Some end-of-year notes on how I spent the dying days of 2011.
Salt Spring Spa Resort, Saltspring Island, BC
Yes, there actually are salt springs on Saltspring Island!
Unlike most hot spring resorts in North America where the public pools contain chlorine and unruly packs of screaming children (we all know what happens when you mix kids and warm swimming pool water), Salt Spring Spa boasts 100% unadulterated, unfiltered underground mineral water that is piped directly into each chalet's bathtubs. I lived in Japan for 4 years and really became quite the hot spring enthusiast, and have lamented the absence of similar hot springs resorts in BC ever since my return to Canada. The mineral water at Salt Spring Spa brought back fond memories of what it's like to soak in untreated, natural mineral-rich water, and I'd recommend this resort for the water alone. The chalets are rustic, spacious and very private - perfect for a romantic getaway. We loved the minimalist, no frills concept, and I suspect the minority of critics complaining about this resort are the typical urban cretins who can't live without their TV or tech necessities for a night or two. If you want to go to a resort to sit in bed and watch TV, Salt Spring Spa is not for you. But if you want a great mineral bath in a lovely, quiet, private and salubrious location, this place is just what the doctor ordered! This may be one of the Gulf Islands' best kept secrets.
Oystercatcher Seafood Bar & Grill, 100 Manson Rd, Salt Spring Island, BC
Salt Spring Island actually used to be a very quaint, remote place before the big real estate developers and corporate-style tourist operations moved in to cash in on the quaintness. It is still a lovely island, especially when you get out of Ganges and into the more rural areas.
I hadn't been to Ganges in about 10 years, and it seems a lot more developed and urbanized than it used to be. Before heading to Salt Spring Spa, where we would do all our own cooking, we needed lunch and decided on the first place that looked open, which happened to be Oystercatcher Seafood Bar & Grill. Not a bad looking place and great views of the harbour, but more mixed reviews of the food. My chicken clubhouse sandwich was oozing with way too much mayonnaise, which softened the bread into a mushy goo. It took an eternity for the two servers working the small upstairs section to fill our coffee cups and when they did, I eventually noticed coffee grounds at the bottom of my cup. The cup of chowder that came with my sandwich was really good, but not enough to redeem the other flaws. The place was frigid, like dining in a walk-in cooler. This is never a good way to impress the customers. Note to restaurants: If you are going to open your doors in winter, make sure the heat has been on for a good hour prior to opening to warm up the room. Our server was jovial and was obviously working hard to make the best of a less than ideal situation.
The Nest Bistro, Old City Quarter, 486A Franklyn Street, Nanaimo, BC
After a couple of days soaking in the glorious mineral water on Salt Spring, we decided to spend a night in Nanaimo, a place really hard hit by the economic downturn. For a while last year it had the dubious distinction of having Canada's highest unemployment rate. I believe that distinction now rests with Duncan. In any case, and in the spirit of the staycation movement we decided to donate a few tourist dollars to the Harbour City.
We asked around for a good restaurant and one cafe proprietor mentioned the newly opened Nest Bistro. What a nice find. This tiny bistro in the city's Old Quarter is run by a couple of ex-Vancouver chefs and their focus is on local, fresh. Bistros tend to be heavy on pretension, but we detected very little upon entry, and the menu was refreshingly straight forward and minimal. Among our appetizer sampler was an avocado & shrimp salad, which was seasoned with masala - a pleasant, counter-intuitive notion that worked deliciously. For my main, I had a chicken breast stuffed with herbs and cheese and it may be one of the most perfectly cooked pieces of chicken I've ever eaten. My wife's potato-encrusted wild salmon was also a simple, yet exquisite dish.
I wish Victoria had a few more places like this. Too many bistros here, and elsewhere, are big on concept and the over-finessed food ends up getting lost in presentation and creative overkill. The Nest Bistro keeps it simple, with the focus squarely on the food. The result is big success with a quickly growing loyal customer base.
Paul's Motor Inn, 1900 Douglas St., Victoria, BC
Our last breakfast of the year was a return to simplicity. The diner at this iconic Douglas Street motel is a throwback to a simpler era. From its veneer wood trimmings to its classic diner booths, Paul's restaurant is a reminder that you needn't wait in 2-hour line-ups at places like Blue Fox and John's Place in order to get a cheap, basic, greasy, starch-heavy breakfast. It's straight shooter blue collar food, served with a big smile, where all the customers seem to know each other and communicate with staff on a first-name basis.
Incidentally, I'm amazed that copper thieves haven't yet stripped this motel's roofing. Maybe this brand of criminal is too stupid to look beyond Telus cables, and power pole wiring.