Getting air on Vancouver Island’s west coast

TJ Watt standing beside Canada's gnarliest tree
Canada’s gnarliest tree in Avatar Grove, Vancouver Island

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

That’s the air you’ll breathe when you round the tip of southern Vancouver Island and follow the Pacific Marine Circle Route. This 158-mile scenic drive begins in Victoria, hugs the western coastline to Port Renfrew, and then travels across the island to Cowichan Bay before returning to BC’s capital city.

You could drive it in a day, but don’t. Take time to enjoy the natural beauty, outdoor adventures and fine food and wine along the route. Consider these nine locations where you can, quite literally, come up for air.

Capital start (Victoria)

Even before you’ve left Victoria’s ‘burbs, the circle route’s attractions begin. Wildplay West Shore Victoria, seven miles from downtown, offers a treetop obstacle course featuring wobbly bridges, suspended rope swings, tightropes, ladders, cargo nets and other fun challenges. Two miles further, on the grounds of Royal Roads University, is Hatley Park National Historic Site, a beautifully preserved Edwardian estate complete with castle.

Ultra outdoors (East Sooke) 

One moment you’re hiking the sea-sprayed shoreline, the next climbing bluffs covered with salal, kinnikinnick and Oregon grape, the next descending into ravines thick with Douglas fir and Sitka spruce. The six-mile Coast Trail in East Sooke Regional Park is considered one of Canada’s premier—and rugged–day hikes. Multiple access points make shorter walks possible.

For a screaming good time, try Adrena Line Zipline Adventure Tours’ eight-line forest canopy course. Toast your bravery post-tour with a shot of “Adrenaline”–cranberry juice, raspberry vodka and sour puss raspberry liqueur–at the 17 Mile Pub next door.

If lazing on sun-warmed rock is more your thing, visit Sooke Potholes Regional Park where ice-age-carved canyons and polished rock pools (the “potholes”) offer clear, cold water for swimming.

Splurging and seaweed (Sooke)

“I want to immerse my guests in British Columbia—the food, the, art, the scenery,” says Frederique Philip, owner, along with husband Sinclair, of the much-celebrated Sooke Harbour House. Spoil yourself with an oceanfront room including private fireplace and dinner in the award-winning restaurant where the focus is on seafood, wine and local, organic ingredients including herbs, edible flowers, and vegetables from the inn’s own gardens.

At low tide, take a tour of the ocean’s garden in front of the inn with Diane Bernard a.k.a. “the Seaweed Lady.” On my two-hour tour, Bernard, who supplies chefs with edible seaweed and makes a line of seaweed-based skin care products called Seaflora, has our group taste different seaweed (surprisingly not gross) and rub the gel-like substance found on rockweed (a kind of marine aloe vera) on our skin.

Make a point (West Coast Road)

Bob Liptrot, owner of Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery, has been keeping bees for 50 years and making mead for his family for 35. Taste the results when you stop by (Wednesday to Sunday, April to October) for free samples of Kickass Currant, Solstice Metheglin and other fermented-honey beverages.

There’s something intoxicating about a restaurant where binoculars are provided on each table. Point-No Point-Resort is the perfect stop for lunch (think creamy seafood chowder, cold smoked albacore tuna, seafood linguine) or, if a private cabin with no television, Internet or cell-phone service appeals, a stay.

Surf’s up (Jordan River)

Originally a logging camp, Jordan River is ground zero for surfers seeking ride-worthy waves. Looking for lunch? Locals recommend the laid-back Shell’s Fish and Chips.

Further on, popular China Beach, part of the Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, is a great place to see roaring surf and, if you’re lucky, whales, seals and sea lions. This is also the southern trailhead for the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a 29-mile route that rivals the West Coast Trail, with two significant differences: no reservations are required and there are multiple access/bail-out points. Sombrio Beach, further north, is another sweet surf spot.

Trails and fish tales (Port Renfrew)

It’s hard to tell who likes Port Renfrew more: the fishers who come to town to enjoy exceptional salmon and halibut fishing or the hikers who end (or begin) their epic treks on the Juan de Fuca or West Coast Trail here.

At low tide, hike the 1.7-mile Botanical Loop to Botanical Beach to peer into rich tide pools filled with anemones, urchins, starfish and other colorful sea creatures. Reserve a cabin at the Port Renfrew Resort and join hungry hikers and fishers downing platters of fresh crab and pitchers of beer on the resort’s outdoor deck.

Canada’s biggest trees

They are spectacularly tall and wide and old. The western red cedars, Douglas firs, and Sitka spruce trees of Avatar Grove, located 20 minutes outside Port Renfrew, have become a magnet for big-tree tourists since being discovered in 2009 by T.J. Watts, founder of the Ancient Forest Alliance.

Thanks to the Alliance, Avatar Grove is now protected and mapped. But with no location signage and primitive trails, you’ll need a map (available on the Alliance website) or, better yet, a guide, to find the giants. Watts is happy to lead groups to the most impressive trees, including, in his words, “Canada’s gnarliest.”

Keen for more? Detour off the circle route on poorly maintained gravel roads to see the Red Creek Fir (the world’s largest Douglas fir) and the San Juan Sitka spruce (Canada’s largest).

Bountiful (Cowichan Valley)

The Cowichan Valley boasts Canada’s only maritime Mediterranean climate. No wonder the local farms and wineries produce such a mouth-watering bounty that includes white asparagus, balsamic vinegar, organic greens, artisan cheeses (including water buffalo mozzarella), spirits and fine wines.

Make a reservation for lunch at Merridale Estate Cidery where you can learn about cider- and spirit-making then wash down tasty bistro offerings with a flight of six cider samplers.

By the bay (Cowichan Bay)    

Brightly painted clapboard buildings sit on stilts at the edge of the water in Cowichan Bay. Stroll the main (only) street and gather provisions for a hyper-local meal: fine artisan cheese from Hilary’s Cheese and Deli; a baguette made from locally grown and milled Red Fife wheat at True Grain Bread; spot prawns from Cowichan Bay Seafoods; and wild berry ice-cream from the Udder Guy’s Ice Cream Parlour.

Check in to the Oceanfront Suites at Cowichan Bay, where every room has a kitchen. Slide open your oceanfront windows, lay out your bounty, uncork a bottle of local wine and make a toast–to fresh food, fresh adventures and fresh air.

 First appeared in The Oregonian, Spring 2012

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