If you're the kind of traveller who doesn't like to retrace your steps, B.C.'s network of circle routes is for you. Whether you have a day or several weeks at your disposal, eight scenic byways spiral either north from Vancouver to the Yukon Territory or east from Vancouver Island to Alberta.
The most recent addition, the 255-kilometre Pacific Marine Circle Route, invites explorers to traverse the coastlines of southwestern Vancouver Island and the mountainous spine between them. Along the way, it passes through Duncan, Lake Cowichan, Port Renfrew, Sooke and Victoria. At the time of the Pacific Marine's inauguration, in 2005, Lake Cowichan's then-mayor Jack Peake, one of the route's most ardent proponents, was quoted as saying: "Today is Christmas for me. This is the day, folks. I want to see some of those tour buses coming in here. There is no way of defining how valuable this is for the community."
Four years later, with the blacktopping of a formerly rough stretch of logging road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew, the route really came into its own. No longer were drivers faced with a jarring jaunt across a narrow, pothole-dimpled backroad.
When Pique contacted Lake Cowichan's current mayor, Ross Forrest, he confirmed that the circle route was, indeed, having the desired impact on his town. "We're starting to see the effects. Last summer, our info centre had 20,000 people pass through its doors. Forty percent of visitors were asking for details on the route. The road seems particularly popular with motorcyclists. It's twisty, so I guess that appeals to them. I know when our family entertains visitors, it's a treat to take them to see the big tree at Harris Creek to give them an idea of what's there-or at least what was there before the logging. It's also becoming a hot spot with geocaching groups."
When asked to describe his community, Forrest-who was born and raised in Lake Cowichan, where he has resided for 55 years-said, "In one word: beautiful. Our clean lake and river resources are second to none. The town doesn't have the economy like it had decades ago, when we were a forestry centre and everyone made pretty good money. Since local mills at places like Youbou have shut down, we've transitioned to tourism or as a bedroom community for Duncan and even Victoria."
Farther west, Port Renfrew Resorts owner Perry Heatherington said that the opening of the Pacific Marine Circle Route had produced "quite drastic changes" for the village best known as the southern terminus of the West Coast Trail. "We have motorcycle groups of 60 to 100 riders showing up, plus lots of day trippers from Nanaimo and Duncan. We never saw this before. The route is wide open for them. Before they paved the road, you had to really want to be here. Now if you want to come for lunch, you can."