Travel -Sooke splendour 

Where the rainforest meets the sea

On the wind-swept and secluded west coast of Vancouver Island lies one of the Pacific Northwest's best kept secrets: Sooke, British Columbia.

Perhaps on first glance it seems like a place one could easily ignore. But take time for that all-important second look and you will be struck by the many great opportunities for rest and recreation, its beauty and vitality ,and the friendly, genuine people who live here. And you will wonder how you overlooked it before.

The warm, welcoming community of 11,000 people is situated between a wild, towering rainforest and the dramatic Pacific Ocean. It's only a 40-minute drive from downtown Victoria, but Sooke offers visitors the untamed but comfortable experience that Vancouver Island's far west coast is famous for – and, thankfully, you can skip the five hour drive to Tofino.

Here too, the Pacific Ocean swells crash against sandy beaches and storm-blasted caves, offering up a wealth of marine treasures for the roving beachcomber. Clean, cold rivers lined with century-old fir trees run with wild salmon and steelhead. This is beautiful B.C. in top form.

But a word of warning: coming for a visit can lead to serious life changes. Many of Sooke's residents came for just a visit, and couldn't bring themselves to leave.

Mother Nature's Playground

Sooke's coastal surroundings give those with moxie and energy a challenging backdrop for outdoor activities. For some, hiking is Sooke's greatest attraction. East Sooke Regional Park is considered one of the premier day use parks in Canada. Encompassing 1,422 hectares (3,512 acres) of ancient coastal rainforest, the wilderness reserve offers marine trails suitable for young families and expert hikers alike.

With the Galloping Goose Regional Trail cycling from Victoria is a reality. The Sooke portion of the 100-kilometre former railway line features views of Juan de Fuca Straight and the 12,000-foot high Olympic Mountains. On the "Goose" you can cycle, walk, in-line skate, wheelchair, push a stroller or ride a horse.

Sooke Harbour contains a wealth of coves and bays that happily lend themselves to exploration by kayak or sail. But make your way into open waters, and you can see why for some fishing is a highlight of any visit here. To date, the largest salmon caught was 67 pounds; the largest halibut, 206 pounds. And there is far more to experience than fishing in these waters. A new highlight is Race Rocks, a recently created ecological reserve, where visitors can climb into zodiacs for a marine wildlife adventure to view a major population of killer whales (Orcas), stellar and California sea lions, seals and porpoises.

Heading west toward Port Renfrew, the Juan de Fuca Marine Trail skirts the highway and offers 47 kilometres of rainforest coastline blessed with tide pools, sandstone caves and soft sandy beaches. The visitor can stop at the many scenic viewpoints and beach access entrances.

The quaint town of Port Renfrew itself, noted for its vast sandy beach, wilderness and proximity to the West Coast Trail, makes for an interesting overnight destination. The nearby San Juan River, cutting through some of Canada's most primordial of coastal temperate rainforests, is well known among the initiated for its exceptional canoeing and fishing.

The natural surroundings of the Sooke Region provide inspiration to many artists in the area. The arts are important in this region. Sooke has a performing arts group, orchestra, many talented musicians, art galleries and artisan studios. One can take self-guided tours of unique studios that feature everything from funky pottery and glasswork to First Nations art and exotic woodwork.

Calling it a day

Sooke is considered by many the bed and breakfast capital of British Columbia, with approximately 70 such establishments in the region. Each B&B is as individual as its owners, ranging in décor and atmosphere from a simple native feel to the happy fussiness of a venerable English garden home. Each is different, but they all reflect the more laid-back west coast lifestyle. And whether one stays in an elegant country inn or a romantic waterfront chalet, the gracious hospitality of the people is apparent the moment one arrives.

It is said that great things come in small packages. That is especially true of Sooke, an unassuming community with a big heart and a lot to offer each visitor. Free from the bustle of city life, one can still find solitude here – yet all the amenities of the big city are just 40 minutes away.

It has made more than one holiday seeker ask themselves a simple question: Why go anywhere else?

IF YOU GO

The following Web sites provide accommodations, dining and adventure options:

• www.sookebnb.com; www.sookenet.com; www.sooke.museum.bc.ca/srm;

www.westwebb.com

• Island Adventure Tours specializes in touring Sooke and can arrange accommodations and car rentals. Call toll free 1-866-812-7103 or visit: www.IslandAdventureTours.com

• Pacific Coastal Airlines offers connections between Vancouver and Victoria starting at $59. Call 1-800-663-2872, or visit: www.pacific-coastal.com

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