Thursday, November 14, 2013

#VislandGetaway: Ucluelet

this the first in a series of #VislandGetaway posts to satisfy
your travelling tastebuds without having to leave the Island!


Over the Remembrance day long weekend in November I embarked on a mini-adventure to visit the coastal town of Ucluelet. I haven't travelled to the True West coast part of the Island since I was very young, so a visit as an adult was long, long overdue!

Ucluelet Fast Facts

  • Meaning: "people of the safe harbour" in Nuu-chah-nulth
  • Distance from Victoria: 300 kms
  • Approximate Travel time: 4 hours
  • Population: 1,600
  • Major industries: fishing, surfing, tourism
  • Nearest city: Port Alberni (100 kms south)
  • Transportation options: 
    • Car — less than $100 for gas
    • — $130 round trip; arrives Friday leaves Sunday
    • Orca Air —$225 one way from Victoria to Tofino plus taxi or car rental; scheduled to fly Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays from May to October


Untitled  Untitled

There is a sense of expansiveness standing on the beach on the pacific rim that I can't quite explain with words. Somehow you know that that ocean goes out for a long, long way. It is really the ocean that is the centre of life in Ucluelet; the sea brings the surfers, the sailors and the storm watchers!

Although only slightly smaller than its neighbouring town of Tofino, the vibe is completely different. We found the shop owners to be incredibly friendly and helpful. Most were enjoying the off season, happy for a smaller collection of long weekend visitors after the throngs that invade the town in the summer. It seemed like every shop we visited had at least one young family member in it, and they all spoke about their decision to live and do business in Ucluelet as being in part about having an opportunity to both raise a family and run a business. My upcoming podcast interview with Amie, a Ucluelet foodie (whose dad owned Yoshi Sushi here in Victoria!) and manager of the local Surf Shop & Cafe, will talk more about what drew her and her husband to Ucluelet.

My visit to Ucluelet came out of a press release about the Wya Point Resort's storm watching season. It's rare that a press release arrives in my inbox that actually feels relevant to the kind of content I crave producing, but I was intrigued by the sound of their Kwisitis Feast House, a newly opened restaurant with spectacular ocean view and a menu inspired by traditional First Nations food. The Wya group of businesses is actually owned by the local Ucluelet band, who are now free of the Indian Act and able to found the Ucluth Development Corporation and start to invest in businesses that support the local economy in a sustainable way and provide jobs and income for the community. I had a really profound experience in a healing circle lead by an Elder when I was young. I have since had a great respect for a culture that has held on to such strong values — and a deep disgust for the colonization that has and continues to marginalize and disrupt the culture of those communities. That this particular community is reclaiming their land and finding a way to bring some long-term sustainability to their community while leveraging the innate appeal of their beautiful surroundings and culture felt like something I want to support. I was thrilled when I reached out to say I would like to write about the Wya properties as my Ucluelet stop and they responded back with an offer to stay for the weekend in one of their exquisite new eco lodges and dine at both the Feast House and the Surf Shop Cafe! What a great start to the #VislandGetaway series...!


We started our visit at the Surf Shop Cafe, next to the Wya Point Surf Shop, which is actually just to the right, towards Tofino, from the Ucluelet/Tofino junction. The Cafe is the brainchild of Chef Kent, who serves up a variety of warm comfort food to fill the bellies of hungry surfers and travellers alike.

After our long drive we were happy to take Kent's recommendations for what to order. I was excited to hear him explain that the halibut and salmon burgers were actually off the menu for the season, but that he highly recommended the island-raised elk burger. This would be a thread that would continue throughout our meals in Ucluelet; the value that the people serving us put on fresh and local really shone through. 


My elk burger, topped with wild mushrooms, onion rings and a house chipotle sauce, was fabulous. The fries were clearly fresh and hand made, with the perfect dusting of seasoning. My partner-in-food-and-life ordered the "Wick Griddle," a playful breakfast sandwich with a maple sausage patty from Pete's Mountain Meats in Port Alberni, a fried egg and local cheddar between two pancakes. 


After our meal we checked into our accommodations for the weekend. The lodges are practically brand new! So new, in fact, that several are still under construction nearby and the strong, fresh scent of cedar still hits you when you enter the lodge. They have clearly worked hard to create a seamless, luxurious experience for their guests. Every detail, from the surprising first step out of your boots and onto the heated concrete floors to the velvety soft inside of the duvet, feels splendidly extravagant. Despite the luxuriousness, we realized that if we had brought another couple — or two — with us the price point would have been well within even a small travel budget, and the two bedroom unit with a pullout couch provided more than enough space for 4-6 people or a young family.

