Duncan

If you travel to Duncan via the Trans Canada Highway, make sure to jog west over the train tracks into the original city centre. Here you’ll discover bustling streets that are speckled with Victorian-era buildings, now home to an entire economy of proudly independent businesses, such as art galleries, bistros, diners, clothing stores and other quaint shops. The centre of Duncan’s downtown is the red bricked City Hall which was built as a post office in 1913 and whose tower still keeps time and overlooks the Duncan Farmer’s Market that takes place on Saturdays. All around town you’ll find the namesake of the “City of Totems”, a collection of 38 colourful totem poles created by First Nations master carvers. Other things you can’t miss in Duncan are the world’s largest hockey stick and and the BC Forest Discovery Centre, where you can ride on a working steam train.

Crofton

Situated 10 kilometres north of Duncan along the waters of Osborne Bay is Crofton, yet another of Cowichan’s quaint seaside towns. Founded in 1902 by copper magnate Henry Croft, Crofton not only looks directly across to Saltspring Island, but provides you with the means to get there too. The regular ferry service to Vesuvius Bay crosses Stuart Channel, which is home to a boisterous population of sea lions and the occasional pod of migrating orcas. Crofton’s piece de resistance has to be its newly installed Community Seawalk that begins near the Olde School House Museum and gracefully wends its way along the shoreline. If you happen to take the scenic Osborne Bay Road (between Crofton and Herd Road), take note of the trailhead about halfway along – those who are adventurous (and well prepared) can follow the trail to the very top of Maple Mountain, which affords sweeping views of Maple Bay, Genoa Bay and the Saanich Peninsula.

Maple Bay + Genoa Bay

At one time, Maple Bay was one of only two major points of entry to the Cowichan valley (the village of Cowichan Bay being the other). Located in a beautiful sheltered spot on the eastern fringes of the Cowichan Region, it became a popular destination for genteel homesteaders in the late 1800s. Today Maple Bay is a wonderful spot for beachcombing, swimming, sailing, fishing, rowing and scuba diving. There are great dining options here and if you need a place to moor your private yacht (and who doesn’t?) you’ll find yourself in very good hands at the Maple Bay Marina, which also serves as a seaplane depot. Located just 15 minutes south along Genoa Bay Road is the hamlet of Genoa Bay, named after the Italian hometown of local pioneer and merchant, Giovanni Baptiste Ordano. Once a sawmill town, Genoa Bay is now home to a marina and an outstanding cafe/ restaurant.

Cowichan Bay

Experiencing Cowichan Bay is best done at a leisurely pace – and on an empty stomach. The dining options here are many and include café fare and fine dining, to must-write-home-about seafood and fish & chips. Being adequately fuelled will help prepare you for the abundance of activities that are open to you in Cowichan Bay. After you’ve strolled the waterfront amongst the wharves, galleries and boutiques, you might feel like visiting the Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre, which juts out onto the water and showcases much of Cowichan Bay’s history and an impressive collection of hand-built wooden boats. To get in touch with nature, you can visit the Cowichan Estuary Interpretive Nature Centre or, if you’re feeling really adventurous you can go kayaking or take a whale watching tour in search of the many orcas, sea lions, grey whales and porpoises that ply these waters.

Chemainus

Once a thriving fishing, mining and forestry hub, the town of Chemainus reinvented itself in the 1980s by capturing its history in a series of large, striking murals painted on the walls of the town. That shrewd decision inspired the town’s well-earned description, “The Little Town That Did”. Today, there are 44 amazing murals and various sculptures, which can all be viewed on foot. Located in the centre of town is Waterwheel Park, venue for Chemainus Accordion Days, the annual Jazz and Bluegrass festivals and the weekly Music in the Park summer concerts. Right next door to Waterwheel Park is the new and resplendent Chemainus Valley Museum and Visitor Centre, which is well worth a visit. The 274-seat Chemainus Theatre welcomes more than 70,000 visitors annually to its many top-notch dramas, musicals and concerts. Food and drink is also at a high level here with a new brewery, taphouse and a must-try cafe that specializes in international cuisine.

Ladysmith

Situated at the northern edge of the Cowichan Valley on Canada’s 49th parallel is the enchanting town of Ladysmith. Founded at the turn of the century by industrialist James Dunsmuir as a place to house mine workers, the town is chock full of restored heritage buildings – vestiges of a frontier past financed by coal and lumber. The downtown core is also home to a wide variety of shops, boutiques, bookstores, antique dealers and more eateries than you can shake a stick at: bistros, bakeries, Chinese, Indian, sushi, vegetarian, pizza, seafood and more. A walking tour of Ladysmith’s heritage route will take you past the heritage artifacts lining First Avenue and then ultimately to the Waterfront Art Gallery and BC’s only floating museum. Nearby is Transfer Beach, a scenic park that features swimming beaches, a giant playground and a place to rent paddleboards and kayaks.

