Have you ever visited a place a handful of times only to later discover that you had barely discovered it at all? For me, this came to light after a trip around the Pacific Marine Circle Route on southern Vancouver Island, a place I have visited many times over the years. Previous trips had always been centred around visits to Victoria, a city I adore, and Nanaimo. Turns out, along the way I was passing by some incredible sites. From wineries to ancient trees to high-end sports cars, it took an epic road trip to discover more.
This is my experience road tripping around the Pacific Marine Circle route.
What is the Pacific Marine Circle Route?
Dubbed as “the ultimate road trip – west coast style,” the Pacific Marine Circle Route is a 300 Kilometer loop through southern Vancouver Island’s prettiest parts. Along the way, you pass everything from beaches to breweries and lakes lined with 500-year-old trees. There are wineries and distilleries, unique accommodation options, and tasty eateries to keep you fueled along the way. Clear days bring stunning views of the Olympic Mountains and typical “wet coast” days provide an experience only found in the Pacific Northwest.
On my three day trip around the Pacific Marine Circle Route, I saw everything from summertime sunshine to a dump of snow – each day bringing a different flavour to the journey.
And all of this conveniently begins (and ends) in the seaside town of Sidney.
Sidney, Cider, and Sunsets
I don’t know how many times I have passed by Sidney, never once popping in to say hello. With the Pacific Marine Circle Route starting and ending here I decided to make the two-minute detour off the highway. Turns out, all these years I had missed out on this sleepy seaside town.
See: Sidney by the sea
Coffee in hand from local favourite George’s Café and Deli, we set out for a short stroll along the waterfront. Sidenote: George’s Café is straight out of the Jetson’s. They deliver sandwiches from the kitchen to counter via tube system. Turns out the future is in Sidney BC.
Sidney comes to a head at the waterfront, highlighted by the Sidney Pier Hotel and Spa, an affordable an inexpensive luxury getaway for many mainlanders. The area is home to plenty of things to see and do. The Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea is a great little aquarium. If the small size leaves you curious and wanting more, Sidney has you covered. Whale watching and scuba diving expeditions are a stone’s throw away, as is the local fish market on the pier.
After sorting through the shiny and smooth gems of Sea Glass Beach, we continued along the boardwalk taking in the public art before ending up at Victoria Distillers. Thankfully we were too early for a tasting. This was for the best as we were only 5 km into the Pacific Marine Circle Route and I had some driving to do. Still, another reason to return to this not so out-of-the-way destination.
See: Malahat and the Cowichan Valley
What I had only known as the stretch of Highway 1 where traffic comes to a halt but “hey that’s OK because the views are great,” turns out to be so much more. If you venture off the highway you will be rewarded with lakeside hiking trails, posh accommodations, and oh-so-many many wineries.
Eat & Drink: Merridale Cidery & Distillery
We didn’t stop at a winery but we did get to experience Merridale Cidery & Distillery. Although I personally have not jumped on the cider trend that is happening right now, I finally understood it after visiting Merridale. The tasting of craft made ciders was great (hello Scrumpy!) but really, I could’ve been swayed by the surroundings. Merridale is so much more than a place to squeeze apples. Situated on a beautiful farm that pushes fresh and local, Merridale is also a small hotel, a distillery, and a restaurant/bar. You can wander the grounds on a self-guided tour or, better yet, take a prepared-with-love “little red wagon” picnic basket with you.
I could’ve also been swayed on cider by the company it keeps. Over a charcuterie board that featured local meats and cheeses, owner and passionate Vancouver Islander Janet Docherty shared everything from her love of the Cowichan Valley to politics and the pretentiousness of some wineries.
Clearly, there is nothing pretentious about Merridale or its staff. Janet is someone you can kill an hour with just talking over house-crafted cocktails. She is also married to the man responsible for loosening the provinces stranglehold on wineries and distilleries so their contributions to the industry go far beyond their Vancouver Island farm.
