In the Coast Salish language, cowichan means "the warm land," and this valley just north of Victoria has some of the mildest climate in Canada. Surrounding mountains protect Cowichan Valley from ocean storms and northern winds, and it is warm and (relatively) sunny most of the year. The Cowichan Valley is a bucolic region of farms, villages, forests, and many little country roads. Accept it now: You will get lost. Just go with the flow, though, and you will eventually end up where you want to go—or perhaps somewhere even better.
The biggest community in the area is the city of Duncan, which appears as little more than a sprawl of big box stores along the highway. Get off the main road, though, and you’ll discover pretty neighborhoods filled with heritage homes and lush gardens. It’s considered “The City of Totems,” and you can discover some three dozen of the First Nations artworks throughout the historic downtown. For maps and other information, contact the Cowichan Regional Visitor Centre (tel. 888/303-3337 or 250/746-4636; www.tourismcowichan.com). And, for a totem of a completely different sort, Duncan is also home to The World’s Largest Hockey Stick, a relic from Expo ’86.
The village of Cowichan Bay is considered the heart of the “Cittaslow” community of foodies, famers, chefs, and winemakers who are as passionate about sustainability as they are about flavor; the village is a quaint little cluster of shops, restaurants, and homes along a serene ocean harbor, and surrounded by organic farms. There are also the rustic villages of Cobble Hill, Shawnigan Lake, and Chemainus, with its famous murals. At the far northern end is Ladysmith. Indeed, the pace of life in general is pretty relaxed and easy-going, and no one is exactly in a rush to get anywhere.
Historically, this was logging country, but now it’s more about tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, and marine businesses. But for millennia before the first Europeans arrived, this was home to the Coast Salish people, and there is still a thriving First Nations community here—you’ll see their artworks and other legacies throughout the area. In fact, this is a popular area for artists in general, and one of the best ways to while away an afternoon is just to drive around and check out the many small studios and galleries.
This is also a great region for outdoor activities, from hiking to biking to kayaking and sailing. It’s easy to spend a day or two getting a good workout as you explore the region. Or, even better, just sitting on a sunny patio, enjoying a glass of local wine and taking in the view.