Untitled   Untitled

We were staying in Raven Lodge, the two bedroom cabin at the far end of the private beach that all of the lodge buildings look out onto. Each one is completely individual, with a unique layout and house posts to match. Although we didn't make much use of it, the open plan kitchen was outfitted with everything we could possibly want to cook up a feast of our own. I have stayed in hotel accommodations more times than I care to remember, and across all star ratings. I have often said in the past that I would much prefer to spend my money on dining out rather than the actual accommodation, but this trip made me change my tune! The combination of place and space really had value. Overall, though, it was the ever-present sound of the ocean that really captured my heart. Falling asleep to the waves rolling in is something I could get used to, and waking up to the view of a tree at my feet and the beach to my left was not too shabby, either. 

Untitled Untitled Untitled

The houses each display the beautiful art of carver Clifford George. We were in Raven Lodge, where a house post of with a raven design in the living room felt oddly like as much a presence in the room as the people. Lights sunk into the red cedar beams lit up the totem at night, giving it even more personality. The otter designs above were recently installed in the building next door which is still under construction. 


The Wya Point property is literally at the edge of the Pacific Rim National park! This sign greets you as you enter, either heading to the left for the Wya Point or to the right for the trail. Because of this remoteness, the lodges are well and truly off the grid, with no internet, little cell phone coverage and no in-house phone. I was amazed at how little I actually "missed" over the weekend despite being so disconnected. It really made me second-guess how much I stay glued to my cell phone. It also means an abundance of wildlife: birds, bears and even wolves, so taking care to keep food sources secure is important. 

If the luxurious life is not quite your thing, or your price point, the Wya Point offers both Yurt accommodations as well as small campsites just one beach over. These camping/glamping options offer up an even closer connection with the beach as well as the opportunity for beach fires in the fire pits just above the high tide line. 


Our trip included dinner at the Kwisitis Feast House which was taken over by the Ucluth development corporation as an addition to their collection of businesses just a few months ago. In years past it was operated by the Oak Bay Marine Group as the Wickaninnish Restaurant, an extension of their Wickaninnish Inn brand from just up the road towards Tofino. 

After arriving in the dark and rain in the parking lot of the Pacific Rim National Park at the end of a long road we weren't quite sure if we were in the right spot, but after a bit of head scratching we decided to head down the lit path to towards the beach. We were rewarded quite soon after with a brightly lit restaurant and a friendly waiter to cater to our whims and endless questions.


The space is quite stunning, in day or night. During the day the view of the ocean out of the massive windows show off the natural beauty that surrounds the restaurant. During the night time, the First Nations art and broad beams take over the view on the inside.

The menu, also the vision of Chef Kent from the surf shop cafe, pulls in a lot of inspiration from traditional First Nations foods. Although the menu had ticked over to a more winter seasonal menu, there was still use of lots of wild game meats, seafood, foraged foods and of course, bannock. Kent has been working to train members of the Ucluelet First Nation with culinary skills to execute the dishes and manage the restaurant. During the summer months, there is also a sushi menu available. Our server explained that although he initially wasn't sure how that made sense with the heritage feel, he learned that there was a strong population of Japanese families in Ucluelet until they were put into internment camps during the war, so acknowledging that heritage is actually extremely appropriate for the history of the region!

I have been doing research recently for a Slow Food project on some of the indigenous foods that are only found on Vancouver Island that were traditionally foraged by the various First Nations bands, but the knowledge of how to harvest these plants have almost completely lost as a result of colonization. I would be super food-history nerdy excited if the Ucluelet band members to restart formal foraging or harvesting of some of these foods, like seaweed, riceroot, camas and thimbleberry or springbank clover roots, for use at the Feast House! I recognize that there are lots of layers of really challenging logistical issues impeding the viability of this... and also that those are super long term projects that take years to get going. However, it's exciting to me know that if this kind of project is within the realm of possibility there is now a perfect platform for those foods to be presented.

Wicked Caesar with house clamato
We started the evening of with an unusual evening choice of a caesar. However, the server that night was also the bartender, and he tempted us by explaining that he had a special caesar in which he had made the clamato himself. It was lovely and spicy, and the house clamato really did add an element of freshness and took away a lot of the overwhelming saltiness that sometimes can be found in stock clamato juice. Definitely hope this stays on the menu as more than a special, and is definitely a must try when checking out during the brunch buffet on Sundays! 

