Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sooke It & See

Days Remaining to Next Beer: 340

Have long weekend and a couple bucks to rub together, will travel. And so we did, by car and by ferry, to the proverbial end of the world that is Sooke on Vancouver Island, the Sooke Harbour House specifically. And the end of the world happens to be dog friendly.
Add to the mix the launch of the Olympics and a sense of needing to flee Vancouver’s downtown for that, get a little distance while the world turned their eyes to Vancouver, shy away from the noise and first night jitters, hop a ferry and head for the Island, enjoy a long weekend a hop, skip, jump away while the Olympics shudders to life and finds it’s pulse and cadence, while all the opening events and parties and visitors from out of town get their bearings and work out how best to talk over top one another.
We booked ourselves into a room sitting at the top corner of the establishment, a room with a glassed in patio and a wood burning fireplace and a balcony with a view of the harbor, surfers like black seals bobbing on the churning tide in the morning’s light.
Parked on the coastline amid trees and rocky shoals, the Sooke Harbour House is famous for a few things; the space and grounds a living artisan gallery, hallways lined with an eclectic library, a massive banquet hall dug out of the rocky shore beneath the rest of the place, every room unique bed and breakfast hotel, and exquisite fine dining in the lavish dining room.
Along the side of the country mile highway connecting Victoria and Sooke sits a cozy public house called The Edge, meaning the edge of Sooke, the edge of civilization, and when you look out into the ocean from the nearby shoreline, the edge of the world perhaps. Tasty pub food and pints, hospitable wait staff, largely populated by locals, and laden with big wooden tables inside and out that proved excellent for drawing on big sized panel plates.

The Olympics were going on while we were on the Island, and in the Edge we began to feel how connected to our fellow Canadians we actually were, as the locals, tourists, and we were unified with our reactions, and openly forthcoming with our opinions, comparing notes and strategies based on our instant expertise on any sport, no matter how obscure, because we’d just heard the commenter explain the mechanics of what we were watching and seen the mini-biographies designed to infuse the competitors with drama and compassionate empathy,  give us reasons to root for strangers, more than just for the maple leaf on their uniforms

Victoria Essentials
There is more to the excursion though than pampered getaway, at least for us. There’s the jaunt into Victoria to check out the Legends Comics shop on Pandora Street that authors and publishes the Perogy Cat comics. 

Not far from there bask in the brilliance that is Cherry Bomb Toys , as much a museum of my childhood wants and hads as anything contemporarily concerned, my friend Mark that used to run Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Toys on Burnside in Portland would approve, I believe..

Perhaps nothing special for Victoria residents, for out of towners like us, another great place to head upstairs, secure seats at a long wooden high table, drag out a sketchbook, get the skinny on the beer specials, and watch some Olympic action on the big screens scattered throughout the space.

During the summer months Spinnakers brewery produces Iceberg big bottle beers that have a sort of peppery taste I just love. During the Olympics the brewery is still on winter rotation, so heavy ales and heady ambers are the sultry sweet some things on tap.
Spinnakers gets more out of towners than The Edge pub back in Sooke, and the clientele more closely resemble city folk and retirees than the dock, mill, lumber, and liquor store workers catching up on Olympic happenings in the Edge. Regardless, the Olympics had people rooting for Canadian athletes, or if none were in a particular event, then the athletes from wherever their ancestry might have heralded, or their friend’s, or associates. That’s one strange thing about Canadian audiences I saw a lot of, more than I recall seeing in the states, and regardless of whatever spotlights or presentational spin the announcers put on any of the competitors, Canadians seemed to always have a rationale to inform who they would root for, and they always found someone to root for. Maybe that’s typical everywhere and I just hadn’t noticed before the Olympics came to town. 
Certainly knowing as little about sports as I do, I always concoct some offhand reason to root for a person or team. My reasons though could be the jersey designs, or a song I’d recently heard, or because someone else was rooting for the other person or team and so I felt inclined to take the adversarial position. Any time I sense there is an underdog I tend to root for them. 

Making a gross generalization; Canadians, a populace that generally seems to have a healthier and better informed world view than the States, at least cats my age or older do, these broader minded Canadians have more informed reasons to root for people or teams when there aren’t any Canadians to root for, like historical precedent from political or social associations between countries, or from travelling to a particular place and feeling connected to the peoples there, or having family from or still living in said countries, or friends with connections to some place. Personal reasons to root, not fickle ones, and not ones just because some talking head on the telly said so. Granted, grain of salt, that’s a kneejerk perception from the folks I watched the Olympics with while I doodled and drank delicious drafts.

