PORT RENFREW—On this part of Vancouver Island, we stop to hug trees.
It’s not as easy as it sounds. There was no way to get my arms around these ancient warriors. So outstretched palms had to do the job as I pressed my face sideways along bumpy moss-covered bark that gave off a comforting musky-sharp smell of cedar.
Our guide, Wild Renfrew resort general manager Sheenah Duclos, said pausing to hug these massive trees would be pretty much expected as she took us into Avatar Grove, a 50-hectare stand of old-growth trees several kilometers from the hotel. Perhaps it’s a sign of respect for hundreds of years of survival, but the incination to rest your hands on the textured trunks and look way up is powerful. A hug seemed to follow naturally.
The way to the grove follows a rutted logging road into the wildnerness and you’ll need a truck, SUV or vehicle with some good bottom clearance to get to there. We had a multi-passgenger van. After crossing the San Juan River, we bounced along for a few kilometres, admiring the tall trees and views before taking a sturdy, one-lane bridge where we stopped to gaze at the clear water of the Gordon River and rocky shore far below.
Signs pointed to the start of Avatar Grove and the two trails on either side of the road. We took a flight of steep wooden stairs to the Upper Grove trailhead, but didn’t get far. The involuntary reaction was to just stop, look up and stare. The trees are massive, many draped with wispy lengths of moss dubbed Old Man’s Beard. Some had fallen into sculptural piles blanketed in bright green moss. Others were hollowed out by nature at the base, making chambers large enough to stand up in. As someone more used to Ontario’s urban tree growth, it was thrilling and strangely, a bit overwhelming.
Duclos is used to this kind of emotional reaction. She affectionately patted a towering giant and told us many of these trees were already standing for two hundred years or more when Capt. James Cook sailed here in the late 1700s.
Port Renfrew is about two hours from Victoria. It’s where the road ends on the first leg of the 290-km Pacific Marine Circle Route to the west side of Vancouver Island. As we continued the circle route, we swung back across to the eastern side of the island, making scenic and attraction stops before we headed south back to Victoria.
Reaching the end of the road is a romantic notion for a city dweller like me, who spends much of her time sitting in traffic wishing for that very thing to happen.
This was my first glimpse of the wild side of this spectacular island, south of the famed surf beaches of Tofino. The air was crisp and smelled like spruce mixed with a tidal pool whiff of the sea. I was told you could spot whales at certain times of the year.
Fishing is big here. So is hiking, including the West Coast Trail. Avatar Grove is becoming a big tourist draw, too, a giant step up from Cathedral Grove for people who want to see old growth giants.
Avatar Grove lives up to its Hollywood-mystical, eco-warrior name, saved by a dedicated group of young conservationists who were appalled at the idea the area could be logged.
The Ancient Forest Alliance won a reprieve for the giant trees and hand-built forest-blending pathways, staircases and bridges to allow tree huggers like us a chance to embrace giants and breathe air that’s so clean, it rushes into your brain like a smack to the forehead.
Upper and lower trails in Avatar Grove are occasionally steep but easy to navigate thanks to trail builders’ work. The upper path leads to a viewing platform for Canada’s Gnarliest Tree, a bulbous monster that’s favourite photo stop. It takes about two hours to complete both paths.
For me, the Lower Grove trail was magic time. It felt less crowded and more serene, a chance to listen to the wind in the trees and feel the calming presence of nature.
I stopped beside a tumble of toppled trees covered in springy moss, the base on one as big as a dining table. I closed my eyes to take slow, deep breaths, hands on my upper chest in a technique I’d learned while trying shinrin-yoku, the calming Japanese practice of forest bathing.
When I opened my eyes, there was a Japanese woman beside me, doing the same breathing movements. Shinrin-yoku is a simple thing, just quietly being in the forest is all that’s required. We smiled at each other. She didn’t speak much English and my Japanese consists of only a handful of words but we didn’t need them to communicate the peaceful happiness at being in this protected place, standing among giants.
I was a guest of Tourism Victoria, which didn’t review or approve this story
Getting there: Air Canada and WestJet have non-stop Toronto to Victoria service.
When you go: The Pacific Marine Route is best done as we did, over a couple of days so you can take your time and stop in Sooke, Lake Cowichan and Cowichan Bay, heading past Duncan and back to Victoria.
Where to stay: Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages have full kitchens, great, comfy beds and long balconies that front onto Port San Juan. The hotel has a range of water sports. The on-site Renfrew Pub has dining on the marina-facing deck. Standout dishes were cod tacos and bouillabaisse. For breakfast, Costal Kitchen serves fantastic smoked salmon eggs Benedict.
Villa Eyrie Resort, about 30 minutes north of downtown Victoria on Malahat ridge, is an elegant stay with million-dollar view of Saanich Inlet. The on-site Summit Restaurant has the same incredible views and an innovative menu, although the service was slow the night we ate there.
To drink: Stop at Unsworth Vineyards in Mill Bay to taste Vancouver Island’s answer to prosecco, Charme de L’ile. Merridale Cidery & Distillery in Cobble Hill is a good place for lunch while sampling its range of ciders.