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  • Meg Cuthbert

South Islands Cider Cycle Circle Route

“You could travel around all of Washington State, Oregon and BC and get no greater experience than you’re going to have by going to the Southern Gulf Islands region cideries” - Bruce, Valley Cider, Cowichan

The southern Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands region has a long history with apples that dates back to the 1870s. In its heyday, there were more apples on the Gulf Islands than there were in the Okanagan (British Columbia’s current apple playground). Orchards were planted across the region, some of which continue to be cultivated, some forgotten and some have been revitalized in what is becoming known as the cider revolution. The mild winters, coastal climate and a culture that encourages craft are quickly turning this little part of British Columbia into a cider capital.

There are six land-based cideries in this region, each with their own unique stake in the cider business. This region’s mild weather and gentle farmland also contribute to ideal cycling conditions for road cyclists and mountain bikers alike. Combine excellent cycling with the climate for cider production, and you have an epic route for tasting and touring.

So, like most things I do, this project started with a question: Can I bike to all six of these cideries in one day?

Looking at a map, the six cideries really are not that far apart. Looking at the BC Ferries shoulder season boat schedule, the cideries are very far apart. So, the quick answer to my question was no, I can’t bike to them all in one day.

But the long answer was yes, I can persuade four other women to cycle to them over three days. And with that, the South Islands Cider Cycle Circle Route was born.

This route starts and ends in Cowichan for no other reason than that is where I live. The complete route is just over 90-kilometres and requires four ferries. Our full-blown itinerary can be found right here. But the story is below.

Cowichan is one of my favourite places to cycle. Yes, I am completely biased because I live here, but the sprawling country roads provide an excellent afternoon biking backdrop that allows riders to make eye contact with the cows as they cycle past.

On our first day, Miranda and Vanessa joined me on the bike (and Daniel followed in the car to film the episode). It was the final days of September, and the sun was shining. Cowichan is considered Canada’s only Mediterranean climate region and the area gets its name from the indigenous word Quw’utsun’, meaning “the warm land.” We rode under that autumn sun wearing sunglasses and t-shirts.

Valley Cider is the newest cidery is the region and had only been open for a few months by the time we rolled in. Bruce McKinlay at Valley Cider is a craft cider visionary and historian. Have any questions about cider or apple production? Ask Bruce.

As the new kid on the block, Valley Cider is carving their own place in the island’s cider landscape. Their cider is clean and crisp, it’s pleasantly light and is intelligently infused. Bruce calls his cider modern and says his ciders are different because, “[they’re] largely from a culinary perspective, it’s using culinary apples . . . that gives me a lot of creative licenses to produce ciders that have greatly different flavour profiles using all natural ingredients, many of which are foraged from the property here.”

Valley Cider

With blends like Love Potion (infused with rose petals), Cidrus (grapefruit, lemon and orange), and Humulus Lupulus (hops) there is a mouthful of creativity in every sip. From Bruce’s perspective, this region offers incredible quality in cider tasting, “you could travel around all of Washington State, Oregon and BC and get no greater experience than you’re going to have by going to the Southern Gulf Islands region cideries.”

With this recommendation ringing in our ears as a sort of cider blessing, we were back on the bikes, heading to Crofton to catch our first ferry of the trip. The ride to Crofton winds through more back farming roads; there are some potholes to watch out for, but the air is fresh (nevermind the mill) and the scenery is spectacular so we just enjoyed the ride.

Legend has it that at one point Salt Spring was home to more apple trees than people. Today, Salt Spring grows over 450 varieties of apples and hosts an annual Apple Festival.

The Island is known among cyclists for being a hilly beast to bike on. But on the Cider Cycle Circle Route, we didn’t go through Ganges and taking the Vesuvius, and Long Harbour Ferries meant we didn’t have to ride that massive hill outside of Ganges. As a result, our cycling on Salt Spring was very pleasant.

The second stop on the Cider Cycle Circle Route was Salt Spring Wild Cider.

Wild Cider produces some incredible blends, including Hopped Apricot, Burnt Apple Tequila, and Ginger Root. The apples in these ciders are harvested from the wild apple trees that grow on the island. Mike Lachelt, one of the owners of Wild Cider, says that the history of the apples and Salt Spring are an important part of their process, “it’s really nice to be able to connect with the history of Salt Spring and to sort of re-present Salt Spring apples to the world by way of our cider.”

Along with the delicious beverages, Wild Cider provides a diverse menu of farm-style tapas which we took full advantage of as we picnicked orchard-side.

I was very paranoid about missing any ferry on our route. Especially on the first day because one missed boat would put a full-stop to the entire trip, so although we were enjoying our cider in the sun, we had to pack up and boot it over to the ferry. Of course, we cruised into the Long Harbour Ferry Terminal with loads of time to spare and ended up waiting around for the boat. Yes, I’m one of those people who is always uncomfortably early.

Once on Pender Island, we biked the 7-kilometres to the Gulf Islands National Park Reserve, where we pitched our tents for the night.

In the morning we cruised over to Twin Island Cider. When you arrive at Twin Island Cider, you get an immediate sense of how intimate this enterprise really is. Don’t let the size fool you, they’re making some word class cider here.

Twin Island Cider has deep roots on Pender Island. With support from their community (in apples and drinkers) combined with relative autonomy, Katie and Matthew at Twin Island are able to experiment and craft ciders in whatever style they want. It’s a small operation, but that’s just how they like it.