After a tour of the property and some cider to go, we asked for a sunset recommendation. Janets replied with the Villa Eyrie, which just so happens to be our stop for the night. Perfect.
Sleep: Villa Eyrie
Perched high above the Malahat, Villa Eyrie looms large but in a surprisingly discreet way. As we drove up the switchback driveway and saw the size of the resort I once again questioned how I could have possibly missed it all these years. Originally opened in 1991 as an opulent escape, the property shut its doors in 2009 after failing to truly do its unique location justice. It wasn’t until the GAIN Group purchased and renovated the property did it truly stand out. Today, it’s grand stature and sweeping 180-degree views remains, however, rooms and amenities have been updated.
Located just 30-minutes from downtown Victoria, the on-site spa and mineral pool make the Villa Eyrie an accessible retreat. As I would later find out, the Villa Eyrie has another trick up its sleeve, making it appealing to a completely different crowd.
Race Cars, Rain Forests, and Renfrew
As I pulled back the curtain to take in the morning views I was met with a sea of white. Turns out Villa Eyrie is just high enough on the Malahat summit to turn all that Pacific Northwest rain into snow. Thankfully it did not put a damper on my next event, ripping around a race track in a souped-up sports car.
Do: Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit
Vancouver Island Motorsport Circuit is a one-of-a-kind experience with a one-of-a-kind partnership. Owned by the GAIN Group, the very same as Villa Eyrie, guests of the hotel often split their time behind between laps in the mineral pool and laps on the racetrack. Although semi-exclusive, the Vancouver Island Motorsports Circuit is open to the public and offers visitors a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can take your own vehicle for a spin around this unique track or sit shotgun in a race car with a professional driver. My time on the track was with the latter.
Five laps around the circuit in a Porsche Cayman S is something that truly has to be felt to appreciate. Now I’m no stranger to high-speed fun. I have looped and spun in a World War II biplane over New Zealand and got up close with Red Bull’s collection of extreme machines in Austria. This, however, was something else.
- The force on your body is crazy, even on my slower wet day visit.
- There’s no way I wouldn’t have crashed my own ride.
- There is such a thing as sea legs on land.
See: Lake Cowichan
Using every fibre of my being not to attempt drifting around the corners, our Pacific Marine Circle Route continued by taking us into the interior of the island. This is where the natural beauty of the region really takes shape. Think crisp lakes lined with green mountains and inviting rivers, even on this freshly snowed day.
To shake off the adrenaline from my race and to experience the region beyond the road we took a stroll along the Cowichan River Provincial Park. A part of the Trans Canada Trail, it’s tall trees and river runoff was only highlighted by the dusting of snow.
Although sleepy in the winter, Lake Cowichan was a good pit stop to have pints at the Riverside Inn before taking a stroll along the floating walkway of Cowichan Lake.
It is easy to imagine the place alive with summertime activities. Boating, canoeing, and river floats are local favourite pastimes. As is spotting Stin Qua,” the Locness Monster’s Canuck cousin. Truth time, I totally spotted this lake creature. How do I know? Because I saw an odd shape that I thought was a log, disappear with the movement of a fish after I stared at it for too long. True story. I didn’t even know Stin Qua was a thing until after my sighting.
I’m not crazy.
See: Port Renfrew
No matter which direction you choose to take the Pacific Marine Circle Route from Sidney, Port Renfrew is your halfway reward. Although completely new to me opposed to something I have passed by, Port Renfrew is, in itself, a tucked away highlight that is easy to love. It is the kickoff point for the world-famous West Coast Trail, boasts some diverse beaches, and is incredibly laid-back. You won’t find cell coverage here which leads you to enjoy the beautiful surroundings unconnected and uninterrupted. This truly is as refreshing as it sounds.
Port Renfrew also gave me one heck of a show at sundown.
Sleep: Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages
Yes, Port Renfrew is a stunner. It is also incredibly friendly – a place where everyone knows your name and locals go out of their way to make you feel at home. Thankfully for me, home in Port Renfrew was the uniquely located Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages which required zero help to make me feel any more welcome than I already did.
