Pacific Marine Circle Route
Things to do and see on your trip to Southern Vancouver Island
Meandering through charming coastal communities, rugged wave-swept beaches, and lush old-growth rainforests, it's no surprise the Pacific Marine Circle Route is known as the ultimate west coast road trip. Tracing a 300km loop around Southern Vancouver Island, the drive is endlessly customizable with breathtaking views, wilderness getaways, optional side trips, and acclaimed restaurants, vineyards, and great places to stay.
This summer we teamed up with Tourism Victoria to hop on the ferry, see some south island sights, and share a few of the route's most unique and memorable highlights.
SIDNEY to COWICHAN
Stepping off the ferry at Swartz Bay you're immediately met with an ineffable island charm. The air just feels fresher here, the restorative scent of ocean and forests hanging in the wind. Islands have an ambiance all their own, a sort of easy laidback lifestyle, and few places help you ease into it better than Sidney. It's the first town on the route, so stop in to stroll the main street, grab a coffee, and head to the pier to see locals hauling out crab traps.
As you leave town, the first section passes through the picturesque farmland of the Saanich Peninsula. You can often find idyllic stands on the side streets offering fresh local produce, u-pick berry or pumpkin patches, and some very large pigs. The sheltered waters and rolling rocky hills also offer plenty of opportunities for adventure, from diving and kayaking to hiking and climbing. Which is exactly what we had planned...
Gowlland Tod Provincial Park
Perched above the scenic Finlayson Arm, Gowlland Tod Provincial Park offers some of the best views on the island. It's a relatively new park, only protected since 1995, and it hosts some of the largest intact wild areas near Victoria. From rich riparian wetlands and old-growth forests to grassy meadows and rocky arbutus-lined knolls, there's plenty to see as you explore over 25km of trails.
We booked a guided tour with Mark from Hike Victoria, and as we walked he explained a bit about the area, about the various trees and wildlife, and his favourite vistas. An accomplished photographer, he also offers guests stunning portraits set against superlative backdrops. Plus he's been coming here for years so he knows the quickest routes up!
Goldstream Provincial Park
Massive trees, beautiful waterfalls, and a picturesque river that meanders from lush old growth down to the sea wait at Goldstream Provincial Park. A popular spot to come and watch the annual salmon return, Goldstream also offers camping and hiking only 16km from Victoria. If you can, try the trail up Mt Finlayson. It's pretty rocky and steep in places so we wouldn't recommend doing it in the rain, but the views over Mt Baker and the distant Olympic Mountains are very nice indeed.
Continuing north up the Malahat you get sweeping views of islands and inlets before descending onto the rich farmland of the Cowichan Valley. With warm dry summers and the mildest winters in the country, the Cowichan's Mediterranean-like climate is perfectly suited for agriculture. There's an ever-growing number of vineyards and cideries to visit, and even if you don't have time to do a full tasting tour we definitely recommend stopping in at at least one (or two).
Nestled among the rolling hills and farmland east of Shawnigan Lake, Unsworth Vineyards is a relative newcomer onto the BC wine scene. Dedicated to crafting exceptional wines that reflect the region's unique terroir and climate, they've been creating award-winning wines including some innovative blends alongside a more traditional wine selection. Complemented by a cozy restaurant inside a restored early 1900s farmhouse, Unsworth is definitely a delicious destination.
Merridale Cidery & Distillery
Next door to Unsworth is one of the Cowichan's best-known culinary destinations: the Merridale Cidery & Distillery. With a selection of artisanal old-world ciders and small-batch spirits, a delicious farm-to-table gastropub, yurts, and even a little brick oven turning out cider-leavened breads and pastries, there's plenty of reasons to come out for a visit. At 20 acres the orchard itself is rather small, allowing Merridale to focus on quality and sustainability. Plus it makes for a beautiful stroll.
For a unique experience, head to the nearby Kinsol Trestle. Originally built in the 1920s to haul giant logs from the west coast to Victoria, it was rehabilitated as part of the Trans Canada Trail in 2011. And it is massive! At 44m high and 187m long, it is one of the largest wooden trestle bridges in the world. Built as a rail grade, the trail leading up to it is very flat — so whether you come by foot, wheelchair, or bicycle you'll find it accessible.
One of our favourite towns along the way was the little community of Cowichan Bay. Built on a tiny sliver of land, many of the residents either live on the water or just above it on stilts, lending it a cozy seaside fishing village feel. Add to this is a maritime museum where you can learn about BC's rich shipbuilding history and see active restorations of old wooden boats and you have a great stop.
Another interesting spot is the old Stone Butter Church. Abandoned over 100 years ago, it sits on a little hill above the road, the rocky outcrops of Mt Tzouhalem rising in the background.
Farm Table Inn
The Farm Table Inn is a little bed & breakfast on the way to Lake Cowichan. With two comfortable rooms and locally-sourced food it's a great place to stop for the night. Hosting inspired dinners Wednesdays through Saturdays, the attached restaurant has a cozy farm feel with gaggles of chickens running around outside the dining room windows.
