From Victoria, we headed up the island’s only highway for just over four hours (with a quick wild swim in Lake Sproat) until we reached Tofino – a small surfer wilderness town with incredible beaches and, as we’d discover, an equally impressive food scene. Tofino has a population of about 2000 (though this swells like its waves in the summer when the surfers pour in), but the residents are spoiled by the quite amazing selection of restaurants, cafes, delis and take-aways that have made a home there. We ate ridiculously well every day during our stay, which we extended from two to three nights because we just loved the place so much.
As well as some really on-the-money restaurants like Shelter: a surfer dude hang out where I ate amazing broiled oysters and smokey aged ribeye, and The Spotted Bear: a cool French-inspired bistro where we shared some amazing charcuterie and local mussels; there’s the legendary Taco truck Tacofino which serves the best tacos I’ve ever tasted. Tacofino now has two trucks and a sit-down restaurant in the city of Vancouver, and with combinations like seared sesame soy Albacore tuna with seaweed salad and wasabi mayo, it’s no surprise. When I’m back in Van we’re definitely going to check out the restaurant, and next time I want to try the fish tacos, made with tempura ling cod, chipotle mayo, shredded cabbage and salsa. In the same lot, there’s also The Wildside Grill, a take-away which is a joint venture between a chef and a fisherman. This place is all about local fish and seafood cooked fresh off the boat – we tried the halibut and chips with apple slaw, and the gumbo. I’m going back for the spot prawns! Tofino also has a cracking little micro brewery – we adored the light, caramel blonde ale, an organic coffee roaster and a chocolate/gelato maker.
At the Tofino micro brewery
We were staying at the utterly stunning Wickaninnish Hotel, a Relais and Chateaux which sort of grows out of the rocks on Chesterman Beach – a long, deserted sandy beach with the best rock pools I’ve seen since childhood camping holidays to Brittany. Our room here was the best hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – with a balcony that overlooked the crashing sea, a gas fire and a bathroom with windows that shared a view out onto the coast. Just heaven.
The hotel’s Pointe restaurant has equally gorgeous views, but the food is a more than worthy distraction. I ate an incredible starter of oysters broiled with Szechuan braised brisket and perky mustard greens, followed by salmon with sweet breads and morels. It was absolutely stunning, but I couldn’t help being jealous of Jamie’s beautiful cod with Romesco crumble. My dessert of olive oil sponge with yoghurt and grapefruit was a perfect end to the meal: unusual, light and delicious.
If you ever find yourself in BC, planning a trip to Tofino, make sure you give yourself at least few days. You’ll need it to get around all these food places.
A couple of weeks ago, during a visit to the Isles of Scilly, I came over all Famous Five – posting Instagram pics of ‘a beautiful hidden cove – great for a secret picnic!’ and ‘fisherman Graham relaxing after his catch’. Some seriously earnest stuff. The thing is, with all the fresh sea air, incredible luminous light, crystal turquoise waters and lush, varied flora on the Scilly Isles, you really can’t help catching the infectious good spirit that abounds the islands, and find yourself wondering when Aunt Fanny might come strolling out with a jug of homemade lemonade. On one occasion during my stay, my host Robert Francis of the wonderfully characterful 16th Century Star Castle Hotel on St Mary’s drove me back from his boat after hauling in his lobster pots (that provide the lobster and crab for hotel restaurants) – smiling and saying hello to everyone we passed. “Do you ever have days where you just don’t want to say ‘hi’ to people?” – the London cynic in me asked. “No,” he said with a little chuckle. “It’s a nice place really – friendly, good people.”
Robert acquired the lease for the hotel from the Duchy Estate (which owns the island) in 2003, but has, in the last couple of years handed the direct running of the hotel onto his son James, which means he gets to spend his time on his main passions – catching crab and lobster on his boat, and wine. As well as being a wine enthusiast (you only need to glimpse the well selected, reasonably-priced wine list in the hotel’s Castle restaurant to glean this), Robert is in the process of creating the island’s first vineyard. During my stay he drove me the couple of miles down the road to the site where the 700 vines of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he’s planted with the help of celebrated Austrian wine-maker Willi Opitz are currently in the midst of budding, in the expectation that during this, their third year in the ground, they will produce a crop of grapes.
Rather than creating the sparkling wine the UK has become known for, Robert wants to produce flat wines, which he believes the micro-climate of the Scillies is able to nurture. His plans for the vineyard include the conversion of a 13th century cowshed into a ‘tasting room’ where visitors can taste the wines and enjoy snacks, mezzes and small plates of food. The plan is to install a wood-burning stove for making things like flatbreads to go with the wines.
On top of being one of the friendliest, and most beautiful places in the UK, the Isles of Scilly are a veritable feast of wild food, as I discovered on the nearby island of Bryher, with fabulous self-taught forager Rachel Lambert. Lambert runs foraging breaks at Hell Bay Hotel on the terrifically rugged Bryher, which has a population of 85. Hell Bay has recently been upgraded to four stars, and has three AA Rosettes for its restaurant, where guests on the foraging breaks can enjoy five course tasting menus dreamed up by Lambert and the chefs – utilising the homegrown produce of the islands.
