The ocean views from in and around Port Renfrew, from the town to the shores of Botanical Beach, make for a magical and photo-worthy visit to this West Coast community. Photo by Tess van Straaten

TESS VAN STRAATEN: Taking a Walk on the Wild Side

Monday’s intrepid adventure columnist tests the waters of Port Renfrew

Tess van Straaten

Monday Magazine columnist

From towering trees to breathtaking, wind-swept beaches, southern Vancouver Island’s wild west coast is just a short drive from the city and yet a million miles away.

“It’s amazing that being so close to Victoria that you can feel so far and disconnected from normal day-to-day life,” says Wild Renfrew co-owner Ian Laing, who took over the iconic Renfrew Pub and waterfront cottages a few years ago. “Renfrew is a special place — the quaintness of the town and the rugged nature of the area really make it special.”

After checking into our perfectly-appointed, two-bedroom cottage perched on a rocky outcropping beside the pier, I’m about to discover just how special Port Renfrew is on our first hike. We’re at Botanical Beach and after an easy walk through the woods, we’re exploring the soft sandstone ledges that form the beach when my son yells, “Look, mom! A bear!”

At first, I think he’s joking — my kids like to try and scare me — so I keep walking. And then he yells at me and his little brother again. “No, seriously, there is a bear RIGHT THERE!”

We turn around and just a few metres behind us, a black bear is sauntering along the sandstone. It’s low tide and the bear, no doubt having just had a snack at the water’s edge, is walking back towards the beach. Fortunately, he’s walking away from us and we watch as about a dozen people on the beach start to back away. Yes, it’s just another day in Port Renfrew.

After we get over the excitement of our bear encounter, we make our way along the sandstone ledges, exploring the unusual tidal pools that have been carved from wave-tossed boulders and sea urchins grinding out pockets in the rock. They’re unlike any I’ve ever seen and they remind me of the colourful geyser pools at Yellowstone — but without the bubbling water.

The tidal pools at Port Renfrew offer plenty of interesting sea life to inspect, for young and not so young visitors alike. Photo by Tess van Straaten

We continue to hike along the ocean and the changing landscape in Botanical Beach Provincial Park, as the sandstone gives way to ridges of shale and quartz jutting up vertically through black basalt, until we reach Botany Bay and head back into the forest on the Botanical Beach trail loop.

It’s raw nature at its best and it’s about to get even better.

Our next stop is Avatar Grove, a magical 50-hectare woodland of old-growth forest that’s about a 20-minute drive north of town. With towering western red cedars and Douglas firs, it’s home to some of the tallest trees in the country, as well as a mammoth cedar doubled ‘Canada’s gnarliest tree.’

Wooden stairs and a boardwalk along the forest floor make the trek along the upper and lower trails of Avatar Grove an easy one and walking beneath the tree canopy, you can’t help but feel the energy of these giants.

Back at our Wild Renfrew cottage, I sip a glass of wine on the waterfront balcony as the kids scramble over the rocky beach and surprise me by taking a daring dip in the chilly water. Yes, we’ve definitely taken a walk on the wild side and we can’t wait to come back.

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