The Bees

We journeyed out to where bee keepers harvest honey for mead and various flavors of honeys. While the merchadise aspect drew us there, the history of the couple that opened, owned, and operated the place coupled with the changing and increasingly unreliable stocks of bees kept us rivetted and turned the buying trip into a strange, and somewhat saddened, excursion. 

Bees are dying. Breeds are thinning, colonies failing to repopulate, various ailments and mites and changes to climate and missed opportunities for pollen collection and distrobution means the bee farmer must do more and more of what he used to be able to take for granted and count on for a viable livelihood.

I love bees, they do great work, and the idea that the world is going sideways enough to threaten the existence of bees, or of morning honey in my tea, or mead in my wine closet, makes me very depressed. Kudos to the bee farmers on the Islands fighting tooth and nail to keep bees in our midst, they do thankless work, until now, cause I'm thanking them. And now they have my thanks in writing. Every action mankind does to threaten the existence of low level ecology like bees, frogs, and bats is effectively hammering another nail into the coffin of our own existence, at the least the quality thereof. 
Our room is the sort of place I wish I could sequester myself away for three months and just write the novel I’ve wanted to create for my entire life. Simple layout, pass a bathroom as you enter, see the big bed, and near it a smaller bed and gift basket for the dog. 

Off to the right past the bathroom the wall opens and there is an atrium, glassed in and cozy, sloped glass ceiling overhead littered with nettles from the overhanging tree branches and the blossoming circles and rivulets of rain drops landing and drumming like a 60’s psychedelic animation, immediately soothing, hypnotizing. Beyond the bed in the main room a sofa and love seat stationed around a coffee table facing the wood burning fireplace with hand laid stonework mantle. 

And beyond that big heavy wood framed glass doors to a thin ribbon of balcony overlooking the back terraced yard of the grounds leading down to the harbor, current crashing into the stony shoreline, mist and spray splashing up like heavy breathing of lovers, like the applause and adulation of a praiseworthy population.
Each room in the place is unique, though I can only attest to the individual care evident throughout our room. All the little touches, the birds and art pieces and decorative flare, instantly disarming, engaging without being obtuse, cheeseball, or overtly themed. I felt more like I’d come to stay with a cool relative in their guestroom or perhaps liberated the office in their summer cottage. The atrium had a wooden kitchen table and variety of chairs and a low 60’s style couch for deep seated lounging or mid-morning napping. And free wi-fi. The lap top lived on that table for the duration of the trip, and proved very handy for writing, posting photos from our day’s excursions, and plotting routes for the next day’s adventuring. Even streamed some radio from Victoria’s wonderful local websites, old rockabilly and swing tunes when we’d had enough Olympics chatter already.

Down the slope from the  slope behind the Sooke Harbour House sat Whiffin Spit Park, more a spit than a park, where Boomer could rush out along the rocky shoreline to charge the waves like a Don Juan versus Windmills until his muscles ached and his chest heaved to get air into his system as he pant and grin like a cartoon proxy of himself. He actually knuckled me to show his excitement over the spit.

The Lift is both an elevator and a quick submersion into the depths of a painterly undersea adventure. I rode along with several travellers while shooting pictures of the interior of the thing. In particular I enjoyed the massive tentacled member of the elevator's fauna, which I later learned is of the same breed as the one on the Vancouver Aquarium, what some folks, or maybe just me, call the Red Devil Octopus, a native of the lower Mainland that is also one of the largest known breeds in the world of Octopus, and while it's seldom brilliant green given the animal's penchant for camouflage and the slate gray disposition of the waters through most of the year here. 

There is a popular one of these that lives in the harbor where I got my PADI certification, Porteau Cove, and I intend to revisit that place later this year to visit him, or her. Apparently that one likes divers to bring along live crabs, an exception to general PADI guidelines for diving, leave only bubbles and take only memories. 
What I don’t recall their being in the room, and if there was we never turned it on, or if their wasn’t missed it, was a TV. When we did watch any Olympics at Sooke Harbour House, it was down in the reception hall in the basement, replete with big Canadian couches where little by little more guests wandered down to root for the burly thigh'd Canadian speed skaters lap after lap.

