Jun 13, 2023

City escape: Rural delights await in B.C.'s lush Fraser River Valley


The former Canadian Northern railway station, built in 1920, was moved to its present location in downtown Fort Langley.

We love Vancouver, B.C.'s city vibe, but a few years ago, my husband and I decided to bypass the urban adventures for a weekend in the British Columbia countryside.

Fifty miles east of Vancouver, we discovered the rural Fraser River Valley and the suburbs Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge. At first glance, they seem to be a mish-mash of housing developments and strip malls, but a little research turned up hidden corners of tranquillity in the foothills of the Golden Ears mountains. 

Here we found dairy farms, nurseries, cranberry and blueberry fields on a giant flood plain protected by  dikes, long stretches of raised earthen mounds surrounded by farmland.

Built by Dutch settlers in the 1950s as a method of flood control, the dikes form an interconnected system of walking and bicycling trails along flat, mostly hard-packed gravel paths.

Fast-forward to our first return trip to the Fraser valley since the pandemic ended. This time, we found some new discoveries on the opposite side of the river around the quaint village of Fort Langley.

Since Vancouver wasn't on our itinerary for this time, we avoided the city by bypassing the Blaine/Peach Arch border crossing, and detouring from Interstate- 5 to the Lynden / Aldergrove crossing. Fort Langley is 15 miles north of the border.

The village brims with locally-owned cafes, restaurants, bakeries and tasting rooms, tempting visitors here to tour the Fort Langley National Historic Site, the former Hudson Bay Company's fur trading post declared by the British as the birthplace of British Columbia in 1858.

How to decide where to go when passing through for just a few hours? Chew On This Tasty Tours offers a roadmap for a self-guided, multi-stop walking tour called Local Flavour. 

Visitors are provided with a map and a timetable for appointments at sit-down and takeaway food and drink stops along with suggestions for visiting historical sites, art galleries and taking  scenic walks. Food, drinks, admission fees and surprise gifts are included in the $88 per person price. 

“It’s designed to have a day planned for you," says owner Lise Hines.  "You don’t have to think about it. Just show up, and hopefully after a taste of the town, you'll want to come back and spend more time exploring."

A couple celebrates their anniversary at the Little White House

We covered only about a mile of actual walking over several hours of tasting and sipping. Tours usually start with high tea at the Little White House, an eclectic clothing and home goods boutique with tables tucked into a cozy rooms and gardens. Guests have an hour to enjoy tea along with a tiered platter laden with scones, clotted cream, savory sandwiches cookies and macaroons.

A blacksmithing demonstration at Fort Langley National Historical Site

Other stops might be tailored to individual interests. After a walk through the Fort Langley Historical Site for hands-on gold panning and blacksmithing demonstrations, our itinerary called for a  stroll past shops and cafes in historic heritage houses along Mavis Street to the Kizmit Gift Gallery for a look at the work of Canadian potters, jewelers, painters and craftspeople.

Heritage buildings house cafes and shops along Mavis Street in Fort Langley

Baker Robert Giardino

Next came a stop a La Focacceria, where owner Robert Giardino  bakes and sells Italian Puglia-style flat bread studded with olives or roasted tomatoes. Giardino steps away from the ovens to hand out small bags of bread made with two types of flour imported from Italy, and gives a short explanation of the difference.

At visit to BC Buzz Honey, a maker of raw, unpasteurized honey produced by Fraser valley bees, came with a short lesson on the medicinal properties of ginger and raspberry honey. Following this was a relaxing sit-down wine-tasting and light lunch at Valley Commons, and Okanagan winery.

Republica's cafe in Fort Langley's Gasoline Alley

Rounding out the afternoon was a stop for iced lattes at Republica Coffee Roasters, and finally a visit to Into Chocolate for samples and a nostalgic browse through shelves stocked with vintage candies. 

When Hines started her business in September, 2020, "I wanted to see what I could do to help small businesses" struggling through the pandemic, she recalls. "Fort Langley has no cookie-cutter businesses," a reason she makes sure the owner or an  employee is on hand to greet visitors at the expected times. 

"I call them businesses with a face."

