An excursion across Vancouver Island gets dangerous, but not in the way you’d think
Author Jacqueline Detwiler
BRITISH COLUMBIA – Linda is going to be late. This is neither unusual nor particularly unexpected, although under the circumstances it presents a bit of a problem, as she’s to ride shotgun with me to the beach town of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. In particular, she’ll act as moral support while I navigate the Pacific Rim Highway across the 787-foot Sutton Pass which connects the east and west coasts of the island. Though gorgeous to the point of obscenity, the PRH is the kind of treacherous Canadian roadway that has dedicated weather websites with live video on account of occasional ice and general twistedness—the kind of roadway one avoids after nightfall.
Currently, I’m a little more than three hours from the pass, ensconced in a suite at the palatial Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria. Linda suggests renting her own car and meeting me at the start of the PRH in Nanaimo—the idea being that I can take my time poking around in the fishing villages and provincial parks that line the oyster-encrusted east coast, and we can still navigate the pass before sundown. In apology for her lateness, Linda will bring the Corn Nuts.
It’s a testament to the car I’m test-driving, the Audi Allroad, that I’m not particularly concerned whether we make it to the pass before dark. With all-wheel drive, stainless steel front and rear skid plates and 18-inch wheels, the Allroad is designed to handle nearly any weather or road situation, from pavement to gravel to steep, wet, lakeside mountain pass. A “luxury crossover,” the Allroad is like the progeny of a Jeep and a Town Car. It passes quickly on narrow roads—zipping from zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds—and has the first-ever Google Earth–enabled navigation system and a soundtrack courtesy of Bang & Olufsen. It’s possibly the best thing a person could be driving when a road trip goes wrong.
Plan established and the sun already past its apex, I settle into the leather sport seat and streak up pine-scented Route 1 toward Nanaimo. With hours to spare, I peel off the freeway at the sight of every brown provincial park sign, endeavoring to spot eagles in the trees and scouring the rivers for salmon bones from last year’s spawning. By the time I reach the picturesque fishing town of Cowichan Bay, it’s well past lunchtime. I stop in at the Rock Cod Café, where a preternaturally friendly waitress recommends Pacific halibut tacos with mango-habanero salsa and cilantro.
I happily consume the tacos while watching weathered fishing boats from the deck. As it often goes in the friendly Great White North, the diner seated at the next table over asks where I’m headed. “Tofino,” I say. “Going surfing.” He looks at his watch. “Hope you’ve got a jeep,” he says.
Back in the car, I fire up the nav system and drive straight for Nanaimo and my wayward friend, who appears just where she’s expected. Together we ditch her rental car, load her bags into the Allroad’s colossal hatchback and coast west through Cathedral Grove—a stand of mossy old-growth Douglas firs. As the sun sets ahead of us, slanting radially through the trunks, it becomes clear there’s no way we’ll make the pass before dark.