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Pacific Marine Circle

Traveling 300 km in style and comfort in the 2015 BMW 428i xDrive Cabriolet

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Talk to most Metro Vancouverites about road trips to Vancouver Island and you’ll soon be discussing Victoria, Tofino, Qualicum Beach or perhaps skiing at Mount Wash – ington. While these are wonderful destina – tions other parts of the Island offer a vast, untapped resource of stunning scenery and attractions for those who enjoy the good things in life.

The coastal and interior roads can be a total joy, made more so if you happen to have a BMW to delight in a drive that takes in some of the province’s finest mountain and ocean vistas, resorts, restaurants and wineries. We began what Destination BC (formerly Tourism BC) calls the Pacific Marine Circle Route with a short diversion to Brentwood Bay, a 25-minute drive from the Swartz Bay ferry terminal.

The car chosen for the trip was a gleaming sapphire black 2015 BMW 428i xDrive Cabriolet, which proved com – fortable, impressively nimble, responsive and well balanced every kilometre of the way. The Pacific Marine Circle Route, clearly marked with eye-catching roadside signs, adds up to around 300 km, depending on diversions.

It heads from the Victoria area and takes in Sooke, Port Renfrew, Cowichan Lake, Duncan and points in between. The BMW 428i Cabriolet we enjoyed was an all-new model and the latest in a series of BMW four-seat convertibles that dates back to 1987. It uses a three-piece retractable hardtop of highly ingenious design and the car looks great from every viewpoint.

Emphasizing the car’s eye-appeal are muscular wheel arches and a wide track that combine to create an aggressively sporty stance. It’s slightly larger than the 3 Series Cabriolet that it replaces. Under the hood is BMW’s award-winning 2.0-litre 4-cylinder engine with twin power turbo. With its 8-speed sport automatic transmission, it proved more than capable of handling anything the chal – lenging Vancouver Island roads could offer.

The Central Saanich community of Brentwood Bay is home to BC Ferries’ oldest working vessel, the MV Mill Bay, which offers a short cut to Mill Bay across the inlet formed by the Saanich Peninsula.The upscale Brentwood Bay Resort & Spa is a fitting place to begin a long day with breakfast in the dining room overlooking the bay. 

When the weather’s warm, the big patio at the adjacent Brentwood Bay Pub is a perfect spot to enjoy one of the prettiest coves in the area.For mainlanders who arrive too late to start the Circle Route drive, this is a great spot to overnight, and every room has ocean and mountain views. Brentwood Bay is best reached from BC Ferries by exiting Hwy 17 at the Victoria International Airport intersec – tion, taking McTavish Road to West Saanich Road and driving south. This route proved tortuous enough to give us a taste of the wonderful agility that is a feature of all BMWs.

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We headed back to Hwy 17 and joined the Trans-Canada Highway via McKenzie Avenue at the well-signed intersection. We drove north before leaving the Trans-Canada (Exit 10, View Royal/Colwood) and taking Old Island Highway, which becomes Sooke Road, to visit historic Hatley Castle at Royal Roads University.

Hatley Castle was originally an estate belonging to industrialist and politician James Dunsmuir (of the prosperous B.C. coal mining family) who commissioned renowned Canadian architect Samuel Mclure to build one of the most impressive mansions in the province.

Hatley Castle is a stately 1908 Scottish Baronial-style mansion with 40 rooms and panoramic views of the Straits of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountain Range beyond. The spacious estate was bought by the federal government in 1940 for Royal Canadian Navy officer training and dubbed HMCS Royal Roads. Later, it became a college for all three Canadian armed services and finally, a university in 1995.

The buildings that remain from military times are in the Art Deco architectural style of the 1930s and are no less intriguing than the mansion, which formed a regal backdrop for our elegant BMW Cabriolet.

The beach fronting the estate is open to the public and there are some great hiking trails in the locale. There’s also a museum situated in the mansion. Leaving Royal Roads, we pointed the elegant nose of the 428i up-Island along West Coast Road (Hwy 14) towards Sooke, pausing for a quick lunch at the historic 17 Mile Pub, which was built in 1894. The 17 Mile is one in a chain of inns that once dotted the road between Victoria and Port Renfrew, and was both a church and a schoolhouse before becoming a pub. Closer to Victoria there’s a Four Mile Pub and a Six Mile Pub — both are also over a century old and well worth a visit.