Perched on the government wharf on one side and overlooking a private beach on the other, Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages are about as Renfrew as it gets, except for maybe the wireless internet connection.
Eat and Drink: The Renfrew Pub
As if the cosy cottage with modern amenities in a pristine location wasn’t enough, Wild Renfrew is also steps from the one and only Renfrew Pub. I say one-and-only as it is both one of a kind and it is literally the only pub in town. We arrived with cribbage board in hand (because Canada) and found the bar alive with visitors and locals.
Although the Renfrew Pub serves up BC craft beers and awesome food, it is, again, the locals that make the place great. More than one person came over to say hi and comment on my terrible cribbage hands, all said welcome to Renfrew and gave their take on their quiet piece of paradise on the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
Do: Avatar Grove
After some straight up home cooking from Tomi’s, we hit the hills for my personal highlight of my time on the Pacific Marine Circle Route – Avatar Grove.
Home to “Canada’s gnarliest tree,“ Avatar Grove is so much more than massive trees with old world growth. Wild Renfrew GM and straight up tree-whisperer Sheenah Duclos took us on an educated walk through the woods…and what an education it was. From the ancient coming of age Pacheedaht first nation rituals to differentiating between wood and super hard mushrooms, Sheenah covered it.
Divided into an upper and lower trail, Avatar Grove is considered Port Renfrew‘s Cathedral Grove. With trees dating back 500+ years, it is more of a walk-through time than through the woods. These pristine walking trails were only recently set up by the Ancient Forest Alliance (which is exactly what it sounds like it is) and have quickly become a highlight for the region.
It’s easy to see why.
Beaches, Potholes, and Akvavit
See: Sandcut Beach
Neck strained from towering timbers, we said our goodbyes to Port Renfrew and hit the road. Port Renfrew to Sooke is arguably the most scenic section of the Pacific Marine Circle Route. Much of the West Coast Road takes you high above the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, thanks to some unfortunate clearcutting close to the road, views are obstructed across to the Olympic Mountains.
Once you descend to the shore you will find several hiking trails and beaches to explore. Taking a recco from Sheenah, we stopped at Sandcut Beach. After a beautiful 10-minute hike through the woods, you are rewarded with a rocky beach scattered with driftwood and views of the Olympic Mountains. Although that is nothing to scoff at, the true draw of Sandcut Beach is a small double waterfall.
Well done Vancouver Island, well done.
Drink: Sheringham Distillery
Post waterfall hike we made a slight detour all because of a roadside sign advertising a distillery. Why not? This Pacific Marine Circle Route is all about seeing what’s behind door number two. A 5-minute drive off the highway we were at Sheringham Distillery sipping craft gin and award-winning Akvavit paired with some great views.
Turns out this detour won’t be required for long as Sheringham’s is setting up shop in Sooke.
Eat: Shirley Delicious
$80 worth of made-with-love gin and vodka later, we found ourselves back on track. Although not hungry, a stop at Shirley Delicious is must no matter which direction you do the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
Besides being a surprisingly happening spot, Shirley Delicious serves up unique coffee creations (hello mexi-latte, made with real Mexican vanilla) and incredibly tasty sandwiches. Highly recommend.
See: Whiffen Spit & The Sooke Potholes
Racing against a setting sun we hit Sooke’s two most unique natural highlights, the Whiffen Spit and Sooke Potholes.
Stretching deep through the bay, Whiffin Spit is a natural breakwater which offers a unique stroll. Popular with local dog walkers and curious tourists, it is a 30-minute leisurely walk to the tip. Along the way, you can spot everything from seals and seabirds to grazing deer and nesting ducks.
Although no secret, a visit to the Sooke Potholes is a must when visiting in the summer months. Soak in the natural occurring pools or take in the views from high above.
With daylight fading, we hit the road for the homestretch, stopping at the gas station adjacent to Sooke Oceanside Brewery for a quick flight. Sooke seriously deserves more time and should be noted for your trip around the Pacific Marine Route. My loss is your gain.
