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Salt Spring Island perfect for travellers on a restricted diet

If there’s one thing you can count on in life, it’s karma. Time and time again, I’ve found that whenever I pass judgment about something, chances are good I’ll eventually do it.

For example, I spent a good decade rolling my eyes at the Gwyneth Paltrows of the world, who inconvenienced restaurants and dinner hosts everywhere with their elaborate diets.

Salt Spring Island, seen in the fall, offers a healthier lifestyle, natural beauty, countercultural residents and barefoot concerts – a welcome escape from city life. (iStock)

So, naturally, I found myself in Salt Spring Island recently, regaling a fresh-faced waitress at the Treehouse Café with an endless list of foods that must not pass my lips. I was on an elimination diet recommended by my naturopath – no gluten, dairy, soy, corn, eggs, refined sugar, every fat except cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, most meats and fish, chocolate, coffee, citrus, nuts and most seeds, plus nightshade vegetables.

Reciting this list, I suddenly cringed. What the hell was I doing?

I had to blame the Sixties. Raised a reluctant hippie child in Vancouver, I rebelled in the only way possible: moving to Toronto, donning stilettos and getting a job at a celebrity magazine.

I logged marathon hours at the office, went out every night to cocktail parties, and ate a steady diet of Starbucks, Purdy’s chocolates and sushi. That kind of lifestyle takes its toll.

The view from the Mount Maxwell. (iStock)

This summer, karma kicked in. I found myself back on the West Coast, desperately seeking a healthier lifestyle and spending time on Salt Spring, an island famous for its natural beauty, countercultural residents, thriving wellness centres and decades-long tradition of local, organic food.

A picky eater’s guide

Gluten-free, dairy-free or just anxious about finding the right food on the road? Salt Spring Island has got you covered.

The hippie health-food hub is a food-sensitive traveller’s dream vacation spot, with delicious dining options that cater to every dietary restriction.

Tree House Café: If you want to get a feel for Salt Spring’s foodie community, there’s no better place to park yourself than the Tree House Café. A gathering spot for islanders, it features live music and comfort-food classics like burgers (with free-range, steroid-free, hormone-free beef) and B.C. Sockeye Salmon Fillet (Ocean Wise, naturally). Gluten-free bread available. 106 Purvis Lane, treehousecafe.ca

Salt Spring Salads: Delicate greens? Check. Sprouts, seeds and drool-worthy dressings? Check, check, check. The island’s eat-your-veggies food truck debuted in 2015, and there’s been a lineup ever since. Located next to the school board office. facebook.com/SaltspringSalads

Salt Spring Natureworks: At this homey natural-foods shop, stock up on local artisan offerings, organic produce, bulk foods, teas and vitamins.

And while you’re there, have a good gab with staff, who are bound to have helpful suggestions for whatever dietary odyssey you’ve embarked on. 116 Lower Ganges Rd., saltspringnatureworks.ca

Morningside Organic Bookstore and Bakery: Don’t let grumpy online reviews scare you off of this exquisite organic and plant-based kitchen.

Peruse its stellar collection of books as you sample wood-fired heritage sourdough bread, soups, smoothies and shakes – and, of course, a cup of world-class chai tea. 107 Morningside Rd., morningsideorganic.com

Here’s the thing: If you are nutty enough to travel while on an elimination diet, Salt Spring is the ideal place to go.

At the Treehouse, an airy fort that looks like something an Ewok might design, I was served an exquisite plate of grilled salmon and vegetables with jasmine rice. With zero attitude about my fussiness.

The island’s salad truck, Salt Spring Salads – also located in downtown Ganges – proved a lifesaver, too, serving up a satisfying lunch of mixed greens, carrots, beets, sprouts and chickpeas, all dressed in a maple balsamic dressing that was blissfully free of refined oils. (I only got slightly jealous of my friends’ deep-fried fish tacos, loaded with guacamole and cheese, from the truck across the street.)

Salt Spring Natureworks, the nearby health-food store, proved an excellent source of coconut bars for hiking, plump blueberries and quinoa flakes for breakfast porridge, and organic teas. I could have spent hours wandering its aisles, perusing the jars of fragrant herbs and spices and ogling the freezers packed with hearty local ground beef. (I was hungry by then!)

The following day, we hiked Mount Maxwell Provincial Park, gasping in wonder as we took in the view from Baynes Peak: Vancouver Island, the Gulf Islands and the Lower Mainland of Vancouver. We paused for snacks; and it turns out nothing tastes quite as good as a crisp apple at the end of a vigorous climb.

But the real gem of the trip was Morningside Organic Bakery Café and Bookstore in Fulford Village, the charming south-end harbour near the cabin we’d rented in the woods.

Morningside, you should know, is an acquired taste. Its owner, an eco-chic woman, is a bit of a tough nut to crack. Online reviews of her customer service lean toward moral outrage; one poster refers to her as “the angry vegan.”

A blog post on the café’s website breaks down the ethos: “If you are bringing your snooty consumer ‘me first’ attitude, I suggest you move along. If you want to stay in your monocultured, supersized, Starbuckified box, then you will be sorely disappointed.”

Salt Spring is a health-food hub with dining options that cater to dietary restrictions. (Jon Suk)

Not having read any of this, the proprietor and I didn’t exactly get off on the right foot. The café keeps random hours, and my blood sugar was dangerously low when its doors finally swung open. As a result, I sent back the noodle bowl I ordered as it did not contain a single ingredient listed on the menu. (The bearded male server shrugged and explained that sometimes they cook with whatever is in the fridge.) I was less than thrilled.

And then I took a sip of the owner’s famous chai tea.

Gorgeously spiced with a hint of heat, made with coconut milk and served at the perfect temperature – it was so ridiculously good I was determined to give the café another chance. Anyone who could make chai with this much heart and soul was clearly worth knowing.

And so I returned the next morning. The owner and I eventually bonded over our shared aversion to canola oil, and I told her that the chai was the most magnificent I’d ever tasted. In the end, I enjoyed her gruff, no-nonsense manner.

Ganges Harbor Government dock on Salt Spring Island. (iStock)

I bought another steaming cup of the tea, and several cookies made from rice flour, pumpkin seeds and anise, and met my friends down by the wharf. On the dock, a barefoot concert pianist was playing an ancient piano. We sat, rapt, as the music washed over us. I gave silent thanks for the island’s strange magic.

“Is the tea any good?” my friend Sheina asked, hugging a cup of strong coffee. “The best,” I replied.

My friends, it must be noted, had been very good-natured about my food restrictions. Which is lucky, because we’re planning another trip – and now I’m on the Spleen Qi Deficiency Diet.

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