Merridale Cidery in Cobble Hill, Vancouver Island

Family-run apple orchard grows, squishes, ferments and pours their own ciders

Terry and I were waiting on the corner of Granville and Broadway for the #601 bus to take us to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal, when a grey pony-tailed fellow in mirrored sunglasses rode up on a blue ten-speed with two shopping bags hanging from the handlebars. He said he was going to Jamaica.

“How are you going to get to Jamaica once you’ve run out of land?” I asked him, motioning to his bike. He looked at me hard. “What are you, writing a book?”

“Er, no,” I back-pedaled, “I was just wondering in case I want to try it myself.”

Our journey ’s motivation was much simpler: we’d take our bikes on the ferry to Vancouver Island, cross the Saanich Peninsula, jump on the Mill Bay ferry, and cycle the rolling hills and smooth blacktop around Cobble Hill’s Merridale Cidery.

The family-run cidery grows apples, cultivates honey, and squishes the two together to make a sweet, hi-test cider called Cyser. I wanted some, and I figured it was worth a weekend of camping and riding to get it.

We rolled off the Swartz Bay ferry and after about 23km of pedaling on Land’s End and West Saanich roads we ended up at Brentwood Bay’s ferry pier and a lodge/marina/eco-adventure centre/wine bar/spa where your face, hands and feet can participate in “rituals” inspired by “exotic ancient Polynesian rites”.

Our extremities were feeling just fine, thanks, so we caught the Mill Bay ferry (both the smallest and oldest in the BC Ferries fleet) over to McPhail Point. This shortcut takes just 25 minutes and gives you a hill-free alternative to going around the Saanich Inlet by land. Camping at Bamberton Provincial Park is just 2km south, and Mill Bay ~ with its cluster of B&B’s and amenities ~ is 7km north.

The next day was warm, and the farm fields seemed to harbour a bounty of tourist-snagging Shetland ponies, Jersey cows, sway-backed donkeys, bicycle-chasing dogs, a chestnut horse and its white goat buddy, and a fuzzy black kitten. In the village of Cobble Hill, we found ourselves facing down grandma-soldiered booths of handknit socks, butter tarts and Spiderman supersoakers at a town hall “swap and shop”.

When we finally arrived at the Cidery, the sun was afternoon-hot. Some visitors were taking in a R&B band in the shade of the fruit trees, some waited in line for sausages and apple pie, and some jumped off their bikes and headed straight to the adults-only tasting bar. Merridale pours free samples of all their eight handcrafted ciders in the tasting room, then invites guests to tour the gorgeous orchards and ciderworks. On designated dates they up the ante; in December, for example, you can enjoy mulled cider, fireside carolling, moonlight hay rides and a “special Christmas feast”.

Terry was curious to explore a bit of Shawnigan Lake’s shoreline, and I was antsy to take in more of the autumnal scenery, so when it came time for dinner we aimed for Steeples Restaurant in Shawnigan Lake. The restored timber-framed church made us feel a little self-conscious in bike shorts and helmet-hair at first, but the waitress greeted us warmly, handed us menus and poured complimentary samples of Vancouver Island Damasco wine.

“Life is a never ending adventure of the mind, the spirit and fabulous food!” read the menu. “Experience an adventure in gourmet casual dining.” That’s a lot of adventure, I said to myself, giddy on samples: I hope I can handle it. We managed to surmount the sautéed Alaskan sea scallops and roasted garlic polenta, conquer the West Coast crab cakes and spring roll combo, and even take on a crème brulée.

The next morning the fog came to play and offered chilly company down to the ferry landing. Terry and I were grateful when a friendly crewman handed us hot coffees in the vessel’s heated lounge. We fortified ourselves with a homey brunch at Seahorses Café in Brentwood Bay, then aimed the bikes at the Lochside bike trail on the other side of Highway 17. The path guided us north through Sidney then ushered us towards the ferry ticket booths at Swartz Bay.

It was dark and late when we arrived at the Tsawwassen terminal’s bus stop. The #640’s offloading passengers were grim. They’d waited over an hour for their connection.

“Come on in, load ‘er up,” motioned the bus driver. We shuffled to the back of the crowded bus. The air was sweet with warm donuts. A dad and his daughter shared toy binoculars and peered past the inky glass. A bartender told her cell phone she’d be late for work.

“I don’t know what’s going on with the schedule,” the bus speakers crackled, “But I’m on overtime so let’s just hit the highway and take ‘er directly into Vancouver.” We looked at each other, pleased and incredulous there would be no transfers on the route home. “Enjoy the ride folks.”

Published in Adventure West Magazine, November 2004.