We were psyched—got up at two in the morning, packed our bags and the cooler full of goodies, climbed into the RV and headed out to catch the M.V. Coho Black Ball Ferry in Port Angeles, Washington. We were heading to Victoria’s Inner Harbour on Canada’s Vancouver Island to begin a three-day adventure traveling the legendary Pacific Marine Circle Route and touring the Saanich Peninsula.
The fog was thick on the morning of our trip, so instead of taking pictures of the glorious passage, we read the morning papers, chatted with fellow passengers and took naps. Just before pulling into Victoria’s Inner Harbour, we visited the on-board bookstore and were gobsmacked by the amazing selection of books. Honestly, this has got to be the region’s best bookstore outside of Powell’s in Portland, Village Books in Fairhaven and Monroe’s in Victoria.
The fog lifted a bit and the Empress Hotel and Parliament Buildings looked magical in the mist as we floated into Victoria’s Inner Harbour.
We had just an afternoon in the city before we headed out on our tour of the Saanich Peninsula and then the following day, the Scenic Marine Drive which follows the Pacific Ocean around the southern coast of the city, looping along Highway 14 to Sooke.
Please note: If you want to spend some time walking around Victoria, parking for RVs is restricted to general city street parking during the day and to Robbin’s Parking Lot near the Ogden Point Cruise Ship Terminal for longer-term parking.
RVers should stop at the Information Centre across the street from the Empress Hotel to pick up a free copy of Super Camping, a guide to many of the RV parks on Vancouver Island. (Another helpful source of information is discovercamping.ca.)
There are many provincial parks in Vancouver Island, but some campgrounds have minimal amenities and services. Information can be found in the Go Camping BC guide at gocampingbc.com and at env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks.
Pacific Marine Circle Tour
The Pacific Marine Circle Tour is a 158-mile journey that extends along the remote coastal areas of Vancouver Island. The tour offers spectacular views of the Juan de Fuca, Haro and Georgia straights and is best experienced over a two- to-four-day trip. The cross-island portion of the route from Port Renfrew to Lake Cowichan includes bumpy dirt roads, narrow passages, hairpin turns and single-lane bridges. For this section, you need a vehicle designed for rugged terrain.
For our trip, we headed north for a short tour of the Saanich Peninsula just 20 minutes from downtown Victoria. Rich in agricultural land, this region provides Victorians and the southern island with fresh, local produce and the entire area with fine wines, ciders and, more recently, fine gin!
We turned off Highway 17 at Keating Cross Road that winds towards Butchart Gardens, which is even gorgeous in the rain. Five minutes from Butchart Gardens, we arrived at Butterfly Gardens, where hundreds of iridescent butterflies flitted amidst the amazing tropical flora they share with a koi pond reigned over by two elegant pink flamingos.
We made a loop that included a number of wineries along Old West Saanich Road and came upon Victoria Spirits and Barking Dog Vineyards. Owners Bryan Murray and Peter Hunt have launched British Columbia’s only handcrafted artisan gin distillery, producing the smoothest gins that will ever pass your lips. The vintners blend a dozen botanicals from juniper berries to rose petals and distill in small batches for an amazingly soothing sipping variety of flavored gins, each with its own distinctive character.
Be sure to leave time for stops along the way at a number of farms, wineries, cideries and scenic views before jumping back onto the mountainous Malahat Highway on your way back to Victoria.
Oceanside RV Resort on the shores of the Saanich Peninsula is just one of many RV parks on Vancouver Island. It has washrooms, showers, laundries, a convenience store and a cookhouse with a large barbeque for group gatherings. This beachside RV park is close to Butchart Gardens, Butterfly Gardens and other attractions and is just 30 minutes from downtown Victoria.
A drive 45 minutes southwest from Victoria took us to Adrena Line Zipline Adventure Tours. Two experienced guides ran us through zipline instructions and led a small group of us to the first and easiest of eight scenic ziplines through the rain forest in the Sooke Hills.
We rode in an ATV and dangled on suspension bridges as part of the adventure that was topped by climbing up to tree houses and stepping into the void to sail 150 feet off the ground for up to 1,000 feet across valleys and forests below. Nothing can match the exhilaration and joy of that kind of flying.