In the small community of Sooke, we visited the famed Sooke Harbour House restaurant and hotel, which can lay claim to a gastronomic reputation extending around the world. Located above Whiffen Spit beach, it’s a striking spot where you can enjoy the salt spray of the ocean and view migrating whales without even getting in a boat. Our BMW sat in the establishment’s “green” parking lot, surfaced with a combination of turf and recycled plastic grids set in sand.

In the restaurant, fresh local ingredients are of prime importance to longtime owners Frederique and Sinclair Philip and their team of chefs. Among the many awards garnered by the restaurant are 10 from the respected Wine Spectator magazine for keeping one of the best wine cellars in the world. And it’s not everywhere you can order organic rabbit alongside First Nations-influenced dishes! Sooke is a good spot to gas up the car since filling stations are tough to find along the route until Lake Cowichan is reached. Thankfully, the 428i’s advanced 4-cylinder engine is very fuel efficient and owners won’t need to keep a constant eye on the gas gauge.

The luxurious Points West Oceanfront Resort was our overnight stop and it proved outstanding, not least for its romantic setting with yet more spectacular views across Juan de Fuca to the Olympic Mountain Range. Points West, with its five acres of secluded oceanfront property west of Sooke, offers opulent and spacious individual waterfront homes with huge decks and gourmet kitchens, many of them right on the beach. Suites are similarly luxurious and most of them have hot tubs. The term “million-dollar view” must have been coined by someone why stayed at Points West! Points West guests can drive in a matter of minutes to many fine restaurants in the Sooke area, and our choice was Point-No-Point Resort, just a short drive northwest from the resort.

The powerful heater, heated seats and (one of our favorites for a chilly day) heated steering wheel make for a very cosy driving environment in cold weather. The roof is very snug when it’s in place and highly efficient insulation helps keep out the cold. The road up the west coast of Vancouver Island was a tad slippery before the sun rose above the forest, but BMW’s confidence-inspiring xDrive intelligent all-wheel drive system and 50:50 weight distribution took it in stride and no loss of grip was detected at all.

Here, chef Jason Nienaber and sous chef Ian Carr use prime local ingredients to create imaginative and totally enjoyable dishes. Try starting with confit of duck leg with Madras rice salad, currants and mango yogurt and following up with lamb sirloin with barley “mac ‘n’ cheese,” minted tomato, pickled lemon cucumber and feta. This is a very fine restaurant and right up there with the very best in the region. Point-No-Point is also a long-established resort, with log cabins scattered along the rugged oceanfront and suites in the main building. Making an early start, we found our BMW had acquired a layer of overnight frost, but this presented no challenge to the car’s sophisticated HVAC system and the windows rapidly cleared.

BMW’s xDrive is a permanent all-wheel drive system that in regular use distributes power between the front and rear axles in a 40:60 ratio. When things get slippery, power is seamlessly directed to the axle that has the most grip. The process is more or less instantaneous and it all happens without the driver feeling the system at work at all. The winding, coast-hugging road between Sooke and Port Renfrew is famed for its wonderful beaches and all are popular destinations in summertime. Their location on the Island’s west coast means that the Olympic range is ever present on the horizon.

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For top-down driving, this is a great stretch of road and the 428i’s cleverly-designed folding roof is lightning fast when it comes to retraction or deployment. All it takes to transform the car from a coupe to a cabriolet is the touch of a button and a mere 20-seconds, and the roof can be lowered at speeds of up to 18 km/h. There are no latches to grapple with and wind noise and buffeting is surprisingly minimal. 

Even with the roof folded away, there’s plenty of luggage stowage space, bolstered by two large storage wells in the trunk floor to the right and left of the main luggage area great for smaller items like cameras and other cargo needed en route.

Worthwhile stopping places include China Beach Provincial Park, French Beach and the beach at Jordan River, a popular venue for surfers — there’s even a beachfront shack where boards can be rented. The confluence of Jordan River and the tides of the Strait make for some exciting and challenging surfing. Knowledgeable enthusiasts confirm that the locale has “super long rides,” but the chilly Pacific Ocean means wetsuits are a year-round necessity. Sombrio Beach is another ocean vista worth a visit, and involves just a short hike from the parking lot. Port Renfrew is the furthest community that can be reached by paved road heading up the west coast of the Island from Victoria.