Malahat + Bamberton

The southern gateway to the Cowichan Valley is the majestic Malahat Highway. After you pass Goldstream and make your way to the summit, there are a number of observation points where you can pull over and take in the vista from 1,200 feet. The first of these is the summit rest area where there’s a newly refurbished totem pole and a large regional map to give you the lay of the land. Just beyond that is a chalet that serves up divine views and cuisine. Farther still is the “Split Rock” rest area where you can see Senanus Island, much of the Saanich Peninsula and on clear days, Mount Baker in Washington State. On your descent you can turn off to Bamberton Provincial Park, a splendid spot for camping, beachcombing and swimming.

Mill Bay

If you thought that the town of Mill Bay got its name from being a mill, you’d be absolutely correct – a lumber mill to be more specific. Mill Bay, reached by a scenic ocean drive north of Bamberton, or the Trans Canada Highway, is now a quiet seaside community that overlooks Saanich Inlet. Mill Bay has grown in leaps and bounds of late and nowhere is that more apparent than at the Mill Bay Marina, home to a top-notch waterfront bistro and yacht moorage. Nearby is a full service shopping centre and kitty corner to that is Brentwood College School, home to the T. Gil Bunch Theatre and the Brentwood International Rowing Regatta.

Shawnigan Lake

West of Mill Bay is the village of Shawnigan Lake, a popular summer vacation spot – largely due to its rugged beauty and glorious lake that provides the opportunity for fishing, swimming and sunbathing. The village itself consists of gift shops, galleries, and a number of places to eat. At the Shawnigan Lake Museum you’ll learn about the famous landscape artist, E.J. Hughes, who lived in these parts and defined the region with oil paintings that now regularly sell for six figures in international art markets. Shawnigan is also known two independent boarding schools and “O.U.R. Ecovillage”, a sustainable learning community and demonstration site, which hosts a Zero Mile eatery. Nearby is the Kinsol Trestle named for the short-lived “King Solomon Mine”. Restored in 2011, it is an engineering feat and remains one of the loftiest wooden railway trestles in the world.

Cobble Hill

North of Shawnigan Lake is the rolling farmland and craggy hillsides that comprise the community of Cobble Hill. To get there, divert west from the Trans Canada Highway and get yourself on the winding country roads which will take you past working farms, vineyards and orchards. All the while you’ll be transported back a century or two when local farms fed the whole Cowichan Valley. Midway along Cameron Taggart Road is Merridale Road, which will lead you to Canada’s first estate cidery. Once you drive past the centre of Cobble Hill, don’t blink, or you’ll miss the small community that’s home to a number of shops and the site of the annual Cobble Hill Fair, founded in 1909. Near the fairgrounds is a trailhead from which you can hike or bike to the summit of Cobble Hill Mountain and enjoy sweeping views of the Gulf Islands and beyond.

Lake Cowichan

Located 28 kilometres west of Duncan is the town of Lake Cowichan. The town’s namesake lake was once the focus of a thriving lumber industry that employed countless workers in the surrounding towns of Honeymoon Bay, Youbou and Mesachie Lake. Like other Cowichan towns that shifted away from a resource-based economy, the town reinvented itself by focusing on its profound beauty and numerous activities. Whether you camp at a private or municipal campground, park at an RV park or stay in a B&B, the shimmering lake is your constant playground where you can lounge around a beach, swim, waterski, rent a houseboat or go fishing. For a little history, you might like to check out the Kaatza Station Museum’s collection of logging artifacts, then stroll the floating boardwalk. Lake Cowichan also serves as the gateway to Port Renfrew and the world-famous Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

The Marine Circle Route

If you’d like to lasso the entire portion of southern Vancouver Island in a single road trip, consider exploring the Pacific Marine Circle Route. The loop extends from Victoria, west to Sooke, northwest to Port Renfrew, east to Lake Cowichan and Duncan, then south through the Cowichan Valley and back to Victoria. Needless to say, that particular route is best served up over several days, but if your base is the Cowichan Valley and you’d like an expedited route to the western edge of Vancouver Island, simply head west from Duncan along Highway 18 to Lake Cowichan. From there, the town of Port Renfrew is just over an hour away along a winding paved road. Those who make the trip will be rewarded with scenic views of mountain peaks, raging rivers, towering forests and ultimately, the magnificent Botanical Beach.

Map + Communities

While most of Cowichan’s towns and villages are connected by main highways, why not really enjoy the drive and take pastoral, scenic country roads where you’ll discover our parks, rivers, beaches, marinas, artist studios, wineries, farm gates, and funky eateries.

