As we approach the top of Denman Road, we turn onto the gravel driveway just before the church, as per our directions. When we get off our bicycles and look around, I am awestruck. The gruelling climb that left me panting fades from memory. Perched on a bluff surrounded by forest is a beautifully crafted dream home with cedar siding, a roof accented with blue trim, and floor-to-ceiling windows that afford a gorgeous view of the Strait of Georgia. It’s not what I expected when I signed up for a tour of the Denman Island Chocolate factory.
But discovery was the theme of our weekend bike expedition to Denman Island. My pedal partner, Hanna, and I had deliberately underplanned our trip, with the free-spirited intention of leaving our adventures up to the good graces of the pretty Gulf Island and its friendly locals. Denman did not disappoint.
Okay, maybe there was an element of laziness to our underplanning, and maybe not all the discoveries were delightful, starting with the island terrain. It was late afternoon when we arrived on Denman Island. From the ferry terminal, we cycled past town, and just as the road curved into the forest, it turned steep, stupidly steep. Not that this was really a discovery; all cyclists eventually come to understand that small islands are really underwater mountains with a summit that penetrates the air.
Our first stop was the Fillongley Provincial Park campground, which was easy to find. “It’s over the hill,” a local had explained to us on the ferry, omitting the “stupidly steep” descriptor but eyeing our bikes skeptically. “Pass the church and left before the end of the road. If you hit water, you’ve gone too far.” I love rural directions.
Our campsite neighbours were a friendly retired couple from Delta who visit Denman Island annually. One of the perks they enjoy as regulars is that the camp warden’s Japanese wife greets them with a welcome-back box of gourmet homemade sushi. Lucky for us, the box was big enough for four. So we ended our first day dining on beautifully crafted sushi and watching the sunset from the beach with our newfound friends.
The next morning, we woke up to sun and the sound of gently lapping waves. We hopped on our bikes and headed back into town for breakfast. (Going down the “hill” was way more fun.) “Town” was a collection of rustic wooden buildings housing a nice selection of cafés and artisans’ shops. Meandering through the shops and making easy conversation with the locals gave us a feel for the community and the relaxed pace of island life. And our good-food karma led us to the Island Time Café and the most delicious cinnamon buns I’ve eaten in my entire life.
Jacked on sugar and minus the load of our camping gear, the infamous “hill” was less daunting. We headed up to the Denman Island Chocolate factory for our tour. “Go up the big hill, pass the graffiti fence, and take a right before the church” were company founder (and cyclist) Daniel Terry’s phone instructions. “If you pass the recycling depot, you’ve gone too far.” Did I mention that I love rural directions?
It was Saturday and, as Terry had explained when I booked the tour, the factory was closed (how civilized). Terry’s tour isn’t about free samples or drinking from a chocolate fountain; it’s more of a behind-the-scenes look at how his chocolate bars come to be. “I try to get people to see chocolate as more than sweet brown stuff,” he says.
Terry, who is a carpenter by trade, helped design the factory with the intention of creating a workspace that was in harmony with the surrounding forest and had a minimal environmental footprint. He used high-quality recycled and natural materials, and the building is heated geothermally.
Inside, the factory is charmingly old-school. It employs just six people and consists of only two rooms: one for the warehouse and the other for production. The production line is void of modern technology. Even the machine used to foil-wrap the chocolate bars is an antique—and that’s a recent addition. Until three years ago, the workers hand-wrapped the inner foil and outer label of 2,400 bars per day. Now, just the label is hand-wrapped.
Terry’s passion and integrity are evident throughout the hour-long tour. He doesn’t have a standard spiel—he focuses more on connecting with each group of visitors.
He explains to us the art and science of how to perfectly temper chocolate, and shares some of the adventures he’s had sourcing his organic ingredients. His stories take us all over the world, as he’s always on the hunt for the best ingredients and is very aware of the social and environmental impacts his business can have. Starting this fall, all of his chocolate will be fair-trade certified, a goal he’s been working toward for years.
We leave the tour, our bags and bellies empty. There were no sampling stations, not even a gift shop selling the chocolate. Normally I would have been disappointed, but as Terry had warned, it wasn’t that kind of tour. Touring the factory, like touring Denman Island, was about experiencing a place of authenticity and simplicity.
ACCESS: To get to Denman Island, take a ferry to Nanaimo and drive about an hour north to Buckley Bay, or you can cycle the 86-kilometre scenic route (Highway 19A) in about six hours. You can park at the ferry terminal and take your bike across to Denman, a 10-minute ferry ride; see . There’s good camping at Fillongley Provincial Park. You can reserve a spot on-line at discovercamping.ca/. Free tours of the Denman Island Chocolate factory take place on Saturdays and must be reserved in advance.