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By Cherie Thiessen
For Travel Writers' Tales

We're on a mystical hunt. Signs on the 1.5-kilometre trail around the 9-hectare orchard and especially along the riparian section, tell us about the flora, the fauna, and the Leprechauns. It doesn't take long before my friend, Mirjam, is crouched down in front of a Lilliputian door in an alder trunk. "Here's one!" Several diminutive dwellings begin to appear, thumbnail sized lounging chairs, twig shelters, coloured stones. Who would have guessed faeries, gnomes, elves and dryads lived in Vancouver Island's Cowichan Valley?

Leprechaun Hunt - Mirjam checks out a faery house.

According to Merridale Cidery co-owner, Janet Dougherty, who puts in long hours with her partner, Rick Pipes, the trail can be followed throughout the year, and during special holidays like Halloween, Christmas, St. Patrick's Day and Easter, the walk is enhanced to match the season.

We're here in August, working up an appetite for our pizza-and working off the ciders we've been sampling. In the ebullient company of ciderbar lead, David Northgraves, we've been trying out Meriberi Cider, a rosy blush of apples, sour cherries, raspberries, and blackcurrants; Scrumpy, made from apples and crabapples and aged in oak; the sterner, classic English cider; a lighter house cider served on tap at restaurants and pubs; and Northgrave's favourite and mine, Cyser Cider, sweetened with local honey.

Merridale's, David Northgrave taking visitors on a tour

While adults can spend a very informative and indulgent half hour listening to Northgraves tell them how the cider making process is all done by hand except for the labeling, the kids can sip apple juice and make orchard scenes come alive under watchful eyes in Merridale's colouring books.

We've heard a lot about the fun and games at Merridale and wanted to check it out, deciding to visit on a Sunday afternoon when six varieties of killer pizzas are served up on the back patio, with gourmet musicians also on the menu from 5-8 pm. Ergo, five o'clock now finds us seated outside, trying a fleet of Merridale spirits as aperitifs, including their prize winning pear brandy, prior to tucking into our pizzas, mine grilled blackened chicken with blue cheese and house hot sauce, and Mirjam's, spinach, Kalamata olives and feta.

Sunday Night is everyone's favourite.

Servers weave around tables that keep expanding like Pinocchio's nose as more and more families, adults and children arrive - several carrying bouquets of balloons (obviously birthday parties), another carrying flowers (an extended family celebrating a 50th wedding anniversary), and another with gifts teetering over arms (a bridal shower party).

It's the popular group, Sets in the West performing tonight, and several couples are sipping large mugs of beer and cider while checking out their toddlers' dance moves because no one can resist the beat. One server can't resist it either, flaunting some cool moves without spilling a drop from his loaded tray.

Sets in the West - enlivens the festivities

A welcome cool breeze bounces to the beat as well as we finally decide on our favourite libation to accompany the pizzas and music and sing Happy Birthday to a beaming great grandmother.

Producing 150,000 litres of cider annually that's sold in the on site shop as well as in 125 pubs and restaurants on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland and in about 150 private liquor stores, Merridale creates its cider with organic fruit and ingredients and bottles it in plastic because not being pasteurized, it continues to work its magic in the bottle and the plastic can expand to accommodate the fermentation

The owners, who bought the business in this lush part of the Cowichan Valley on Vancouver Island in 2000, wanted it to be a fun place for every age: "We started the Leprechaun 'hunt' years ago when our kids were small. We never wanted our business to be just for adults so we were soon figuring out what kids could do too. There's always something going on. We have family packages that include lunch, tours and hunts. We call them Sip, savour and seek," says Docherty. The Easter egg hunt has become hugely popular and at any time of the year, faeries do indeed hang their freckle-sized hats here and sit in Lilliputian lawn chairs to enjoy the view.

The evening ends with viewing the super moon from our yurt.

It's a hot evening and we order more cold Scrumpy to go. We've wisely booked one of the yurts and later that evening, while a super moon rises over Cowichan Valley, we sit on our deck and toast it while thanking the Leprechauns for letting us visit.


" Self guided tour of cidery. Takes to 1 hr. Visitors are guided to each stage in the cider-making process, with informative signs at each station. Complementary. (Be sure to check out the hand hammered, copper Mueller still, made in Germany.) See:

" Cider Tastings. For $5 per person you can taste 5 of Merridale's organic cider offerings.

" Distillery Tour. $10 per person booked in advance, 5-person minimum. Includes 2 cocktails and one fortified tasting.

" An apple and pear brandy tasting add on? Ask. (250-743-4293 or go to website.

" Events and activities for children:

PHOTOS. Photo credits Cherie Thiessen

1. Leprechaun Hunt - Mirjam checks out a faery house.
2. Sunday Night is everyone's favourite.
3. Sets in the West - enlivens the festivities.
4. Merridale's, David Northgrave taking visitors on a tour.
5. The evening ends with viewing the super moon from our yurt.

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