As the burnt-orange sun sank into the sea, a half-dozen walkers on the beach stopped, stared and clapped at the particularly gorgeous sunset.
That was the evening’s big entertainment at Tofino, B.C., way out on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Once an isolated fishing and logging village, Tofino, home to about 1,900 people, and its neighbor Ucluelet have morphed into comfortable getaway destinations amid a glory of ocean wilderness and lush rain forests.
You can sleep in comfort, even luxury, at more than a dozen oceanfront places near Tofino — hotels and condo/cabin resorts. Then spend your days strolling the miles-long sandy beaches and forest trails. Take small-boat tours or kayaks to surrounding islands. Or just laze around and watch the waves, maybe even some orcas or gray whales, from the comfort of your room as you crank up that gas fireplace.
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Worth the drive
It’s a long day’s drive to Tofino from Seattle, including a ferry ride to Vancouver Island, and the last part of the drive is on a winding, narrow road that cuts through coastal mountains. But it’s worth it. Tofino is a wilder, funkier, rustic-luxe version of Oregon’s Cannon Beach, and the way-out-there feel is part of its allure.
Not that you’ll be alone here in summer. The beaches and forests of Canada’s Pacific Rim National Park lie between Tofino and Ucluelet (the two communities are about 25 miles apart, at opposite ends of a peninsula), and in the long, often sunshiny days of summer the rooms and the campgrounds fill up. Visit instead in spring or fall, when it’s more peaceful and hotels are cheaper. Or go in the dead of winter if you can take the deluge and want to watch storms; Tofino gets soaked with about 128 inches of rain a year (Seattle averages a mere 38 inches).
I’ve been visiting Tofino for decades, including in the early 1970s before the last 60 miles of road was paved — it was a slow-going logging road — and back when hippies hung out in driftwood shacks on the beach.
Remnants of the hippie days still endure, along with an eco-ethic fueled by 1980s protests and political battles that curtailed old-growth logging. And while luxurious hotels and sprawling second homes now are scattered along beaches and oceanfront bluffs, whimsical little cabins remain tucked deep in the forest, woodstove smoke curling out of their chimneys.
On roads and some beaches, locals ride their bikes with surfboards strapped to the sides. Hitchhiking still endures; on my last visit, one bushy-haired guy ambled along the main road, strumming a guitar with his back to the traffic and barely pausing to stick out his thumb, confident he’d get a ride fast. He did.
Then there are the surfers, who live to ride the rolling (and cold) North Pacific waves, bobbing like sleek, skinny seals in their black wet suits. They eke out a living in Tofino so they can surf, surf, surf year-round.
But what really endures around Tofino are the First Nations, the Nuu-chah-nulth tribes of Vancouver Island’s Pacific Coast, whose ancestors lived off the ocean bounty for thousands of years. One of the biggest tribes is the Ahousaht, with hundreds of people living on a remote island reservation north of Tofino, traveling in small sturdy boats to shop and see friends and family in Tofino. They and other Nuu-chah-nulth groups also run a few hotels and offer eco-tours.
Here are my five favorite ways to get a taste of Tofino’s natural and human history — and a taste of local cuisine.
1. STROLL AT CHESTERMAN BEACH
This 1.7-mile broad curve of beach is outside Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, so it’s dotted with houses and the deluxe Wickaninnish Inn at the north end, above rich tide pools. It’s a lovely beach walk, guaranteed to give you house envy (see tourismtofino.com/tofino-beaches).
What I like best is walking across a sandspit (which can disappear at the highest tides) out to Frank Island, a teardrop islet with a couple of cabins and, on its far side, rocks coated with mussels and tide pools brimming with anemones, sea urchins and sea stars.
Hungry and feeling flush? Have an excellent meal or drink at the upscale, oceanfront Pointe restaurant at Wickaninnish Inn. wickinn.com/pointe-restaurant
2. HIKE THE NUU-CHAH-NULTH TRAIL
Take a walk in the rain forest and across a wetland on trail and boardwalk in Pacific Rim park (see pc.gc.ca). The only sounds are the muffled rumble of the surf and birdsongs along the 1.5-mile (one-way) level trail. Interpretive signs are scattered along the trail, telling of the Nuu-chah-nulth who used to walk this route and telling of bears, cougars and other local animals.
I like to start at its Florencia Bay trailhead, on a bluff above a wild beach, then walk north on the trail to the park’s Kwisitis Visitor Center, a lovely weathered-wood and big-window building at Wickaninnish Beach with natural history and First Nations displays. Have a meal or a drink in the adjoining Kwisitis Feast House, with First Nations-inspired fish soup and bannock or excellent grilled fish, burgers and salads; the Ucluth First Nation runs a small gift shop next to it.
Wilderness beaches, including Wickaninnish Beach and the adjoining Long Beach, stretch almost 10 miles north from the visitor center, a tangle of storm-tossed driftwood, white sand and pounding surf. It’s heaven for long walks or beach runs. But I like to walk another trail from the visitor center through the woods to South Beach. It’s about a half-mile to the pocket beach. Lean against garage-sized rocks that thrust like sentinels out of the sand and watch the waves roll in.
3. TAKE A SMALL-BOAT TOUR
Take an hourlong boat ride (or floatplane if your budget will bear it) from Tofino to Hot Springs Cove, in the remote Maquinna Marine Provincial Park, on an island north of Tofino. Walk a half-hour on a gentle forest trail from the dock to the hot springs, which burble up in deep rock clefts near a beach, forming blissfully warm small pools. Go first thing in the morning to beat the crowds, especially in summer. And perhaps see whales, dolphins and porpoises along the way (see tourismtofino.com/tofino-activites/hot-springs-cove
Closer to Tofino, take a water taxi or kayak tour to Meares Island, one of a tapestry of islands in Clayoquot Sound. The island was the epicenter of the battle that began more than 30 years ago to limit the logging of old-growth. Walk trails among now-preserved ancient cedars. tourismtofino.com/trails
4. WALK TO THE LIGHTHOUSE
Once a no-frills logging and fishing community, Ucluelet (ucluelet.ca) has blossomed into an ecotourist destination with lodges and vacation-rental cabins dotting the rugged, rocky seashore. You won’t find the vast stretches of beach like those in Pacific Rim park to the north; what you will find is the wildly scenic Wild Pacific Trail, which twists along the rocky oceanfront and through the forest.
There are several trail sections, and more being added. I like the 1½-mile Lighthouse Loop, a gentle trail that winds through thick rain forest and along wave-battered rocky headlands, with sweeping views of the open Pacific and the century-old Amphitrite Lighthouse. Info: wildpacifictrail.com
After the fresh air and walking, you’ll be hungry. Two of my favorite places to eat on my most recent visit were Shelter, an upscale restaurant, and the more casual and far more budget-friendly Common Loaf Bake Shop, both in Tofino.
On a starry, chilly night, guests sitting outside on Shelter’s patio happily huddled under heat lamps and wrapped themselves in blankets (provided by the restaurant) and feasted on local salmon, mussels and oysters. shelterrestaurant.com
At the Common Loaf Bake Shop (phone 250-725-3915), I joined the lineup of locals for excellent sandwiches, soup and delectable pastries. “Life is short, eat dessert first,” is a shop motto. And it’s a way to make your visit to Tofino even sweeter.
Kristin Jackson: firstname.lastname@example.org