Vancouver Island road trip: the Cowichan Bay perfumer
By Linda Barnard
Wild Coast Perfumery owner-perfumer Laurie Arbuthnot creates “scent memories” of British Columbia locations in her minimalist boutique in Cowichan Bay.
Arbuthnot may be working in her scent blending lab behind the counter when you walk in, creating the 11 fragrances she sells here, as well as bespoke scents for spas and shops.
Rows of dark glass bottles contain natural plant essences from all over the world. She works with plants she forages around the Island. There’s citrusy, slightly bitter Douglas fir and rich Western red cedar. Lichen, called oak moss in the perfume world, “puts me in mind of the end of the summer with the hot sun beating down and the grasses that are crispy and brown,” Arbuthnot says.
The bottles and glass distilling equipment make the shop feel like an Art Deco-era apothecary. The boutique’s black-and-white colours echo the perfume’s elegant, minimalist packaging.
As to be expected, the room smells delightful.
“I try to paint a picture with fragrance,” says Arbuthnot, who opened her shop in 2017. The all-natural perfumes have names like Whistler, Sunshine Coast, and Salt Spring Island and evoke West Coast experiences through native plants and botanicals.
With her Tofino fragrance she wanted to recreate her childhood anticipation of walking down the path to Long Beach on the Island’s wild west coast, so she blended gentle scents of wild rose and Western red cedar. “I’m remembering how it made me feel a certain way from being in a certain location,” she explains. Indeed, smells spark powerful memories, olfactory clutches of the heart with the whiff of a father’s aftershave or peonies in grandma’s garden.
Scent of romance
Or take the story of a legendary international romance that blossomed in Victoria.
I first heard the story of exiled Georgian Prince Nicholas Abkhazi and Peggy Pemberton-Carter and their magnificent West Coast garden from Arbuthnot as I sampled fragrances at Wild Coast Perfumery.
They two met in Paris in the 1920s and somehow found each other again in New York after both were imprisoned in internment camps during the Second World War. Pemberton-Carter had recently moved to Victoria and they married there in 1946. The prince and princess began to design and build a modernist home and spectacular garden in the residential Oak Bay neighbourhood.
Abkhazi Garden is a delightful place and one of Victoria’s hidden gems. The couple’s former home is now a tearoom where you can have an excellent afternoon tea or lunch overlooking their garden, along with a pot of Royal Abhkazi Black Tea, a custom blend from Victoria’s Silk Road tea.
Arbuthnot created Wild Coast Perfumery’s Abkhazi fragrance as a tribute to the couple in 2017 and has recently tweaked it by deepening the jasmine and amber notes.
“I owed it to the Abkhazi story (for it) to be absolutely gorgeous,” she says. “As I retold the story to customers, I saw how it stirred so much emotion. I felt I wanted the fragrance to do the same.”
My favourite of the Wild Coast fragrances is Carmanah, inspired by Vancouver Island’s lush Carmanah Valley rain forest. With notes of lemon verbena, lavender, oak moss, cedar and exotic oud, just one spritz and I’m standing among the towering hemlocks and firs on a forest trail; fragrant spruce tips and soft moss under my feet.
Cowichan Bay, a community of about 2,500 people, is less than an hour from Victoria and one of my favourite stops along Vancouver Island’s 290-km Pacific Marine Circle Route. The circuit loops from Victoria up the west side of the Island to Port Renfrew and back and can be done in a day, if you push. But a meandering, three-day tour is a much better plan, giving you plenty of time to stop and explore and explore old-growth forests, pristine beaches, wineries and small towns. There are great spots to eat, from wood-fired pizza in the woods at Stoked, to amazing coffee and pastry at Shirley Delicious and the freshest local seafood and produce at a variety of restaurants.
There’s a relaxed vibe in Cowichan Bay, named North America’s first Cittaslow-designated community in 2009. This offshoot of the Slow Food philosophy recognizes locations that value quality of life for locals and visitors, with an emphasis on preserving the land, local history and traditions, while promoting local craftsmanship.
Stroll along the harbour, filled with fishing boats, pleasure craft and colourful houseboats. You may even spot some seals. There are several retailers, including Beachology, which has summery linen and light cotton clothing. There are also a few places to eat along the boardwalk. Rock Cod Café has great halibut tacos and I’m a big fan of True Grain bakery’s artisanal breads, including chewy Red Fife sourdough, baguettes and whole-grain loaves studded with sunflower seeds.
Pick up a cinnamon-spiced carrot raisin pumpkin seed bar, sit on a bench overlooking the bay and check into that go-slow Cittislow vibe.
Wild Coast Perfumery has re-opened with limited hours. Check the website for updated information, as well as a list of retailers and online shopping options.