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Victoria - Whistler - On the Road From Sea to Sky

Explore the Diverse Terrain of British Columbia

by Jeff Voth

The steady clap of a west coast downpour on the windshield played a syncopated back beat to the melancholy rhythm flowing through the BOSE® speakers of the Cadillac STS. When visiting the supernatural city of Vancouver, it's a sure bet that at some point during your stay, rain is inevitable. To ease the ache of a steady drizzle, few things resonate in the soul better than the smooth sounds of jazz.

But rain is only one of many ingredients that make this region such a palatable treat for the senses. Out of the Pacific Ocean rise the majestic Coastal Mountains, reminders of the timeless quality of rock and stone and the brevity of humanity, or as Sting puts it best, "how fragile we are."

For me, fond memories of British Columbia still linger from an experience that occurred during my impetuous teenage years many eons ago. While staying at my uncle's beach house on Vancouver Island, I rose early one misty morning before dawn and paddled his one-man sea kayak into the cold waters of the Pacific.

Far from the safety of shore, multi-hued starfish welcomed my passing as I slid silently over the glass-like surface of the ocean. Gliding past the southern tip of a small outcropping of islands, I was momentarily transfixed at the site of Orcas splashing not far in the distance. I watched in awe as the pod danced playfully on the surface, indifferent to my presence. It's a scene that, to this day, remains as fresh as when I first experienced it.

When the Rockies embrace your spirit, you are forever changed. And so it was that I once again found myself heeding the call of the west, eagerly anticipating a trip back to British Columbia.

Along for the ride would be my lifelong friend and frequent co-pilot, Thom Braun. Over a five-day period we would travel 1,100 km, on a trek that would take us from Vancouver to the Island by ferry. After spending several days in Victoria, we would head up the coast to Nanaimo; catch a ferry back to the mainland, then travel north on highway 99 to Whistler and finally return two days later to the bright lights of Gastown.

Aerie Resort, Victoria, Canada

While in B.C., we would be staying at two of Canada's finest resorts: The Aerie Resort located on the Island just north of Victoria, and the new Four Seasons Resort in Whistler. Our vehicle of choice for this trip was a Black Raven 2005 Cadillac STS with a sumptuous Cashmere leather interior.

The Ferry ride from Tsawwassen in Vancouver to Swartz Bay, Victoria passed without incident.

Leaving the Ferry terminal, the forty-minute drive to the Aerie Resort was shrouded in dense fog, making the need for good directions and a clear head a must.

The turn into the Aerie Resort is easy to miss. A quick left off Highway 1 just past the flashing yellow light at the gas station, and the resort resides at the end of a 3 km twisting mountain road.

You don't drive into the Aerie Resort as much as you drive up to it. Located high in the Malahat Mountains of Southern Vancouver Island, Maria Schuster and her staff deliver an uncompromising, full-service experience. The Aerie Resort is a member of the distinguished Relais & Châteaux hotel association and is a perennial AAA Four Diamond award winner, most recently honored as one of Canada's top five resorts by Condé Nast Traveler.

A luxury resort owner in the Bahamas, Maria spent four weeks touring Vancouver Island in 1984. Traveling through the Malahat, she knew instantly this was where she would settle down and create a resort experience celebrating her Austrian roots, one that would pamper her guests in every way possible.

The realization of this dream is a Mediterranean-style mansion that first opened its doors in 1991. Since then, the resort has undergone several additions including an indoor pool and the most recent 6-room stunning achievement in residential-style luxury accommodations: Villa Cielo. The Aerie Resort continues to welcome guests from around the world with warm hospitality and old world charm.

A total of 35 guest rooms distinguish the resort, ranging in scope from the tastefully decorated Deluxe rooms (some with a Jacuzzi), to the opulent multi-level Aerie Suite with a king-size bed and the top-floor Penthouse Suite featuring a large covered balcony with two sundecks.

The sunrise on the morning of our first day revealed a land filled with dense old-growth trees and rich vegetation. Below my balcony, an eerie fog shrouded the coastal ecosystem of Finlayson Arm. Hidden from view, the clear waters are home to a rare and fascinating variety of marine life, such as cloud sponges, lamp shells, anemones, wolf eel, Killer Whales, River Otter and seals. Far in the distance, Mt. Baker, located in Washington State, towered proudly above the clouds, a snow covered icon of the west.

The Aerie Resort encourages guests to become familiar with the surrounding countryside through various cultural and culinary experiences. This is accomplished through organized activities such as the wild fungi forge and feast, wine tours, nature walks and my favorite, the guided culinary excursions.

Our personal host for this 6-hour eating and drinking extravaganza, Alfons Oberlacher of Engeler Farms, took us to various farms and wineries unique to the Cowichan Valley. Later that evening, Alfons would treat us to a personally prepared feast consisting of, among other things, wild mushrooms, various local chesses and of course a fine selection of wines.

Agri-Tourism is catching on in various parts of Canada, but the southern region of Vancouver Island is uniquely poised to sprint to the forefront. A year-round moderate climate provides for an unusually long growing season; the perfect environment for growing both wine and vinegar grapes, chemical-free herbs and vegetables of all kinds, and for raising free-range animals including ducks and sheep.

A culinary experience such as the tour provided by Alfons would never be complete without a significant sampling of the various ciders and wines produced in the valley.

