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Sunday, July 27, 2008

ROAMING THE RIVER: A History and Culinary Trip Around Steveston B.C.

Early on a weekday morning I met with a small group of travel writers on a culinary tour of Steveston B.C. Our extraordinary journey began at the Steveston Seabreeze Adventures where we borrowed bikes for a ride along the Fraser River. Cycling the river paths and dykes of Richmond has always been something I’ve wanted to experience, and for just $7 an hour you can pick up a cruiser bike at Seabreeze and set off on an interesting scene and historical tour of this old fishing village. The paths are well travelled and flat so it’s an easy ride. You can also book trips here for whale watching and charter boats for deep sea fishing.

We set off to visit one of Steveston’s famous heritage attractions, London Farms, pedalling along the river path to the farm, just fifteen minutes from the town.

Richmond has been a farming area since 1862 and although today most of this rich farmland has been developed into residential areas, there are still some hardy farmers growing produce. You can tour some the this agricultural area by car (1 1/2 hrs) or by bicycle (2 1/2 hrs).

The London Farm overlooks the south arm of the Fraser River The original owners of the London Farm, were William and Thomas McNeely who first arrived in 1865. Charles and William London purchased 200 acres of McNeely’s farm in 1880. The present farmhouse was constructed in two parts from 188 - 1906. Charles London also built a small wharf known as London’s Landing where he shipped farm products and received supplies. The municipality of Richmond purchased the house and 4 acres farm in 1978 and it is now a designated heritage site.

The farm has a park-like setting with flower gardens, farm equipment, and even chickens. Weddings and other special events are held in the gardens. In the farm shop we were greeted by the delicious aroma of fresh baking coming from the kitchen. We were welcomed into the house and treated to tea in the dining room, and fresh scones and dainty goodies served by the gracious lady who is the volunteer baker.

Cycling back, we stopped to view eagles nesting in trees across the river, and views of the old heritage buildings. Steveston was once a thriving fishing village and a Japanese settlement. There is little left of the residences except one small house once the home of the Murakami family who lived at Britannia and operated boatworks from the late 1920’s until their internment in 1942. The house and boatworks have been restored and Mrs Murakami’s garden is still lovingly tended.

Just next door is the historic Britannia Shipyards and a guide toured us through explaining the various functions and tasks of the ship builders. There are still volunteers working alongside profession boat-builders at the Shipyards. The Britannia Shipyards is all that survives of a mix of canneries, boatyards and residences with some of the oldest heritage buildings found along the river. It began as a cannery in 1888 and later was converted to a shipyard repairing boats for the ABC. Packing fleet. There were originally over 90 structures. The Richmond Boat Builders, now used for boat construction and repair, built in 1933 still has its original steambox and a cradle to move boats onto and out of the water. The remains of walkways and wharves are all around the old cannery buildings. Each ethnic group had its own accommodations: First Peoples houses, Chinese bunkhouses, Japanese duplexes and these are displayed by pictures although some of the old buildings may still be restored.
We returned our bikes and had a look at the whale watching boats for hire at SeaBreeze Adventures. Then it was time for fish at chips at one of the most notable of Steveston’s chip shops, Pajo’s an award winning outside restaurant at the Government dock. The name originates from Pat and her former partner Joan who began the business in 1985. Pajos is a thriving family operated business. The halibut and chips there were the best I’ve tasted, all fresh products.

Next door is the big Gulf of Georgia Cannery, a National Historic site and museum with fascinating displays explaining the early canning processes. Built atop wooden pilings over the river, it is one of the few remaining 19th century salmon canneries on the B.C. coast. It commemorates the development of Canada’s West Coast fishing industry from the 1870’s to the present.

Our guide, Rob Hart, took us on a fascinating tour. The main building was built in 1894 and was one of the largest plants along the lower Fraser River. Described as a ‘monster cannery,’ by 1902 it was the largest cannery in B.C. Unfortunately the Depression brought a halt to the cannery’s operations in 1930, but during W.W. II it was reactivated for the canning of herring. The cannery also processed fish oil and meal up until 1979.

In the last few years, Steveston has become a thriving community of boutiques, fine restaurants, condo developments. The fishers still arrive at the dock each morning with their catches providing the local restaurants with fresh fish. Nowadays the restaurants, shops and cultural/historical and recreational tourism seem to be the main attraction here.

If an exclusive dining experience is what you want, I’d highly recommend Papis Italian restaurant. The restaurant has recently opened after a devastating fire in 2007 and there was another small crisis that day as a truck had backed into their gas line. In the true spirit of ‘the show must go on’, executive Chef/owner Ken Iaci prepared a delicious array of savory sea food delicacies and offered us a taste of the imported Italian wines.

Then it was off to the “River Queen”, where we were to take a narrated nature and historical tour of the Fraser River and Cannery Channel. Unfortunately the wind prevented us from sailing.

An artistically served meal at the Blue Canoe

One of the Steveston’s newest restaurants is the Blue Canoe located right by the river

on Bayview St. It has the ambience of a lakeside summer cottage. We were welcomed there by one of the new proprietors, Jim Van der Tas who generous offered an exquisite lunch prepared by executive chef Vincente Mabanta, truly a memorable dining experience which we enjoyed on the patio with a view of the fisher boats on the river.

During the afternoon we visited the Richmond Oval site, the venue for the long track speed skating events during the 1010 Olympics and Para Olympics Winter games. Then it was time for some leisure wine tasting at one of the Lower Mainland’s wineries, Sanduz Estate Winery, where were tasted the delicious wines made from grapes and local berries.

Our day of touring and dining ended at the Tapenade Mediterranean Bistro where we were served a full-course meal of their fresh Mediterranean cuisine including appetizers of chicken liver parfait, Tapeande and crostinis followed by mushroom soup made with truffle croutons and enoki mushrooms and a finally choice of braised beef short ribs or Queen Charlotte Halibut as an entree.

My day of roaming the river over and thoroughly sated, I headed back to the City again. I felt as though I’d been on a vacation. What a grand way to spend a day so close to home!


Steveston Seabreeze Adventures:
12551 #1 Road, Bldg 42

London Heritage Farms:
6511 Dyke Rd.

Britannia Heritage Shipyard
5180 Westwater Dr.

Pajos (There are also Pajos located at Gary Park Steveston and Rocky Point Park, Port Moody.) Season is early Spring to late Fall depending on the weather.

Papis Italian Restaurant
12251 No 1 Road

“River Queen” (and whale watching adventures)
Blue Canoe Restaurant
#140- 3866 Bayview St.
604-275-7811 or 604-271-5404

Sanduz Estate Winery
12791 Blundell Rd.

Tapenade Mediterranean Bistro
3711 Bayview St.

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