© Margo Pfeiff
Going coastal on Vancouver Island
Seafood, microbrews and views along BC’s Pacific Marine Circle
Trekking through a Tolkinesque rainforest of hanging vines and twisted tree trunks, I startle a bald eagle from its perch in a moss-draped hemlock. Moments later I freeze in mid-step, arms in mid-swing — a panic pose in response to spotting a bear crossing the trail in front of me. But the bruin has other priorities and when I cautiously reach the beach he is ambling away, noshing shoreline munchies delivered by last night’s high tide.
British Columbia is known for its easy access from cities to wilderness and Juan de Fuca Provincial Park alongside the far-flung outpost of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island’s west coast is just that, a leisurely two-hour drive from the tea shops and horse-drawn carriages of Victoria.
Until recently Port Renfrew, lounging at the dead end of paved Highway #14, was off the map for anyone but avid fishermen and hikers heading for the starting point of the epic former shipwreck survivor rescue route, the 75-kilometre West Coast Trail. Then the BC government bought the rights to the notoriously rough logging road connecting Port Renfrew with Lake Cowichan. In 2009 that stretch was paved, completing the 290-kilometre Pacific Marine Circle Route around the southern tip of Vancouver Island.
Growing up in BC, Vancouver Island’s west coast always had a super-sized mystique as a remote and lush paradise of hefty salmon and halibut, broad beaches, secret coves offering surfers giant waves, and very, very tall trees. These days, once-secluded Tofino has become not only accessible, but a trendy foodie/spa destination and Port Renfrew is on its way to becoming the West Coast’s new kid on the block, though it’s still a sleepy village of 200 blinking wide-eyed at a new kind of wave — waves of visitors rolling in.
Beach and bush
They built the road and I have come. I love driving in circles especially when the circular road trip includes British-flavoured culture, deserted beaches, bears, brews and gourmet retreats in the least expected locales.
I ferry across from Vancouver to Victoria with my cooler-carting, road-trip sage of a sister, Linda. Since this is a coastal drive and we like our adventures to have themes, we decide to focus on seafood, local microbrews and nautical tunes.
For lunch we sit outside on Victoria’s harbourfront with gourmet fish tacos from the Red Fish, Blue Fish kiosk, then fill our cooler with Spinnaker, Canoe and Hoyne’s ales, lagers and porters, and bounce out of Victoria with Great Big Sea’s Newfoundland sea shanties blaring.
After a short stop to shoot pool at 17 Mile House we head down the road to Sooke Potholes Provincial Park where a short hike leads into the wilderness and an idyllic swimming hole. Forgoing the artsy town’s small galleries, we head instead to Sooke Harbour House overlooking Whiffen Spit, an iconic seaside B&B and art gallery, and prowl their maze of hallways and stairways adorned with the best of local and aboriginal art.
Civilization drops away abruptly outside Sooke, replaced by the first of a string of beaches. We pass Point No Point Resort, a cluster of restored 1950s waterfront cabins where I once spent a winter storm-watching weekend, dining on creative local seafood in the high perch of their fine-dining restaurant as we were slammed by a dramatic gale. But on this calm day, fog pours across the road like heavy cream as we pull into the Sandcut Beach parking lot and hike towards the sea through a lush green tangle of rainforest to the distant sounds of fog horns and gentle surf.
Along the winding seaside route we pick up fresh Dungeness crab, smoked salmon and oysters from roadside crab shacks. By the time we reach sandy China Beach we have assembled the perfect picnic lunch and found the perfect place to eat it. Sunshine has burned off the fog and revealed the distant jagged peaks of the Olympic Peninsula across the strait in Washington State.
China Beach is the start of the 48-kilometre seaside Juan de Fuca Marine Trail that skirts remote Mystic and Sombrio Beaches — surfers’ paradises where squatters once lived and rode waves until the land became part of the provincial park — part of a government plan to stitch together small parks and so stretch coastal Juan de Fuca Provincial Park all the way to Port Renfrew.
The town of Port Renfrew is still a mellow mossy former logging outpost with an end-of-the-road feel. In late afternoon sun, we hike through a dripping forest towards Botanical Beach, the westernmost tip of the park, and hear a goose bump-raising rodent screech instantly drowned out by a feline snarl.
“Cougar, I think,” says a passing ranger after a moment’s consideration before heading off to restock the toilets.
The tidal pools along the beach are so rich with life that the University of Minnesota set up a marine study station here over 100 years ago in 1900. With one eye on a bear making its way down the beach, we count off Gooseneck barnacles, sea stars, chitons and anemones.
All that seafood makes us hungry so we turn towards our yurt for the night at Soule Creek Lodge perched up a steep mile-long gravel road on a ridge top with a panoramic 360-degree view.
Our trip’s biggest surprise arrives in the form of a remarkable three-course gourmet meal put together from local seafood and the lodge’s own garden. The place is run by a couple of colourful brothers who cut their rustic hospitality teeth in the wilds of an Alaskan camp.
“One of us would grill salmon on the barbecue,” says Jon Cash, “while the other kept bears at bay with a stick and pepper spray!”
After a lazy morning of beachcombing, we dive into a bucket of fresh clams and fish and chips at the casual Country Kitchen Café before launching into our tall trees exploration. We start at Avatar Grove, a pocket of monster old-growth red cedars and Douglas firs discovered in 2010. The publicity of naming it after the lush landscape of Pandora in James Cameron’s movie, Avatar, seems to have worked: a steady stream of cars and even buses ply the 8-kilometre gravel road from town.
The trail is rough, but not difficult, through trees that were already 250 years old when Captain James Cook sailed past here in 1778. The highlight is dubbed “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree,” a dramatic red cedar 3.5 metres in diameter deformed with huge burls.
Other giants tower alongside the 60-kilometre former logging road to Cowichan Lake though reaching the biggest of them requires a 4WD. Cowichan Lake is a popular island vacation spot and the nearby town of Duncan is known for its 80 totem poles and a Saturday morning farmer’s market that showcases the produce, cheeses and wines from the adjoining Provence-like Cowichan Valley farmlands.
We take a short hike to stroll across the Kinsol Trestle, which, at 44 metres high, is one of the biggest wooden railway trestles in the world. Then we’re on the island’s east coast at the seaside village of Cowichan Bay. Surprisingly perhaps, in 2009 it was the first town to join in North America to become part of the “Cittaslow” slow food movement started in Italy a decade earlier. The spot still runs at a leisurely pace. This inspires us to settle into the local gastropub for fresh seared oysters and slowly sipped Philips Blue Buck Amber Ale.
A short drive south, we hop a 20-minute ferry ride at Mill Bay across to Brentwood, a scenic short-cut back to Victoria via the Saanich Peninsula, a rural detour that takes us past the Sea Cider Farm and Cider House. Looking out across orchards and ocean, it’s the perfect place for one last sip before closing our circle route in downtown Victoria.
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