Utilizing the wonderful BC Ferries system, I am taking a car across on the ferry from Tsawwassen on the BC mainland to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, and driving to Tofino for three nights on the island’s wild west coast. Then northeast and the ferry from Comox across to Powell River for four nights along the Sunshine Coast back to Vancouver. This road trip includes four ferry crossings and eight days of travel through some wonderful west coast scenery.
PART 1 – Vancouver Island’s Wild Side
. . . . . . .
The ocean is visibly upset this morning. Ominous grey clouds gather on the horizon as the wind whips the sea into a froth. Huge waves pound on the rock outcrops that hedge both ends of Cox Bay, sending spray up ten metres into the sky, while big rollers send beachcombers scrambling inland. It is both wild and wonderful. On the west coast of Vancouver Island, the magnitude of late fall and winter storms is humbling and soul-stirring.
One can choose to hunker down with a hot drink at a dry distance from the pounding surf and watch the squall rage outside the window of your comfortable accommodations, or don your best raingear and venture out into the elements to witness nature’s fury firsthand. My problem? I have booked a surf lesson, and envision myself out in the turbulent seas, a sophomore surfer getting tossed and broken by angry waves.
“Sorry mate” says the bearded attendant with what I believe is an authentic Australian accent, as I wander into the Surf Club at Long Beach Lodge Resort. “All lessons cancelled for the day.”
I am immediately thankful, while pretending to be upset, responding by saying something inane like, “No chance to go ride some curl then?” I am in Tofino on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island – and when in Tofino you must sling the surfer slang.
“Well – I will put it this way,” responds the patient clerk. “Anybody who knows anything about surfing won’t be out there today!” This left me to ponder whether he was secretly encouraging me to go out to ride the waves – or not.
A Relaxed Surfer’s Vibe
My road and ocean trip itinerary began with my wife and I flying to Vancouver, picking up her folks (and more importantly their car), sailing across the Straight of Georgia to Nanaimo, and then meandering 208 kilometres westward along an arduous route that twists through sheer cliff faces and jagged shorelines, before coming to the final stop on the Trans-Canada Highway at Tofino.
Tofino, in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island, is for travellers seeking a wild refuge. This end-of-the-road enclave offers up lush forests, sweeping silky beaches and a rugged coastal landscape. It is a tiny town on the continent’s westernmost edge, that transformed itself from stormy outpost to revered eco-tourism destination.
World-class waves and a growing community have made Tofino a top surfing destination. Year-round, surfers slip into wetsuits, grab their boards, and splash into the frigid Pacific. The area boasts 35 kilometres of surfable beach break that can be tackled by beginner and experienced surfers alike. The waves are highest in the winter, though surfing can be had year-round, and water temperatures hover around 10 C throughout the year.
The 16-kilometre aptly named Long Beach, located in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve adjacent to Tofino, is the most popular surf spot suited to all experience levels. We have settled into the Long Beach Lodge Resort, a splendid accommodation built on the edge of the ocean on Cox Bay, despite the name. Cox Bay beach is much smaller than Long Beach, only 1.5 kilometres, but is said to offer a more challenging surf break. While many surfing hotspots tend to be pretentious, Tofino offers a quiet welcoming that makes it the perfect place to try surfing for the first time. Just not, apparently, for me today.
A New Way Through the Woods
There is an extensive trail network in the nearby Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, and in the absence of playing in the surf, we head into town to Tofino Electric Bikes for rentals to check out the reserve’s new cycling trail. Parks Canada, in collaboration with Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation and Yuu?u?i??ath, recently unveiled the 25-kilometre pathway named ?apsc?iik t?ašii (pronounced “ups-cheek ta-shee”), “going the right direction on the path.” The multi-use trail was named by Elders who provided guidance throughout the project, selected the course of the pathway, and made sure its construction was done appropriately. Our plan is to bike from Tofino to Ucluelet and back, so I wonder if we will be going the wrong direction half of the time?
The new trail winds its way through old-growth rainforest, over salmon-bearing streams, and past breathtaking ocean views. We detour off the trail, peddling down to remote beaches. Slanting pine trees shaped by the relentless wind protect empty stretches of sand strewn with driftwood. You feel you are the first explorer to discover this piece of ragged paradise, standing on the edge of the world, with nothing between you and Japan except the cold, vast, churning Pacific Ocean.
A Town on the Edge
Tofino, with its population of 2,000, give or take seasonal fluctuations, is much more than just a surfing, biking and storm-watching destination. Also on offer are whale watching and bear watching tours, birding, kayaking, and fishing. Hiking trails meander through quiet and ancient rainforests, and across sandy beaches beside crashing waves. We lock our bikes to tackle the short but rugged Wild Pacific Trail near Ucluelet, past the historic Amphitite Point Lighthouse. In the evening, back at the resort, we trek across Cox Bay Beach and climb up the Cox Bay lookout trail to catch a dramatic sunset.
Take the time to explore the Tofino townsite, with its art galleries and eclectic shops. We grab a latte at Rhino Coffee and one of their signature donuts (the secret ingredient in mine is beer), and carry it down to chat with the crew at the busy Canadian Coast Guard station. Shelter Restaurant has a fire going in the massive hearth and excellent locally caught fish & chips.
Other delicious finds: the renowned Tacofino food truck, with its Baja-style fish tacos and chocolate diablo cookies, the Great Room at our resort, which offers up fresh seafood direct from the boats, and the Toki Doki Food Truck, a Japanese Diner in an 80’s airstream in the Tofino Brewing Company’s parking lot that we happen to stumble upon while rewarding ourselves with a kelp stout after completing our bike ride.
Tofino is a paradox, a place both to unplug and recharge, a place of relaxation and adventure. The town’s growth is limited by its location on a rocky peninsula, but its reputation depends on preserving the wilderness and solitude that has long drawn nature lovers and hippies. While it has grown, Tofino remains a small town at the end of the highway.
Though I could stay here awhile, hang ten, and settle into that surfer lifestyle, it is time to continue on down the road and back to the BC mainland on the north Sunshine Coast. So, as my wild West Coast trip continues, we board another ferry to head across the Salish Sea on a pleasant two-hour voyage from Comox to Powell River and . . . Desolation . . .
Road Tripping Notes:
Travel – BC Ferries – Sailing on BC Ferries is a quintessential part of the coastal experience. As one of the largest and most sophisticated ferry systems in the world, BC Ferries has played a vital role in life on Canada’s west coast for over 50 years. BC Ferries Vacations offer over 100 travel packages, including ferry travel and accommodations. www.bcferries.com
Stay – Long Beach Lodge Resort – Long Beach Lodge Resort is on Cox Bay Beach, which is an amazing crescent of sand that ends at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. www.longbeachlodgeresort.com
Eat – Rhino Coffee House is the go-to for locals www.rhinocoffeehouse.com. Other popular local haunts are the Shelter Restaurant www.shelterrestaurant.com, Jeju Restaurant www.jejutofino.com, Adrianna’s Sandwich Shop www.adrianas.ca, and the plant-based comfort food of the Bravocados Bistro www.bravocadosbistro.ca. Need to replace the calories you are burning hiking, biking and surfing, visit the Savary Island Pie Company www.savaryislandpiecompany.ca
Drink – Tofino Brewing Company www.tofinobrewingco.com
Do – Tofino Electric Bikes www.tofinoelectricbikes.com
Information – Tourism Tofino www.tourismtofino.com