For two days, Lambert led us on a ramble around Bryher, and then nearby Tresco, carefully explaining the plants, herbs and flowers that she found growing all over.
On Bryher, we gathered rock samphire – a sort of lavender-esque, aromatic cousin of the salty, succulent marsh samphire; scurvy – so named because it’s so packed with vitamin C and was used on boats to avoid the affliction, and bundles and bundles of sea spinach – which grows in glossy patches near the beach, and was later served as a wilted, deep accompaniment to some wonderful roast beef. We also picked up some sea lettuce from a rock pool – which would go into a deliciously umami packed seaweed and brown shrimp broth. Eating that dish, with its shreds of floaty sea lettuce and tiny little shrimps was itself like slurping on a rock pool (in the nicest possible way). Sorrel and gorse flowers (which have an amazing ice cream soda aroma) were also plucked and tasted.
The following day we headed to neighbouring island Tresco, and, under Rachel’s guidance, uncovered a whole host of different plants and wild foods including Bermuda Buttercups – edible flowers with a citric flavour; nettles, chickweed; alexander (which has a sort of celery/rhubarb esque stem); juicy sea sandwort and pennywort.
We also had the pleasure of exploring the amazing Tresco Abbey gardens. Here, hundreds of plants from over 80 countries – including South Africa and Brazil flourish in the special Scillies microclimate. A soaring canopy of palms, special furry flowers and all sorts of other amazing growing things are spread across the many levels of this Victorian garden.
So there you have it. Beaches, wine, wild food, special exotic plants and lovely, lovely people. There’s nowhere in the UK quite like the Isles of Scilly, so if you haven’t already been – get yourself down there!
A matter of months ago, I had never been to Holland. This how now been remedied, and thanks to a fine twist of work-related fate, I’ve actually just been there twice in the past month. On both trips, I had the good fortune of being a guest of the Dylan boutique hotel in Amsterdam. As you can hopefully see from the photos, it’s quite something.
While you might not guess it from the state-of-the-art in-room facilities (the minibar, pictured, has got to be the best one I’ve ever seen), The Dylan has a long and colourful history dating back to the 1600s, and was one of the first buildings on the Keizersgracht canal.First a theatre, and then a Roman Catholic poor house, this 40-bedroom property still retains many of its historic original features, with heavy wooden beams, rickety staircases (don’t worry, there are elevators too) and building inscriptions in old Dutch. But this is very much a contemporary property, steeped in a chic luxury aesthetic. The interior was originally designed by Anouska Hempel in 1999 (and refurbished in 2007 by FG Stijl), and the British designer’s touches are still dotted about, with each of its individually styled rooms offering their own charms. The hotel is named after the poet Dylan Thomas, and it certainly has a tranquil, artistic quality to it that makes it the sort of place you’d want to stay if you happened to be in Holland trying to write your novel. Situated near the trendy ‘nine street’ Negen Straatjes shopping district, canal views, warm, skilful service and a Michelin-starred restaurant make this hotel a good base from which to explore the city, but also a destination in its own right.
And what of the restaurant? Vinkeles is one of just five restaurants in the Dutch capital to hold one Michelin star – situating it as one of the best places to eat in the city – and it doesn’t disappoint. The chef is home-grown talent Dennis Kuipers, an alumnus of Alain Senderens and member of the Dutch Guild of Master Chefs, whose culinary style has its roots firmly in classical French cuisine.
The warm, understated dining room features original 18th century baking ovens – an atmospheric nod to the hotel’s past as an alms house – but the cuisine is anything but austere. Kuipers deftly balances traditional French technique with quality ingredients (some sourced from the local Lindengracht market which is worth a visit) and exciting, fresh flavour combinations like soft, rare veal knuckle with sweet roasted langoustines and curry mayonnaise, and exquisitely tender Anjou pigeon served with its crispy confit leg, tangy kidney and a rich jus with a hint of five spice.
He’s unafraid to use luxury ingredients, putting a modern spin on classic combinations like caviar and pomme puree in his Pommes Tsarine dish – a generous mound of oscietra caviar with smooth crème fraîche sorbet topped with light, fluffy potato espuma (pictured).
Service is excellent, and the sommelier is keen to showcase fantastic, unusual wines from lesser-known regions.
Brilliantly, guests can also enjoy the Vinkeles gastronomic experience on board ‘The Muze’ – a renovated 19th century river cruiser with a private skipper which will take you on a beautiful trip through Amsterdam’s canals as the chef prepares his menu onboard.
Speaking from experience, this has to be one of the most romantic European gastronomic experiences out there. We sipped Champagne while Old Blue Eyes soothed out of the boat’s speakers and the chef paraded various tasty treats fashioned in the tiny boat kitchen.