Vancouver Island: Victoria to Port Renfrew

photo: Natural Bonsai at Botany Bay or Botanical Beach in Juan de Fuca Park near Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island

Natural bonsai tree on the rocks near Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island

I arrived at Victoria airport around 1930 Saturday night (May 9), picked up my rental car, and headed south on the Saanich peninsula of Vancouver Island. I took a round-about route to the hotel, and discovered that the peninsula, populated as it is, is thick with deer: I saw two wandering around on lawns and in parks in about an hour of driving in the early evening.

The Mayfair Hotel looks a bit like a dive on the outside (complete with garish neon), but lived up to its reviews: the furniture has a very 80s sensibility, but it's all new. The place is sparkling clean and the room was huge and reasonably quiet. In the morning I booked a second night with them - not consecutive though, one day later.

Sunday morning I drove out to Cadboro Bay where Do-Ming is visiting his friend Bill. Bill gave me some tips on the area, then Do-Ming and I headed out to the Mason Jar Eatery for breakfast. They're slow when they're busy, and the hash browns were barely warm, but the coffee was good and the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon was really excellent.

I delivered Do-Ming back to Bill's place, then headed for Port Renfrew. I stopped on the way at the Sooke Regional Museum, which also serves as their local tourist office. I asked a couple things about directions and the like, then I asked if they knew where I could get miniature argillite totem poles. The Art Gallery of Ontario has about 40 of them on display, and I adore them. I thought "I'm out here - I should at least ask if it's possible to get one." They said "well, actually, we have a piece ..." It was an Eagle's head with abalone insets for the eyes, not a totem pole, and it was reasonably cheap. It wasn't what I had initially been looking for, but it was pretty cool. I thought "I'll get it on the way back if I want it, that'll give me time to think about it ..." and then I remembered they were closed on Monday. And decided that the money really wasn't that much. So I'm now the slightly bemused but happy owner of a small argillite statue.

The road to Port Renfrew isn't terribly long, but it's very twisty and takes a while (71 km, Google Maps claims 1h22m). The last 30 km or so have the Juan de Fuca park on the coast side of the road and "Western Forest Products" owned land on the uphill side. I have a new slogan to suggest to them: "Our business is clear cut!"

Most of the time they leave a 20 metre facade of trees between the road and their slaughter - better for appearances, lets the visitors pretend it's not happening - but sometimes they just don't bother. "Replanting? What's that?"

I stopped somewhat at random to head down to Sombrio Beach, a part of Juan de Fuca Park. I was rudely reminded of my rental car contract: I'd had an email conversation with the manager before I arrived, and he said he thought gravel roads constituted "off roading" (which would void any insurance), but that park driveways should be fine. I guess he never saw this park driveway ... Over a kilometre of "paved" road that gave gravel roads a good name: it was a potholed horror. The walk to the beach gave a view of the forest: it was clear cut maybe 120 years ago - before "conservation" was a thing, before the park. There's lots and lots of growth now, but it's over tree stumps easily two metres in diameter. The beach was ... meh, just a gray grit curve populated by campers who were packing up to leave on this Sunday afternoon. And a couple surfers in full wet (dry?) suits.

Port Renfrew has a population of approximately 200 people [update: my guess was pretty accurate, what I can find online says about 150]. Apparently they have to drive to Sooke or Lake Cowichan to get gas. Sooke is an hour and a half away, and Lake Cowichan is an hour and a quarter ...

For some reason, the Trailhead Resort called to me when I was looking for a place to stay: it's a fishing lodge with cabins, with the whole tacky carved-log-cabin thing going on - complete with native figures carved into a couple porch supports - but I've stayed places like that before and thought it could be good. But ... $152 a room. I said "I'm sorry, that's more than I was wanting to pay." "How much were you thinking?" "Umm, low for you, but around $100?" "Okay." Seriously? Wow, I didn't know it was that negotiable ... I asked to check the room, and it's lovely, so that's where I am. Then I had to do tech support to help her figure out how to change the price on the computer! The restaurant I'm in for dinner, the waitress was saying this is just about their slowest season, so I guess that's why.

My next stop was "Avatar Grove," a place suggested by Bill. I haven't discovered the source of the name, but the area is managed by the private conservation group the Ancient Forest Alliance (no admission charge). [update: given the timing of the preservation efforts and the blue people in the rally photos, I'm about 99% certain the movie is the source of the name.] Old growth forest on the side of a steep hill: most of the walking is up or down, and all over an incredible tangle of roots. The trees vary in size but some of them are immense - again, two metres in diameter (but this time they weren't stumps). Cedar, Sitka Spruce, and Pine I think.

I went to Botanical Beach despite the tide being high, hiked the triangle trail there (down to the beaches, along, back up another track). I actually really like the beaches: rocky and jagged with mossy evergreens looming over them. There are two beaches, the other being "Botany Bay" (for a bit of gallows humour). But the tide was too high to see the tidal pools that Botanical Beach is famous for, so I'll return tomorrow. Low tide isn't until 1300, but I should be able to get a look before then. After that, it's back to Victoria by way of Sooke Potholes Park.

I asked the woman at my hotel where I should eat, and she explained there were only two choices: Coastal Kitchen - which closed at 1700 - and the Renfrew Resort at the end of the street. I got there at 1950, and the kitchen was closing at 2000: the only thing they'd serve was salads or stuff from the fryer. I had fish and chips - fortunately, they knew exactly what they were doing with that. Local Ling Cod, very good, and a weird but actually very tasty coleslaw. I also had a local High Trail Honey Lager, which was good.

One of the first things I discovered on arrival in BC was that my camera wouldn't retain the date. When I switched it on, it would be back in 2008 and asking me to set the date. It got kind of old - I switch the camera on dozens of times a day when I'm travelling. So I switched to the backup camera ... and it was doing the same thing. Do-Ming and I talked about it and he suggested they might have a "BIOS battery" the same as a computer. While it sounded improbable to me, he was entirely correct: these things carry a button battery which has one job only: keep the date. The one in the SX10is is a CR1220 that I almost certainly can't buy in Port Renfrew, but which should be easy to find in Victoria. Canon made that one "user serviceable," but the instructions for the backup camera (an SX150) says only to take it to a Canon representative. Yeah, a four year old low-end camera? Maybe not.