Farm-to- glass wines and spirits

The Fraser valley is a prime wine grape-growing area. Outside of town, several wineries welcome visitors into their vineyards for tastings, live music and meals. 

Bacchus Bistro serves lunches and dinners in an elegant dining room overlooking the vineyards at the Chaberton Estate, the valley's oldest winery with an outdoor picnic area. 

Close to the U.S. border crossing, Vista d’oro's vineyard is surrounded by fields on one side and Campbell Valley Regional Park on the other. Accompanying wine and cider tastings is "pizzam," a pizza creation with local artisanal jams spread on a crust topped with savory toppings and cheese.

Unique to the area is Roots and Wings craft distillery which partners Rebekah Crowley and Rob Rindt run on the farm that has been in Rindt's family for three generations. 

Stillmaster Rebekah Crowley

First came fruits and vegetables, followed by the transition to a sod farm Rob runs with his five brothers. Then one day while pondering ideas for a side business, he turned to Rebekah, and said "Do you think we could make vodka?"

The couple spun off a few acres next to the turf farm to grow potatoes and corn fed by natural spring water. She enrolled in distilling classes at Prohibition University in Kelowna.

Their goal: Do everything on site- from planting, growing, harvesting, mashing to fermenting and distilling.

When the law changed to allow distilleries on agricultural land, they were ready in February, 2017 to open Roots and Wings, the first craft distillery in Langley Township, five miles from the village of Fort Langley.

Starting with a 30-gallon copper kettle still bought online and shipped from Kentucky, they released their first spirit, a potato and corn vodka, called Vital Vodka named so for being "absolutely necessary for lounging or letting loose. "

Graduating to a 500-gallon still, they now produce 40 variations of locally-produced spirits from crops grown on their farm plus botanicals, wormwood (for their 72 percent proof absinthe), dill, mint, Russian garlic, horseradish and rhubarb grown by Rebekah mother, Marg Crowley, on her property down the road.

Rob, 39, is the "roots," a life-long farmer whose favorite drink is a plain potato vodka, while Rebekah, 43, with a technology background, is the "wings," the still master who dreams up new flavors and cocktail recipes printed on cards slipped in with bottle purchases.

Views of the Golden Ears mountains set the scene for relaxing outdoors with a cocktail on a shaded patio furnished with bright green umbrellas and red Adirondack chairs. Next door is an indoor sipping and snacking area inside two repurposed shipping containers.

Tasting room with bottles stacked floor-to-ceiling

The main tasting room is a single-wide trailer resembling a cabin in the hills of Kentucky. Inside are shelves filled with bottles decorated with colorful labels picturing the mountains and a vintage tractor they first used to plow their fields. Unique is a line of savory vodkas. There's dill pickled vodka, black garlic, horseradish, five pepper and truffle vodka.

"It's an ever evolving situation," says Rebekah. "We don't have investors, so it's just Rob and me pulling up our bootstraps and making things happen."

She works to come up with a name and a story behind every spirit and many of the drinks on an extensive menu of cocktails and flights.

There's Johnny Handsome whiskey described as "rough around the edges but deeply refined kind of spirit with the soul of a centenarian and the body of a barrel-chested Viking that will knock you off your feet." 

Cocktail time at Roots and Wings

A cinnamon whiskey and blueberry liqueur cocktail called  Wellers Streusel takes its name from Rob's grandfather Gert Weller who had a blueberry farm in the area, now run by family members as a U-pick farm in summer. 

"Man- o -War" - a bottled pre-mixed cocktail with bourbon, vermouth, orange liqueur and lemon - includes a dash of farm-grown horseradish ground by hand by Rob until his eyes watered.

The tasting room and bar store is open year-round. New additions include a vintage rail car installed in the back as a stage or live music events.

Planned for the winter holidays is a release of a peated whiskey made with smoked peat from a bog under Rob's grandfather's blueberry farm. 

Tourism informationTourism Langley 

Where to stay: Bed and breakfasts, motels, Airbnbs and RV parks offer many options. For a quiet farm stay, consider Sage & Solace, and organic farm with two guest suites, a pond, picnic areas and farm animals. 

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