Cruise & Travel Lifestyles

Cruising Canada: West Coast Wine Islands – Finding a New Appreciation for Vines & Wines in B.C.’s Salish Sea

Cruising Canada: West Coast Wine Islands – Finding a New Appreciation for Vines & Wines in B.C.’s Salish Sea

WHEN I BOOKED my Wine and Islands cruise with Maple Leaf Adventures, I was excited… but a little hesitant. Of course, I’d heard great things about the three vessels the innovative company offers – a catamaran, a sloop and a tugboat, all lovingly restored and offering every possible creature comfort to the lucky few guests on each exclusive adventure.

The rave reports about the onboard gourmet dining and the carefully curated shore experiences had convinced me that this would be a fantastic way to explore the coast of British Columbia. My only hesitation was an allergy that would prevent me from taking part in the biggest feature – wine tasting. So, as I flew on a small float plane from Vancouver to Nanaimo to start my adventure, I was wondering: could a non-drinker enjoy a week of total wine immersion? As it turned out, I couldn’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t have loved the experience.

Photo credit: Jeff Reynolds / Maple Leaf Adventures

The gleaming Maple Leaf Adventures catamaran Cascadia bobbed gently in the Nanaimo harbour as I arrived. With deep blue twin hulls punctuated at the waterline by brilliant yellow bands, and gleaming white cabins above, she is a passion project co-owned and operated by Kevin Smith and Maureen Gordon, who were both on hand to greet me. Business and life partners, they’re passionately outdoorsy and exude friendliness.

After a quick tour of the ship, which can accommodate a maximum of 24 guests, I was shown to my suite which, though compact, included a spacious bathroom, lots of gear storage and big sliding glass doors that filled the room with light. Though some guests had smaller rooms, mine had a small desk and chair in addition to a comfy bed I could happily have plopped down on to watch the rugged west coast scenery sail past. But there were fellow guests to meet and an orientation session to attend.

Guests enjoy the view from Cascadia's aft deck. Photo credit: Phil Stone / Maple Leaf Adventures

We gathered – as we would several times each day – for a relaxed information session and introduction to Tania Tomaszewska, our brilliant sommelier, teacher and guide for the cruise. Her overview of the week’s program promised not only daily tastings but also visits to wineries and vineyards on shore, as well as guest appearances by local vintners onboard the Cascadia. The other guests – wine lovers all – buzzed with excitement.

We sailed out of the Nanaimo harbour and began our multi-day exploration of the coastline and islands of the Salish Sea, enjoying the view from the gleaming aft deck of the Cascadia. Though many of us had visited Vancouver Island and were fans of Victoria and Tofino, we’d never seen the smaller, less-visited islands of the Salish Sea. Letting the wind and the weather make the decisions about where we’d land over the course of our days at sea, Kevin and Maureen took us to beautiful hiking paths that stretched across rocky cliffs, showed us leaf-strewn forest paths and led us onto vast, deserted beaches where tiny crabs scuttled and seabirds left spindly, wet footprints in the sand.

Maple Leaf Adventures owners Kevin Smith (left) and Maureen Gordon (right) with sommelier Tania Tomaszewska. Photo courtesy of Maple Leaf Adventures.

Tania showed us vineyards where the rich aroma of ripening grapes hung in the air, and introduced us to passionate winemakers who welcomed us to their pressing rooms and offered their finest creations.

A favourite stop was Pender Island’s Sea Star Estate, a whimsical winery where the vineyards sloped gently to the sea and a friendly herd of Babydoll Southdown sheep called Brut, Reisling, Gamay and Dolce wandered among the vines, keeping the grass trimmed. In spite of myself, I began to develop a genuine interest in grape-growing and wine-making.

Tania worked her magic, introducing, explaining, teaching, sampling and generally celebrating the wine, terroir and vintners of the region. Our meals on-board were culinary masterpieces created by a talented team in a tiny galley below decks with a generous chef who even managed to squeeze us all into his tiny galley one afternoon for an impromptu lesson on making balsamic pearls. We learned to drop boiling hot, reduced vinegar into iced oil to make tiny, glossy baubles of deliciousness. It’s a trick that still dazzles my family and makes salad sensational.

Guests explore a remote beach. Photo courtesy of Maple Leaf Adventures.

Lunches and dinners were served in the comfortable salon, featured delectable tasting menus of local produce, seafood and meats, with Tania presenting an array of local vintages to go with each course, as well as non-alcoholic pairings concocted from local juices and herbs. At each meal, Tania provided guests with a series of tasting cards that listed and described the various wines she was presenting, making it easy for enthusiasts to buy their favourites back on shore.

Though there was only one common area on the ship that encompassed both dining and lounge areas, we never felt crowded as there was plenty of seating, a well-stocked library of books on subjects ranging from the local geography and history to the Indigenous legends of the area, as well as a large screen map that showed our location in real time. A coffee and tea bar was always available and many guests enjoyed curling up to read about our next day’s destinations. For those who sometimes suffered from insomnia or were looking for a spot for a late-night chat, it was a much-appreciated feature. On warm evenings, guests sat on the aft deck or enjoyed a soak in the hot tub while those who loved to imagine a second career as a captain made their way to the always-open bridge.

Blue Grouse Winery in the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island. Photo courtesy of Blue Grouse Winery.

There are 419 islands in the Salish Sea and together, they represent a land mass of 3,660 sq kms, all sheltered by the great swell of Vancouver Island. The sea itself is 16,925 sq kms – an area that stretches north to Campbell River, BC, south to Olympia, Washington, east to Neah Bay and includes the cosmopolitan cities of Vancouver and Seattle. Though our five-day cruise allowed us to explore just a small, glorious fraction of that fascinating sea, our days with Kevin, Maureen and Tania were more than enough for us to develop a thirst to discover more.

For those who long for more of the Maple Leaf Adventures experience, cruises are also available on Swell, a refurbished tugboat that welcomes 12 guests, and on Maple Leaf, a sleek sailing sloop that welcomes just eight lucky guest sailors, manned by a crew of five.

Written by Liz Fleming for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles (Summer 2021).