Merridale Estate Cidery

The award-winning Merridale Estate Cidery produces a unique selection of cider wines. One such example is Cidre Normandie, a winner of Commendation at 2003 Northwest Cider Competition. This full-bodied still cider is fermented to dry, then aged in oak to soften the finish. Rich flavor and a distinctive aroma with just the right amount of fruitiness, offers the perfect companion to pork, chicken or rabbit (

For a more traditional experience, we took the scenic route to Venturi-Schulze Vineyards, an inconspicuous 20-acre vineyard established in 1988. Here, under the watchful eyes of Giordano and Marilyn Venturi and Marilyn's daughter Michelle Schulze, the passion for grape growing produces some of the finest wines on the island, including a 2002 Brut Naturel and an extremely limited 2002 Pinot Noir.

Of special mention is their Balsamic Vinegar, made from a blend of wine vinegar, grape juice concentrate, caramel coloring and flavorings. Through the process of simmering juice to a concentrate over an open fire, the balsamic vinegar is aged in small barrels made from five different types of wood: acacia, ash, cherry, oak and chestnut. Small yearly releases provide a balsamic that is intense, rich in flavor with a mature aroma. Perfect for dessert or salad, it puts grocery store products to shame.

Inside, deep, rich Australian eucalyptus wood paneling covers the walls, while the exposed timber-frame construction, large wood-burning fireplace and a variety of stone accents including quartzite, granite and limestone add to the warmth of this year-round haven.

The resort hotel has a capacity of 242 rooms, including 95 suites, 34 offering two-bedroom accommodations. All rooms are oversized and provide the added comfort and warmth of a gas-burning fireplace and high-speed Internet access.

An elegant wood desk located in my suite provided the perfect place to catch up on some email, but I resisted the urge to write a quick postcard and let everyone know how much I really wished they were there.

Basking in the glow of a warm fire, it's impossible to escape the breathtaking vista that surrounds the Four Seasons Resort Whistler. Large windows in both the bedroom and living room, in addition to a walk out balcony, provided the ideal place to relax in the evening. Though I didn't see it for myself, a fortunate few were able to witness the Aurora Borealis dancing a kaleidoscope of green and red early the next morning.

Whistler is first and foremost a skiing and snowboarding Mecca. However, world class golf facilities, including the renowned Nicklaus North Whistler championship course, have introduced many visitors to it's year-round appeal.

This par-71, 18-hole course winds its way along a gentle valley floor just minutes from the resort. Home of the 2005 Telus Skins Game, it has played host to many golf legends including Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman, Fred Couples and Nick Faldo, and is the first course in Canada to garner a return visit from the tournament.

If picking up the sticks is not in your bag of tricks, there are many other warm weather activities that can consume hours of the day. Included in this list is downhill mountain biking, canoeing, kayaking, tennis, river rafting, hiking and horseback riding.

For those whose passion burns brightest when winter's chill reigns supreme, the list is endless.

Alpine skiing and snowboarding represent the main attractions for most visitors to Whistler and Blackcomb, but there is also snowmobiling, snowshoeing, ice skating and dog sledding for those times when a little change of pace is required.

For the more adventurous, the accommodating staff at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler will be happy to arrange heli-skiing and heli-snowboarding, two extreme adventures available nearby. Rumor has it that singer-songwriter Seal recently proposed to supermodel Heidi Klum after embarking on such a flight to a remote part of Whistler, so be careful who you bring along for the ride.

The Spa at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler has a modern-day feel accented with a bucolic flair. Fifteen treatment rooms welcome guests over the age of 18. Services offered include massage (available in-room as well), wet-treatments, hydro-therapy, Vichy-therapy and couples treatment. A full exercise facility provides access to treadmills, a Stairmaster, stationary and recumbent bikes and much more for those looking to get fit, or keep up with their regular routine while at the resort.

A large free-form outdoor pool is located directly across from the spa. Surrounded with tumbled rocks and evergreen shrubs, cedar bridges and paved walkways provide easy access to and from the pool area. Several whirlpools and numerous chasse lounge chairs encouraged us to stay and enjoy the surroundings. Unfortunately the wet and cold of a November evening brought a little bit of reality to our lounging and the hot tub won the battle for attention.

Time well spent at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler includes taking advantage of the fine cuisine offered at the Fifty Two 80 Bistro & Bar.

This fire and ice themed restaurant is named for the nearby vertical slope on Blackcomb Mountain and for the number of feet in a mile (5,280). A central fireplace provides the "fire" theme through backlit onyx paneling, while a cold seafood bar counters with the "ice." Expansive views look onto the pool area and the ever present snowcapped mountains. Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, we were treated to an assortment of superlative entrees in the intimate environment that defines the Fifty Two 80.

Soon it was time to leave Whistler and return to Vancouver, with the eventual destination being the Niagara Region in Ontario. Replacing fresh mountain air with the city smog of Toronto was not a pleasant thought, but one that needed to be done.

British Columbia holds a memorable place in the hearts of everyone privileged enough to spend time there. With its vibrant coastal topography, dense rainforest and immeasurable wealth of marine life, it demands our respect and protection. By taking care of it now, we can guarantee the magnificent images it provides and the vibrant memories they foster, will continue for many generations to come.