One Tank Wonder – Artistry in Cowichan

Spend an inspiring weekend in the Cowichan Valley on southern Vancouver Island. Artistry is just one tank of fuel away from the Lower Mainland.

There’s something soothing and replenishing about immersing yourself in the arts and spending a weekend browsing through galleries, meeting artisans of all kinds and experiencing the beauty of their creations in a variety of media – including painting, sculpting, viticulture and cuisine. One of the best places for such immersion is the Cowichan Valley, where small towns like Ladysmith, Cowichan Bay, Cobble Hill, Chemainus and Duncan have become a haven for artistry. To experience that haven and glimpse the island’s talent, pack the car, head for the ferry and allow the pleasant journey to Duke Point to take you to a place where inspiration delivers astounding results.

Lovely Ladysmith

This picturesque, historic town of 8,400 boasts a main street lined with turn-of-the-century buildings. They house an eclectic mix of gift shops, novelty stores and restaurants, including the gluten-free Wild Poppy Bistro and bakeries where diners enjoy the island’s best cinnamon buns. But we were more interested in the town’s art scene, showcased at the Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery. Here you can glimpse the works of locals like bird carver Jack Fisher, whose sculptures of feathered creatures are so lifelike you want to reach out and touch their feathers before you can believe they are carved from wood. Mary Fox, a ceramic artist specializing in vessels, also displays her work in the gallery.

Cowichan Bay Beauty

Arthur Vickers is one of Cowichan Bay’s most high-profile artists, a First Nations man whose art is highly coveted in the international art world, where it frequently fetches prices in the five- and six- figure range. But you wouldn’t know it to meet this humble man with a warm smile, at his Shipyard Gallery on Cowichan Bay Road. There are no regular office hours for the gallery, so gaining access is a matter of appointment or chance. Once you’re inside, though, Vickers quietly guides you through the meaning behind his works of art, which range from low-relief sculpting in 24k gold leaf to hand-carved bentwood boxes, painting and printmaking. “The creation of art is one thing, but I can complete the cycle by relaying the story behind the creation to someone who is genuinely curious,” he says earnestly. “My art is simply a recording of what I’ve heard, seen and feel, and the price it sells for is completely irrelevant to me. I just want to go into my studio and strive to be better each time, to learn from my last piece of art and push to improve my next piece.” Emerge onto the pier overlooking Cowichan Bay’s houseboats and luxury yachts and it’s easy to see what inspires him.The exquisite natural beauty of the coast is right there, visible in the sparkling ocean, the heavily forested mountains and the translucent jellyfish that dance in the shallow water off the pier.

Cobble Hill Cuisine

The winding country back roads that lead you from Cowichan
Bay to Cobble Hill are part of the adventure, weaving between forests and vast open meadows and offering dramatic glimpses of the ocean. Our destination is Cherry Point Estate Wines, where Xavier Bonilla walks us through his 22 acres of vineyards, offering samples of grapes just a month from harvest. “Dry air is the key to our success,” he explains. “Our vineyards get heated by the hot earth during the day but the cool breeze from the ocean keeps the grapes dry. Our proximity to a large body of water is crucial.” Bonilla, who learned his viticulture skills in Spain and Argentina, purchased the vineyard in 2009 and offers tastings of his many varietals, including blackberry dessert wine, pinot noir and gewürztraminer. The wines are rich and exquisitely flavourful. But they’re best enjoyed with a good meal, created, like the wine itself, from the land directly around us. Behind the tasting room and wine shop sits one of BC’s best restaurants, Amusé Bistro on the Vineyard, where Chef Bradford Boisvert is at the helm of the kitchen.

The unassuming chef relocated Amusé to Cherry Point in 2014. He is such a strong champion of fresh, local fare that he empties his fridge every few days, starting anew with fruit, vegetables and proteins from his immediate surroundings. “As a chef there’s no better place to be than the Cowichan Valley, which is growing in leaps and bounds,” he confides. He sources wild mushrooms through local forager and Benedictine monk Brother Michael, and he gets tomatoes from Gamboa Farms and lamb from a farm so close by that he can often hear the bleating sheep. The fine dining restaurant is open May through September. In the off-season, you’ll find Boisvert in Cobble Hill’s village, where he has opened an artisan cheese and charcuterie shop.

Adorable Duncan

Duncan’s 88 totem poles are the city’s most distinguishing feature. Most of them highlight the downtown core, erected since 1983 and carved by many well-known sculptors. Duncan borders the Cowichan Reserve Lands, and has a strong tie with Cowichan tribes. That tie is recognized and honoured through the totem poles celebrating First Nations art and traditions. Our guide through the totem pole route is Herb Rice, a local Coast Salish carver who specializes in totem poles, doors and panels, and toils away at Coast Salish Journey. His workshop is in Whippletree Junction, minutes from Duncan. Rice created one of the city’s totem poles and he has restored many others. He points to the work of other totem carvers like Richard Hunt and Cicero August. “Many master carvers got their start doing totems for the City of Duncan,” he says quietly. “It’s definitely benefited the relationship between First Nations and non-native.”

Murals & More

Chemainus, population 5,000, showcases 42 murals that grace the exterior of many of the buildings. Even fast-food chain Subway has a mural. Created by many different artists over the years, all the murals but two commemorate the city’s history in various artistic styles. The murals offer a glimpse of Chemainus’ past, from its First Nations history through the war years. You can drive around town slowly to see history through art, or take a guided walking tour or a horse-drawn trolley tour in the summer. Stop for a meal at Odika Café, a restaurant specializing in dishes from Africa to Asia, New York to Sicily. And check the schedule at the Chemainus Theatre Festival to find out what’s playing. If you can, treat yourself to a theatrical production in one of the city’s crown jewels. Chemainus Theatre features the work of Canada’s most talented individuals and is yet another exhibition of the Cowichan Valley’s amazing art.

When You Go

BC Ferries
1-888-BC FERRY (223-3779)

Wild Poppy Bistro

Ladysmith Waterfront Gallery

Arthur Vickers Shipyard Gallery

Cherry Point Estate Wines

Amusé Bistro on the Vineyard

Coast Salish Journey

Duncan BIA

Odika Café

Chemainus Theatre


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