Why make the 2.5-3 hour trek from Seattle to Horseshoe Bay ferry in Vancouver, hop on the 1.5 hour ferry to Nanaimo and then make the 3 hour drive to Tofino?
Because this west coast stretch of Vancouver Island is gorgeous, laid back, peaceful and non-commercialized. There is a reason why people refer to Tofino as Canada’s Hawaii, although aside from both destinations having beaches and waves, I don’t know if I see a resemblance. Both paradises do share a common thread in helping visitors unwind and not have a care in the world.
Tofino has a surfer chic and small town feel where you start to recognize people and vice-versa once you are here for a couple days. Although locals are deathly afraid of rapid development, from a city person’s point of view, Tofino appears untouched without any cheesy billboards, rental convertibles, tropical shirt wearers or a plethora of new buildings with fluorescent signs promising to “swim with the whales.” There are a handful of tour operators, but the businesses look and feel more authentic.
A car is nice, but plenty of young surfer locals get by with a bike and a makeshift rack to haul their board. There is also a bus service that runs during the summer and picks up and drops off surfers from various beaches.
Tofino is 11 square miles and the main town is walkable with a number of accommodations only a mile or two from town. There is a paved and protected trail that runs into town and along many of the beaches and lodging accommodations.
Here are some of my favorite activities to get you started:
1) Surf, of course. This is probably one of the primary activities that draws wave enthusiasts of all ages to Tofino. There are a number of places in town where you can rent a board/wet suit, and head to one of the many nearby beaches – Chesterman and Cox Bay to name a few. Maybe befriend a local and find out where you can catch some of the ultra-rad waves. Note: Unlike Hawaii, wearing a wet suit year-round is a must.
2) Pescetarian eating - If you feel like something a bit more formal, check out Wickaninnish Inn’s The Pointe restaurant, but I am not as into fine dining when I can grab a local wild salmon burrito right in town at Breaker’s and eat it by the campfire with the waves in the background.
Almost every food joint is flush with salmon, ling cod and oysters on the menu. My two favorite eats in Tofino are Tacofino and Shelter. The first is a mobile food truck whipping out the best fish tacos in town and the latter is the most stylish restaurant in town.
People order everything under the sun from pork kimchi gringes to chicken burritos, but the fish tacos are the obvious star. Lightly battered Tofino-caught ling cod topped with finely-diced tomato salsa served in an uber-thin tortilla. As of right now, I am postponing my next BC destination by a few hours and killing time in an Internet cafe waiting for the truck to open at 11am.
I have to get my last fix of fish tacos and a virgin- Mojito tasting lime mint freshie to chase ‘em down. I hear you can now find their bright orange truck in Vancouver so I will certainly seek them out on my way home. Get there early or be prepared to queue up as traffic has spiked since Tacofino’s TV appearance on the Cooking Channel’s Eat Street.
Shelter is where the good-looking surfer crowd outfitted in RVCA t-shirts and Wesc hoodies go to eat good food, drink pretty cocktails and stare at their fellow purdy surfer compatriots. It is also where anyone – local or tourist - wanting to enjoy a warm Okanagan goat cheese salad with braised greens, bacon, and warm vinaigrette or Tofino-caught salmon with BC spot prawn risotto can go to sit outside and enjoy the glorious water and mountain view.
3) Go on a canoe trip and learn about the Nuu-cha-nulth First Nation tribe. After two weeks of a daily curriculum consisting of physical activities such as biking, golfing, kayaking, and some not-so physical activities such as tanning and gourmet meals, I yearn to sharpen my mind and learn something. So, I decide to embark on a 4-hour round-trip canoe trip to Meares Island to learn more about the original inhabitants of the area – the Nuu-cha-nulth people – and the history, culture and landscape of the area.
Nine of us gather around, waiting for our guide. It is early by vacation standards – 8:50am- and I am not the only one who looks like I would rather still be in bed. That is, until Gisele Martin, our guide and co-owner of Tla-ook Cultural Adventures, approaches us.