COWICHAN to PORT RENFREW
Leaving the farmland, the next section of the trip is dominated by forests. Heading west to the coast the climate becomes noticeably wetter, from the thick stands of ferns and moss-covered maples around Cowichan Lake to the groves of massive old growth around Port Renfrew. There are plenty of opportunities to hike, fish, and camp along the way, and if you feel like exploring there's a good chance that many of the little roads and pullouts offer something fun to discover. We found little tree forts, nice forestry campgrounds, and an abandoned suspension bridge. Neat!
Giant Trees & Old Growth
Known as Canada's "Tall Tree Capital," Port Renfrew has seen a surge in eco-visitors over the past decade. And for good reason, too — Port Renfrew can get more than 3.5m (11.5ft) of precipitation a year, and the rain-drenched soil and mild winters mean trees can keep growing all year long. You'll find many of the world's biggest trees here, including Sitka spruce, western red cedar, hemlock, and Douglas-fir. From the Harris Creek spruce to the ragged stands of giant cedar at Avatar Grove, there are many large trees waiting to be found. And with the thick brush and steep-sloped valleys, it's likely there are many yet to be discovered...
Sadly many of these ancient forests are disappearing, with more than 90% of Vancouver Island's original old-growth now logged. Today, one of the more striking giant trees can be found in the middle of a clearcut. Aptly named Big Lonely Doug, this Douglas-fir's superlative size helped spare it from the fallers' saws. At sixty-six meters tall, nearly four meters wide, and almost twelve meters in circumference, it is a truly massive tree. And the weird thing is that maybe no one would have known it was even there if the forest around it hadn't been leveled.
Port Renfrew is a beautiful place, nestled along a narrow ocean inlet and surrounded by steeply forested hills. It's a tiny tight-knit community, with that laid-back air of a place far from anywhere. But don't let its far-flung isolation fool you: this town has some seriously fine amenities.
It's hard to imagine nicer accommodations than the tastefully-appointed Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages. With the government wharf on one side and a private seaward beach on the other, it doesn't get much more Renfrew than this. Rent kayaks from the Adventure Centre, grab dinner from the adjacent pub or breakfast from the Coastal Kitchen Cafe up the hill, and unwind on the porch listening to waves lapping on the rocks.
PORT RENFREW to SOOKE
Port Renfrew is home to some of BC's best-known coastal hikes. A trailhead to both the magnificent West Coast Trail and the Juan de Fuca Trail, it's the perfect place to start planning your next big adventure. But you can also drive to some of the Juan de Fuca's best beaches, and it just so happens that they're along the way to our next destination: Sooke.
Only a short drive out of town waits Botanical Beach. Inside Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, Botanical Beach is best known for its many sandstone tide pools, surge channels, and rock formations, which provide a habitat for hundreds of species of plants and animals. If possible, try to come at low tide to make the most of it — you'll find impossibly purple sea urchins hiding in perfect circular holes, bright green anemone and seagrass, gooseneck barnacles, scurrying crabs, and starfish. And if you're lucky, you might even spot a bear snacking on mussels on the seashore.
One of the nicest beaches on the coast is Sombrio. Prized for its sandy beaches, hidden waterfalls, surf, and giant fog-shrouded trees, it has long been a favourite camping spot for locals. There are essentially two beaches here, a rocky beach to the west of Sombrio River and the sandy beach to the east, connected by a little suspension bridge. It can get busy in the summer, but with several kilometres of beaches and countless quiet pockets it never feels too crowded.
Another favourite camping spot is Mystic Beach. It's a 2km hike from the parking lot, but you'll be rewarded with a little sea cave, a waterfall, and plenty of places to pitch a tent. This is essentially the other trailhead to the Juan de Fuca Trail, so you'll probably see either fresh-faced hikers just setting out or mud-caked hikers on their final mile, which can be pretty fun to watch.
If you're lucky enough to visit in the spring or fall, it can also be a great place to spot gray whales on their annual migration between the Baja and the Bering Sea!
SOOKE to VICTORIA
The westernmost of Greater Victoria's "western communities", Sooke straddles the border between wilderness and the more populated region stretching east to the city. Long a favourite destination, Sooke has a pleasant small town feel while still having all the amenities you might expect from a more urban area. There's plenty to see and do, so book a stay at the palatial Prestige Oceanfront Resort and go for a stroll along Whiffen Spit or the Galloping Goose, swim in the Sooke Potholes, and head out for some hiking and picnicking at beautiful East Sooke Regional Park.
East Sooke Park
West coast wilderness awaits at East Sooke Regional Park. Receiving almost a third as much rain as nearby Port Renfrew, you'll see a different selection of trees and plants than on the wild wet coast. Lichen-draped arbutus and golden grasses intermingle with massive Douglas firs, and with 50km of trails and pocket-sized beaches to explore you'll want to pack a lunch and stay awhile!
