Soothing Sooke is perfect for light adventure

by Carol Pucci

"Hi Carol. Gone for groceries," said the note tacked to the front door at Ocean Wilderness Inn. "Coffee at your door at 8:30 a.m. Breakfast in the dining room at 9."

The table near an old stone fireplace was already set with English china and a lace tablecloth, but it was the collection of silver tea and coffee pots on a shelf near the kitchen that convinced me we had made the right choice for exploring Southern Vancouver Island.

We had planned on staying just two days, but getting here from Seattle took longer than we thought — six hours including driving time, waits at the border and a 90-minute ferry crossing.

Enticed by the idea of relaxing in our room over coffee, a view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and Olympic mountains out our window, we didn't even bother to unpack before deciding to book another night.

From the start, I knew my ideal Vancouver Island weekend would fall somewhere in between a stay in a luxury hotel such as the Empress in Victoria and my colleague Brian Cantwell's RV retreat to remote Port Renfrew.

My husband and I are urban bikers and hikers. If someone describes a trail as "well-maintained," that's for us. Our camping days are mostly behind us, but big hotels aren't our style, either. At the end of a day outdoors, give us a cozy B&B and a dinner cooked by someone else.

Forty-five minutes west of Victoria, the Sooke area is ideal for lightweight adventurers such as us.

There's a network of accessible regional and provincial parks, bike baths and beaches, some with wheelchair access and all reachable along paved roads. The area boasts a handful of good restaurants, dozens of artists' workshops and galleries and about 70 well-appointed B&Bs and small inns ranging from rooms in private homes to farms and historical houses.

Fourteen years ago when Marion Rolston bought her property, then a two-room log cabin on five acres of old-growth rainforest, Sooke was a haven for hippies and commercial fishermen. There were just a dozen or so places to stay. The best-known was the Sooke Harbour House, a country inn known for its gourmet restaurant and organic herb and edible-flower gardens.

Rolston created Ocean Wilderness, a secluded nine-room retreat eight miles from Sooke village on the West Coast Road, the two-lane coastal road that leads to Point Renfrew about 40 miles west.

Had it been raining, we might have been tempted to stay here all weekend. Set in an English garden surrounded by old-growth rain forest, the inn has access to an isolated beach populated by seals and bald eagles. Our room was stocked with books, playing cards, candles, a mini-fridge and a corkscrew. The hot tub, enclosed in a Japanese-style gazebo, was a few steps from our patio, and Marion will book massages, mud and seaweed treatments and body wraps by appointment.

But the sun was up and the birds were singing when the coffee arrived at our door in the morning. After a breakfast of homemade cinnamon rolls, eggs, fruit and French toast, we headed off to rent mountain bikes at Sooke Cycle and Surf.

Tagging along with us were Kevin Joyner and his daughter Vanna Waldron. They had arrived at Ocean Wilderness from Seattle via the Victoria Clipper, a bus and taxi. It seemed to me that you needed a car to explore this part of Vancouver Island. But Joyner and his daughter were making do, hitching rides, and one night, walking an hour to a restaurant for dinner.

Our biking destination was the western leg of the Galloping Goose Trail, a 62-mile former railway line that stretches from the abandoned mining town of Leechtown near Sooke, through Victoria to Swartz Bay at the north end of the island.

Wending our way through forested areas along the Sooke River, we pedaled on the wide gravel trail across wooden trestles and stopped for a short hike to Potholes Provincial Park. The potholes here are not ruts in the road, but natural swimming pools carved out of the rock by the rushing waters of the Sooke River.

This section of the trail is level all the way, and it was an easy three-hour ride that nonetheless left us starving for lunch by 2 p.m.

"We've got a lot of options out here from the world-famous Sooke Harbour House to McDonald's and everything in between," Marion had told us at breakfast.

The Sooke Harbour House is an elegant restaurant in a beautiful setting and a destination for many. But a meal there the night before left us feeling disappointed. It took more time to read the lengthy descriptions of dishes than to consume the tiny portions, and the timing between courses crossed the line from relaxed to painfully slow. We were ready for something in between.

The man at the bike-rental shop suggested Shakies, a weathered snack bar near the Jordan River, a surfing and wind-surfing beach on Highway 14 about 20 miles from Sooke. Sitting at a red picnic table in our jackets, we lunched on $3 oyster burgers and drank in the fresh beach air.

Later that night, we snagged a window table at Point-No-Point Resort, a cozy restaurant in a glass-enclosed porch perched high on a bluff overlooking the straits.

The owners thoughtfully place a pair of binoculars on each table, and we used them to spot the lights of Sekiu across the water on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. The seared halibut with black-olive tapenade and the roasted beef satisfied our appetites and the atmosphere soothed our souls.

Rain was in the forecast for the next day, but the weather held long enough for us to squeeze in a hike in East Sooke Regional Park, a 3,512-acre wilderness area with beach and rain-forest access suited to light day-hiking.

At the Pike Road entrance, we followed an easy logging road path thick with Douglas fir, mosses, ferns and bright yellow skunk cabbages to Iron Mine Bay, then hiked for a while on the East Sooke Coast Trail, a six-mile path.

Walking the entire trail can take six to seven hours, but with rain threatening, we followed it for just mile or so before heading back. Our rain plan called for taking a self-guided tour of artists' workshops marked on a map we picked up at the tourist office.

We called a blacksmith and a craftsman who makes drums. Neither was home, and we had better luck just stopping wherever we saw a shingle.

Spotting a hand-lettered "Crafts" sign tacked to a tree on Highway 14, we turned off onto a steep gravel driveway and followed a sign that said "Art with Teeth." At the top of the drive, we found Brian Sawyer inside his A-frame house.

Sawyer, 62, spends his days making hand-carved combs out of exotic woods such as yellow cypress and maple burl.

So far, he's come up with 30 styles of combs and picks, each one named after the first person who buys one. "This one's Lorain," he told us. "This one's Henry. That's Lila." All are handmade without machinery, and each one takes three days, one day just for the teeth.

A hard rain was falling by the time we said goodbye. Afternoon tea seemed like a good idea, and we knew exactly where we would go.

Point-No-Point transforms its dining room into an English tea salon each afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Tables are set with steaming pots of tea and platters of scones, finger sandwiches, carrot cake, fresh fruit and berry crumbles.

"Would you like to share?" our waitress asked. "It's plenty enough for two."

It wasn't the Empress, and we were glad. At $13 ($8.25 U.S.) this was a bargain. As we watched the skies darken and the whitecaps forming, we couldn't imagine wanting to be anywhere else.

Contact Carol Pucci at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com.

Copyright The Seattle Times Company

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