The ruggedness of the west coast is arguably at its most beautiful and raw in winter, and driving the Pacific Marine Circle Route on Vancouver Island is a fine way to take it in. The route starts in Victoria and heads up to Sooke and Port Renfrew before cutting clear across the island and heading back down again through the Cowichan Valley. Pack a bag and prepare for a three day dose of small towns, beachcombing, fireplaces and deliciousness.
DAY 1: HEADING UP TO SOOKE
I you’re coming over from Vancouver the 9am ferry will get you into Victoria with enough time to have lunch, stretch your legs and pick up some provisions downtown before you make the 45 minute drive up to Sooke. Equal parts seaside town, farming community and rainforest, Sooke is a great starting point for a weekend of unwinding.
To accelerate the decompression process, kick things off with a hike through East Sooke Park. With 50 kilometres forest, field and shoreline trails, you can spend as little as 20 minutes at the park or take several hours to explore. When your cheeks are rosy and your lungs full of fresh air, it’s time to retreat to a warm coffee shop and relax with a book, or settle in at a pub for a beer while considering your next move.
There are three breweries in Sooke: Sooke Brewing Company, Sooke Oceanside Brewery and Bad Dog Brewing Company. We’d heard good things about all three, but only had time for one, so we nipped in to Sooke Brewing Company for a pint and a look around. SBC has only been around for a year, and already it’s registering on the broader BC brewing scene (they recently returned from the The BC Beer Awards with four nods, including Rookie of the Year and Best Tasting Room). Run by a local group of beer enthusiasts, this establishment beams pride for the region. They’re open 7 days a week from noon until 10pm (midnight on Friday and Saturday).
If you’re more into spirits, check out Sheringham Distillery, which is located in the centre of town. In their simple, modern tasting room, try the recently released Red Fife Whisky and the Kazuki Gin (hints of cherry blossom, yuzu and Westholme Tea Farm green tea leaves), but don’t leave without a bottle of their classic Seaside Gin, which is made from BC white wheat, BC malted barley, natural botanicals and sustainable hand-harvested local kelp. They’re open Friday and Saturday, from 12pm to 5pm.
Time to move on to food. Whenever I travel I love hitting up the local farmers market to meet the people with the closest connection to the land, because the things they grow, gather and process often convey unique insights into the place. Of course, finding a market in winter anywhere can be a challenge, so I checked out Wild Mountain Dinners instead. This is a Slow Food-inspired restaurant that overlooks the water and celebrates the region by using ingredients grown, foraged or caught in and around the area. Point of fact: every person in town that I asked for dining recommendations sent me to Wild Mountain — “You have to eat there!” being the common exclamation. My meal lived up to the hype. From the pre-dinner cocktail to the fresh oysters (and the chocolate mousse they sent me home with), I fell in love with everything about it, including the ambience and the service. Find out more.
Heads-Up: The Sooke Festival of Trees runs through to December 28, so fill your travel mug with hot chocolate from The Stick In The Mud Coffee Shop and take a stroll through a ‘forest’ of decorated trees at the Seaparc Leisure Centre. You can even duck into the centre for a swim or skate. Find out more.
DAY 2: SOOKE TO PORT RENFREW
You’ll be tempted to stay under the covers, but you’ve got some exploring to do today, so make the departure easier by rewarding yourself with a good cup of coffee. Stick In The Mud serves espresso, single origin drip coffee as well as loose-leaf tea (herbal, green and black), but we suggest you try the Flap Jack Latte. They call it a ‘hug-in-a-mug’. Bonus: it comes with a cookie!
Once you’re sufficiently caffeinated, it’s time to hit the road. Some of the most stunning beaches on Vancouver Island are found between Sooke and Port Renfrew. French Beach, China Beach, Jordan River, Mystic Beach and Sombrio are all easily accessed from the highway. The drive from Sooke to Port Renfrew will be about an hour and a half, so you’ve got lots of time to take in a tide pool or two. Don’t worry about the chill; when you check into your cabin at Wild Renfrew you can start up the fireplace right away. The cabins here are outfitted with kitchen facilities, so you can stay in and make your own dinner to eat by the fire, or you can walk the two minutes to the pub and have their kitchen take care of you. The Renfrew Pub (Monday – Sunday 11:30am- 8:00pm) is a large, high-ceilinged space with a view of a tidepool-dotted cove. Here you can feast on burgers, boat-to-table seafood, salads and local beer. Wild Renfrew is tight with many brewers, chefs and winemakers and they occasionally have collaboration dinners, so check their website for the latest info here.
While the beaches hereabouts are stunning, you’ll also want to factor in some time for a walk through Avatar Grove, an old growth forest. The road to the grove is partially unpaved and the trail is not well marked, but if you’re up for the challenge this is a special experience. This is not a highly populated area, so it’s entirely possible that you will be all alone in the grove. To appreciate this kind of silence is a rare opportunity for those who live in the city. We’re not talking a North Shore hike sort of silence; this is some next level quiet! But remember, there are no street lights and there is no cell reception. This is a good morning excursion. Stop in at Tomi’s Homestyle Kitchen for a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich before you head out.
