The Pacific Marine Circle Tour is a short 255km (158mi) journey along Vancouver Island's remote coasts, and offers beautiful views of the Juan De Fuca, Haro, and Georgia straights. The quiet ambiance of the island relaxes visitors with views of quiet parks and ocean-side towns. This short tour is best experienced over 2 to 4 days and will make you fall in love with southern Vancouver Island. Note: sections of the route are secondary roads without a centre line. There are narrow parts with a number of single lane bridges over several scenic streams.
Route and Experiences
Begin your journey in British Columbia's capital, Victoria . A stronghold of British traditions, Victoria's double-decker buses, horse-drawn carriages, meticulously kept gardens, and formal afternoon teas have contributed to the city's long-standing reputation of being "a bit of Britain" on BC's West Coast.
The capital city of British Columbia, Victoria was originally established in 1843 by James Douglas as a fort for the Hudson's Bay Company. Bastion Square marks the site where the fort once stood, although all that remains are two iron rings set into the rocks at the foot of Fort Street. To learn more about BC's history consider a visit to the Royal BC Museum, or spend the day at Emily Carr House and become acquainted with a provincial artistic treasure. Nearby Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest in North America, and the legendary Fairmont Empress Hotel (built in 1908) serves a formal tea every afternoon (reservations recommended). A gentle stroll through the harbour and parliament buildings rounds out a pleasant day.
Beyond the British flair and historic flavour, however, Victoria has become a mecca for outdoor adventurers. A mild climate is well-suited for kayaking, cycling, hiking, fishing, golfing, windsurfing, and diving. The Inner Harbour is always bustling with kayaks, whale watching boats, ferries and float plains.
Whatever your pleasure, once you're ready to keep exploring, drive North along the Trans-Canada Highway 1, then head West on Highway 14.
Just 40km (25mi) away is the pleasant harbour-side community of Sooke, home to the Sooke Region Museum, a charming depiction of Sooke's pioneer history with film presentations, informative exhibits, and delightful Moss Cottage. A historic lighthouse monument complete with a rotating first-order Fresnel lens was opened in 2005 and offers visitors a unique viewing experience. The Sooke Region Visitor Info Centre is located at the museum and is the place to find out more about activities like fishing, golfing, kayaking, hiking, and whale watching. Also check out an outdoor adventure by ziplining.
While you're there, ask about Sooke's annual events, including the Bluegrass Festival in June and the Sooke River Music Festival in mid-August. Sooke Fine Arts takes place over a two-week period in late June/early August and is the largest juried art show on Vancouver Island. This is an excellent opportunity to see some of the best work by the most renowned artists on Vancouver Island.
While in Sooke, plan to stay at the world famous Sooke Potholes Regional Park. Sooke Potholes Campground is nestled amongst Douglas Fir and adjacent to a gently flowing river, just metres away from the famous Sooke River Potholes.
From Sooke drive northwest 72km (45mi) on Highway 14 until you reach the quaint village of Port Renfrew. Along the way, you'll see spectacular views of Vancouver Island's jagged coastline and witness awe-inspiring views of the surrounding Olympic Mountains.
Port Renfrew is surrounded by dense forests of massive trees and is known for its fresh and salt-water fishing, canoeing, and the San Juan River. Many visitors use Port Renfrew as a base for salmon and halibut fishing. The small town is also a famous trailhead for the West Coast Trail and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. The West Coast Trail is a world-renowned Canadian trail that is much sought after by serious hikers and is booked out months in advance. Friendly pubs and inns around Port Renfrew are havens for hikers from all over the world embarking on treks.
The next leg of the journey follows 60km (37mi) of secondary paved roads. The pristine Cowichan Lake District includes the communities of Lake Cowichan, Honeymoon Bay, Youbou, Mesachie Lake, and Caycuse. This mountainous area, rich with wildlife, is an ideal destination for a family vacation or an outdoor adventure. The Lake itself is Vancouver Island's second largest and a popular destination for outdoor recreation. A scenic 75km (47mi) drive on paved and gravel roads around Cowichan Lake takes about an hour and a half. There are several parks, campsites, and lookouts with excellent photo opportunities and wildlife viewing. Secondary roadways provide access to the old-growth forests of Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park. These roads also connect to Nitinat Lake, a tidal lake that opens into the Pacific Ocean is popular with wind surfers.
Leave Lake Cowichan and travel east along Highway 18 to the Cowichan Valley's largest community, Duncan. Known as the "City of Totems", Duncan is graced with nearly 80 totem poles, principally located downtown and along the highway. It is also home to the Quw'ustsum' Cultural and Conference Centre, and is famous for the fine arts and crafts by First Nations artists in its boutiques and galleries.
Learn all about the past, present and future of forestry at Duncan's British Columbia Forest Centre. Take a relaxing ride on a locomotive as it tours the museum grounds. Pioneer history is the focus at the Cowichan Valley Museum, located in the 1912 train station.
Just 16km (10mi) down the road is the friendly town of Cobble Hill. A small, farming-oriented town, Cobble Hill is enveloped by pastoral landscapes and enjoys a mild climate. Wineries are fast becoming a common sight in the area and the local cidery was BC's first. Visitors who have a passion for First Nations art will enjoy the many galleries in town.
From Cobble Hill head another 16km (10mi) down the Trans-Canada Highway 1 and you'll find yourself in Mill Bay. Scenic provincial parks and a variety of outdoor recreation options surround the area. From here, you will see stunning water and mountain views at nearby Bamberton Provincial Park. Add to this an abundance of antique shops, boutiques, artisan studios, and fresh fruit stands and you'll understand why Mill Bay is a popular stop for many visitors.
From Mill Bay there are two alternative routes to Victoria. The first option is to drive south on the Trans-Canada Highway 1 through Malahat. This unincorporated district is located 30 minutes north of Victoria, and is named after the Malahat First Nation. The area is located in a hilly rugged region of heavy forest and the drive along Highway 1 features very steep cliffs. The local road was first cut as a cattle trail in 1861, and later upgraded to wagon-road standards in 1884. "The Malahat" became a paved road in 1911, and climbs to a summit of 356 m (1,156 ft) before dropping down into the Cowichan Valley.
The alternate route is to board BC Ferries at Mill Bay and take a 25-minute sailing to Brentwood Bay. Although short, the ferry ride is a wonderfully scenic way to explore what is referred to as "Vancouver Island's most beautiful shortcut".
Brentwood Bay is home to the world famous Butchart Gardens, fifty-five acres of stunning floral show gardens and a National Historic Site of Canada, is located near Victoria, British Columbia.
From Brentwood Bay, it's a short ride back to Victoria via Highway 17, where your circle tour is complete.
Continue on Highway 14 up the Western coast of Vancouver Island to Port Renfrew (73km/45 mi).
From Port Renfrew head Northeast to Lake Cowichan (60km / 37mi). The journey to Lake Cowichan takes place on recently paved, backcountry logging roads, so it should be done via a vehicle built for rugged terrain.
Head East along Highway 18 to reach Duncan (31km / 19mi).
Head South on Highway 1 to reach Cobble Hill (14.5km / 9mi) and Mill Bay (6.5km / 4mi).
From here, you can complete the circle tour by driving South on the Trans-Canada Highway 1 through Malahat (32km / 20mi), and then on to Victoria.
An alternate route is via a BC Ferry from Mill Bay to Brentwood Bay (25min), and then driving south on Trans-Canada Highway 17 to Victoria (22.5km / 14mi).
Explore the Communities along the Pacific Marine Circle Tour
Background Photo Credit: Destination British Columbia