After taking a turn just off Highway 14, we drove alongside the Sooke River to Sooke Potholes Park, where we paid a $3 parking fee and hiked down to the double waterfalls. The adjacent private property is a resort development that has been abandoned and now makes for a curious sight with the remains of what must have been a grandiose plan at the top of the gorge. The Sooke Potholes, which are a result of thousands of years of erosion by the rushing Sooke River, provide a popular place to swim, and the vistas from the top of the waterfalls are stunning.
East Sooke Regional Park is a hiker’s paradise. Views from the park of Juan de Fuca Strait and the Olympic Mountains beg to be photographed. You might see seals or whales.
French Beach Provincial Park offers vehicle accessible campsites. Reservations are accepted, but first-come, first-served sites are also available. There are no lifeguards on duty at provincial parks. This park is located on the Pacific Ocean where the water is very cold. Bring good footwear as you can walk along the sand and gravel beach to watch the ocean waves.
Sooke River Flats Campsite offers a large covered picnic area, RV dump, flush toilets, showers, tenting and RV sites. It is within easy walking distance of the Sooke Public Swimming Pool and the Sooke Region Museum.
Juan de Fuca Provincial Park
The grassy lawns and rocky beaches at Juan de Fuca Provincial Park are strewn with driftwood and artsy, smooth, polished stones. There are many spots to linger, look and languish, strike out on treks, and take beautiful pictures. Again, views of the straits and Olympic Mountains across the waters are stunning. A hike through a forested area down to China Beach is well worth the effort. Relish the views and opportunities to beach walk, sit and ponder and watch for wildlife.
The Village of Port Renfrew has a reputation for wonderful coastal scenery, world-class hiking, and fishing, both freshwater and saltwater. The beaches along this stretch of coastline are becoming increasingly popular with surfers, especially those looking for the wilderness experience. Port Renfrew is also the trailhead for the West Coast Trail and the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, two of the well-known multi-day hiking trails on Vancouver Island. Don’t miss the Red Creek Fir, one of the largest Douglas fir trees in Canada. It grows just outside the downtown village.
Cowichan Lake, the second largest lake on Vancouver Island, is a hot spot for families and freshwater sports. Cowichan Lake is the gateway to the windsurfing mecca of Nitinat Lake and the coastal rainforest trails in Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, one of the most remarkable wilderness areas on the island. We met a couple from Calgary who had come in their RV to camp and fish on the island and found their favorite spot at Cowichan Lake.
After driving the amazing Pacific Marine Circle Route—mostly a two-lane road, some of it dirt but mostly paved, with one-lane bridges and detours—we arrived at Cowichan Bay just beyond Duncan. It is a throwback to the ‘60s of hippie La Conner or early Sausalito—a lovely, funky, un-developed but cool artsy spot on a quiet bay with a busy fishing community and earnest population. If you want a very special evening, make reservations at The Masthead Restaurant on the main street overlooking the bay. Very posh and delightful with a menu to match. It’s casual but I would suggest a coat and maybe a tie.
We walked the village main street in the morning to smell the marvelous waft of fresh bread from the True Grain Bread & Mill, bought a loaf, and proceeded to Hilary’s Cheese and Deli for a bit of lunch to go. On our way back, we stopped to say hello to First Nations artist Arthur Vickers at his Shipyard Gallery and were treated to a visit to one of his workshops under the showroom. He wanted to share with us the rowboat/art form a friend of his was building in his spare time away from his fishing career. Arthur is a remarkable open and friendly soul, quite generous to visitors with his time and stories.
Along the Cowichan River, you’ll find Duncan RV Park & Campground set on 11 acres, one block west of the Trans Canada Highway. Fifty pull-through sites with fire pits are available. Restaurants, a casino and shopping are within walking distance.
Galloping Goose Trail
Back to Victoria to catch the ferry to return to Port Angeles, we stopped off at Cycle BC, just behind The Empress Hotel, to pick up a couple of bikes for a ride on the Galloping Goose Trail. Seeing the city on two wheels is easy and fun, especially with maps and recommendations from the shop.
Again, we had a seamless transition through customs and immigration on our trip across the strait to Port Angeles aboard the M.V. Coho Blackball Ferry. Another visit to that fabulous bookstore and then, after an hour and a half, we were at the dock in the U.S., with memories, stories and images of beautiful Vancouver Island.
Lynn Rosen and Steve Giordano are journalists who live in Bellingham, Washington.