We started with an appetizer of bannock, which in retrospect was not the most thoughtful choice because it also came as a side with both of our mains.  Still, like any fried food bannock is delicious, and this bannock was no exception. The serving portion was extremely generous. For $7 the serving included five scone-sized shapes. The bannock was very scone like, with a good denseness and crunch on the outside. It would have been lovely to have had the bread warmed slightly on the grill before serving to aid the butter to melt slightly and really activate that sense of comfort food. In the end, it was more bread that we two to consume, especially with large meals coming, but would be a nice choice for a small group to share during an afternoon tea after a visit to the beach and info centre next door.

I must get slightly pedantic/food nerdy and point out that although bannock is the de facto "First Nations" food item it was technically not a traditional food that was made by aboriginal people on Vancouver Island (and it is sometimes questioned if it was a pre-contact food at all). However, a similar dish was sometimes made with camas, a sweet lily bulb that is slow cooked for over 24 hours in a pit, which was a staple of the diet of First Nations communities on Vancouver Island and was widely traded across the Pacific North West.

Fish soup
My partner-in-food-and-life ordered a large portion of the fish soup. It came chock full of seafood, and the broth had excellent flavour. I am always nervous about seafood, as certain fishy tastes are not something my palate enjoys, but I could have happily eaten an entire bowl of this soup. The custom cutlery set also needs to be noted in this shot - the cutlery was all festooned with fish decoration. I love those little details!

Venison Meatball Marinara
I chose the venison meatball marinara pasta. The pasta sauce was spicy and bright, and nicely coated the pasta without being too saucy. The venison meatballs paired really well with the pasta sauce, and had a very savoury flavour. I realized that I had no idea where you can get a source of venison on the island, and was surprised when our server said he was pretty sure their supplier listed it wild venison, but that there is also a deer farm on the island! Again, this was a very generous portion, and I was very full by the time I cleared my plate. 

Blackberry Creme Brûlée
Despite being totally stuffed we made our best effort to sample what is my personal favourite dessert, creme brûlée.  The texture on the creme part was a bit different than usual because of the inclusion of a blackberry puree, but still held its own shape and was lovely. The brûlée on top cracked quiet nicely and had clearly been freshly heated up, which is always nice to see. 

Although our server knew that we were there to write about the restaurant, I got the impression that he would have had a high standard of service regardless. He was very interested in and informed about the menu, and clearly loved food, giving us several delicious recommendations for our day trip into Tofino the next day. Although a transplant from the prairies, he was clearly proud to be a part of the Feast House's emergence as a new dining experience on the Island. 

Experience the Outdoors

Untitled  Untitled

While you have a parking pass for the Pacific Rim national park, definitely make a stop in at the Visitor Centre, next door to the Feast House, for a dose of local education. Informative displays explain the local geography as well as the history of the Nuu-chal-nuuth language group (formerly Nootka). We also walked the loop around the nearby bog, which had some incredible landscapes which seemed so alien to the rainforest and sea shore that surrounds it. 

Untitled Untitled

At the far other side of Ucluelet there is also the Wild Pacific Trail to explore. The Amphitrite lighthouse was an important construction for the area. The nearby group of islands, called the broken group islands, have plenty of hidden rocks and dangers for ships. After the installation of the lighthouse and Coast Guard station the nickname of the "Graveyard of the Pacific" became much less true. The Wild Pacific Trail explores the shoreline and often includes spectacular sightings of ocean wildlife. 

Other Ucluelet Food & Drink

Despite the tiny size of the village we barely scraped the surface of some of the delicious restaurants that serve up fine fare in Ucluelet. Here are some highlights from our visit... 

Foggy Bean French Roast
The Foggy Bean, Ucluelet's small batch roaster, was available at several coffee shops in town and also came complimentary with our room at the Wya Point. We were thankful to find good, locally roasted coffee and a complete lack of chain coffee shops on our journey!

The Ukee-rainian breakfast at the Blue Room
We discovered that brunch is still as much of a hot commodity on a holiday in Ucluelet as it is in Victoria! Luckily, we beat the crowd just in time. This pierogi breakfast refuelled us for the long drive home.   

Two Teas at Thay Tea
This small tea shop served up a delicious section of teas, and was essentially a cross between Davids Tea and the like and the less corporate Silk Road. Tea lattes and alternatives to soy/dairy milk can be found here. 

Epic Ribs at Hank's
We also stopped in at Hank's, which has recently opened a little brother restaurant in Victoria. With generous portions, real meat, incredible bread and a great craft beer selection I am looking forward to taking a visit to the new Hank's location! 


Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.