Driving slowly along the Wild Coast into the village of Port Renfrew
spread along the cliffs fronting San Juan Bay below, I follow the pavement to the government dock, where fish boats bob in the marina. I park and walk to the railing. A long thin snake of fog writhes its sinuous way into the harbour. This is it, the end of the road to which all restless travellers aspire. This is where the Wild Coast ends. Or is it the beginning?
Until I drove by a sign that pitches units for sale at Wild Coast Cottages, I ‘d never heard that phrase before. Wild Coast? I guess so. Nobody has an accurate count of how many ships have sunk off these savage shores. On the north edge of town commences the trail to the world famous West Coast Trail. To the south end of town, it’s the rugged Juan de Fuca Trail, both serious challenges for the intrepid trekker. Smack dab in the middle l find a village set to emerge on the world stage as an adventure travel destination.
A few short years ago the BC government paved the old logging road heading north from Port Renfrew to Lake Cowichan, formerly 60 kilometres of axle-busting hell, now open to the public and branded as the Circle Tour. This new route allows intrepid explorers to start in Nanaimo or Victoria and make a circumnavigation of little towns and villages, beaches and ocean, forest and lakes, wineries and farmers markets. The initial impact on the little town at the end of the road was slow. Now, however, with the opening of Wild Coast Cottages, word is getting around that there is actually a lot of high quality accommodation available in the village. No need to sleep in a tent or your RV. The spinoffs have been immediate.
It’s 39-cent chicken wing night at the Coastal Kitchen in the middle of the village. You need a reservation if you want a seat. Besides the wings, the menu serves up fresh seafood straight from the dock. I go for the halibut, pondering its future earlier that morning off the coast and now on my plate with a heaping pile of home fries and Caesar salad. My seat mate Bruce, in his sixties and healthy as a horse, has been kayaking around Vancouver Island every summer for 7 years. He’s been camping on the beach for 11 weeks now.
“It’s way too beautiful to leave,” he exclaims, devouring his meal. “You meet the most amazing people here. I might stay all summer.”
The Coastal Kitchen’s owners, Tom and Jesse Hicks, will head to their winter home in Mexico when the season ends in October. Business is so good they plan to sell. “It used to be so quiet here,” they say. “We like making the money, but we have little children and these days we are run off our feet.’
Surfers have been coming here for years, especially in the winter when the really wild waves hit. There are 30 to 40 charter boats out every day in the summer. Fishing for salmon and halibut is excellent. The opening of the Circle Route has brought European and Americans in their RVs, keen to explore world famous Botanical Beach and the nearby Walbran and Carmanah Valleys with their ancient groves of old growth forests. But there is something new in town.
“We are now seeing a lot of Europeans in rental cars, reserving well in advance, looking for something better than a bed and breakfast,” says Tim Cash showing one of the yurts and rooms in his luxury Soule Creek Lodge perched on a steep hill high above the village. A chef, he offers his guests world-class meals, usually seafood straight from the dock far below. “Now that there are quality places to stay, word is getting around.”
Everyone in town I meet admits that the opening of the Wild Coast Cottages development has been the main reason for the huge upsurge in business. Over 40 gorgeous one and two bedroom cottages perch high on a cliff overlooking the harbour, open for sale and rental. Walking up the hill to look at a few, I am greeted with a heart wave and hello by folks sitting in their front yards, chatting and barbequing. This, I think, is a subdivision with a difference.
West Coast Cottages have only been on the market a few years, and the development is far from complete, but the increase in the village’s population now supports 5 good restaurants. There’s a general store with wine and beer, or you can dine right on the dock at the Port Townsend Hotel on fresh seafood. At Tomi’s you can order hand-made sushi on Thursday nights. On weekends there’s real pizza cooked in an Italian bake oven at Salmonberries food truck parked at the marina.
Driving north, I pass by Avatar Grove with its gigantic fir trees, then stop to check out the huge Harris Creek Spruce standing over 100 metres high. The winding road is virtually empty save for motorcycles and the occasional intrepid cyclist. The Cowichan River is adrift with paddlers and floaters, and the Cowichan Valley now boasts over a dozen vineyards and wineries. I walk around the village of Cowichan Bay and stop by Cherry Point Winery to marvel at the amazing changes that have occurred since I was last here.
“They call it agri-tourism,” says chef and owner Bradford Boisvert, offering a tour of his bistro and tasting room. “This valley is one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
The ferry from Mill Bay back to the Saanich Peninsula proves that the Circle Tour is not complete without checking out the wineries and farmers markets that dot the farmlands of that beautiful peninsula. A journey to the end of the road is never complete until you end up where you first started.
If you go
Wild Coast Cottages
Toll free 1-855-RENFREW
Soule Creek Lodge
Cherry Point Winery
For real estate info in Port Renfrew, go to www.liveportrenfrew.com