Chemainus

Once a thriving fishing, mining and forestry hub, the town of Chemainus reinvented itself in the 1980s by capturing its history in a series of large, striking murals painted on the walls of the town. That shrewd decision inspired the town’s well-earned description, “The Little Town That Did”. Today, there are 44 amazing murals and various sculptures, which can all be viewed on foot. Located in the centre of town is Waterwheel Park, venue for Chemainus Accordion Days, the annual Jazz and Bluegrass festivals and the weekly Music in the Park summer concerts. Right next door to Waterwheel Park is the new and resplendent Chemainus Valley Museum and Visitor Centre, which is well worth a visit. The 274-seat Chemainus Theatre welcomes more than 70,000 visitors annually to its many top-notch dramas, musicals and concerts. Food and drink is also at a high level here with a new brewery, taphouse and a must-try cafe that specializes in international cuisine.

Cobble Hill

North of Shawnigan Lake is the rolling farmland and craggy hillsides that comprise the community of Cobble Hill. To get there, divert west from the Trans Canada Highway and get yourself on the winding country roads which will take you past working farms, vineyards and orchards. All the while you’ll be transported back a century or two when local farms fed the whole Cowichan Valley. Midway along Cameron Taggart Road is Merridale Road, which will lead you to Canada’s first estate cidery. Once you drive past the centre of Cobble Hill, don’t blink, or you’ll miss the small community that’s home to a number of shops and the site of the annual Cobble Hill Fair, founded in 1909. Near the fairgrounds is a trailhead from which you can hike or bike to the summit of Cobble Hill Mountain and enjoy sweeping views of the Gulf Islands and beyond.

Cowichan Bay

Experiencing Cowichan Bay is best done at a leisurely pace – and on an empty stomach. The dining options here are many and include café fare and fine dining, to must-write-home-about seafood and fish & chips. Being adequately fuelled will help prepare you for the abundance of activities that are open to you in Cowichan Bay. After you’ve strolled the waterfront amongst the wharves, galleries and boutiques, you might feel like visiting the Cowichan Bay Maritime Centre, which juts out onto the water and showcases much of Cowichan Bay’s history and an impressive collection of hand-built wooden boats. To get in touch with nature, you can visit the Cowichan Estuary Interpretive Nature Centre or, if you’re feeling really adventurous you can go kayaking or take a whale watching tour in search of the many orcas, sea lions, grey whales and porpoises that ply these waters.

Crofton

Situated 10 kilometres north of Duncan along the waters of Osborne Bay is Crofton, yet another of Cowichan’s quaint seaside towns. Founded in 1902 by copper magnate Henry Croft, Crofton not only looks directly across to Saltspring Island, but provides you with the means to get there too. The regular ferry service to Vesuvius Bay crosses Stuart Channel, which is home to a boisterous population of sea lions and the occasional pod of migrating orcas. Crofton’s piece de resistance has to be its newly installed Community Seawalk that begins near the Olde School House Museum and gracefully wends its way along the shoreline. If you happen to take the scenic Osborne Bay Road (between Crofton and Herd Road), take note of the trailhead about halfway along – those who are adventurous (and well prepared) can follow the trail to the very top of Maple Mountain, which affords sweeping views of Maple Bay, Genoa Bay and the Saanich Peninsula.

Duncan

If you travel to Duncan via the Trans Canada Highway, make sure to jog west over the train tracks into the original city centre. Here you’ll discover bustling streets that are speckled with Victorian-era buildings, now home to an entire economy of proudly independent businesses, such as art galleries, bistros, diners, clothing stores and other quaint shops. The centre of Duncan’s downtown is the red bricked City Hall which was built as a post office in 1913 and whose tower still keeps time and overlooks the Duncan Farmer’s Market that takes place on Saturdays. All around town you’ll find the namesake of the “City of Totems”, a collection of 38 colourful totem poles created by First Nations master carvers. Other things you can’t miss in Duncan are the world’s largest hockey stick and and the BC Forest Discovery Centre, where you can ride on a working steam train.

Ladysmith

Situated at the northern edge of the Cowichan Valley on Canada’s 49th parallel is the enchanting town of Ladysmith. Founded at the turn of the century by industrialist James Dunsmuir as a place to house mine workers, the town is chock full of restored heritage buildings – vestiges of a frontier past financed by coal and lumber. The downtown core is also home to a wide variety of shops, boutiques, bookstores, antique dealers and more eateries than you can shake a stick at: bistros, bakeries, Chinese, Indian, sushi, vegetarian, pizza, seafood and more. A walking tour of Ladysmith’s heritage route will take you past the heritage artifacts lining First Avenue and then ultimately to the Waterfront Art Gallery and BC’s only floating museum. Nearby is Transfer Beach, a scenic park that features swimming beaches, a giant playground and a place to rent paddleboards and kayaks.

