This 180-mile Road Trip Is the Best Way to See Canada’s Stunning Coast
Encounter farmland and forest, wine and wilderness along Vancouver Island's Pacific Marine Circle Route.
Sitting on the rocks at dusk while the tide creeps toward shore and specters of fog hang over the Port of San Juan, I watch a juvenile bald eagle take flight from its perch in a western red cedar. The bird circles low over the sea and I raise my camera, poised and still, as it flies toward me, its head, just beginning to grow the telltale white feathers, bent in its quest for a fish.
In the distance bob the heads of four or five puppy-faced harbor seals, their liquid eyes and whiskered snouts disappearing and reappearing on the ocean's steely surface. Behind me my 11-year old daughter looks up from collecting driftwood and shouts with joy when the seals swim closer, one with a bright pink rockfish trapped in its maw. "I want one!" she cries. Dog mermaids, we've heard them called this week, though they are definitely not as friendly as their canine appearances suggest.
Aside from our animal companions, we're the only ones out here.
We're in Port Renfrew, a town untouched by commercialization tucked into a pocket of wilderness on the southwestern corner of Vancouver Island and the second stop on our four-day journey along the Pacific Marine Circle Route. We'd fled the heat of a New York July for a mother-daughter road trip on the 180-mile loop, which winds around the island's southern region.
Along the way there would be farmland and forest, wine and wilderness. Our ultimate destination would be Victoria, British Columbia's chic, harborside capital, where we'd reacquaint ourselves with civilization.
Day 1: Land Warmed by the Sun
Hailing from the Coast Salish word quw'utsun' meaning "the warm land," the Cowichan Valley shines as Vancouver Island's locavore star. Our initiation into its agricultural bounty began at Merridale Ciderworks, where the balmy, Mediterranean microclimate nurtures an orchard full of English and European heritage cider apples with funky names like Tremlett's Bitter and Frequin Rouge. Over wood-fired pizzas from the outdoor kitchen and a flight of ciders — hard for me, sweet for the kid — Merridale owner Janet Docherty offered a lesson in the region's terroir and the tradition of balancing the fruit's acids and tannins to craft the orchard's crisp, dry ciders.
On Janet's suggestion, we wound deeper into the Valley, following a dusty road to its end at the wooden gate to Fairburn Farm and Guesthouse. The deep lowing of the farm's resident water buffalo greeted us as the animals made their way to graze, and we laughed as the more curious members of the herd paused to poke their big noses through the gate to investigate our arrival.
Bringing up the rear on a small dirt bike was Victor, son of Jean-Nicolas and Valdilia, the farm's managers. A painted sign on the gate read: "Farm visits by appointment." We didn't have one, but Victor led us to the barns where, to my daughter's delight, Jean-Nicolas introduced us to several gentle calves who nuzzled our hands and nibbled our shirttails.
Fairburn has long been a mainstay in Cowichan's slow food movement and though owners Darrell and Anthea Archer recently put the 1896 farmhouse and accompanying 130 storybook acres on the market, their well-loved chef Mara Jernigan and her son Julian Obererlacher will host the farm's legendary six-course Sunday lunches on the verandah through mid-September.
Our day ended on top of the Mahalat Summit where the Villa Eyrie offered a hefty dose of luxury in the midst of our farm-focused itinerary. We arrived a bit disheveled from our adventures but cleaned up nicely in our elegant suite's enormous bathroom. Later, on the balcony of the Summit Restaurant, we relished in perfectly al dente spaghetti with succulent prawns and infinite views over the Saanich Inlet, toasting the day with glasses of local Blue Grouse Ortega and homemade lemonade.
