House Beautiful: Cowichan dream home extols couple's love of tropics

Carolyn and Denis McDonald love the tropics, so it’s small wonder that the home they built near Cherry Point resembles a beachside bungalow on a tropical island. At least, that’s the view from the front.

Inside is a large breezy space featuring the Caribbean colours of brown-sugar sand and ocean pools, ranging from royal blue to pale aqua, turquoise and azure.

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From the road, the house resembles a charming wee cottage, overhung by masses of roses, but inside is a large living area with six-metre-high ceilings and a wide ocean panorama.

Carolyn was born in Jamaica, where her family has lived since the 1700s, and she adores the uplifting hues of that island paradise — which also drew actor and playwright Noel Coward and James Bond novelist Ian Fleming, who created his Goldeneye estate there.

Carolyn and Denis met in Canada, where she attended university, and they lived in Jamaica for several years while he taught geography and she taught art.

The inveterate itinerants admit they “dragged” their three children around the world — their two sons are teachers and their daughter, adopted from Korea, works in health care — before finally settling back in Victoria. They opened and ran a small Jamaican-style restaurant called Peeny Wollie in Victoria for a few years before moving to Shawnigan in 1975, where they taught school for about 25 years — Denis mostly at Discovery Elementary and Carolyn largely at Elsie Miles Elementary. Carolyn also taught art at VIU and Brentwood College.

The seed for their waterfront home in Cowichan Bay was planted in 1999, while they were living and teaching in Perth, Western Australia, for a year. While there, they saw a beautiful show home and were struck by its simplicity, and a great wall of glass looking onto the water.

“We began to dream of having a home like it back on the Island and brought home pictures and a brochure,” Carolyn said. (They tried to contact the Australian architect, but got nowhere with emails.)

Once back home, they began looking for land near the water with sunny exposure and found nearly an acre of waterfront on Cowichan Bay. They sold their other house and started to build in 2000.

“We did some re-designing, as the original house was built for a long narrow lot and ours was wider,” Denis said. “We moved the bedroom so that it would have ocean views and would also be located on the main floor.”

They also kept the Australian custom of separating the bathrooms so the toilets are in separate rooms. “It makes two bathrooms into four,” he said.

Because of the slope, they created a walkout basement that includes a guest room, workshop, office, bathrooms and art gallery. Carolyn, meanwhile, has a studio upstairs with skylights and tremendous views. Her gallery will be open to the public during the Visions Art Studio Tour on July 5, 6, and 7. (See info box)

All the main rooms have beautiful outlooks and are sprinkled with touches of tropical blues.

Denis and a friend laid all the tile floors, while radiant heat was installed by David McGavin. “It has always worked beautifully,” said Denis, adding that it’s very economical.

The owners are delighted with their kitchen, which came about thanks to a stroke of luck, after they had spent three hours with an Ikea kitchen design team and ordered all their cabinets.

Denis and a friend were on their hands and knees after work one day, laying tiles in the kitchen, when a young man knocked on the door looking for work. He said he was setting up a workshop in Cobble Hill.

“He was 25, had just arrived from Saskatchewan and after looking around, off he went. He came back in a couple of days with a quote, which was the same price as Ikea, about $6,000 or $7,000 — but his price included installation and solid wood,” said Denis.

“I was stunned. We contacted Ikea right away and they were great. We cancelled … no worries and they said they were happy we’d found someone on the island.

“That was 19 years ago. We couldn’t afford one of Chad Neufeld’s kitchens now. It would be three times the price. He has become very successful and high-end.”

Denis said another benefit of working with Neufeld is that he was willing to build some cabinets in exchange for art lessons for his wife, from Carolyn. “It was really fortuitous, because at the time, we were a little strapped for money.”

Matrix Marble did a “super job” on the granite countertops, said Carolyn, noting tiles were used on the island to add variety — a mix of royal blue and “bricky beige.”

“It looks a little Mexican, and it’s wonderful when the grand children come, as they can all sit up on stools.”

One area of the counter is low, for rolling pastry, said Carolyn, “which is good for me because I’m not even five feet tall, and perfect for making cookies with the grandkids, who are 2, 4,7, 8, 9 and 10.”

She said the plans for the house have worked out well.

“Most of the living space is on one floor and you walk in on the main. There are windows all around, and my studio is in a large loft that faces north, the best light for painting.”

The gallery downstairs has a special hanging system for artworks and converts into a bedroom, thanks to a handy murphy bed.

“I built a murphy bed, but Carolyn is the brains of the outfit,” Denis said with a chuckle, adding he has a large workshop. “When I retired, instead of a watch or silver tray, the staff gave me a cheque for a tool place, where I purchased a cast-iron table saw.”

They both keep busy in their seaside retreat.

Since taking early retirement at age 57, about 15 years ago, they have created a beautiful garden, where they do all the work themselves.

Besides painting, Carolyn loves making jewelry, sewing and silversmithing, and is a founding member of, and still involved in, a local theatre group called the Shawnigan Players.

They also designed and built a home in Mexico, where they live three months of the year, while renting out their home here.

But they love the Cowichan Valley and this “wonderful community,” said Denis. “We couldn’t have imagined a better place to bring up our children or have a family.”

It’s also one of the only places in Canada where they can grow banana trees in the garden, and palm trees, too. “And there are no pirates here,” he said.

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