Outside our room heavy wooden artisan bookcases lined the walls, interspersed with lovely wooden benches and comfy thick cushioned chairs for people to browse books they’d discovered while trawling through the shelves. I enjoyed the abundance of Canadian literature present there, a lot of which I hadn’t been exposed to before, and had to rely on my wife’s insights to get better perspective on. I really need to read more, as what I’ve been exposed to so far has certainly impressed me. 
Throughout the hotel and grounds there is art, amazing art, some permanent, some on rotation, some inadvertent as guests staying at the place left contributions behind, as I also ended up doing when we departed. Truly a living gallery, and that afforded a pulse I felt energized by, and daunted as well, some seriously talented folks had created wonderful pieces to add into the mix there, works I’ll never artistically overshadow, and that’s ok, because as impressive, sublime, or majestic as many works were, I never felt gated from or lesser than worthy of coexisting with it. 
There is none of the formality of tiny pieces in big blank rooms with velvet ropes between patrons and pieces. Instead the place is nearly cluttered with art, literature, paintings, photos, historical annotations and signage, wall murals, sculptures, ceramic mosaics, dangling folk art just around the corner from a heritage sculpture by one of Canada’s most acclaimed aboriginal artists, and through that door the stern maiden mermaid recovered from a shipwreck, around another corner a hand carved ode to sailors and fisherman servicing the Island back when fish were bountiful enough to catch as they flew over your bow with your bare hands. 

Framed poems, recovered industrial pieces turned into breathtaking street scenes and anti-whaling statements. Fish and whales and birds and things with tentacles, tendrils, or talons found, formed, or forged from virtually every artistic medium I’ve ever run across, forming a collection so diverse as to baffle the viewer as to how this all fit together as seamlessly as it did. 
Sooke Harbour House doesn’t feel like a museum, yet it represents more work than most galleries and many of the museums I’ve been in. The place doesn’t feel like a flea market either, though the spaces and walls are laden with elements warranting closer scrutiny. The place doesn’t feel grand and epic like some ski lodge hotel, though in fact the rooms, hallways, dining and social areas have ample room and never threaten to bump elbows into anything or anyone without first intending too. 

The grounds aren’t particularly expansive like some Pebble Beach golf course, yet you only need take a couple steps off the flag stone path to find yourself secluded enough for a romantic smooch with the missus or to hug a knee and scribe some iambic pentameter prose without seeing a soul, so sensibly have the hedges, plants, terracing, and benches been arranged an placed.

My favorite bench sat out in the open, and seemed like a front row bench seat to the world, sort of like seeing Spike Lee or Jack Nicholson on folding chairs with their entourages on an NBA sideline, close enough to trip a passing giant. The bench seemed set just so at the lip of the ocean, not literally, it’s somewhat a trick of layout and composition, and this illusion holds up even as the moisture from the rain seeps up from the wood slab into the seat of your jeans, you feel like if a killer whale passed by, you could stick out the toe of your K-Swiss and trip Orca before he nailed the 3 pointer.
The kitchen staff at Sooke Harbour House makes wonderful food. I’ll leave it to the foodies and all the many wonderful food blogs to tell you why, of course they do, Sooke Harbour House is famous for this reason and that, this name and that, this chef and that. All valid, I’m sure, however I’m a simple guy with fairly simple needs. A good pint or glass of wine and a meal that leaves me wanting more, without being about to conceive of consuming more, and not because I’ve binge buffet bloated, but because I’m satisfied and know full well I’ve hit the summit of just right and anything more would indeed get into too much of good things territory.
 Breakfasts were simple and delectable, just the right things delivered to our room to get us up and going, with luscious coffee to spare, sipped while standing by the wood framed glass door watching the waters crash against the shore, or while reviewing what had been written the night before on the laptop on the wooden table in the atrium. 
One dinner we had delivered to the room made us feel privileged. Each item presented with a care and delicacy hospital food should aspire too.

The next dinner we tarted up a touch and braved the dining room, ended up sitting at a table next to the table where the owners entertain visiting friends, though we didn’t know who they were until they introduced themselves on the pretext of apologizing for how loud they weren’t actually being. 
We had a wonderful time, felt simply spoiled, especially getting the chit chat intermittently with the owners of the place when conversations mingled and hip-hopped from their table to ours and back again. We ate amazing, unique, well crafted things, deceptively simple yet exquisitely complex, true to the place, true to what arrived on the plates.

The night we checked into Sooke Harbour House, after we'd unpacked and begun to wind down from the journey, Lindz noticed an art pad of bristol paper with a note inside the cover explaining that the House had a proud affiliation with and had housed many wonderfully talented artistic folks through the years. Should our stay there leave us feeling inclined to get creative, by all means feel free to make use of the pad and have a doodle. Take if you'd like, or leave to add to the House's permanent collection.

Inspired by my surroundings and intrigued by the notion of leaving something for the owners to hang on their fridge if they chose, I worked whenever we lounged anywhere over the course of the long weekend to create something fun and in line with the mermaid theme throughout the House, and also to add a nod to the Canadian spirit that seemed to infuse most folks with the Olympics churning along on perpetually in the background somewhere.

