Think “tea” and “Canada” and curling up by the fire with a cuppa likely comes to mind.

But here’s a twist. Westholme Tea Company is Canada’s only tea farm, allowing you to sip Canadian tea in the place where it’s grown on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island.

“It’s the most unique tea experience in Canada,” says tea farmer and custom blender Victor Vesely, who owns Westholme with his wife, ceramic artist Margit Nellemann.

A former chef, Nellmann also creates Westholme’s tea and tisane (herbal tea) blends. Her fanciful clay teapots and cups are on sale in the Westholme tea shop gallery, tactile treasures that all but beg to be held.

Ceramic artist and Westholme co-owner Margit Nellmann crafts a clay teapot. Photo: Margit Nellmann

Westholme will offer a new tea program with outdoor small-group tasting and education sessions when COVID-19 restrictions lift. Visitors will walk around the tea terraces with Vesely, then learn about flavours and histories of a range of teas, hearing stories of the mostly widely consumed beverage in the world — after water.

“The connection to tea history and tradition is the foundation for Westholme”

Victor Vesely

The program will focus on small-scale global growers, including high-quality teas that are hard to find in North America. Westholme’s estate-grown green and black teas will also be tasted.

“The connection to tea history and tradition is the foundation for Westholme,” says Vesely. “We still honor all teas from all the tea-growing regions around the world.”

Victor Vesely, left, centre, leads a tour of the tea terraces. Photo: Westholme Tea Co.

Tea history and tradition

Westholme is located in a lush spot in Vancouver Island’s Cowichan Valley, about a 45-minute drive north of British Columbia’s capital city, Victoria. The small-but-expanding operation is on a former dairy farm in a shallow valley ringed by three mountains.

I love spending time in this region of farms, forests and rolling hills. It’s been called Canada’s Provence for its Mediterranean-style climate, wineries, markets and excellent restaurants.

Napa of the North

“They call it Napa of the North,” says Vesely.

Cowichan means “the warm land” in the language of the region’s first inhabitants, the Quw’utsun people. That temperate climate is a farmer’s delight. It also makes it a good place to spend a few days hiking, cycling and exploring. The ocean is nearby and there are small towns to explore.

One of my favourites is the waterfront community of Cowichan Bay. North America’s first Cittaslow community, an offshoot of the slow food movement, is home to a pretty houseboat village and commercial fishing harbour. You can often spot seal lions and swooping eagles. Whale watching tours depart from the harbor dock. The main street has some good places to eat and charming boutiques. I like to drop in at Wild Coast Perfumery where owner Laurie Arbuthnot creates all-natural artisan fragrances blended to evoke memories of British Columbia locations like Tofino and Salt Spring Island.

This is tea?

The tea terraces at Westholme Tea Co. The bushes look much like what may be growing in your yard. Photo: Westholme Tea Co.

So, what does tea look like before it hits the cup? I was expecting tea bushes to be something exotic, but they look pretty much like the squat evergreens you might have growing in your backyard.

They’re covered in leathery, serrated-edge leaves, the same Camellia sinensis plants whose leaves have been plucked, processed and drunk as tea beginning thousands of years ago in East Asia.

By the way, all tea comes from the same plant. Whether green, white, oolong or black, the type is determined by the heat processing that creates oxidization — or doesn’t, as in the case of green tea.

The Canadian-grown teas sell out quickly. I like Westholme’s delicate Tree Frog Green as well as Maple Smoked Green, which incorporates cold-smoked wood chips from a big leaf maple felled on the property.

Tea at Westholme Tea Co. Photo: Westholme Tea Co.

The couple recently purchased the two-acre property next door for 2,000 more tea plants. They should be ready to be used for tea within five years.

 “There’s a lot more to tea than the lukewarm metal teapot with a teabag,” says Vesley. “We offer a high-end experience that complements attention to detail and aesthetics. There’s no parallel experience. You can’t find this anywhere else in Canada.”

When you go

Westholme Tea Farm: 8350 Richards Trail, Duncan, BC V9L 6B4

Go to the Tourism Cowichan website to plan your visit.

Getting to and around Vancouver Island is easy by car. Victoria International Airport has daily direct flights from Vancouver, Calgary and regular service from Seattle. Ferries to Victoria from Seattle and Port Angeles, WA are suspended during the pandemic. BC Ferries runs car ferries several times a day to Swartz Bay, about 30 minutes from Victoria, departing from Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal in Delta, about a 30-minute drive from Vancouver International Airport.

COVID-19 Update: What you need to know

Non-essential travel is discouraged in British Columbia at the moment.

The U.S. Canada land border remains closed to non-essential travel. People who travel by air, regardless of citizenship, must show a negative Covid-19 test done within 72 hours before departure. They will need to be tested again upon arrival and wait for three days at their own expense (about $1,575 U.S.) in an airport quarantine hotel. Anyone who tests positive will have to quarantine elsewhere for 11 more days.

Masks are required indoors at all retailers and restaurants (except when eating and drinking).

Check with Canada and British Columbia government websites for travel updates.

The tea education, outdoor guided tastings and special events will be held outside with small numbers to allow for distancing and COVID safety. Check Westholme’s website for updates on the tea program and tours.