Cowichan Valley Getaway Guide: Explore Vibrant Cowichan Bay and Community Neighbours
Image by Donna Einarsson
Cowichan Bay sign at Hecate Park
Explore wine country trails, fishing and hiking while engaging in the rich culture of Cowichan Valley
Huddled between Vancouver Island's two major urban centres, Victoria and Nanaimo, the Cowichan Valley is comprised of a number of diverse, charismatic, and artistically rich communities, including a vibrant First Nations contingent – Shawnigan Lake, Mill Bay, Cobble Hill, Duncan, Chemainus, and Ladysmith.
Fertile valleys, rolling mountains, undulating rivers and pristine lakes come together to form the backdrop of the Cowichan Valley – a place of timeless traditions and tidal rhythms.
What to See and Do in the Cowichan Valley
Cowichan Bay Float Homes (Image: Donna Einarsson)
A salty, charming, fertile ambiance is the face of Cowichan Bay (population 2,679), an active, eclectic village of sail and fishing boats, piers, wharves and floating homes.
The Cowichan area is home to a smattering of impressive vineyards as well as a notable groundwork of grass: the South Cowichan Lawn Tennis Club features one of the oldest lawn tennis courts in the world, second only to Wimbledon.
The Cowichan Golf & Country Club (Duncan) lures golfers to play its challenging fairways: from open to tight, they flow through orchards and tall stands of trees.
Birdies however, are not just sought after on the links — view rare shorebirds like rufous hummingbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, and purple martins at Cowichan Bay Estuary & Interpretive Centre.
Brave the bird-like heights on the Koksilah River suspension bridge in Bright Angel Provincial Park (Cowichan Station) and continue to explore the Duncan area in depth at places like the Quw'utsun' Cultural Centre (history and traditional ways of the Cowichan Aboriginal people) and the BC Forest Discovery Centre (history of logging).
The Kinsol Trestle is one of the tallest free-standing and most spectacular timber rail trestles in the world, with spectacular views of the Koksilah River and trails for hiking, running, cycling and riding. The surrounding wilderness is combined with the Cowichan Bay Marina, a lively focal point of the village, replete with a traditional working harbour.
An afternoon stroll along Fisherman's Wharf will expose you to a working fleet of salmon, crab, prawn and tuna boats. Don't miss taking a jaunt to Chemainus; here you'll view over 40 larger-than-life historic paintings that make up the Chemainus Murals open-air gallery.
Where to Eat and Drink in the Cowichan Valley
True Grain Bread specializes in European breads (Image: True Grain Bread & Mill)
The name "Cowichan," derived from the Coast Salish word "Khowutzun," literally translates to "The Warm Land." With the highest mean temperatures in Canada and soil rich enough to grow virtually any crop, it's no surprise the area boasts over nine local growers and producers of quality wines.
The Cowichan Wine and Culinary Festival will celebrate Vancouver Island wines, culinary excellence, and original music and art from September 8 to 16. However, the Valley's not just about vineyards — a cider house rules this region too. More robust than wine, you can sample genuine cider from BC's first estate cidery at Merridale Cider Bistro & Spa.
Of considerable reputation is True Grain Bread, Cowichan Bay's old-world bakehouse, specializing in traditional European breads, handcrafted from freshly stone milled heirloom grains. Pop next door to Hilary's Cheese Company for handcrafted cheeses made from goat and cow's milk; their specialty is Trappist and Camembert-styles.
The Masthead Restaurant is rated the best seafood restaurant on Vancouver Island. Grab a patio table and enjoy the same view that captivated the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and John Wayne, whose boat was regularly anchored in the waters here during the '70s.
Shops and Attractions
Cowichan Bay has a number of eclectic shops (Image: Bill McGuinness)
Imagine That! Artisans' Designs (Duncan) is an artisan-run co-operative store currently displaying the work of over 100 established and emerging artists and artisans, from paintings, works in clay, glass, wood, metal and fibre.
Internationally exhibited potter Mary Fox showcases decorative and functional exquisite forms and glazes at her Ladysmith studio; she's expanded her repertoire to include one-of-a-kind decorative vessels and sculptures.
The World's Largest Hockey Stick artifact from Vancouver's Expo ‘86 now resides on the west side of the Island Savings Centre (Duncan). Cowichan has a very enthusiastic sports community and the local Cowichan Capitals hockey team's arena is affectionately dubbed "The Stick."
Take a free guided tour of downtown Duncan’s Totem Poles to learn local First Nations heritage and the art of totem carving. Legends and myths accompany each of the 37 poles, such as the classic Raven Steals Light story, and the tale of Dzonoqua, the Wild Woman of the Woods.
Places to Stay in the Cowichan Valley
Fairburn Farmstay and Guesthouse near Duncan (Image Tourism BC / Andrea Johnson)
Fairburn Farmstay and Guesthouse is a working water buffalo dairy farm. This charming 19th century farmhouse sits on 130 acres of forest and farmland, offering comfort, history, and adventure.
At the Damali Lavender Winery and B&B, stroll around the lavender, labyrinth and vineyards and enjoy a glass of lavender wine in the picnic area.
Getting to the Cowichan Valley
The Cowichan region is 40 minutes from Victoria International Airport, 30 minutes from Nanaimo airport and 15 minutes from Vancouver to Maple Bay by Harbour Air. You can take BC Ferries from Tsawwassen to Schwartz Bay or Washington State Ferries from Anacortes to Sidney and Black Ball Ferries from Post Angeles to Victoria's inner harbour.
Nanaimo can be reached by air (Cassidy Airport) or BC Ferries from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay; also from Tsawwassen to Duke Point, just south of Nanaimo. Exits from the Island Highway are well marked. Once off the highway, it’s a 10-minute drive through the countryside and farm land before reaching Cowichan Bay.