Pacific Marine Road from Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake was finally paved in 2009 to form a key part of the Pacific Marine Circle Route. There are many gravel roads in the area, some associated with the forest industry and others leading to First Nations communities. Many of these are worth a short diversion, if just to check out the spectacular bridges that are a feature of many forest roads. Also rewarding is a stop at scenic Fairy Lake, not far from Port Renfrew.

The Port Renfrew to Cowichan Lake road could have been purpose-built to put a BMW through its paces, and features numerous tight corners and even hairpins. It’s on roads like this that the 428i Cabriolet excels with its supple suspension, accurate steering and, on slippery sections, that highly effective xDrive.The hip-hugging seats keep driver and passenger firmly in place, even during very spirited driving, and the throttle response is outstanding when accelerating out of corners. Traffic was light or non-existent during our run, but expect this to change as the route gains in popularity.

When the forest industry is active, a wary eye should be kept open for logging trucks on this road this is, after all, a central artery of one of B.C.’s primary resource industries. Another hazard are the numerous deer in the region, along with bears, cougars and wolves that can wander into parking areas or onto the road. Remember that this is one of the most remote and unspoiled parts of the province. It’s about a

60 km from Port Renfrew to Lake Cowichan, but it’s a drive that will put a smile on the face of any enthusiastic driver with a taste for cars like the 428i.

The small town of Lake Cowichan sits at the eastern end of the eponymous lake, and the Cowichan River runs right through the centre of town. It’s a good spot to gas up the BMW if needed, grab a coffee and head for Cowichan Valley wine country. In recent years, viticulture has boomed in the region aided by a mild microclimate. Today there are close to 20 fine wineries exploiting the gentle slopes of the valley to create, in many instances, wines that have won international awards.

Those who think winemaking in B.C. begins and ends in the Okanagan are usually amazed at the varietals harvested in this area and the quality of the wines. Many of the wineries have impressive tasting rooms and, occasionally, fine-dining facilities. We chose Averill Creek Vineyard and Enrico Winery to get the flavour of the region, and both are impressive. Standouts here are Averill Creek’s award-winning 2009 Pinot Noir plus an excellent Gewürztraminer, and Enrico’s very drinkable Cabernet Foch.

The Cowichan Valley is very much an agricultural region and numerous farms dot the hillsides, many of them selling produce that is invariably organic. The area also boasts some fine equestrian estates, and tourists who love to ride can easily locate stables and resorts offering trail rides, often using old logging roads winding among spectacular rainforests. Watch for bald eagles, ospreys, blue heron and even a colony of uncommon trumpeter swans that migrates to the Somenos Marsh Conservation Area each fall.

The marsh is close to Duncan’s BC Forest Discovery Centre on the TransCanada Highway. Golf is another popular Cowichan outdoor pursuit with four or more competitive courses in the region open year-round. Heading out of the valley towards central Duncan, dubbed the “city of totems” for the 80 First Nations carvings located throughout town, beautiful Shawnigan Lake is worth a stop or even a short ride in a rented boat. Duncan is located on the Trans-Canada Highway. But before heading south towards Greater Victoria, we took a diversion to Mill Bay, just a short ferry ride to Brentwood Bay, where our loop began. Mill Bay has an impressive new marina featuring

Bridgemans Bistro situated on the dock overlooking postcard perfect Saanich Inlet. But of course, you don’t go looking for short cuts in a BMW, and the scenic and demanding Malahat Drive on the Trans-Canada beckoned rather more than the brief, if picturesque, ferry ride back to Mill Bay. The steep climb really drew out the full capability of the 428i’s 241-horsepower engine with its impressive 258 lb-ft torque level, and safe overtaking of slower vehicles was a breeze. The Malahat offers some great views of the Gulf Islands but can be a challenging ascent in winter snows — not a problem though for drivers with xDrive at their command

Leaving the Trans-Canada on Hwy 17 to head for the Swartz Bay ferry terminal, we stopped for a final snack at the Beacon Landing Restaurant & Lounge on the Sidney waterfront (try their shrimp gyoza for a delicious appetizer). The big patio here is a perfect spot to watch the tugboats on Haro Strait or kick back with a book after browsing the town’s numerous bookshops. On a clear day, Mount Baker looms majestically over the Gulf and San Juan Islands. From Sidney, the ferry terminal that would take us back to the Mainland was only minutes away. With the 428i that much closer to home, it was probably the only stretch of the Pacific Marine Circle Route where we slowed down to let other drivers pass us by.  

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