Day 2: Giants in the Sky
Early the next morning we tore ourselves away from Villa Eyrie for a peek at the Kinsol Trestle, a restored, 144-foot-high wooden railway bridge spanning the Koksilah River that gives a towering nod to the island's deep roots in the timber industry. After a half-mile walk down a wide, dirt trail bordered by Queen Anne's lace, the trestle came into view and my daughter put on the brakes, overcome by a sudden bout of acrophobia. After bribing her with the promise of a croissant from True Grain Bread in nearby Cowichan Bay we crossed the bridge unscathed in the company of a few swooping swallows.
At first glance, Cowichan Bay appears not much more than a strip of commerce along a marina full of fishing vessels and colorful houseboats, but the tiny town packs a lot into that one short block. Down a narrow walkway leading to the water, we found The Mud Room Clayworks, a pottery studio where artist Colleen Underwood turns out gorgeous nature-themed stoneware including her signature yellow-glazed dragonfly designs. But the real star is True Grain Bread, with its bags of cookies and trays of buttery pastries enticing customers. It was time for me to make good on my promise of a croissant, but instead my daughter pointed to the flour dusted loaves standing in a basket. "Let's get a baguette," she said. I hesitated. "A whole baguette?" I asked. We devoured it on our way to Port Renfrew.
In 2009, paving the Pacific Marine Road created a long-awaited link between Cowichan and the island's west coast. The 34-mile stretch is prime logging territory, densely forested yet pocked by ungainly brown swaths of clear-cut. The image of those blemishes stayed with us as we pulled into Port Renfrew, known for being Canada's Tall Tree Capital.
The sleepy fishing town is often described as what Tofino was like 30 years ago. There's a General Store that sells everything from booze to bread to bait, a couple of small cafes, and no cell service. What Port Renfrew does have, however, is the new Wild Renfrew eco-tourism hub, where we bunked in style in a cozy, wharfside cottage overlooking the aptly named Snuggery Cove. Wild Renfrew also just launched their Adventure Centre, and we arranged an afternoon Tall Tree Tour with Krista Gooderham, Wild Renfrew's onsite naturalist.
With Krista we took to the logging roads, a warren of rutted, dirt trails leading into stands of timber. We were up there to visit Big Lonely Doug, a 1,000-year-old, 216-foot-tall Douglas fir that escaped the axe in 2011. The enormous tree stretches majestically skyward surrounded by the stumps of its felled neighbors, a living metaphor for the much-needed preservation of ancient growth forests. Nearby stands an even larger testament to the forests' essential biodiversity — Avatar Grove — a temple of old-growth Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and western red cedar. Like kids romping through Terabithia we balanced on fallen logs and hopscotched over moss-covered roots, encircled on all sides by the aboreal giants.
Back in town we followed the wooden pier — the closest thing the Renfrew has to a Main Street — to our cottage and lit the gas fire pit on the patio where we curled up for a while with our books. When the dinner hour approached I was delighted that we need only walk back down the pier to the Renfrew Pub. We tucked into chef Kevin Loewen's elevated pub fare — Salt Spring Island mussels, linguine with B.C. clams, and creamy, sweet pea risotto topped with insanely fresh Sockeye salmon. It was during our post-pub walk along the shore that the resident eagle and seals treated us to their show. We stayed out until dark, which didn't come until 10 o'clock, and fell asleep with visions of sea stars dancing in our heads.
Day 3: Combing the West Coast Road
The promise of low tide and a rendezvous with Krista roused us early the next morning and the three of us set out in the misty fog for the Juan de Fuca trail to Botanical Beach. I was grateful for the good coffee supplied in our cottage — Port Renfrew may not have a Starbucks on every corner, but what it lacks in creature comforts it far makes up for with its prolific wildlife.
