Sooke to Port Renfrew: Modern-day explorers love Vancouver Island's southwest coast
Last updated September 3, 2008 11:47 a.m. PT
I'd heard about the Sheringham Point Lighthouse -- your classic red-and-white, dome-topped beacon -- and was determined to find it.
According to my map (with its minuscule lighthouse symbol), it was just north of the town of Sooke, B.C., near French Beach Park, along Highway 14 on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.
But several detours off the two-lane highway -- down dusty, deserted roads that drop to the ocean's edge -- failed to produce a sighting of the century-old lighthouse.
Other romantic-sounding spots such as Mystic Beach, Point No Point and Sombrio Beach -- even Gordon's Beach, popular with sunset-seekers -- proved almost as elusive.
Such is the lack of signs, doubtful mapping, dense rain forest or sheer secrecy (thanks, no doubt, to timber company rights), of the route from Sooke, at Vancouver Island's southern tip, 50 miles north to Port Renfrew and the end of the road.
"You have to ask -- at your B&B or wherever you're staying," said a local with a laugh when I complained to him about the troubles we'd had finding places on the map.
But then the challenge -- and rewards -- of discovery are part of the pleasure of travel.
From Sooke, 23 miles west of Victoria, to Port Renfrew, the highway roughly follows the shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula rising in the distance. Sometimes the road climbs inland, continues through forest, then dips to an unending series of rugged beaches.
While the ocean was placid in late summer, westerly winds can pack a wallop. And when tidal and wind conditions are just right, surfers -- with boards, sails, even surf-style kayaks -- are drawn to these beaches, particularly around Jordan River. In winter, storm watching is something of a sport here. In spring and fall, wildlife seekers come to see migrating whales pass close to shore.
After cappuccinos and cookies at The Stick in the Mud Coffee House (better known as "The Stick") on Eustace Road, just behind the Sooke strip mall, we headed north. A few miles along, we turned down a leafy byway to Flea Beach.
The only sign of humans on this crescent of hard sand, strewn with bull kelp, was a passing kayak. A hawk cruised overhead. A makeshift swing dangled from a tree limb. Far lovelier than its name suggests, Flea Beach was a promise of things to come.
Two provincial parks -- French Beach and Juan de Fuca -- dominate the lower reaches of Highway 14. Both offer miles of trails, and beaches that range from the family-oriented -- with picnic tables, running water and toilets -- to those accessible only by foot. Sea otters, seals and sea lions, bald eagles, ospreys and seabirds populate this territory. So do bears. Arbutus trees, with their smooth, cinnamon-colored bark, cling to the rocky outcrops, and salal grows 6 feet high.
Both parks provide individual wooded campsites (reservable and serviced) for tenting and trailers. French Beach is fully serviced mid-March through October. Camping continues through the winter, but without all the services (though some fees still apply).
Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, which encompasses China Beach and the 29-mile Juan de Fuca Marine (hiking) Trail, allows serviced camping mid-May to early September. Its wilderness campsites are accessible year-round.
Driving north, the smaller of the parks -- and the first up -- is French Beach. On a warm day, at the foot of an easy trail from the parking lot, beachgoers scatter along its mile of pebbles and sand. Children swim in what are, let's be honest, chilly waters. Like all the beaches on this coast, French Beach remains appealingly unkempt and storm-battered. A haphazardly assembled log structure suggests an overnight stay.
In nearby Jordan River, at the Chula Espresso & Juice Bar, a friendly roadster who knows the territory suggested that rather than ending our trip at Port Renfrew, we drive the newly opened Circle Route that continues eastward into the Cowichan Valley, then back south to Victoria and Sooke.
We said we'd think about it.
Back on the road, we ventured down to China Beach in Juan de Fuca Provincial Park, thousands of acres of pure wilderness along the outer coast. Juan de Fuca is best known for the trail that traverses above and along otherwise inaccessible beaches such as Mystic, Bear and Chin (not to be confused with China), and over innumerable mountain streams, many of which are strung with suspension bridges. The trail has half a dozen tent sites.
The 29-mile trail runs from China Beach to Botanical Beach, once a marine station for the University of Minnesota. Just beyond is Port Renfrew. But beware: this is no easy trek. While several trailheads make day-hikes possible, the full trail is a four- or five-day adventure. A map downloadable from the B.C. Parks Web site describes some stretches as "difficult" or "most difficult." The Web site also details conditions.
