Surfing and sipping: A Taste of Vancouver Island

Picture, if you will, Victoria, BC, on a summer’s evening. Couples stroll beneath the hanging flower baskets of the Inner Harbour, buskers play instruments, and music wafts out to yachts bobbing at anchor. After sunset, when thousands of lights illuminate the stately lines of the Legislative Buildings, romantics might ride a horse-drawn carriage around Beacon Hill Park, while foodies check out what the city’s chefs are up to tonight.

It’s no secret that Victoria is delightful; the real secrets are hidden nearby. An hour’s drive west, for example, leads to the open Pacific and a string of untouched, surf-tossed beaches; drive sixty minutes north and you’ll hit Canada’s newest wine country. Even better: you don’t have to retrace your steps, thanks to a little-known back road that links the two.

Welcome to BC’s new Pacific Marine Circle Route. An unusual way to see Vancouver Island, this two-to-four-day, 255 kilometre (158 mile), well-marked, self-drive route starts in Victoria (though you can, of course, start anywhere on the circuit), heads to the forest-backed beaches of the island’s southwest coast, then turns inland along an unpaed back road to Cowichan Lake. It finishes with a tour of the Cowichan Valley wine country before heading back to the capital.

The first stop past Victoria is the seaside village of Sooke. Here you can take a dip at Sooke Potholes Provincial Park, where erosion has dug natural swimming holes into the sandstone bedrock. Near town, take a walk into the bay along the 1,200 metre-long Whiffen Spit, or hike through forests and along beaches in the vast wilderness of East Sooke Regional Park.

Best known as a seaside escape, Sooke is also becoming a dining destination. Several chefs here work closely with local fishers, bakers, and organic farmers to put the best of the local bounty on restaurant plates. It all started with the pioneering Sooke Harbour House, widely regarded as one of Canada’s best restaurants. Two other options to check out are Markus’ Wharfside Restaurant, housed in a cottage on the seaside, and Point No Point Resort, west of town, where a glass-enclosed dining room offers far-reaching sea views (binoculars on each table are for spotting whales while you dine). Serious foodies might book into Cooper’s Cove Guesthouse, a waterfront bed and breakfast where chef Angelo Prosperi-Porta offers cooking classes.

From Sooke to Port Renfrew, the West Coast Road (Highway 14) winds 74 forest-lined kilometres (44 miles) alongside Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, past trails leading to ocean beaches. French Beach, 21 km (13 miles) west of Sooke, has a popular seaside campsite. China Beach, just past Jordan River, is the start of the rugged, 47-km (29-mile) Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, an oceanside route set up as an alternative to the famous West Coast Trail. A 2.5 km (1.5 mile) hike from the China Beach parking lot is rewarded with the sea caves, waterfalls and sandstone cliffs of the delightfully-named Mystic Beach. Surf central is Sombrio Beach, where locals head to catch the big winter waves. Just past Port Renfrew, the road ends at Botanical Beach, where low tide reveals tidal pools rich with purple starfish and anemones.

Port Renfrew is a great fishing destination, but is probably best known as the start of the West Coast Trail. Originally hacked through the forest to give shipwreck survivors an escape route, this beach and forest path is now part of the Pacific Rim National Park, and one of BC’s best-loved, if toughest, long-haul hikes. Hello BC (1-800 HELLO BC) has information about fees and reservations.

For drivers, Port Renfrew is also the start of a partially-paved forest service road heading inland to the village of Lake Cowichan. This 54-km (32-mile) road has no services and is best driven by vehicles designed for rugged terrain, and only during daylight. If you’re driving a rented vehicle, check the rental company’s policy for driving on unpaved roads. You’ll find rustic forest service campsites at several places en route.

Campgrounds dot the shoreline of Cowichan Lake, Vancouver Island’s second-largest lake. Here you can swim, boat, fish, or hike part of the Trans-Canada trail as it follows the Cowichan River.

From Cowichan Lake to Duncan and south to Mill Bay, you’ll travel through the Cowichan Valley, an area of rolling green hills and winding country lanes so beloved by “slow food” aficionados that it’s been dubbed the new Provence. About a dozen wineries, many with restaurants, thrive in the valley, as do organic farms, vegetable stands, and farmers’ markets.

Where to start? Zanatta Winery, just outside of Duncan, has a vineyard-view restaurant in a 1903 farmhouse. You can sample estate-grown Bacchus, Ortega or Pinot Noir at Cobble Hill’s Blue Grouse Vineyards, or see cider being made the traditional way at Merridale Ciderworks, also in Cobble Hill. Most of the valley’s wineries are too small to offer tours, but you’re usually welcome to stop by for a taste.

For complete immersion, spend a weekend at Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse, near Duncan. Hosts at this 1884 farm offer pretty valley-view rooms, cooking classes, tours of area farms and markets, and big Italian meals on the lawn.

And don’t miss a side trip to Cowichan Bay, a village of cafés and craft shops built on pilings over the water.

From Mill Bay, at the valley’s southern end, you have a choice. You can stay on Highway 1 and drive over the Malahat, a mountain road topped with a viewpoint high over the Saanich Inlet and Gulf Islands. Option B is a 25-minute hop on BC Ferries, dubbed “Vancouver Island’s most beautiful short cut”, to the Saanich Peninsula.

It’s a tough choice, especially if you like to eat. The Malahat route takes you to luxury dining at the scenic Aerie Resort, a Mediterranean-style villa complex high on the hillside. The ferry docks at Brentwood Bay, home to the highly-rated Arbutus Grille and Wine Bar at the Brentwood Bay Lodge and Spa, and to the famous blooms of Butchart Gardens. It’s also the handiest route if you’re catching a ferry back to the mainland.

Both roads lead to Victoria, where you’ll need several more days to check out that city’s dining scene, spas, waterside walks and museums.

To receive a copy of the Circle Routes brochure, call 1-800 HELLO BC® (North America) or visit

Contact Information for Circle Route #8, Pacific Marine:
Tourism Victoria, 250/953-2033 or 800/663-3883:
Tourism Vancouver Island, 250-754-3500:
BC Parks:
Sooke Harbour House, 250/642-3421 or 800/889-9688:
Markus’ Wharfside Restaurant, 250/642-3596:
Point No Point Resort, 250/646-2020:
Cooper’s Cove Guesthouse, 250/642-5727 or 877/642-5727:
West Coast Trail, 800/435-5622:
Trans-Canada Trail:
The Wine Islands Vintners Association, 250/652-7784:
The Zanatta Winery, 250/748-2338:
Blue Grouse Vineyards, 250/743-3834:
Merridale Ciderworks, 250/743-4293 or 800/998-9908:
Fairburn Farm Culinary Retreat and Guesthouse, 250/746-4637:
BC Ferries:
The Dining Room at the Aerie Resort, 250/743-7115 or 800/518-1933:
Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa, 250/544-2079:
Butchart Gardens, 250/652-5256 or 866/652-4422:

Photo credit: Tourism BC