Beers and Beach Walks on Vancouver Island
Photograph of a beach near Tofino, on Vancouver Island's west coast, courtesy Lauren Richmond/Unsplash
Canada's border opened to fully vaccinated Americans in August, so maybe we can start making plans to dust off those passports and cross borders again. (For current border information, click here.) This is part of a series of Canadian adventures Portlanders could take as a road trip, plus farther-afield versions if you want to get on a plane. You can also read about an urban culinary adventure or a year-round slopes paradise.
Just a decade ago, beer in Canada was almost wholly defined by Molson (which merged with Coors in 2005) and Labatt (now part of Belgian megabrewer Anheuser-Busch InBev). But loosened regulations about where small brewers could sell their product, and for how much, have turned our nearest provincial neighbor, British Columbia, into a craft-suds-soaked landscape that feels almost Oregonian—only the drinking age is 19 instead of 21. The number of BC craft breweries has more than doubled under the new rules, and a friendly cluster can be found a short drive and ferry ride away on Vancouver Island. Walk off the pints along picturesque urban waterfronts, on windswept beaches, and in Doug fir forests.
On the southern tip sits Victoria, the island’s largest city and BC’s capital. While some breweries have been here since the ’90s—including family-owned Lighthouse and the waterfront Canoe Brewpub—plenty more have popped up since 2013, when breweries were finally allowed to have their own tasting rooms. There’s Belgian-style, sour-focused Île Sauvage (2018), for example, and Whistle Buoy (2019), which started home delivery in the pandemic. Whistle Buoy co-owner Isaiah Archer says delivery was a lifeline for a bare-bones new business that relied largely on the tourist traffic that disappeared.
“We chose to look at it as a positive: here are the things we can’t do, so what can we do?” Archer says. What they could do at first was fill crowlers by hand and deliver them on skateboards and his mom’s electric bike. They’ve since graduated to a mobile canner and a company Prius. Still, Archer is looking forward to the influx of customers the resumption of travel will bring to Whistle Buoy’s tasting room and patio in downtown Victoria’s Euro-style, brick-lined Market Square.
There are no McMenamins in Canada, but a similar vibe (and a Hull & Oates Hazy IPA) can be found at family-friendly Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub, which also has a guesthouse and bungalows. The hotel attached to Swans Brewery downtown shifted to long-term stays in the pandemic but has now reopened for regular travelers.
From Victoria, a beer seeker could head up to Sidney (check out Category 12 Brewing on the way) and ferry-hop to long-standing Salt Spring Island Ales or five-year-old family op Mayne Island Brewing Co. (Check out the Woods on Pender for Airstream glamping.) Or stick to land routes and stop at the clutch of breweries in Duncan, including Small Block for a Best Bitter. In Chemainus, find ’tude-backed Riot Brewing. Make a honey-fueled detour to Wayward Distillery in Courtenay or Middle Mountain Mead on Hornby Island, a ferry-accessed 12-square-mile green dot in the Strait of Georgia with a Smurf Village feel that’s also home to two wineries.
Prep for plenty of nautical-themed names on this island tour, from White Sails in Nanaimo to Land & Sea in Comox, near the hiking and skiing wonderland of Strathcona Provincial Park. Last year, all these breweries missed out on what Land & Sea managing director Jason Walker calls “flight season,” when a lot of first-timers pop into the tasting room to sample a flight of the offerings. “It’s been pretty tumultuous with COVID,” Walker says, adding that they’re lucky to have been supported by “a really strong group of locals” who have helped keep the beer flowing.
A lot of routes were suspended in the pandemic, but normally Vancouver Island can be reached via the Coho ferry from Port Angeles to downtown Victoria, or via BC Ferries from Vancouver to Sidney or to Nanaimo, an hour and a half north. Washington State Ferries has a route from Anacortes to Sidney, and the passenger-only Victoria Clipper connects the island to Seattle. If you’re island-hopping in the Gulf Islands off of Vancouver Island, you’ll need to plan carefully around ferry schedules and taproom hours.
... OR FLY TO HALIFAX
Like Maine and Vermont in the US, the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island have the most breweries per capita in their country. A lot of energy is centered on Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital, where the Henry Weinhard-esque figure of Alexander Keith—a 19th-century mayor, freemason, and brewer—still casts a shadow, even though the beer that bears his name is now part of AB InBev. A more recent Portland parallel might be Kevin Keefe, who opened a brewpub in Halifax in the 1980s and lobbied the provincial government for more small-brewer-friendly policies as he and his brother expanded operations, not unlike the McMenamins.
Today the tradition continues with breweries packing the city—like the six-year-old Good Robot, which started delivering cans of its Tom Waits for No One stout and Goseface Killah in the pandemic—and dotting the rest of the province. Rent a car and head west to the dramatic Bay of Fundy or northeast to windswept Cape Breton, home to hop-farm family brewery Big Spruce, stopping along the way for lighthouse vistas and lobster rolls.
With at least two stops, it can take longer to fly to Halifax from PDX than it does to fly to Europe. It might be almost as quick to fly nonstop five and half hours to Boston, rent a car and drive five and a half hours to Bar Harbor, Maine, and take a seasonal ferry three and a half hours to Yarmouth on Nova Scotia’s southern tip (assuming the ferry, normally June–October, returns to service after the pandemic). Impractical? Maybe. But stunning.