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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Strait talk on south Vancouver Island: On the trail for surf and seaweed

By Gregory Scruggs Seattle Times

SOOKE, B.C. — My morning started with a panoramic view of the Olympic Mountains and a jazz soundtrack from KNKX. The clue that this scene wasn’t in Seattle? The Sunday paper splashed across my breakfast table was Victoria’s daily, the Times Colonist.

Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Vancouver Island offers a fresh perspective on familiar vistas — like gazing south, rather than west, toward the Olympics — and a grandiose version of that treasured Pacific Northwest landscape where forested mountains crash into craggy coastlines.

Sooke is a small town 24 miles west of Victoria, but the short distance belies the remote feel once you leave the summertime surge of tour buses that throng Butchart Gardens and Craigdarroch Castle. The town is an ideal jumping-off point for a long weekend to wander the trails, beaches, swimming holes and locavore delights along the strait to Port Renfrew.

Along the way you’re liable to meet around-the-world adventurers, seaweed harvesters, hippie surfers, ancient forest defenders and engineers moonlighting as baristas — in short, anyone looking for a taste of the wild life on Canada’s West Coast.

Craving a taste yourself? Here are some tips to get you started.

Getting there and getting settled

The MV Coho sails four times daily over the summer from Port Angeles to Victoria (vehicle and driver $74 one-way). I saw adventure vehicles with Swiss and Australian license plates and decals boasting an around-the-world tour. BC Ferries sails from Tsawwassen, just north of the Blaine border crossing, 15 times daily to Swartz Bay, 19 miles north of Victoria (CA$50.20-$89.65 one-way). As of press time, Washington State Ferries has yet to resume service from Anacortes to Sidney, B.C.

You’ll need a vehicle to explore the coastline west of Sooke, but car-free travelers can also get a truncated version of this trip. If you walk on the MV Coho or take the passenger-only Victoria Clipper from Seattle, catch BC Transit Routes 61 or 64 to Sooke and use Route 63 to get around Sooke, including Whiffin Spit. Route 64 includes stops in East Sooke Regional Park. All fares CA$2.50. The crushed gravel Galloping Goose Regional Trail runs a meandering 37 miles from Victoria to Sooke, terminating in Sooke Potholes Regional Park. Bringing a bike along will make it much easier to explore the natural beauty around Sooke than relying solely on foot and bus.

Sooke lodging consists mostly of cottages, suites, cabins and guesthouses. My family of three rented a new two-bedroom suite for $105 per night. In addition to short-term rental platforms, check the larger set of listings at Sooke Harbour Resort & Marina and Sooke Point Ocean Cottage Resort.

Camping is abundant along the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with beachfront sites available at Jordan River, French Beach and China Beach. If the beaches are full, both Fairy Lake and Lizard Lake are just a short inland drive from Port Renfrew. Make reservations at Alternatively, try Sooke Potholes Regional Park, a forested campground managed by the T’Sou-ke Nation at the end of a popular trail of swimming holes. Campsites are first come, first served at CA$25 per night, cash only. Sooke Potholes is also the only trailhead along the Sooke-Port Renfrew corridor with a user fee. Parking machines charge CA$2.25 for all-day access.

From sea to shining sea

If you’re looking for an adorable seaside town with a handsome main street, you’re in the wrong place. Stay on the Washington side of the strait and go to Port Townsend instead. Sooke’s commercial district isn’t much more than a roundabout ringed by two grocery stores, a pharmacy, two cannabis shops, a bakery, a coffee shop and a curiously busy McDonald’s.

But from that roundabout you’re less than 15 minutes by car to a lush assortment of walks, hikes, rides, swims and paddles. Get oriented atop 1,791-foot Mount Manuel Quimper, whose namesake labeled much of the strait (Washington’s Quimper Peninsula also bears his moniker). The hike starts from the Sea to Sea Regional Park, which has 35 miles of well-marked trails, including a selection of advanced mountain bike-only downhill trails.

Hiking up the Quimper Summit Trail, then down via the Quimper Connector and Sooke Mountain trails, totaled just over 6 miles and 1,650 vertical feet. At the summit, the last remaining fire lookout in southern Vancouver Island greets you with plenty of room to spread out a trail lunch while enjoying a vista that stretches from Victoria to the nooks and crannies of Sooke Harbour and Basin down below, a sheltered anchorage that defines the local geography.

Back at sea level, get acquainted with Sooke’s seaside at Whiffin Spit. This flat, 1.5-mile round-trip walk on a wide, crushed gravel path follows the finger of land that shelters Sooke Harbour from the Pacific storms that lash the open water. There are unobstructed views across the strait in one direction and a vantage point back onto Sooke’s waterfront mix of boats and cottages in the other. At the end, a driftwood fort flies the Maple Leaf flag like a Canadian version of “Cast Away.”

Wild coast wonders

Head the opposite direction of Victoria’s golf courses and make your way west on Highway 14. You’ll pass signs tempting you to a dozen different beaches, but for a day trip from Sooke, I recommend pushing 44 miles to the end of the line, then working backward and making stops along the way.

