and has been such for 19 years.  I therefore couldn’t pass up the opportunity to brag about it when Jenna asked if I would be a Hometown Hostess.  I’d like to invite you all to the place which unexpectedly became my home five years ago, the Cowichan Valley, on beautiful Vancouver Island.
tree roots

The Cowichan Valley (pronounced COW-itch-ahn) is located about an hour north of Victoria and is named “Cowichan” after the Hul’q’umi’num word “Quw’utsun” meaning “warm land.”  This wonderful valley boasts one of Canada’s most temperate climates (The leaves started opening on the trees in late February!).  I should point out that despite the lack of temperature variation from summer to winter, the Valley is part of a coastal rain forest so it may not be too hot or cold but you should always be prepared for rain.  That being said, rain never stops those of us who live here from doing anything at any time of year.

I hummed and hawed about what to really focus on in this post because of the vast array of things to do, so I’ve decided to keep it to the basics – food, recreation and drink.

coffee
I love food, but if someone told me to pick coffee or food, I’d probably pick coffee. If I need a quick pick-me-up but don’t want to venture far from home then I stop at Drumroaster Coffee in Cobble Hill.  If you enjoy drip coffee or espresso you can’t go wrong here, and they even make their own house-made nut milks if you’re not one for dairy – try the almond milk latte, it is a new favourite of mine, in addition to the staple cinnamon brioche. 

If you’re a bit further north in Duncan, be sure to stop by The Garage Café.  Serving Peaks Coffee (another local roasting company), this place never stops being busy at all times of the day.  Here, you can find a ridiculous array of hot and cold vegetarian, vegan, and gluten free options covering breakfast to lunch to afternoon snacks.  If you like their coffee, you can find Peaks Coffee at the year-round Duncan Farmer’s Market held on Saturdays from 10am-2pm in town square. 

Unsworth VineyardsIf you are looking for restaurants, and not looking to spend a ton, then consider stopping by the Old Fork located in the Ramada Hotel just off the main highway through Duncan.  It has great breakfast and a very long lunch and dinner menu and is very tasty.  Other places to check out include the Craigstreet Brewpub and/or its attached restaurant Just Jakes (exact same menu with the same kitchen but the restaurant is U19 friendly).   Another nifty place which has made its way onto the map is the Rock Cod Café in Cowichan Bay; nothing fancy about the food but it’s good and if you’re on the go they have a take out menu!

If you’re looking for a more upscale dining experience, my absolute favourite place in the Valley is the restaurant at Unsworth Vineyards.  They do both small and large plates and I’ve never been disappointed by anything.  Plus, wine! (more on that later).  Their menu changes with the seasons and their patio in the summer is just a great place to sit, eat and drink.   I have so many other places to eat so see the end for an abbreviated list in "Heather's Picks".

On weekends, after caffeinating myself with my usual supply of Peak’s coffee at home, I inevitably get pestered by my ever-so-adorable dog Gus to be taken for a walk outside. Depending on what kind of hike you want to venture on, you can range from a relatively flat gravel trail to a relatively steep hike, and none of the options are outside a 30 minute radius from one another.  

If you’re looking for a flat trail to meander down, head to the Cowichan Valley trailhead in Shawnigan that leads to the historic Kinsol Trestle.  This trestle was originally used for the Esquimalt & Nanaimo railway but was restored to be part of the Trans Canada trail system.  Despite the fact the trestle is rock solid stable and has guardrails on either side, it hovers 44m above the Koksilah River, so if you’re not one for heights it may not be the place for you, or just walk quickly to the other side like I do.
Kinsol Trestle
dog

Other favourite places to walk include Cobble Hill mountain and Stoney Hill Recreation Area.  Both are great options for families, with the trails not being too steep and well-marked.  Cobble Hill’s trails are multipurpose so beware of horses, mountain bikers, and other hikers (Note: most mountain bikers are very friendly in the area despite some people’s negative stereotypes).  This is Gus’ favourite hike with me, and he enjoys the view at the top.

