Few things in the world are more comforting than a country inn. What could be better than fresh coffee and cinnamon rolls to start the day, a brisk walk in the woods to pass the afternoon and a good book by a fireplace to wind up the evening? And yet something could turn out to be wrong with this picture. That heartily anticipated and well-deserved dinner at the inn's charming restaurant all too often becomes the weekend's low point, as if gastronomic anticlimax were the price of rural peace. But the happy news is that more and more talented chefs are leaving their jobs in big cities and taking up posts at inns, lured by the pleasures of country life: privileged access to wild creatures from waters and pastures, more leisure time to contemplate the perfect plate and space for a generous herb garden. The three inns on these pages promise old-fashioned pampering and incredible food that will surprise even the most jaded urban palate. Although they might be country cousins, they're anything but provincial in taste.
Hunkered down on a rocky headland near the quiet town of Tofino on Canada's Vancouver Island, the Wickaninnish Inn fits as naturally into its setting as the spruce fringing the nearby beach. Built in 1996, the inn is rustic yet sybaritic, with each of its 46 guest rooms offering an ocean view.
A nature theme pervades Wickaninnish. Hand-hewn cedar beams and woodwork by Pacific Northwest artisans decorate the inn, and the brand new Ancient Cedars Spa offers beauty therapies inspired by the forest and the sea. And then there's chef Rodney J. Butters's cooking at The Pointe restaurant. Butters relies almost exclusively on British Columbia suppliers, such as foragers who hunt for chanterelles, matsutakes and other wild mushrooms. Fishmongers sell him giant oysters from Clayoquot Sound (he grills them in the shell until they're firm and meaty) and acorn barnacles as big as fists (he steams them in their own succulent juices). Butters also pairs local smoked black cod with a silky pudding of organic corn, red pepper, onion and milk and tops a Parmesan-crusted vegetable torta with rainbow-colored strips of beet, yam, parsnip and potato. Add the wild Pacific surf as a backdrop, and life at Wickaninnish couldn't get much better.
(500 Osprey Lane at Chesterman Beach, Tofino, Vancouver Island, British Columbia; 250-725-3100.) --Providence Cicero