Lake Cowichan and beyond

Located 28 kilometres west of Duncan is the town of Lake Cowichan. The town’s namesake lake was once the focus of a thriving lumber industry that employed countless workers in the surrounding towns of Honeymoon Bay, Youbou and Mesachie Lake. Like other Cowichan towns that shifted away from a resource-based economy, the town reinvented itself by focusing on its profound beauty and numerous activities. Whether you camp at a private or municipal campground, park at an RV park or stay in a B&B, the shimmering lake is your constant playground where you can lounge around a beach, swim, waterski, rent a houseboat or go fishing. For a little history, you might like to check out the Kaatza Station Museum’s collection of logging artifacts, then stroll the floating boardwalk. Lake Cowichan also serves as the gateway to Port Renfrew and the world-famous Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park.

Malahat + Bamberton

The southern gateway to the Cowichan Valley is the majestic Malahat Highway. After you pass Goldstream and make your way to the summit, there are a number of observation points where you can pull over and take in the vista from 1,200 feet. The first of these is the summit rest area where there’s a newly refurbished totem pole and a large regional map to give you the lay of the land. Just beyond that is a chalet that serves up divine views and cuisine. Farther still is the “Split Rock” rest area where you can see Senanus Island, much of the Saanich Peninsula and on clear days, Mount Baker in Washington State. On your descent you can turn off to Bamberton Provincial Park, a splendid spot for camping, beachcombing and swimming.

Maple Bay + Genoa Bay

At one time, Maple Bay was one of only two major points of entry to the Cowichan valley (the village of Cowichan Bay being the other). Located in a beautiful sheltered spot on the eastern fringes of the Cowichan Region, it became a popular destination for genteel homesteaders in the late 1800s. Today Maple Bay is a wonderful spot for beachcombing, swimming, sailing, fishing, rowing and scuba diving. There are great dining options here and if you need a place to moor your private yacht (and who doesn’t?) you’ll find yourself in very good hands at the Maple Bay Marina, which also serves as a seaplane depot. Located just 15 minutes south along Genoa Bay Road is the hamlet of Genoa Bay, named after the Italian hometown of local pioneer and merchant, Giovanni Baptiste Ordano. Once a sawmill town, Genoa Bay is now home to a marina and an outstanding cafe/ restaurant.

The Marine Circle route

If you’d like to lasso the entire portion of southern Vancouver Island in a single road trip, consider exploring the Pacific Marine Circle Route. The loop extends from Victoria, west to Sooke, northwest to Port Renfrew, east to Lake Cowichan and Duncan, then south through the Cowichan Valley and back to Victoria. Needless to say, that particular route is best served up over several days, but if your base is the Cowichan Valley and you’d like an expedited route to the western edge of Vancouver Island, simply head west from Duncan along Highway 18 to Lake Cowichan. From there, the town of Port Renfrew is just over an hour away along a winding paved road. Those who make the trip will be rewarded with scenic views of mountain peaks, raging rivers, towering forests and ultimately, the magnificent Botanical Beach.

Mill Bay

If you thought that the town of Mill Bay got its name from being a mill, you’d be absolutely correct – a lumber mill to be more specific. Mill Bay, reached by a scenic ocean drive north of Bamberton, or the Trans Canada Highway, is now a quiet seaside community that overlooks Saanich Inlet. Mill Bay has grown in leaps and bounds of late and nowhere is that more apparent than at the Mill Bay Marina, home to a top-notch waterfront bistro and yacht moorage. Nearby is a full service shopping centre and kitty corner to that is Brentwood College School, home to the T. Gil Bunch Theatre and the Brentwood International Rowing Regatta.

Shawnigan Lake

West of Mill Bay is the village of Shawnigan Lake, a popular summer vacation spot – largely due to its rugged beauty and glorious lake that provides the opportunity for fishing, swimming and sunbathing. The village itself consists of gift shops, galleries, and a number of places to eat. At the Shawnigan Lake Museum you’ll learn about the famous landscape artist, E.J. Hughes, who lived in these parts and defined the region with oil paintings that now regularly sell for six figures in international art markets. Shawnigan is also known two independent boarding schools and “O.U.R. Ecovillage”, a sustainable learning community and demonstration site, which hosts a Zero Mile eatery. Nearby is the Kinsol Trestle named for the short-lived “King Solomon Mine”. Restored in 2011, it is an engineering feat and remains one of the loftiest wooden railway trestles in the world.

Tell us what you think! Vote for your favourite Cowichan experience.

Have you paddled Cowichan Bay in the moonlight? Perhaps you’ve mountain biked Maple Syrup, tubed the Cowichan River or been on a wine tour. If you’ve visited our region, we’d love to know what you feel were the best experiences. There’s no deadline and you can be a visitor from far away or a local resident--we just want to know your most unique and enjoyable experience. Of course, if you feel we’ve missed the boat somewhere or there’s an experience you’d like to nominate, we’d like to hear about that too.

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