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Sooke and the Southwest Coast

The village of Sooke, on the shore of Juan de Fuca Strait about a 45-minute drive west of Victoria, has two claims to fame: it's home to Sooke Harbour House, one of Canada's best-known country inns, and it's the last stop for gas and supplies before heading out to the beaches and hiking trails of the island's wild and scenic southwest coast.

From Sooke, the narrow and winding Highway 14 runs 77 km (48 miles) through birch and fir woods, with occasional sea views, to the fishing village of Port Renfrew. The area around Sooke is home to some excellent restaurants and high-end B&Bs, but as you head west, other services are few.

The tiny fishing village of Port Renfrew has national and regional parks in all directions. At the end of Highway 14 you'll find the grueling West Coast Trail and the more accessible but still daunting Juan de Fuca Marine Trail. Salmon fishing is also a big reason for visiting the area. Not to be misssed is spectacular Botanical Beach with its tide pools teeming with marine life at low tide. The town itself has a general store, a pub, restaurants, fishing lodges, B&Bs, a campsite, and a range of rustic and newly renovated cottages. There's no garage in town, but gas is available at the marina, which does not accept credit cards (it's best to play it safe and fill up your tank before leaving Sooke). From Port Renfrew, a 48-km (30-mile) paved back road leads inland to Lake Cowichan in the Cowichan Valley.

To avoid retracing your steps to Victoria, you can follow the signs for the Pacific Marine Circle Route. This self-guided road trip follows Highway 14 from Victoria to Port Renfrew, where it takes a well-maintained back road through the forest to the village of Lake Cowichan. From here, Highway 18 leads to Highway 1 and back through the Cowichan Valley to Victoria. Driving time is about three hours, but watch your fuel gauge, as there are no gas stations between Sooke and Lake Cowichan and no services at all on the 48 km (30 miles) between Port Renfrew and Lake Cowichan.

Watch for the red-and-white lighthouse lamp at the first traffic light as you enter Sooke on Highway 14. It sits in front of the Sooke Visitor Information Centre, which also houses a small museum displaying local First Nations artifacts.

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