In her early 30s, tough yet attractive Gisele is geared up in Hunter Boots, black leggings and has a commanding presence. She tells us about the history of the red cedar-made dugout canoe and how her dad built his first canoe as part of a 1-year logging protest in 1984 on Meares Island. The canoe is 12 years old and is identical to the canoes generations of her tribal people used to hunt and get around on the water. If taken care of, the canoe will last many lifetimes.
As we paddle on the glassy clear water, viewing bull kelp, translucent jellyfish, seals and other sea life, Gisele tells us about the history of the island and of the tribe. We learn about salmon spawning, the significance of lichen on trees, the rituals and livelihood of the Nuu-cha-nulth, stories and songs Gisele learned as a young girl, and more.
In my eyes, Gisele is a master storyteller, geologist, naturalist, marine biologist, Eagle Scout and tour guide extraordinaire all rolled into one.
We dock at Meares Island, where the National Geographic-like learning continues. Our guide points out medicinal moss that can function as gauze for wounded animals and humans, shows us swimming salamanders and tells us how these little swimmers release a chemical to the eggs signaling them to not all hatch at once. We analyze wolf droppings showing evidence of otter fur and claw, learn banana slugs live to age five and are vital to the forest as they ingest anything dead or dying so are masters at composting.
One of the most fascinating parts of the adventure is learning about the spiritual importance and imperative function the cedar tree has played throughout Nuu-cha-nulth history. The tribe would only chop down a tree if they were confident they would use every inch of the tree. Before chopping down a tree or even slicing into a small piece of the tree, they ask the tree for permission and thank the tree. The First Nations people discovered cedar was versatile and could be used to build canoes as well as skirts, coats and purses. I am fascinated by the Nuu-cha-nulth’s cross section of reverence and function for the majestic cedar tree.
As we paddle back to Tofino, I am radiating the same kind of exuberance from my schoolgirl days after a day of field trip learning.
4) Relax – Tofino is one laid-back place that is highly conducive for reading on the beach, slowly enjoying your coffee at a cafe, watching the sunset at Chesterman Beach or getting a massage at Wickaninnish’s Ancient Cedars Spa. I always arrive at the spa at least 45 minutes before my scheduled treatment so I can enjoy a nice steam and sit in one of the cozy chairs overlooking the ocean in my Wickaninnish Inn-embroidered robe.
For such a low key place, there are a number of activities: Pilgrimage to the Hesquiat Hot Springs, hiking (although most of it is boardwalk hiking), golf in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, whale watching, yoga, the list goes on.
Where to stay:
1) Bella Pacifica Campground - Book ahead so you can stay at this highly coveted campground which is one of my motivators for making the trek to Tofino. Landscaped well so there is enough privacy, the campground is located on Mackenzie Beach with some sites having gorgeous views and access to the beach. It is prime real estate – I am shocked it is a campground. Falling asleep to the sound of the waves never gets old.
I always stay at Bella Pacifica, but here are some cool spots I have scoped out if you are not into roughing it:
2) Red Crow B&B - My German canoe partner could not stop raving about the fully-booked Red Crow so I decide to ride my bike down their long driveway into a tranquil spot overlooking the water to have a look. I learn the spot is located on 5 acres of private old growth rainforest. The keepers welcome me in and give me a detailed tour of the place which consists of one giant house with a Martha Stewart country style kitchen, living room, and jaw dropping back deck. Each of the two rooms in the house have peaceful views of the water, one even with its own private deck.
3) Ebb and Flow Guest House - I only poked around the exterior of the place, but what immediately draws my attention is its zen modern look and its placement. The vacation rental sleeps six and is located just down the raod from downtown Tofino on the main drag so it is a great option if you do not have a car. Ebb and Flow is not located right on the beach and may not be as tranquil as the other lodging accommodations on this list, but the rooms have views looking out into the water.
4) Middle Beach Lodge - A couple of Vancouver locals rave about this lodge which is situated really close to Bella Pacifica. In fact, they share a main driveway. The lodge is separated into two segments – one for families and one for adults. The views are quite incredible and I am told some of the rooms have an outdoor private hot tub.