BRITISH COLUMBIA

Hidden gem of birds, berries and wine surprisingly close to urban rush

07/15/2013 10:00 EDT | Updated 09/14/2013 05:12 EDT
WESTHAM ISLAND, B.C. - A hidden oasis that seems far from the urban rush of Vancouver awaits visitors to tiny Westham Island, B.C., a mere 30 minutes south of the big city.

Floating homes on one side of the partially single-lane wood-deck swing bridge into the community near Ladner, B.C., are the first sign of the calm that welcomes folks to farms, a fruit winery and one of Canada's most renowned bird sanctuaries.

On this day, dozens of fruit lovers are busy plucking strawberries, raspberries and tayberries at several farms, where containers are brimming with the summer harvest. Raspberries, blueberries and gooseberries will entice people back in the weeks ahead.

Down the road, at the Westham Island Herb Farm, owner Sharon Ellis toils in the field of artichokes, tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers before it's time to pick the garlic.

The 50-hectare property includes a barn built in 1916, a quaint general store with goodies such as purple basil jelly, mint chocolate soap and dandelion honey made by a local beekeeper.

In an area called Herb's Place, named after Ellis's great-grandfather Herb Ellis, thyme, lemon grass and tarragon are among the items for sale. And seedlings of leeks, kale, sunflowers and various varieties of squash — including acorn, spaghetti, stardust and butternut — are close by for the picking.

For years, Ellis has invited school children to her farm, where donkeys, roosters, goats and a Scottish highland steer named Bucky await the sometimes astonished looks from kids who've never been to a farm.

Educating children about the origins of food is a passion for Ellis, who says even parents tagging along on field trips often learn a few lessons during the tours she provides — often during a visit to the annual pumpkin patch.

"I think that's the only way for people to realize you have to have farmland," she says of raising awareness about locally grown produce. "You can import more food but I don't think that's the way to go."

On Sept. 15, Ellis's farm will host the Chef Survival Challenge Extreme, a fundraising event complete with kids' activities and a band to support the conservation of farmland.

Ten chefs from the Vancouver area will run through obstacle courses — everything from diving under irrigation pipes and jumping over hay bales to a cheering crowd.

Each chef will pick ingredients from the fields to create a dish and all the meals will be auctioned off.

Up until this year, the event has been held at a farm in Victoria, but organizers hope it will spread across Canada and to other countries.

At the Westham Island Estate Winery, owner Lorraine Bissett's customers often wander into her store on their way to the Reiffel Bird Sanctuary, a protected area for migratory birds.

Fruit wines including snowgoose, strawberry rhubarb and black currant are a big draw at the store that's been a fixture since 2003 on the island where Bissett also owns one of 15 farms.

"It was my husband's dream to open up a fruit winery," she says. "However, he passed away before we opened."

The black currant wine seems to be particularly popular with Bissett's Russian customers.

"You get your vitamin C and your buzz to boot."

At the home of beekeeper Don Cameron, who has about 50 hives, there's a sign in the driveway for honey-hunting drivers to honk their horn.

Cameron, who moved from Toronto in 1996, says bee-keeping is a hobby that keeps him busy on the island that's an ongoing retreat.

"It's surprising that people can live in the Vancouver area for 50 years and have never found it," he says.

The locals don't seem to mind that Westham Island is a well-kept secret.

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If you go:

From Vancouver, drive south on Highway 99 and take the first exit after the tunnel, onto River Rd. South. Turn left on Elliott St., then right onto 47A Ave., which turns into River Rd. Turn right at sign for Westham Island.