Case in point is Botanical Beach, where abundant intertidal creatures shelter in a moonscape of sandstone pools. Poking gently at a neon-green anemone, my daughter smiled as its tentacles wrapped around her finger, worrying aloud that her digit might meet the same fate as the tiny crab whose remains we saw in the anemone's center. Black bears often visit the beach to gorge on shiny black mussels clinging to the rocks, Krista told us, though we didn't see them that morning. We did see countless tiny sea snails, funky gooseneck barnacles, spiny urchins, and prehistoric-looking chitons. But the heaps of psychedelic sea stars we'd seen in photos were nowhere to be seen, their population suffering from a disease that causes them to mysteriously melt away. Several tiny red ones, hidden in the nooks of a tide pool, offered hope the colorful critters may be recovering.
All along the West Coast Road from Port Renfrew to Sooke, other beaches — Sombrio, Mystic, China, French — solicit a detour. For a longer hike, Mystic rewards with a waterfall at the end but we opted for China instead: Pacific Northwest perfection just a short walk from the Juan de Fuca trailhead. We built little cairns from warm, salt-smoothed stones and beachy driftwood sculptures. We walked along the soft, black brown sand and dipped our feet in the icy water, wondering for the thousandth time how anyone swims in the ocean out here.
Day 4: Bright Lights, Big City
In the charming mini-metropolis of Victoria, we softened our reentry into civilization at the recently reimagined Fairmont Empress with a room overlooking the Inner Harbor and a local Sheringham Distillery gin cocktail in the Empress' swank new Q Bar. We ate dinner at Nourish, a field-to-fork restaurant in an out-of-the-way farmhouse that sources the bulk of its offerings locally and walked back beneath the twinkling lights that bedecked the grand Parliament building.
And the next morning we watched as a large pod of orcas dived and breached during a zodiac tour with Prince of Whales. Even in the city, nature was close at hand.
At the tiny Victoria airport we cleared driftwood and dried up daisy chains from the backseat of our rental car before turning in the keys. Waiting in line at security I noticed a large advertisement with a picture of a happy dog playing fetch in the surf. The caption read, "The sticks are better here." As we placed our bins on the conveyer belt, my daughter and I agreed. They certainly are.
If You Go
Merridale Ciderworks: Sample craft ciders and spirits made from heirloom apples at this Cobble Hill orchard and bistro. For a true agritourism experience, stay the night in one of Merridale’s two romantic yurts. From $140 per night including breakfast.
Fairburn Farm and Guesthouse: Settle into one of five bedrooms in Darrel and Anthea Archer’s 19th century farmhouse set upon 130 bucolic acres in the Cowichan Valley where you can visit the farm’s resident water buffalo. Doubles from $140 per night including breakfast.
Villa Eyrie: Reopened in 2016, this Italian-inspired mountaintop resort and spa features 38 rooms spread throughout three luxurious villas, all with sweeping views of the Saanich Inlet and Olymipic Mountains.
Wild Renfrew: Keep company with Pacific Northwest wildlife while staying in a comfortably rustic seaside cottage overlooking the Port of San Juan. Doubles from $249 per night.
Renfrew Pub: Grab a pint of Salt Spring Island Ale and enjoy elevated pub favorites and fresh Pacific Coast seafood on the pub’s back deck perched above picturesque Snuggery Cove. Entrées $16-30.
Coastal Kitchen: At breakfast and lunchtime, this laid-back, beachy café serves contemporary West Coast fare and great burgers on a sunny patio in the heart of Port Renfrew. Entrées $11-27.
The Fairmont Empress: Recently reopened after a $60-million refurbishment, The Empress, with its plush rooms and legendary afternoon tea, remains the Grand Dame of Victoria’s Inner Harbor. The chic new Q Bar is a fabulous place for a cocktail. From $157 per night.
Prince of Whales: Climb aboard an open-air zodiac or the larger Ocean Magic for a variety of whale and wildlife tours setting sail from Victoria’s Inner Harbor. Tours from $120 person.
Nourish Kitchen and Café: This farm-to-fork eatery in Victoria’s quiet James Bay neighborhood offers a diverse menu of flavorful, inspired dishes and an excellent local wine list. Their bone broths are especially, well, nourishing. Entrées $19-25.