Savour Cowichan harvest festival eases the fall transition on Vancouver Island

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      While we continue to revel in this glorious summer, the back-to-school ads won’t let us forget the inevitability of September. Fear not: that month is highly underrated for travel in British Columbia, with warm, sunny days often stretching for weeks after the kids get their locker assignments.

      With fewer people crowding the ferries and hotels, September is the perfect month for a weekend getaway, and one that celebrates the harvest helps to ease the seasonal transition.

      Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley is a good bet for bright days any time of year. It lies between Victoria and Nanaimo (about a 40-minute drive from each) and consists of a cluster of communities including Cobble Hill, Mill Bay, Duncan, and Chemainus. Stretching north from the top of the Malahat Highway through to Ladysmith, the valley lies in a rain shadow.

      “We get more sunshine hours in the Cowichan than anywhere else in B.C.,” says Janet Docherty, who owns Merridale Estate Cidery in pastoral Cobble Hill. “It’s a very unique little place with its temperate climate. And because of that you have some amazing cool-climate wines and some amazing cider because it’s the perfect temperature for cider apples.”

      A tasting flight at Merridale Estate Cidery.
      Carolyn Ali

      The Cowichan, “land warmed by the sun” in the Coast Salish First Nation language, is said to be Canada’s only Mediterranean climatic zone. It has the country’s warmest mean year-round temperature (and an average of 23 ° C in the summer and 6 ° C in the winter) and the longest growing season, so it’s the ideal place for a harvest festival.

      Docherty is the chair of Savour Cowichan, which takes place from September 25 to October 4 this year throughout the area. The annual festival, which has grown signi­ficantly since it launched three years ago, involves over 60 food-and-­beverage events and activities, many of which raise money for the Canucks Autism Network.

      Unsworth Vineyards in Cobble HIll is participating in the Savour Cowichan festival.
      Carolyn Ali

      The flagship events include Barge On In, an evening cocktail party on the opening night in beautiful Mill Bay Marina. The same barge sets the scene for Sip Savour & Support on October 3, a black-tie long-table dinner followed by dancing to a live band. If you want to get even more active, the Will Ride fundraiser on October 4 involves a 50- or 125-kilometre scenic loop through the valley that starts and ends at Merridale Estate Cidery.

      Other events include a pig roast on October 3 at Blue Grouse Estate Winery in Duncan. Also in Duncan, Hudson’s on First will be staging a wine-pairing dinner on September 27 and a cooking class on September 29. With Top Chef Canada Season 3 competitor Daniel Hudson at the helm, the restaurant is housed in a charming 106-year-old heritage building.

      While in Duncan, craft-beer lovers will also want to stop by Red Arrow Brewing, a new craft brewery that launched in June with a tasting room and a patio.

      During the festival, other food and beverage producers in the area will be open for tours and tastings. In Cobble Hill, these include Unsworth Vineyards, a picturesque 12-acre property with a farm-to-table restaurant that’s situated in a restored farmhouse. Then there’s Damali Lavender and Winery, which offers quiet reflection with a stroll through a labyrinth, and Teafarm, which sells artisanal teas and handmade pottery.

      A jumble of piers juts out into Cowichan Bay.
      Carolyn Ali

      Indeed, getting off the highway and driving through the winding roads of the Cowichan Valley is one of the pleasures of visiting the area. I did a whirlwind overnight tour last September as a guest of Tourism Vancouver Island, and it left me wanting to return and explore at a more leisurely pace. One could easily spend two or three nights in these parts, as there’s not just farmland but the coast to explore.

      Our group stayed at the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay, where I awoke to silence and a view of mist rising off the glassy water from my window. The fisherman’s wharf is charming all day with its tugboats nudged up to the dock next to float homes, and tightly packed waterfront cottages with their own private piers.

      Onshore, the shops and restaurants are cute in a kitschy, maritime sort of way. (One restaurant boasts its own red-and-white-striped lighthouse.) Kayak-rental and whale-watching outfits beckon tourists while pubs cater to the locals, with signs in one parking lot requesting that patrons “Please Save Space: Park Behind Your Buddy.”

      There are other attractions in the area as well. In the commercial centre of Duncan, for example, 38 totem poles line Charles Hoey Park, and the world’s largest hockey stick awaits Instagramming at Cowichan Community Centre. (Made from Douglas fir, it’s 62 metres long, and yes, there’s also a giant puck.)

      Further north, seaside Chemainus is famous for its 40 outdoor murals and 13 sculptures, which tell the history of the area’s First Nations and early pioneers.

      With any luck, you can see it all under a warm autumn sun.

      Access: See Savour Cowichan for festival information and tickets. From the mainland, take a ferry to Nanaimo’s Duke Point or Departure Bay. For general info and info on accommodation, see Tourism Vancouver Island and Destination British Columbia.