The end of the line is Port Renfrew, known as the Tall Tree Capital of Canada. More recently, this humble hamlet became the gateway to the Fairy Creek protest to save the last remaining unprotected stand of old-growth rainforest on southern Vancouver Island, now the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history. Today the protest site is quiet. Two guards politely shooed me away from the logging road that leads up the Fairy Creek drainage.

Old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest are a natural wonder easily appreciated at Avatar Grove, the English name for what the Pacheedaht First Nation call T’l’oqwxwat, a wonderland of magnificent old-growth specimens. Unfortunately, due to erosion from the exceptionally wet winter, access is closed likely until fall 2022.

Port Renfrew sits at the elbow of southern Vancouver Island, where Highway 14 turns inland. What lies off the road is the real attraction. Port Renfrew is one end of the fabled West Coast Trail that heads north into Pacific Rim National Park.

For a similar flavor without the eight- to 10-day commitment, point toward Botanical Beach on the outskirts of town. This outcropping is the farthest west you can go along the strait to a vehicle-accessible trailhead. The Botanical Loop Trail takes you down to the beach and back over 1.5 miles through a thick rainforest canopy.

Go at low tide for a tidepool wonderland as well as seaweed and kelp galore. I took a nibble, inspired by marine biologist Amanda Swinimer, proprietor of wild seaweed purveyor Dakini Tidal Wilds and author of “The Science and Spirit of Seaweed: Discovering Food, Medicine and Purpose in the Kelp Forests of the Pacific Northwest.”

“Seaweed can taste different based on how sheltered or exposed a coastline is,” she told me. Like many Canadians, Swinimer made a westward migration with her heart set on idyllic Tofino, but even 20 years ago she couldn’t find a place to rent — the housing situation is much more dire now — and she settled down in Sooke instead.

“I wanted to have the surf handy, and as the crow flies, it’s not that far south [of Tofino],” she said. “I started harvesting a local seaweed called winged kelp and I fell in love. Wild harvesting combined with my passion for the ocean brought these two things together.”

The surf scene that drew Swinimer is easiest to spot at Sombrio Beach, about one-third of the way back to Sooke from Port Renfrew, where a gentle half-mile gravel path leads down to the beach. No wet suit? No problem. The long stretch of pebbles is a beachcomber’s delight.

Sombrio Beach is also widely considered the easiest-to-reach backcountry camping spot in British Columbia (CA$10 per person per night). Even on a Monday with mediocre weather, there were a half-dozen tents. The campers making backpacker meals rather than reaching into a heavy cooler are likely thru-hiking the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail, a challenging 29-mile trek along coastal wilderness.

I opted to sit on the beach and savor the view, where I could make out the familiar contour of Cape Flattery at the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. The Washington peninsula and Vancouver Island may be separated by an international border, but they are unquestionably joined by the strait.

Things to eat, drink and do

Perk up at Kaffeewagen, a 1969 Volkswagen bus serving espresso drinks with Port Renfrew-roasted Beach Camp Coffee Co. Co-owner Paul Mahler works as an engineer in Victoria during the week but spends his weekends pulling shots. The bus parks in a lot shared by Seek & Surf and Fuca Cycles. Both shops are sales and service only. For kayak, bike and stand-up paddleboard rentals, head to West Coast Outdoor Adventure. You can get your feet wet with Swinimer, who offers 90-minute seaweed tours at local beaches (CA$70).

For breakfast, arrive early at Shirley Delicious, an A-frame tucked into the woods with a generous heated patio decorated with fanciful, wildlife-themed metalwork. Owner Sheena Mercer warned that summer lineups start by 8 a.m. for signature sausage rolls, a rotating cast of muffins and scratch breakfast dishes with local ingredients. The veggie hash (CA$14) was a winner.

Coastal Kitchen Cafe in Port Renfrew opens at 4:30 a.m. to serve the fishing crowd. By lunchtime, this popular Wi-Fi hot spot in a region with spotty cell service serves up scrumptious housemade sandwiches (from CA$13).

Download whatever maps you need, or pick up a paper map from the friendly staff at the Sooke Region Museum & Visitor Centre. Charmingly old-school dioramas and exhibits share First Nations heritage and settler history, while outside you can marvel at the effort it took to relocate Triangle Island Lighthouse to the front lawn.

After a hike up Mount Manuel Quimper or a beach day in East Sooke Regional Park — set off from Aylard Farm to find a sandy beach or scamper up to Creyke Point for wildlife spotting — a flight of four 5-ounce pours awaits at Sooke Brewing Company (CA$9.50).

For dinner, snag a reservation at Wild Mountain, an exquisite seasonal kitchen with a casual atmosphere. Quench your thirst with inventive house cocktails (gin fizz with rhubarb, CA$8.50) and B.C. wines by the glass (Farm Fresh Foch, CA$11), then tuck into asparagus soup with lamb bacon (CA$14), pork belly and spot prawns (CA$20) and wood-fired pizzas (CA$21). The raspberry-laced chocolate pudding (CA$15) is a worthy finish.