Vancouver Island

Road-tripping on Vancouver Island

Where to come up for air along the Pacific Marine Circle Route

by Ann Britton Campbell

Botanical Beach, Juan De Fuca Trail, Port Renfrew BC, Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

There is air, there is fresh air, and then there’s the brisk, briny, oxygen-thick air that rides in on wild ocean waves.

That’s the air you’ll breathe as you explore the Pacific Marine Circle Route on southern Vancouver Island. This 255-kilometre-long drive begins in Victoria, hugs the rugged western coastline to Port Renfrew, travels across the island on former logging roads to the fertile Cowichan Valley and delivers eye-popping ocean vistas on the return to B.C.’s capital city.

The route offers so much natural beauty and tempting diversions that road-trippers should plan on spending two days—and, really, three or four is much better—exploring. Here are the must-sees, depending on your available time.

If you have two days…

Begin your adventure with a walk around Victoria’s bustling inner harbour where, on a typical day, guitar-playing buskers, sword-wielding jugglers and a kilted bagpiper or two entertain sightseers.

Victoria Inner Harbour, Photo courtesy of Diana Jenks

Walk beside the expansive lawns and drink in the regal charms of the Fairmont Empress Hotel and Parliament Buildings, then step into the Royal British Columbia Museum. Here large-scale exhibits—a turn-of-the-century town, coal mine, sailing ship, First Nations totem hall and much more—entertain with sounds, scents, dramatic lighting and multimedia works.

After a morning of exploring in Victoria, take in the invigorating ocean breeze as you drive 38 kilometres along twisty-turny Highway 14 to Sooke. Enjoy a slice of pie at Mom’s Café or walk Whiffen Spit, a curved finger of land that separates Sooke Harbour from the pounding surf.

Thirty minutes later along the route, watch wet-suit-clad surfers catch waves at the tiny settlement of Jordan River.  Just around the bend is Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and the trailhead for the rugged 47-kilometre Juan de Fuca trail. Sample a wee bit of that wilderness on a 30-minute walk to pebbly, wind-swept China Beach. (With more time, opt for the rough-and-rooty trail that leads to lofty sandstone cliffs, a waterfall and rope swing at Mystic Beach.)

End your day 36 kilometres further in Port Renfrew, a fishing and forestry hub as well as the terminus for the Juan de Fuca and West Coast trails. This laid-back town offers a smattering of accommodations and local eateries that, no surprise, serve seafood pulled straight from local waters.

Tidal pools at Botanical Beach, Photo courtesy of James Pryde

The next morning, check local tide charts and time your visit to Botanical Beach Provincial Park, a five-minute drive from Port Renfrew, for low tide—when innumerable tide pools brim with colourful anemones, limpets, crabs and other sea creatures.

Shift your focus from sea to forest as you drive two hours (101 kilometres) from the island’s west coast to the east, where Cowichan Bay awaits. You’ll pass jarring forest clear-cuts along this remote highway as well as a satisfying 1.5-kilometre walking trail that loops around Lizard Lake.

When you reach Cowichan Bay, reward yourself with a scrumptious Udder Guys’ ice-cream cone (real cream, no artificial anything) while strolling past independent shops and restaurants perched on the ocean’s edge.

Goldstream River, Goldstream Provincial Park, Photo courtesy of James Pryde

Enjoy spectacular ocean and island views as you drive 55 kilometres back to Victoria. If you fancy one last walk in the woods, stop at Goldstream Provincial Park (20 km from downtown Victoria), where massive trees drip with moss and, in late fall, thousands of salmon return to spawn.

If you have three days…

Take more time in Port Renfrew, and see first-hand why it bills itself the Tall Tree Capital of Canada. Book a Big Tree Tour with local conservationist T.J. Watt or download a Big Trees map from the Ancient Forest Alliance and drive yourself 20 minutes on rough gravel roads to wow-worthy Avatar Grove.

Climb the grove’s steep trails, stairs and boardwalks to view towering Douglas firs, Sitka spruce and western red cedars, including “Canada’s gnarliest tree.” Consult the Big Trees map to locate other giants along your route east to the Cowichan region.

 Mural in Chemainus, Photo courtesy of Alamy

With its mild Maritime Mediterranean climate and incredible array of artisanal culinary offerings, the Cowichan region is a great place to explore, then bunk down for the night. Communities include Chemainus (known for its 40-plus outdoor murals and professional theatre), Cowichan Bay (where you can gather provisions for a hyper-local picnic of artisan cheeses, charcuterie and bread made with locally grown and milled wheat), Cobble Hill (with its notable wineries and distilleries) and the region’s commercial centre, Duncan (home to an excellent Saturday Farmers’ Market).

On your third morning, plot a lazy driving tour down the region’s country roads to visit wineries, distilleries, cideries and farms. Notable purveyors of deliciousness include Venturi-Schulze Vineyards with its pure wines and balsamic vinegars; Alderlea Farm & Café with its impressive biodynamic farm-to-table cred; and Merridale Cidery & Distillery where flights of old- and new-world cider complement a creative bistro menu.

Be sure to make a no-calorie stop near Shawnigan Lake at the historic Kinsol Trestle, one of the tallest (at 44 metres) free-standing and spectacular timber rail trestles in the world.

If you have four days…

Slow down and smell the roses, right from the get-go.

Butchart Gardens, Photo courtesy of Diana Jenks

If you take that advice literally, options abound in Victoria. In addition to the famous, formal displays in Butchart Gardens, there are hidden gems such as Abkhazi Garden and Beacon Hill Park—kid-friendly tip: the park’s petting farm with gambolling goats is close to the public gardens.

Do some happy leaping of your own, from platforms set high in the forest canopy at Adrena Line Zipline Adventure Tours in Sooke. Back at ground level, dip your toes in the geologically quirky deep pools called “potholes” in Sooke Potholes Provincial Park or hike the sea-sprayed shoreline and thickly forested ravines of one of Canada’s best day hikes, the Coast Trail in East Sooke Regional Park.

Whenever you find yourself at the water’s edge, be sure to pause and take a big, deep breath of wild, soul-strengthening ocean air.