Stoney Hill is a walking trail only, so you won’t run into mountain bikers or horses.  The trail is pretty easy to walk, and is only about a 3km loop which can be done in about 30 minutes at a good pace.  The view from the lookout areas on this walk are spectacular so I’ll leave the picture to speak for itself.

cowichan valley

merridale estate ciderIf you’re not into hiking, mountain biking, or generally being outside, well then you can enjoy the outdoors at many of the wineries in our area.  Most people are familiar with wines in BC coming from the Okanagan region, but the Okanagan is a 1 hour drive + a 1h 45 minute ferry + another 5 hours drive away from here.  Fortunately, our temperate climate makes for delicious wine right here without venturing too far.  There are companies that offer tours to many of the wineries in the area, or you can designate a driver and venture on your own tour.  I couldn’t find a succinct list anywhere online, however at many of the wineries, they have maps to all of them.  I made a small list and came up with a whopping 12 wineries, in addition to one cidery/distillery, 2 other distilleries, and 3 breweries in the area.  Take your pick!  Unsworth Vineyards is one of my favourite wineries as well as Averill Creek, where you can bring a picnic and enjoy it on their patio while enjoying some of their wine.  Merridale cidery/distillery is also a great place to go and do a tasting in the summer, and you can also rent out a yurt to stay in overnight!  The Ortega grape grows very well in the area so it’s a must to try.  There are mixed reviews about our local reds (I am not a big red wine drinker so I will leave this up to you to find out for yourself!).  All the wineries and distilleries in the area are locally owned operations, so you can imbibe and feel good about supporting local businesses!  And if you can’t get out here to try some delicious Cowichan Valley Wine, some of the wineries do orders online for those who are out of province, so all the more reason to enjoy some BC wine even if you’re out on the other side of the country.

When you’re in love with something it feels as though words aren’t enough.  This is exactly how I feel about where I live.  There’s so much to do and explore, and even after living here for 5 years I haven’t even scratched the surface. I invite you to come eat, drink, be outside, and enjoy our coastal-scented valley!  Be sure to share this post and save it for all of your trip planning needs.

If you would like to become a Hometown Hostess and give us a tour of your hometown (or adopted hometown), filled with local flavor and the “real suggestions” of what to do, contact Jenna at jenna.l.macdonald@gmail.com with “Hometown Hostess” in the subject line.

Heather's shoes for that: Women's MOAB 2 GORE-TEX Hiking Shoes
hiking shoes

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cowichan valley


BONUS - HEATHER'S PICKS

Go to Restaurants:
  • The Restaurant at Unsworth Vineyards
  • Hudson’s on First – upscale dining in a cozy atmosphere – the restaurant is in an old house which has been redone inside into different rooms 
  • The Royal Dar – delicious Indian cuisine in the heart of Duncan, also in an old house that has been retrofitted to be a restaurant
  • Pizzeria Prima Strada – a franchise originally out of Victoria, BC where you can find tasty Neapolitan style pizza for everyone in the family

Other Go to Places for Drinks (& also food):
  • Sawmill Taphouse – features a VAST variety of brews, wines and ciders from Vancouver Island and BC
  • Riot Brewing – literally next door to the Sawmill Taphouse in Chemainus BC.  No food available here
  • Old Firehouse Wine & Cocktail Bar – Wine for days from many places as well as unique cocktail menu and delicious food for a slightly elevated but completely worth-it price
  • Red Arrow Brewing 
  • Stillhead Distillery – just opened in the last 6 months, currently doing gin and vodka and they will be releasing their first whiskey in 4 years’ time (as per whiskey rules)

Family Activities:
  • BC Forest Discovery Centre – an outdoor facility dedicated to education about BC’s trees and forestry industry.  It has a train which takes people on rides but does close seasonally.
  • The Raptors – learn about birds of prey and watch them soar!
  • Biking – Visit the guys at Cycle Therapy Bikes for bike rentals while you’re in the area.  They’ll give you all the tips on where to go and outfit the whole family for a biking adventure.

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