With its rugged shoreline, enormous trees and unpretentious vibe, the little town of Port Renfrew, located along the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, is worth a visit. The drive is just two hours from Victoria, making it a perfect weekend getaway, or even a day trip if you’re feeling ambitious.
The Pacific Marine Circle Route is the best way to go if you want to see more of southern Vancouver Island. It takes you from Victoria to Renfrew, then to the Cowichan Valley, and finally down the Malahat, a highway that hugs the east side of the island, back to Victoria.
The Shirley Delicious cafe is a great stop along the West Coast Road.
From Victoria, Highway 14 takes you through Sooke, a coastal town with plenty of hidden gems. Sooke Potholes Regional Park, with its deep swimming holes splashing with waterfalls and wonderfully crisp water, is perfect on a hot summer day; Sooke Harbour House, a local institution, is widely known for its garden-to-table dining; and Wild Mountain, with its locally foraged ingredients, was on the nominees list as one of En Route magazine’s best new restaurants for 2015.
Once you’re past Sooke, you’ll go by Juan de Fuca Provincial Park and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a backcountry trail that stretches 47 km (29 mi) from China Beach to Botanical Beach. The trail winds through temperate coastal rainforest and across wild beaches, with backcountry, tent and RV campgrounds accessible from the road.
Watch for surfers at Jordan River. You can see them from the road!
As you climb and twist and turn along the highway, watch for signs indicating small inns and resorts that poke out from the trees. Point-no-Point is one of them; achingly romantic cliffside cabins with endless ocean views. En route, pass through blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em settlements like Jordan River, where on one side of the road are a few homes and a coffee shop, and on the other, a long stretch of beach with surfers bobbing in the waves offshore. In fact, all along the road to Port Renfrew, you’ll see cars parked on the shoulder with tell-tale roof racks for surfboards hinting at secret breaks hidden behind the trees.
The sweeping beach and location of the Pacheedaht First Nation campground in Port Renfrew.
Port Renfrew is clustered around a wide inlet that sometimes appears a dramatic jade colour. The mountains surrounding it are majestic, and a thick swath of beach can be seen to the east of the town. There’s a simple and beautiful campground there, run by the Pacheedaht First Nation.
Views of the inlet from a wharfside room at Wild Renfrew.
Renfrew has seen some recent development, with the Wild Renfrew project bringing waterside cabins and a renovated Renfrew Pub, a large wooden building that feels perfectly west coast. The dock that runs alongside the pub’s big outdoor patio also runs in front of a series of new studio rooms and cabins. We stayed in a studio room, where from the bed, we could see waves splashing in a rocky bay. There was a small patio with a propane fire pit—the best place to sip wine as the sun went down or drink coffee in the morning.
A yurt with a view at Soule Creek Lodge.
A short drive up a steep hill takes you to Soule Creek Lodge, where you can spend the night in a yurt perched on a cliffside, with sweeping views of the valley and inlet below. There’s a multitude of small cabins available to rent in the area as well.
Trees twisted by coastal winds lead you to Botanical Beach.
Renfrew doesn’t have much in the way of groceries—it doesn’t even have a year-round gas station—but there’s hearty pub fare and locally brewed beer on tap at the Renfrew Pub, fresh local seafood at the Coastal Kitchen, and coffee and breakfast burritos at Tomi’s.
The rugged coastline near Botanical Beach.
The tidal pools at Botanical Beach are both beautiful and strange.
Be sure to check the tides and arrive at low tide to nearby Botanical Beach. The walk to the beach follows wooden boardwalks past trees twisted and shaped by the intense coastal winds. The beach itself is a trippy moonscape of deep tidal pools, with sandstone carved by pounding surf and crashing waves, backed by dense forest. It’s easy to spend hours clambering over boulders and peering into the pools at seastars, purple sea urchins and anemones.
Tidal pools at Botanical Beach.
You can spend hours peering into the pools scattered among the moonscape of Botanical Beach.
A short drive from Renfrew lives a concentration of old-growth trees known as Avatar Grove. Boardwalk and stairs formed around tree roots weave through the forest, taking hikers over creeks and from one enormous tree to the next. Here you can see “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree,” with a thick trunk punctuated by big, round burls.
The knotty burls of “Canada’s Gnarliest Tree” in Avatar Grove.
Driving back to Victoria through Lake Cowichan takes you past some equally large trees, such as the Harris Creek Sitka Spruce. Lakes and rustic forestry campgrounds like Fairy Lake and Lizard Lake lead the way to the town of Lake Cowichan. J&V’s Burgers and Pizza has about a million milkshake flavours on offer, and if that’s not enough to tide you over, Drumroaster Cafe in Cobble Hill is a great place for a snack and a cup of excellent coffee, roasted on-site.
Look up… look waaaaay up at the Harris Sitka Spruce, found on the road from Port Renfrew to Lake Cowichan.
The final stretch of the Pacific Marine Circle Route takes you over the Malahat, with stunning views of inlets, the Gulf Islands and the BC mainland across the Strait of Georgia. You’ll know you’re getting close to Victoria when you pass through Goldstream Provincial Park, with its moss-draped trees and rushing creeks.