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Duncan and the Cowichan Valley from Averill Creek Vineyard, Photo Destination BC Boomer Jerritt

Plan to Do the Pacific Marine Circle Tour on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island

By Patricia Cashin

Planning a trip to Vancouver Island? Explore the coastline and countryside of the southern part of the Island by taking a leisurely drive on the Pacific Marine Circle Tour. Starting and ending in Victoria, the road takes you through Sooke, Port Renfrew, Lake Cowichan and Duncan along with other small communities enroute.

Victoria DBC Reuben Krabbe
Victoria with Parliament Buildings | Destination BC/Reuben Krabbe

Begin your journey in British Columbia’s capital, Victoria. With a stronghold of British traditions, Victoria‘s double-decker buses, horse-drawn carriages, meticulously kept gardens, and the tradition of formal afternoon tea has contributed to the city’s long-standing reputation of being a bit of Britain on British Columbia’s west coast.

Sooke, Vancouver Island | G. Stathers

Drive north along the Trans-Canada Highway 1 and then head west on Highway 14. Just 40 km away is the pleasant harbour-side community of Sooke. The first stop to make here is the Sooke Region Museum that depicts the local pioneer history with a film presentation, informative exhibits, and delightful Moss Cottage. To celebrate Sooke‘s maritime heritage and its scenic beaches, a historic lighthouse monument complete with a rotating first-order Fresnel lens was opened in 2005 and offers visitors a unique viewing experience. The Visitor Centre is also located in the museum and can provide information on various festivals and events in the area.

Botanical Beach Provincial Park, Port Renfrew | Mike via Flickr

From Sooke drive northwest 71 km on Highway 14 until you reach the town 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. The small town is also famous for its trail head from two extended hiking trails: 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 along these trails.

The beach at the Beaver Lake Resort in Lake Cowichan.
Beach at Beaver Lake Resort, Lake Cowichan

The next leg of the journey climbs 62 km northeastwards. 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 lake and is a popular destination for outdoor recreation. A scenic 75 km drive around Cowichan Lake takes about an hour and a half. There are several parks 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 and is popular with wind surfers.

BC Forest Discovery Centre, North Cowichan | Tourism Cowichan

Leaving Lake Cowichan and traveling east along Highway 18 you arrive in the Cowichan Valley’s largest community of 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. There are all sorts of family-oriented attractions in Duncan. You can learn all about the past, present and future of forestry at the British Columbia Forest Discovery Centre. Pioneer history is the focus at the Cowichan Valley Museum, located in the 1912 train station.

Merridale Cidery, Cobble Hill | Tourism Cowichan

Just 14 km down the road is Cobble Hill, a small, farming-oriented community enveloped by pastoral landscapes with a mild climate. Taking advantage of this, several wineries have sprung up in the area. First Nations art is on display at the many galleries in the town.

Heading down the Trans-Canada Highway 1 you’ll arrive in Mill Bay. Scenic provincial parks and a variety of outdoor recreation surround the area. You can 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 McKenzie Bight near the Malahat | G. Stathers

From Mill Bay there are two alternative routes back to Victoria. The first option is to drive south on the Trans-Canada Highway 1 through  Malahat which 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 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”. One advantage to this route is that it lets you see the famous Butchart Gardens at Brentwood Bay. From Brentwood Bay, there’s a short ride back to Victoria via Highway 17, where your circle tour is complete.

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Published: February 9, 2023
Last Updated: February 9, 2023

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