The Pacific Marine Road from Port Renfrew to Cowichan Valley is a beautiful drive. You’ll pass by many a closed-for-the-season campground, but this is a great opportunity to scope out the spots you want to book for your return in the summer. You’ll also pass parks, lakes, streams and ponds. What you won’t see is much in the way of development. So clear your mind. Sit back, grip the wheel, choose your tunes wisely and enjoy the scenery on this approximately 2-hour drive.
Oh, and do keep an eye out for Fairy Lake. There’s a Douglas Fir tree that has taken root on a stump in the middle of the lake and this small triumph of nature is worth pulling over to take a minute to appreciate!
DAY 3: Port Renfrew TO Cowichan Valley
Like Sooke, The Cowichan Valley has many facets: ocean, forest and field. With only one day here, try to sample it all (if only so that you can plan a return trip to dig a little deeper). Here are my suggestions:
Unsworth Vineyard | After a day of exploring, it’s nice to reflect over a meal and a good glass of wine. For this, visit Unsworth Vineyards. This winery has an onsite restaurant in a beautifully restored early 1900s farmhouse. Chef Maartyn Hoogeveen focuses on highlighting local ingredients to create a menu that pairs perfectly with Unsworth wines. Try the Squash & Three Cheese Ravioli with burnt butter cream sauce and sage ($16) or Pan Seared Coho Salmon with saffron potatoes and white wine butter sauce — being sure to ask staff about pairings. The restaurant is open Wednesday through Sunday, offering lunch between 11am and 5pm and dinner from 5pm until close. Find out more.
Blue Grouse | On the weekend, Blue Grouse hosts Soup Saturday: homemade soup, True Grain baguette and a glass of wine for $16 between noon and 4pm. It’s a perfect midday destination for a relaxed bite and several some restorative sips. Of course, once you really settle in and appreciate the views of the vineyard and farmland, you won’t want to leave. It’s nice to know that the winery also has accommodations. The Grouse House Bed & Bottle retreat is a lovely place to escape to. The two-bedroom suite sleeps four and would be perfect for two couples or a family. Bonus: from here it’s only a short drive to the historic waterfront community of Cowichan Bay. Find out more.
Merridale Cidery | At the end of a softly winding country road in Cobble Hill (part of the Cowichan Valley) you will find a cluster of red buildings and an orchard known as Merridale. If you’re a cider lover, you’ve likely heard of this place; their bright and bubbly ciders are long time players in BC’s cider scene. But beyond the crisp, artisanal, made-on-the-premises ciders that they are famous for (and now spirits!), the farm itself also acts as a community hub. Take the time to experience it. The 20 acre grounds are home to a cidery, tasting room and restaurant, not to mention a large orchard. And this month, Merridale is done up with hundreds of twinkling lights and holiday decorations. If you’re travelling on a weekend, there’s also the opportunity to sit for a longtable dinner, and on December 16th there’s a Merridale Family Christmas Evening that involves a three-course brick-oven pizza dinner and an outdoor screening of some short holiday themed movies. Find out more.
The Raptors | The Raptors is an awesome, hugely informative compound dedicated to promoting conservation and raising awareness about the birds of prey that called the hills of the Cowichan Valley home. Keep in mind that this is the slow season at The Raptors; they are only open from noon to 3pm, Thursday through Sunday (flying demos go down at 1:30pm). The opportunity to get this close to the majesty of these birds is worth a visit. Staff are well-trained and attuned to the birds and the birds themselves are truly breathtaking. Find out more.
Cowichan Bay | This stretch of brightly coloured cottages and shops that backs onto the ocean is walkable in under 10 minutes without stopping, or a little over two hours when you factor in artist studio visits, shop browsing, a light lunch and a quick turn around the Wooden Boat Museum. It’s the perfect last stop before you head for the ferry back to the Mainland. Don’t miss the Wild Coast Perfumery (Tues-Sun 10:30am – 4:30pm). Proprietor and perfume genius Laurie Thompson Arbuthnot creates small batches of pure plant-based and hand crafted perfumes that are traditionally blended, aged and bottled on site, bearing names and scent profiles of familiar places like Whistler, Carmanah, Saltspring and Tofino. Even if you don’t think perfume is your thing, this is a beautiful shop and Arbuthnot’s passion for her craft is totally infectious. Also musts: Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre; Hilary’s Cheese; and True Grain Bakery for baked goods and tea.
Ampersand Distillery | Although the tasting room and distillery at Ampersand are only open by appointment, we are mentioning it here for spirits enthusiasts who might consider making said appointment. Seriously, if you love gin…make the appointment. If that’s not in the cards for you, keep in mind that Ampersand takes their wares to the Duncan Farmers Market on Saturdays (10-2pm). Find out more.
Westholme Tea Farm | Wait, tea plants grow on Vancouver Island? Yes, it’s true. Not only does Westholme Farm import, blend, steep, serve and educate about some of the finest teas from around the world, they also grow their own. This bright and calm centre for tea, all adorably nestled between forest and meadow, is the perfect place to recharge before making your way to the ferry. The tea farm (which is actually a carefully and beautifully restored dairy) includes seating, a retail area with a full wall of tea tins, and a gallery – all with windows overlooking a serene patch of the valley. Gunpowder, Green Pearl, Matcha or Darjeeling — you can get just about any kind of tea you want here. Slip in to order a pot (served in housemade ceramics) with a freshly baked scone and check out the current exhibit in the gallery (currently: A Winter Solstice). Find out more.