Sooke Harbour House, and all these other spots I’ve fleetingly given mention of left me with a strong desire to relocate, or at least spend considerably more time, on the Island. And my experiences on the Gulf Islands also have a similar draw, the greater presence of sea and trees and soil, sane places to wriggle your toes. Away from city and all its concrete and asphalt and the perpetual needle fear I’ve developed as a second sense living in downtown Vancouver, the sort of constant surface scan makes me want to get shoes with Teflon linings sometimes, the appalling number of spent needles or saline casings I see littering the gutters and viaduct sidewalk as I hoof into downtown core for work each morning. If there were viable employment options on the island, I’m not sure we’d resist any temptation to relocate. 
For now I’m just delighted we can escape to places like Sooke Harbour House or Victoria or the Gulf Islands or up north to the Okanagan and recharge our batteries, our souls, our artistic and humanistic selves. For me, these places comprise what makes BC so great. Not Vancouver, not the great sushi, not the great snowboarding since I don’t know how to… yet. 

It’s the places with some harmony with nature, with art, with history, with humanity. Places not afraid to slow down, breathe, and enjoy being alive, or at least feel what it is to be alive, to be a part of life, surrounded by it. 

A lot of classic Japanese cinema alienates western audiences because of a tendency to long stretches of quiet, slow pans across views of landscapes to tell story through absence, the sound of the breeze, of air rustling grass, of distant children playing on the far side of a dune, a five minute scrutiny of the way water travels down a window pane during a spring rain when a child stays home from school and hears the labored breathing of her mother's illness far to the corner of the experience, only audible through Dolby 5.1 from the rear right speaker. Many Americans, conditioned by decades of studio lot manipulative cinematic linguistic techniques, are afraid of quiet, afraid of slow camera drifts that allow time for the eye to wander, and the mind to wonder, what is relevant, what matters on screen, time to either invest into the holistic moment or disinvest for lack of a clear and present focus and get bored, detach. 

Just as Hollywood over does whip pans and rapid fire mash up editing techniques and feels compelled to tell you someone is about to do something and restate when they are doing it and comment upon having done it after we've just seen them do it, classic Japanese cinema just as readily might deliberately not give you a life line, might not expressly call out the point, might not put the key elements on grid or do a dynamic zoom punch in or jump cut to signify that an element on screen is more than relevant, it is the key to the entire three hour jaunt. I'm exaggerating, but only a little. 

The film about the woman forced to marry a wooden effigy after her fiance dies is a great test case for western disposition, or the film about the widow living in the desert waiting for lonely men to stop by and have a tumble down a dune or three. 

This is an interesting cultural difference, or pop cultural, and it's still evident in mainstream fair from Japan, like the Takashi Miike stuff, like Gozu for instance, that even with all the schlock and gore and over the top, very western accessible crime noir mischief, there are quiet moments that last far longer and yet say so much more than a lot of the western pulp Gozu is inspired by. David Lynch uses the awkwardness of unconventional silence and the delibrate uneasiness that creates for curious, invested viewers extremely effectively. 

Sooke Harbour House wouldn't be for everybody. It's not as inaccessible, intimidating, or impenetrable as an artsy, classic Japanese drama, nor it is full of snappy, cookie cutter experiences boxed, priced, and ready for bite sized sound bite consumption. 

Sooke Harbour House unfolds and opens up as you invest in and open yourself to the experiences the place has within and around it, while being approachable, friendly, and readily accessible for people wanting something different from the Fairmonts and Hiltons of the world, something with evidence of the creators in it, like fingerprints or sought after flaws in fine ceramics in Japan, the deliberate flaw to make each piece unique, and as such, more human, more spiritually rich.

Sure, you can pop by for a great dinner or lounge listening to a local musician in the lounge over a glass of Reisling or house Merlot. Sure, you can pop in the fight scene culminating Seven Samurai and have a ripping good viewing. Or, you can soak it in, try to come to terms with the place as a whole, and be the better for it. True not just for Sooke Harbour House, but for most big deal things in life, like having a son that only a week ago couldn't crawl yet, and two weeks ago didn't have any teeth yet. 

You can focus on going from one highlights reel moment to the next in life, or you can pause, breath, and soak in the whole thing. Sooke helped me to rediscover that frame of mind, if only for a long, wonderful weekend.

1 comment:

  1. I love that room, I want to live in that room. You forgot that it was also Valentines day and I was 4 months pregnant. It was our last romantic weekend without a kid