Continuing on to Victoria, you'll pass the magnificent Hatley Park National Historic Site, a giant stone castle surrounded by formal gardens. Built in 1908, the mansion was first used as a private residence for local industrialist and politician James Dunsmuir before being turned into a military college in the 1940s and then a public university in 1995. A popular location for weddings and movies, the castle provides a scenic centrepiece for the stately Japanese, Italian and rose gardens.
No coastal road trip feels complete without a visit to a lighthouse, and the Pacific Marine Circle Route is no exception. There are a couple options along the way, but perhaps none so famous or picturesque as the Fisgard Lighthouse. Built in 1860 to guide vessels into the Esquimalt harbour, it is Canada's oldest west coast lighthouse and a designated national historic site. Access is via a causeway from an adjacent national historic site, the 19th-century coastal artillery fortification Fort Rodd Hill. Still in operation today, the Fisgard Lighthouse has been automated and the former keeper's residence turned into interpretive displays and exhibits.
We end our road trip in Victoria, BC's charming and resplendent capital city. With ocean on three sides, Victoria is heavily influenced by its maritime climate — pleasantly warm pretty much all year, the city is full of lush gardens and rocky hills lined with arbutus and Garry oak trees. As a relatively small city it's eminently walkable, with a unique mix of historical sites, stunning ocean strolls, and a vibrant shopping & restaurant scene there are a lot of things to see and do. The oldest city in the Pacific Northwest, Victoria's downtown has a warren of interesting streets, and ducking into random alleys will often lead you to great shops and restaurants, or even little courtyard gardens. It is a seriously fun city to explore, with something new to discover around every corner.
Check out the local and boutique shops on Lower Johnson, grab brunch at Jam Cafe or Nourish, stroll through Chinatown or along Dallas Road, visit the museum, go whale watching, then stop for an evening bite and a drink from The Drake Eatery or Little Jumbo. There are a ton of places to stay too, from historic hotels to charming B&Bs, but for views over the Inner Harbour you really can't beat the centrally-located Delta Ocean Pointe Resort or Hotel Grand Pacific.
With the world's highest concentration of orcas and other cetaceans, your visit to Victoria is the perfect opportunity to head out and see some whales. We booked with Eagle Wing Tours, renowned for their sustainability and stewardship initiatives. With a naturalist on board, we learned about the habits of different whale pods and their place in the larger Salish Sea ecosystem. There is something really special about seeing these massive creatures at play in the wild, and it's hard not to walk away afterward feeling a special connection to them.
One of our favourite things to do in Victoria is to simply stroll along Dallas Rd and soak up the ocean views. A popular place for bicyclists, joggers, and dog walkers alike, you'll get sweeping vistas of the Juan de Fuca Strait and distant Olympic Mountains, with plenty of opportunities to pop down onto the scenic beach. It's the perfect place to come for a picnic or to watch the sunset.
10 Acre Bistro
Just a stones' throw from the bustling Inner Harbour waits the farm-to-table oasis 10 Acres Bistro. Part of the larger 10 Acres family — which includes the finer dining 10 Acres Kitchen, down-to-earth Commons, as well as their very own organic farm on the Saanich Peninsula — they provide a delicious experience that will have you re-thinking your approach to food. Passionate about locally-grown ingredients and sustainability, their efforts can be seen in everything from the ingredients on the menu to how they repurpose food waste. Oh, and did we mention the food was amazing? We nestled into their lush covered outdoor patio for a friendly lunch and left as converts.
Surrounded by water, it kind of just feels right to explore Victoria by boat. At any given time you can spot a handful of water taxis motoring along the Inner Harbour, but for an even more unique experience we recommend hopping in a kayak. With a guided tour from Victoria Kayaks, we set out from the Inner Harbour and paddled up the Gorge Waterway, seeing the city from a totally different vantage. Victoria's harbour is still very much a working harbour, and we passed shipyards and other interesting industrial areas before slipping into the greenspace of the middle Gorge. Curious little seals swam by as we learned a bit about the history of the Songhees First Nations, how Fort Victoria was almost named after the legend of a girl who had been turned into a rock in the Narrows, and how the area has changed over the years.
Beacon Hill Park
Victoria's crowning park, Beacon Hill has been the city's refuge from urban life for generations. With ponds and gardens and a petting zoo there are ample things to see and do, and there's no better place to go if you need to chill out under the trees for an afternoon. Come see the turtles and blue herons or listen to the peacocks call, stroll amid giant trees and manicured flowerbeds or head down to the wild coast, and you'll understand why it feels like a special place.
After soaking up as much island ambiance as you can, eventually it'll come time to head back to the mainland. It's always sad to near the end a journey, but luckily this trip finishes with a silver lining already built in: the ferry ride. There's no better way to cap off a trip than by standing on the deck of a boat, the ocean wind full in your hair, little island scenes lazily drifting past. Honestly, I could stand on the deck for hours. Well, maybe one hour — gotta save time for a Triple O burger.
Big thanks to Tourism Victoria for helping make this trip possible