On the sunny patio the Port Renfrew Hotel -- with a plate of grilled bruchetta and cheese and a glass of lager at hand -- we watched two guys shout across the tables to fellow hikers: "Hey, you made it!"
They had all done the Juan de Fuca Trail in five days. Said Ernie Drvaric, a 50-pound backpack by his chair: "It was tough, but it was good."
Port Renfrew, which also is a starting point of the more famous West Coast Trail north through Pacific Rim National Park, is a backwoods of fishers, loggers and hikers at the end or beginning of their treks (or tethers). Budget motels and cabins cater to their needs. Cell phones are (mercifully) out of range of service.
When we learned that a few miles of the Circle Route east and south were yet to be paved, we headed back down Highway 14, over the single-lane bridges that punctuate the route's northern section. We detoured to the Sombrio Beach trailhead, and -- after a Herculean effort at both map and sign reading -- identified Gordon's Beach, a gorgeous expanse of stony foreshore in the district of Shirley.
Sitting among the driftwood and wild grasses, I spotted a small tower off to the north. Finally, like a mirage on the ocean, some miles away, I could see the Sheringham Point Lighthouse.
IF YOU GO
(All prices in approximate U.S. dollars)
PLACES TO STAY
Sooke Harbour House -- On Whiffen Spit in Sooke. Opened almost 30 years ago, this upscale hotel is for people interested in avant-garde arts and crafts, exceptional food and wine, perhaps the Slow Food Movement, and their connections with the environment. Each of 28 luxury rooms is one-of-a-kind. Dining is sophisticated. And this doesn't come cheap. In summer, rooms start at $410 in the shoulder seasons and at Christmas and New Year's, from $377; in late autumn and midwinter, from $276. 800-889-9688; sookeharbourhouse.com
Fossil Bay Resort -- On Highway 14, 15 miles north of Sooke and just before French Beach Provincial Park. Waterfront cottages have wood-burning fireplaces, full kitchens and outdoor hot tubs. Peak season stays of two nights or more start at $189. In other seasons, rates are lower. 250-646-2073; fossilbay.com
Port Renfrew Hotel -- Beautifully sited at the end of Highway 14 and entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Includes a restaurant with patio, pub, luxury cabins and full-equipped duplexes from $237, and rooms from $142. 250-647-5541; portrenfrewhotel.ca
For more than 30 other B&Bs in the Sooke region, visit sookebnb.com. Physical settings and accommodations vary widely, with rooms starting at $81.
"CASUAL ELEGANT" DINING:
Fuse Waterfront Grill -- 5449 Sooke Road; 250-642-0011; fusewaterfrontgrill.com
Stone Pipe Grill -- 2038 Otter Point Road; 250-642-0566; stonepipegrill.com
BURGERS, FAMILY MEALS:
Mom's Cafe -- 2036 Shields Road, Sooke; 250-642-3314; momscafe.ca
Mulligan's Bar & Grill -- 2197 Otter Point Road, Sooke; 250-642-2334
Little Vienna Bakery -- 6726 West Coast Road, Sooke; 250-642-6833; littlevienna.com
FRESH HONEY, EXOTIC BEVERAGES:
Tugwell Creek Honey Farm and Meadery -- 8750 West Coast Road (Highway 14); 250-642-1956; tugwellcreekfarm.com
Sooke Potholes Provincial Park -- A dramatic setting of rock cliffs, waterfalls and giant boulders wedged in the riverbed that create potholes ideal for swimming. For this, and the French and Juan de Fuca provincial parks, go to the Parks BC Web site, env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks
Adrena Line Zipline Adventure Tours -- Encompasses eight ziplines, as much as 150 feet high, and moving up to 40 mph. The facility, in 100 acres in the Sooke Hills, is accessed from the 17 Mile Pub on Highway 14. From $62. 866-947-9145; adrenalinezip.com
Galloping Goose Trail -- A popular cycling and hiking route (named for a historic gas railcar) of more than 37 miles. It runs from the Swartz Bay terminal, down the Saanich Peninsula to Victoria and west through Sooke Potholes Provincial Park to Sooke, through forest and along lakes and ocean. Part of the Trans-Canada Trail, it is well signed, and has washrooms and parking at regular intervals. gallopinggoosetrail.com
USEFUL WEB SITES:
Sooke Tourism -- 866-888-4748; sooketourism.bc.ca
Tourism Vancouver Island -- 250-754-3500; vancouverisland.travel
Tourism Victoria -- tourismvictoria.com
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