Tea, Tugboats, and Baby Goats
Since I have been to Victoria several times, (it truly is one of my favourite cities in Canada!) I decided to view it through the out-of-the-way-yet-in-front-of-your-eyes approach I learned to love on the Pacific Marine Circle Route. This all started at the Inn at Laurel Point, a beautiful hotel quietly tucked away yet close to it all.
Sleep: Inn at Laurel Point
The Inn at Laurel Point is many things. Besides offering spacious and modern suites to comfortably call Victoria home, this waterfront hotel truly is a retreat within the city. Views from the large Erickson wing balconies are never dull. With tiny tugboats to passenger ferries (like the V2V Empress) to seaplanes landing at your front door, I could seriously return to Victoria just to enjoy the unique action of the Victoria harbour.
The hotel is also a museum of sorts. With the hotel owners personal collection on full display, wandering its halls and grounds is unlike any other hotel I have stayed in.
Then there is the Japanese garden lining the back side…
See: Fisherman‘s Wharf
From the Japanese garden, I continued along the seawall to Fisherman’s Wharf. Although it is by no means hidden or out-of-the-way, especially if you visit Victoria on a cruise ship, I had never been. To my surprise, this colourful group of floating homes also includes shops and restaurants as well as a dock for the colourful water taxis making it an appealing stroll.
Do: Beacon Hill Petting Zoo
After stopping for coffee to go from the brunch favourite Nourish Kitchen & Café, we continued on to Beacon Hill Park. Although there is no shortage of flowers to smell or trails to explore, the real draw, for me and any other child at heart at least, is its goats.
The Beacon Hill Children’s Farm is a petting zoo that is sure to put a smile on your face. From Vietnamese potbelly pigs to chicken sporting pom-poms on their heads, this place is great. Our timing aligned with baby goats and lambs making baby goat and baby lamb sounds.
Eat: Abkhazi Garden
With calluses on hands and our welcome worn out we left the goats to do a very Victorian thing – enjoy afternoon tea. I have had afternoon tea in Victoria before so with this in mind I looked for a place a little out-of-the-way and a lot unique. The Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden met the criteria and then some.
Seemingly hidden in the Gonzales neighbourhood, The Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden offers guests a perfectly Victorian afternoon tea ambience in a one of a kind place. Former home to the last prince of Abkhazia, the story of how this place came to be is the stuff of romance novels.
In a nutshell, girl meets boy in Paris. Boy turns out to be a prince in exile. Girl, adopted by a vagabonding socialite, kept in contact with boy. Both boy and girl survive World War II in captivity and reunite in New York, marry, and settle in Victoria. There the Prince and Princess set their roots, building the wonderful gardens that are now free for all to enjoy.
Yes, tea at the Abkhazi Garden is truly unique.
Even though I was full up on my caffeine intake for the day I wanted to seek out a hip coffee shop that was new to me. I landed at Habit and it did not disappoint. Bonus, it is next to Fan Tan Alley, a Chinatown gem I only discovered on my last visit while on a Taste of Victoria Food Tour.
Coffee in hand I took one last stroll through North America’s second oldest Chinatown before saying goodbye to Victoria and the Pacific Marine Route.
Pacific Marine Circle Route Wrapped
As I boarded our BC Ferry back to the mainland I thought back on the blur that was my time on the Pacific Marine Circle Route. I truly packed a ton in with most of it just out of sight from the dozen or so previous visits to the area. Still, I only scratched the surface leaving me to wonder “what else is hidden in plain sight?”
Beyond the natural beauty of Vancouver Island, that is the beauty of the Pacific Marine Circle Route. There is always something new to explore, no matter how you tackle it. So on your next road trip, be it Vancouver Island or not, get off the major route. Explore and experience what is not-so-far-off the beaten trail. You will be surprised at what you find.
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My time road tripping around the Pacific Marine Circle Route was made possible by a Tourism Victoria.
As always, the experience, opinions, and new discoveries are my own.