Playing With Fire

from Outdoor Casual
Outdoor fireplace plans don’t have to be extensive or complicated. Try this fire pit for a backyard highlight.

Picture yourself perched on a stone wall, flames crackling at your feet, stars twinkling overhead, and saltwater breezes lifting your hair. The lingering aroma of spit-roasted chicken scents the air, while chamber musicians on the deck perform a movement by Mozart.

With that image in mind, it’s easy to understand why friends and family members rarely send their regrets when invited to Jenny and Norman Nelson’s barbecues. “People seem to want to come here,” Jenny says.

Two years ago, with the help of landscape architects Carole Rossell and Adrian Small, the Nelsons turned their nondescript lawn, marked only by a fire pit the couple had dug themselves, into a welcoming outdoor entertainment center. Each element was sited for an unobstructed view of the Pacific, ebbing and flowing below the bluff at the edge of their Sooke, British Columbia, property. A red-cedar loggia faces the ocean, creating a protected area for munching a burger. A slate patio and steps sweep from the loggia down to a patio equipped with a fire pit. A stacked-stone wall frames the pit, and a bluff-top deck supplies a view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

“We wanted an eating area and a new fire pit,” Jenny says. “We’ve always liked fires, and we enjoyed sitting around them. Carole and Adrian invented it all, really. They turned it into something that’s really nice. It’s an easy way to entertain. We have a lot of potlucks; it’s very informal. We have the table in the loggia; people wander down and sit on the walls because they like to be near the fire.”

All in all, it’s a great place to host a party, Rossell says. She has attended a soiree or two at the Nelsons, along with Small, who is her husband and business partner, and their daughter, Hannah. “At the party there were quite a lot of people,” Rossell says. “There was room for the host to do the barbecue, and we were at the table in the loggia preparing food. We were never in each other’s way. After the fire died down, we all sat on the wall. It’s a very sociable space.”

The Nelsons now find that almost any celebration is best held outdoors. A roaring fire and classical tunes played by Norman, who is a violinist and orchestra conductor, and his musically inclined friends provide the perfect accompaniment, no matter the festivity. Whether it’s to celebrate Canada Day or Christmas, a dozen or so guests gather to relish the forest and take in the ocean vistas while warming their hands around the fire pit’s flickering flames.

“We had a big family gathering last Christmas. We didn’t cook out, but we had a big fire and mulled wine,” Jenny says. She set the scene aglow with rows of flickering tea lights set atop the loggia’s three stucco walls. “But there is no magic to equal a September or October evening, with a light nip in the air, the sun setting over the Olympic Mountains, and a crackling fire to give cheer to a pleasant gathering of cherished friends.”

The pit functions as a kitchen as well as a campfire with one heck of a view. The Nelsons ran electricity to the fire pit for the spit, which was custom-designed with a heavy-duty marine motor. They even outfitted the pit with an adjustable grill rack, custom-crafted to fit its dimensions so the Nelsons could cook for a crowd.

“We all barbecue,” Norman says. “The spit works directly over the pit. It’s very capable of holding large pieces of meat, even a pig. It’s wonderfully easy to cook over. It’s a circle, so people can even cook their own stuff if they want, even wienies on sticks. It’s a great center for entertaining, an ideal gathering point.”

Even though the fire pit is a main attraction, the Nelsons think their new backyard digs aren’t just for entertaining. “We live out there,” Norman says. They head down to their seaside retreat each day, moving the table in and out from under the loggia’s pergola ceiling to capture sun or shade.

“The smell of the plants — sage, lavender, and rosemary — is really lovely when you sit out there,” Jenny says. “We just take our work or books down there. It’s all very accessible. Norman goes down and plays on the deck.”
Whether Norman’s music wafts through the air to please a crowd or only himself and Jenny, the setting is as warm as the campfire in this friendly backyard retreat.

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