GET YOUR ASS OUTSIDE | On Jumping Ship For The Island And Exploring Port Renfrew
by Ariel Taylor | So I’ve jumped ship from Vancouver. Well, I suppose a more accurate description would be that I boarded one, but you catch my drift. Over the last few weeks I’ve traded in my urban digs for Cowichan sweaters, ferry lineups and double decker buses. Yup, Victoria is now officially home. Though it was my life as a graduate student that prompted me going rouge, I’m discovering that Vancouver Island has more than enough to keep getting my ass outside, even if it almost always involves a gortex jacket.
Victoria, as you’re more than likely already well aware, sits at the southern end of Vancouver Island, and though it’s a beautiful spot in its own right, its surrounding coastlines have their own allure. The 109kms separating Victoria and the end of Highway 14 at Port Renfrew are particularly stunning; exactly what you’d expect a wild coastal frontier to look like. Home to iconic beaches, surf breaks, and hiking trails, this area has been miraculously spared the development seen in tourist hubs like Tofino, despite being much closer to town.
As the western terminus of the Juan de Fuca Trail and the main access point for the West Coast Trail, Port Renfrew enjoys a steady diet of dirty, hungry, and exhausted backpackers. Botanical Beach sees its fair share of day visitors, but near-perpetual wet weather keeps even them to a minimum. Besides the two annual music festivals hosted there (Tall Tree and Song & Surf), there’s little else to attract outsiders, unless you’re like me and have a thing for giant Douglas Firs and Sitka Spruce.
From the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, take Highway 17 south to Mackenzie Avenue. Exit at Mackenzie and follow it until you reach Highway 1 (also called the Island Hwy), which you’ll take north for about 3km before you exit again onto Hwy 14 (Sooke/Jordan River/Port Renfrew). The trip to Port Renfrew should take around 2 hours. Don’t let the low number of kms fool you, the winding road means you’ll be lucky to crack 80km/hour and a single lane makes passing nearly impossible. Once you’ve gone beyond Sooke, you won’t have another opportunity to fill up on gas (there is no gas station in Port Renfrew), so make sure you have a full tank. At this point you’ll also be out of luck in terms of cell reception. Take your time and plan to make some pit stops at the many beaches along the route. They’re well marked and equipped with pit toilets, maps, and even some picnic tables.
Once you arrive at Port Renfrew, take Parkinson Road down to the docks or follow it all the way to Botanical Beach. Low tide is the best time to visit as the tidal pools reveal the dense ecological network that gives so much life to the region. A 2km loop down to the water offers the best route from the parking lot. For another perspective, head back through town and follow the signs towards Cowichan Lake. The road will take you across the river to a fork. Stay left and you’ll enter the Pacheedaht First Nation where beach front campsites and drift wood shelters dot the lengthy shoreline. Pitch a tent for $20, but make sure you’re prepared for rain (this is officially North America’s only temperate rainforest). When heading home, you can exit the way you came or head back to the fork and take the right side towards Cowichan Lake and then Duncan, winding back over the Malahat (Hwy 1) and down to Victoria. It’s longer, sure, but if you have the time it’s a fun drive along newly paved logging roads.
If you can sneak away, think about making this a multi-day trip, particularly if you’re coming over from Vancouver. You can camp on just about any of the beaches between Victoria and Port Renfrew, so if you have a tent, I suggest using it. There’s nothing quite like falling asleep to the sound of crashing waves or waking up to thick fog blanketing the shore. That being said, having the right gear is key to making this an enjoyable adventure. Warm clothes, waterproof shoes, and plenty of food and water are essential.
If you’re not into roughing it, try stopping into Port Renfrew’s Coastal Kitchen for some delicious local halibut and salmon. Generous portions of homemade pie and fresh coffee make this a visitor favourite whether you’re fresh off the trails or just passing through. For a cold pint, head down to the harbour for a patio perch and a front row seat. There are no shortage of places to crash in town, so go ahead and order two. It’s easy to watch the world go by from here.
Ariel Taylor is a writer and professional student living and working in the West End. Though never short on opinions, she approaches most things in life with an open mind and a grain of salt. She suffers from acute wanderlust (hence her Get Your Ass Outside column) and as a result can be packed for most adventures in 10 minutes or less.