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Why B.C.'s Cowichan Valley Is a New Tourism Hot Spot

Why B.C.'s Cowichan Valley Is a New Tourism Hot Spot
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A good argument could be made that Victor Vesely is living life the way it's supposed to be lived. He has set about pursuing his passion while marrying that passion with his wife's own pursuits and inviting anyone who would like to share and learn more to drop in for a cup of tea. Tea served in a small shop in the middle of the forest off of a backroad in the far west coast of Canada, a setting that will send your mind hurtling away from wherever it was when you entered. Here, you will dwell on tranquil thoughts for however long you care to stay.

Vesely's charming Teafarm is not a spa, but it is relaxing thanks to his graciousness and the gentility of the surroundings. The Teafarm serves 100 varieties of tea and soon will begin selling its own product that is made from some of the 600 tea plants on the property just north of Duncan, which is the smallest city by geographic area in Canada.

Travellers have been known to seek out a great restaurant or to search for fabulous desserts. Will anyone really go out of their way for tea?

I think they should because -- like so many other businesses in Vancouver Island's delightful Cowichan Valley -- what you'll find at the Teafarm is an experience. Vesely and his wife, artist Margit Nellemann, have created an impressive little enterprise that cannot be replicated anywhere else because it comes entirely from their heart.

Vesely, who is from Montreal, studied religion in Virginia and travelled extensively in Asia, pursuing knowledge of tea and the cultures that revere it. Nellemann creates exquisite clay teapots that sell for $250 and up. The tea is served in her pots and customers can order small sandwich plates or delicious handmade chocolates to go with it. A tea service is in the works. In warmer weather, Vesely and Nellemann host parties, including an annual Mad Hatter bash that sees patrons arriving dressed as characters from "Alice in Wonderland."

Visitors can also purchase tins of the teas they like or select the one that coincides with their Chinese calendar birth year. Vesely provides a list of each year -- and the animal it represents -- as well as the tea that is most suited to anyone born within the period.

"Invigorating Cowichan with tea culture has really been my goal," Vesely says after serving me masala chai in one of Nellemann's pots. "I think it's something that is working because of the food producers and artists here. A large part of tea culture is the beauty of service. In Asia, along with tea, there is the ceramic that the tea is served in, so we are trying to be true to that part of the experience too."

The Teafarm embodies the entrepreneurial spirit of the Cowichan Valley. It has charm, personality, quality, just the right amount of eccentricity. Those are the hallmarks of a one-of-a-kind enterprise. The kind of place that makes you want to return for a visit and tell your friends to come too. In the Cowichan Valley, there are many places like this one waiting for you to arrive. The region ranks on the 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2015 because the culinary tourism offerings you will find here are true gems. Many of them are hidden away in secluded areas of this expansive area that is about a 45-minute drive north of Victoria.

You'll find numerous boutique wineries, including Venturi-Schulze, which, remarkably, hand picks its grapes. It employs 21 workers to harvest the vineyards on its 21-acre property that is off of the Trans-Canada Highway in the town of Cobble Hill.

The family-owned winery makes only 1,500 bottles of wine a year, as well as 3,000 bottles of fine balsamic vinegar, including one variety that retails for $100 a bottle. Among its products are a wonderful sparkling wine made with Pinot Auxerrois and Pinot Gris grapes ($32.10) and a reserve Pinot Noir ($60.10) that demonstrates why winemakers in the area think Vancouver Island is the best place in Canada for growing that variety.

According to Tourism Vancouver Island, Cowichan Valley is home to "Canada's only maritime Mediterranean climatic zone" and boasts the nation's "warmest mean year-round temperatures," with summer averages of 23 Celsius degrees and winter averages of 6 Celsius degrees. The temperature and climate allows the valley to have Canada's longest growing season.

That explains why the quality of the products can be so good. But why entrepreneurs can set up shop and make things work so well that it compels people to visit is less easy to explain.

Michelle Schulze, the vineyard manager at Venturi-Schulze, says the valley has benefitted from the experience of its community and from a cooperative spirit.

"Everyone here has come from something else. They've pursued second careers that matched their passions and interests. And they've come here because they appreciate it. It's romantic, it's bucolic and beautiful. It's rural but it's also not that far away," she says.

Vesely believes that proximity to Victoria and its international airport is a reason why Cowichan Valley has begun to flourish.

"There is a level of affluence that can allow this to happen," he says of the successful artistic-driven boutique businesses. "There are people here who live in New York and San Francisco and other places, and they still return to those spots, but they choose to support here. They can have art from the region and wines from up the road and a unique experience like the tea here and then a fine-dining experience at Hudson's that is as good as anywhere."

Vesely isn't being hyperbolic. Hudson's on First is a brilliant restaurant in a heritage building. It is owned and operated by Daniel Hudson, a British immigrant and former "Top Chef Canada" contestant. His dishes are beautifully created and the service is outstanding, with staff who have worked at Rouge in Calgary (also in a heritage building) and the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, about three hours away on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island. Located in a heritage building in downtown Duncan, Hudson's is regarded as the best restaurant in the region.

While the restaurant's menu includes local products and wine, another establishment focuses on cider. Merridale Cidery has been operating for a quarter century and is an expansive property with more than 13 acres of apples in its orchard in Cobble Hill. The cidery -- yet another family-owned and -operated business -- creates a range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic ciders using imported apples from Europe that are ideal for the beverage. Creating an atmosphere with kids in mind, the cidery has a fun trail to explore and features a popular Sunday pizza night in its comfortable bistro.

You also have bakeries and meaderies and breweries, along with cute cafes and farms that offer field-to-table dining. Seaside towns like Cowichan Bay have the feel of the Maritimes, except with more upscale accommodations and houses. Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay is a pleasant surprise, featuring immaculate rooms with kitchens, luxury fittings and views overlooking the water.

When I arrived in Cowichan Valley, my expectations were high. In 2009, the region became the first Cittaslow community in North America. Originating in Italy, Cittaslow recognizes places whose citizens "take time to build community relationships, celebrate the community's unique history and traditions, promote craftsmanship and environmental stewardship, maintain the community's distinct character, and engage residents and visitors by sharing in high-quality living."

Several people had also recommended visiting, including Andrew Shepherd, owner of the Vancouver Island Salt Co. and winner of the 2014 Globe & Mail Small Business Challenge. While speaking to him in Victoria, he described the valley as a place "with crazy artisans everywhere. There's been a real meeting of the minds. A lot of really talented people have gotten together close to the city and are making a pretty amazing scene up there."

I came prepared to be impressed. I left convinced Cowichan Valley is one of the most interesting places to visit in Canada, a spot to which I am eager to return -- for a pot of tea and a lot of exploring.

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