I know I’ve landed in the right place when my B&B host bounds down the steps in his bare feet. “Hey, you made it!” says Dwight Milford, a fit Frisbee fanatic with a big smile. I look around. The place is clean and simple. Not a doily in sight. But even if Affinity Guesthouse were flowery and wicker-y and overrun with chitchatty guests — my personal bed-and-breakfast hell — I wouldn’t have cared.
I’m in the town of Cowichan Bay, on southeastern Vancouver Island, surrounded by a grassy meadow scattered with a couple of canoes and rows of quinoa and raspberry bushes. I’ve left behind my daily grind for a glimpse of a different life — one that doesn’t involve traffic or takeout, iPhones or fancy footwear. Just ultra-local food, walks along the river, maybe a farming class or mushroom forage. This salty seaside village is North America’s first official Cittaslow (Italian for “Slow City”), as ordained last year by the worldwide association (followed by Sonoma). Slow city. Slow food. Slow is my new speed … for today.
Sprawling Cowichan Valley isn’t as polished as its Northern California slow-city counterpart. Its country roads are lined with small farms, ordinary houses, a few tasting fee-free vineyards. The one swanky resort just went belly up. Hand-scrawled signs offer free-range eggs! fresh-cut herbs! (Payment by honor box, of course.) Some yards are filled with abandoned cars and old boats. Tanning salons sit beside organic bakeries. But back here on Affinity’s 22 acres, it’s pure bliss. Swallows sing. Bald eagles float by. Otters play in the Koksilah River — flowing right by my feet. Which are not bare like Dwight’s, but protected from the muddy bank by a pair of borrowed gum boots. Not those trendy rubbery replicas, but the real deal. And, as I suction-cup-step out of the water and into the canoe, they serve a real purpose.
It’s dinnertime in Cowichan — and if you’re staying with Dwight and his wife, Vanessa Elton, that means you earn it. In this case, with a 1 1/2-mile group paddle to the Genoa Bay Café. It’s sunny but breezy on the wide-open river. We push past bobbing sea lions and ospreys prancing in their nest. There’s deep green Salt Spring Island in the distance. An hour later, we pull into a tiny cove with houseboats gleaming in the late-day light — and the cafe, a shack of a special occasion spot, standing on stilts.
Inside it’s a local, candlelit affair. B.C. wines; halibut hauled off the island’s west coast; risotto with duck from “Lyle’s” farm. Talk turns to the farmer being sued by his new city-slicker neighbor because his roosters make too much noise. (Um, hello, this is farm country!) We polish off a warm apple cobbler, then it’s back to the boat, clopping down the dock in our gum boots. We paddle into a sky streaked yellow and pink. The water is a little choppy but the wind is at our back now.
Our pace has picked up — just barely.