My favourite from their lineup is the Raven King, it has a nice scrump to it (their Pear cider is also spectacular but it sells out very quickly).

With a tasting done and another boat to catch, we were back on the road headed to the ferry. En route into Pender, we cruised down some great hills, which on our way back to the ferry had turned into strenuous uphill sections. But fear not, we were fuelled by cider and could now bike up anything (but not really).

From Pender, the ferry transported us back to Vancouver Island and dropped us in Sidney. For the first time on the entire trip, we found ourselves on a bike path. Yes, the Lochside Trail is a flat, smooth, dedicated bike path that allowed our gang some pretty impressive pace times as we cruised into Sea Cider.

When we made it to the top of Sea Cider’s gravel drive, we were met by Tyra and Hannah, our last two riders on the cider journey. Finally, our Cider Cycle Circle Gang was complete. Sea Cider is an organic cidery with a breathtaking seaside view. Not only are their ciders deliciously and deliberately crafted, but Sea Cider is also very bike friendly. There were probably no less than forty other cyclists there when we arrived. Its proximity to Victoria and the Lochside Trail make it an ideal ride for city cyclists. We fit right in.

My favourite Sea Cider blends are King & Spies and Pippins. However, if you really want to treat yourself, have a taste of their Rumrunner, a cider that is aged in rum-soaked bourbon barrels for a minimum of six months. This is among my favourite ciders ever (a word of warning: this is powerful stuff meant for sipping and sharing).

From here we rode in our new peloton for the first time. It doesn’t matter how old you are, riding bikes with friends is a joyful experience. Cruising down an empty backroad while laughing with a bunch of girlfriends is a tremendous thing. I think these moments, beyond the goals, the journey, the filming and the project, what I loved most about this experience was simply riding bikes with friends.

Now enough of that sentimentality, and on to Tod Creek. First off, Chris Schmidt at Tod Creek is a wicked nice guy, and there is no Tod. When I called him about our adventure, asking if we’d be allowed to film there, he instantly opened his doors to us. When I said I was looking for somewhere in the area to camp, he said “camp in the orchard.” Then he followed that up with, “we’re having a pig roast that night, bring your gang for supper.” You don’t have to tell me twice.

We rolled into Tod Creek with high spirits (from the camaraderie mentioned above), and we set up our tents just outside of the orchard, next to a trickling creek and under a magnificent willow tree. Then we skipped our way through the orchard for a cider tasting and pig roast.

Tod Creek wants to make craft cider a more accessible drink. They were one of the first craft cideries to put their beverage in cans, and they’re going for a laid back, unpretentious style. Since it was the harvest season, the primetime for orchards, he decided to host a pig roast (which just happened to be on the same day we were arriving). This long table dinner was arranged in the orchard under strands of twinkling lights. Hanging out in the orchard in our comfortable post-ride fleeces, with jars of cider we were true cider hipsters and loving every second of it. The cider was crisp, and the food was hearty -- we could not have asked for a better evening. We tucked our tired cider-filled selves to bed anticipating the next day’s ride to Merridale and the Cider Harvest Festival.

That night the skies opened up, and rain poured down on our little camp. Vanessa spent most of her night swimming and waiting for the sun to rise. In the morning we all took stock of our soaking wet tents and decided not to cook up the porridge we had packed, but instead to roll all our sopping supplies into the car and scoot over to Mosi for breakfast sandwiches. No regrets.

From here we rode to the Brentwood Ferry terminal and took the 20-minute cruise across the Saanich Inlet to Mill Bay. It was raining lightly, but with our rain-gear and the spirit of friendship, the 10.5-kilometre ride from the ferry to Merridale was a breeze. By the time we arrived the rain had stopped, and their Cider Harvest Festival was just about to start.

The Cider Harvest Festival is Merridale’s annual harvest event, where they invite craft cideries from across BC into their backyard to share their cider with us islanders. It’s one of my favourite tasting events of the year. As the first craft cidery in BC, Merridale is a pioneer. Janet Docherty, Merridale’s proprietor, has seen the evolution of craft cider from the early days of having to educate drinkers as to what real craft cider even was to today where they’re able to host major events and craft creative blends like Mo’moro (blended with blood orange) or Jalisco Cidre (blended with lime) and Ghost Cider (fortified with apple brandy). Janet says Merridale has been in the cider game for so long that now they’re all about having fun. Fun events, fun seasonal cider, and just all-around good times.

Now almost all the craft cideries on our route were at the Cider Harvest Festival (and many others from across BC) so it could be argued that we didn’t need to do the route at all. We could have just ridden straight to Merridale on that Sunday afternoon. But as Janet pointed out, “you did need to do it. You got that sense of the craft and the farm.”

We finished the route at the Cider Harvest Festival. The itinerary started and ended in Cowichan, but it could have started anywhere. We began at Valley Cider, the newest craft cidery in the area (only 24-kilometres from Merridale) and took the long way around the Gulf Islands and Saanich Peninsula to end at BC’s oldest craft cidery 90-kilometres and three days later.

Along the way we were able to taste the complex and diverse cider that is being produced in this region, we cycled on three different islands and only encountered rain once. The trip was an all-around success that is definitely worth repeating.


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