Victoria, British Columbia, on Canada’s Vancouver Island has more than enough attractions to make a visitor happy, but there are charms to be found in the countryside beyond this beautiful harbor city, too. In the rolling hills of the Cowichan Valley north of Victoria, lush forests, coastal views, picturesque villages, artisan food, and vibrant arts communities provide plenty of choice for a spectacular day trip.
The Scenic Malahat Highway
Highway 1 north from Victoria takes you into the Cowichan Valley. This is a scenic route, particularly on Malahat Drive, a 15-mile section of the highway between Goldstream Provincial Park and Mill Bay. The road started out as a cattle trail in 1861 and was paved in 1911. Climbing to a summit of 1,156 feet, the Malahat hugs the seaside mountains and offers spectacular coastal views of the Saanich Inlet and majestic forests of Douglas fir, arbutus, hemlock, and western red cedar. There are a few pullouts along the way where you can stop and take in the vistas. You’ll want your camera handy.
The name of the highway comes from the Malahat First Nation, whose ancestors used caves in the mountain for spiritual enhancement. The mountain is considered one of the most sacred sites on southern Vancouver Island. Speed limits along the winding highway vary between 70 kilometers (43 miles) and 80 kilometers (50 miles) per hour. Note that from October 1 to March 31, the Malahat is designated as a winter tire/chain route.
Canada’s Only Tea Farm
Growing tea is not something you typically associate with Canada, but at Westholme Tea Company, located off Highway 1 between Duncan and Chemainus, you’ll find limited harvest, Canadian-grown, single-origin, hand-pressed organic terroir tea as well as a huge variety of other tea blends using tea sourced from around the world. Owners Victor Vesely and Margit Nellemann began creating their own tea blends with organic tea and herbs in 2008. Vesely questioned why tea wasn’t grown in Canada, and, in 2010, planted 200 Camellia sinensis seedlings on the terraced south-facing slopes of their property as an experiment. In 2016, they harvested their first crop.
The tea room and tea shop is located inside a welcoming converted barn with knotted wood siding and large windows. Honey-colored wood planks line the floor and ceiling of the bright, airy interior. You can purchase tea blends to take home for brewing or sip on a tea in their tea room, accompanied by a tea-inspired sweet if you so chose. Co-owner Nellemann is a potter. The tea is served in her whimsical hand-crafted teaware. Pieces of her pottery are also available in the store for purchase. The overall atmosphere at Westholme brings to mind the word hygge, a Danish word that doesn’t translate directly into English but roughly means the coziness of comfortable friendliness contributing to contentment and well-being.
Westholme harvests its own tea crop three times a year: in spring, in summer, and in fall. There are limited quantities available, and they are sold at a premium. During the summer months, Westholme may offer tours of the farm or stage special events. Check their website for the latest information.
Chemainus, Town Of Murals
The picturesque coastal community of Chemainus, located about one hour north of Victoria, is known for the many murals painted on the sides and fronts of its buildings. A total of 55 murals across 3 series, the historical series, the Emily Carr series, and the community series, tell the story of Chemainus and the area. Nine sculptures add to the story.
The village of Chemainus was built around the logging industry. A sawmill opened on Chemainus Bay in 1862. With the arrival of the railroad in the late 1880s, the town slowly grew. By the late 1970s, however, the mill was antiquated and the industry was suffering. Although the future of the town was uncertain, a project to revitalize and beautify downtown began in 1981. Part of that revitalization included a 1982 Festival of Murals, which saw the town get its first five murals. When the mill shut down in 1983, the town decided to continue with the revitalization project and the creation of more murals. Chemainus became known as The Little Town that Did.
Chemainus is very walkable. Many of the murals are clustered in its charming downtown core. Here, you’ll also find unique shops, galleries, cafes, bistros, and bakeries. Waterwheel Park, a small green space, separates the downtown from Old Town Chemainus, which is just a few blocks to the north. Old Town Chemainus contains a variety of Victorian-era homes, more shops and restaurants, and, of course, more murals.
You can find a map of the murals online, pick one up at the Chemainus Visitor Centre located at the edge of Waterwheel Square, or simply follow the footsteps painted on the sidewalks. When you see the word Look in front of a pair of footsteps, stop and look up. You’ll see a mural in front of you. You can view the majority of the murals in the downtown area within an hour or so. Allow two hours if you want to explore Old Town as well. Allow several hours if you also wish to browse the shops and galleries and have lunch or coffee. Willow Street Cafe has a lovely patio. The Owl’s Nest Bakery and Bistro features home-cooked baked goods and a chalkboard menu of made-to-order all-day breakfast and luncheon foods.
Duncan, City Of Totems
More than 40 First Nation totem pole carvings are scattered throughout the town of Duncan, the economic hub of the Cowichan Region. The totem pole project began in 1985 as a way to attract visitors to the town. As well as beautifying the city, the poles celebrate the close ties between the city and the Quw’utsun’ people. They represent two cultures coming together.
The totem pole has become a key symbol of the Northwest Coast indigenous peoples. Designs on the poles told a family’s story and were a way to pass down information to future generations. The designs carvers created on the poles commissioned by the city of Duncan also tell stories. The poles have been carved out of western red cedar, known as the Mother Tree by indigenous peoples.
The railway station in the center of town is a good place to start your totem pole walking tour. There is a public parking lot beside the station as well as green space and a cluster of totem poles. The wooden railway station, built in 1912, now houses the Cowichan Valley Museum. The majority of the town’s totem poles are located within a few-block area in the downtown core. Signage beside each pole tells the story of the pole from the carver’s perspective. Use a map or follow the footsteps painted on the sidewalks to navigate between the totem poles. Allow one to three hours depending on how long you want to spend examining each pole and whether or not you intend to browse in stores along the way.
Historic Kinsol Trestle Bridge And Trail
The Historic Kinsol Trestle is one of the tallest free-standing timber rail trestle structures in the world. At 614 feet in length and standing 145 feet above the salmon-bearing Koksilah River, it is the largest and most spectacular of eight trestles in the Cowichan Region. The trestle was constructed between 1911 and 1920. The last train crossed the trestle in 1979. The trestle was restored between 1999 and 2010 and today is open to the public for cyclists, hikers, and equestrians.
A scenic drive past Shawnigan Lake and a three-quarter-mile trail from the parking lot through a conifer forest takes you to the bridge. The wheelchair-accessible trail is flat, wide, and surfaced with crushed gravel. There are benches and a picnic area. The parking lot area has accessible toilets. For those interested in more hiking in the area, the trail leading to the bridge is part of the Cowichan Valley Trail, a multi-use 76-mile trail system that runs through the Cowichan Valley offering easy walking and cycling.
- End your day trip with a stop at Mill Bay Marina on your return to Victoria. Enjoy a view of Saanich Inlet and Mount Baker while eating dinner at Bridgemans Bistro. Watch swans on the water and maybe catch a glimpse of a whale.
- Also consider how to spend a perfect weekend on Vancouver Island, the 11 best experiences on Vancouver Island, and our British Columbia road trip: Vancouver to Victoria.