After leaving Tofino, it took days for us to get the sand out of our clothes and the salt out of our hair. But one thing we’ll never get rid of: the unshakable feeling that Tofino’s connection to its land, ocean, and community create an oasis and the perfect escape from our busy lives.
The Trans-Canada Highway might end in Tofino, but our Tofino escape is just beginning. Soaring rainforests create lush backdrops to 35 kilometres of surfable beaches. Come hang loose in Canada’s year-round surfing capital. Think Hawaii, but with a toque!
Follow these Pacific directions to your destination
We hop on a ferry from Vancouver to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. From there, it’s a scenic three-hour mountain drive—if we don’t stop and sightsee. But like carving across an endless barrel, the journey itself is half the fun.
Our first stop? The community of Coombs, which manages to pack in more artists and galleries per capita than anywhere else in BC. At the Coombs Old Country Market, we get a handful of snacks (the imported cheeses are a must-have) and an eyeful (don’t miss the family of goats grazing on the roof).
We take our snacks down the road to Little Qualicum Falls. The walking trails lead us through rocky gorges with numerous cascading waterfalls. We pause for a picnic selfie, the waterfalls’ roar echoing through the ravines.
Port Alberni, a fishing town nestled on a deep-water ocean inlet, is next. We stretch our legs browsing the pungent fish markets hawking fresh-caught crabs, halibut, and salmon. Depending on the month, lucky visitors can watch salmon jump at Stamp Falls or safely observe bears foraging on the river from the comfort of downtown’s Victoria Quay.
Close encounters of the wildlife kind make us giddy. Little do we know there’s much more of that awaiting us a couple more hours down the road in Tofino!
Endless summer, endless imagination
A lot has changed since the first tourist hitched a ride on a steamship and landed in Tofino in the 1800s. But some things are eternal here: the allure of nature, the tight-knit community, and the rugged unpredictability of the ocean. We chatted with the locals (known as Tofitians) who shared why Tofino has captured their hearts and imagination.
A sea of possibilities
“When I moved to Tofino I was searching for adventure,” says Liam McNeil, an expert sea kayaking guide. What he found was a refuge. An escape. “The community welcomed me, along with so many other eccentric personalities, into this diverse and vibrant town perched on the edge of the world.”
With a salty breeze at our back, it’s easy to flee from the hum of modern life into the ocean. “Kayaking in the Tofino region offers unparalleled access to world-class waterways,” says McNeil. Beginners can safely glide across glassy ripples in sheltered coves, while more adventurous paddlers can make a break for the whitewash. “Try extreme surf kayaking on miles of sandy beach,” suggests McNeil.
Islands dot Tofino’s coastline, inviting us to disappear with the tide into an oasis of blues, greens, whites, and grays. “There’s a beautiful blanket of fog in the early mornings,” McNeil says. “As you slip out into a world of white, you watch the mists pull back, revealing green slopes of forests, glacial-topped mountains, and vibrant intertidal life.”
What are the Broken Group Islands?
Located in Barkley Sound, more than 100 islands just south of Tofino are part of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
It’s internationally renowned as a hotspot for wilderness camping accessible via kayaking.
Benson Island, where the Tseshaht First Nation believe the first Tseshaht man and woman were created. Dozens of islands have important archaeological sites.
Paddle past oyster farms into Lemmens Inlet. Stop for hikes—the old-growth forests on Meares Island remind us of what BC looked like long ago. Pull your paddle back in awe as monolithic shadows float under you (thousands of whales migrate past Tofino every year). Then let the evening tide carry you effortlessly back to the shore.
Hell hath no fury like nature’s storm
The next morning, there’s a dewy smell of rain in the air. That’s typically bad news back home, but not during Tofino’s storm season! From November through February, people flock to the area to watch storms turn the sky into a swirling Vincent van Gogh painting while massive 6 m (20 ft) swells pound the beaches.
We grab a coffee and watch it all from the cozy comfort of the Kwisitis Visitor Centre. Then, we let the howling wind pull at our soaking raincoats while we stand on the sand dunes of Chesterman Beach. There’s nothing like seeing heavy logs tossed and splintered like flimsy matchsticks, and for a moment, the roar of the foaming surf drowns out all memories of the outside world.
Don’t just watch. GET IN!
The best surfing is in the winter, but Tofino’s waters stay a constant 10 degrees Celsius all year. Rent everything you need at the dozens of surf schools and shops in town. Many of them are run by children or grandchildren of the early surfers who first came to Tofino in the 1970s.
Sea you on the otter side
The grey whale migration path takes 20,000 of the big guys right past Tofino’s beaches every year on their 20,000 km (12,500 mi) migration from the warm waters of the Baja peninsula to the frigid water of the Bering Sea. But that’s just the beginning of the menagerie of wildlife we meet.
Glimpse the wild residents
“Get out into the water and do a bear-watching tour,” suggests commercial fisherman Jeff Mikus. We hop onto a boat and head to a popular feeding ground. “It’s spectacular, and you’ll see something different every 10 minutes,” says Mikus.
We glimpse a mother bear and her cubs on the beach and a pack of wolves running through the forest. Our palms get a little sweaty and our pulse quickens. We’re grateful we’re observing it all from the safety of the water, far from the animals.
But then we see the orcas dancing just beyond the shore break.
Because Tofino is located within the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the wildlife options are seemingly endless. Seeing sea lions, elk, osprey, bald eagles, and more is not uncommon. “You can’t see many of these things in other places in the world,” says Mikus, “but you can see them all at once in just one day in Tofino!”
From surf to turf
The next day, nature brings clear skies instead of angry clouds. It’s the perfect interlude for a hike through a nature reserve along the Tonquin Trail boardwalk. We end up at Tonquin Beach. It’s so secluded, we feel like the last people on earth. Locals tell us this beach offers Tofino’s most spectacular sunsets. The vibrant orange that streaks across the horizon convince us it’s true. It’s refreshing to watch a sunset unimpeded by a horizon of skyscrapers and buildings.
After hiking, our sore muscles beg for a spa—and the universe provides one. And no, not at one of the many hotels and quaint B&Bs in town. Instead, we jump on a water taxi and head to Ramsay Hot Springs in Maquinna Provincial Park. Hot water bubbles up from somewhere deep below us, filling the top pool with steaming water.
With pruney skin and soothed limbs, we clamber out and follow the waterfall down to the next pool. There are several, and each pool gets subsequently cooler as we make our way down toward the ocean.
Smells like Tofino spirit
As we drive along the northern edge of Tofino’s peninsula, we catch a malty scent mingling with the sea breeze. That’s when we see the sign for local beer.
“This small, coastal community is the reason we’re open and thriving in such a busy industry,” says Neil Campbell of Tofino Brewing Company.
He attributes the brewery’s success not just to their top-notch beers, but also to the strong sense of community. “It makes this town even more beautiful than just its scenery. When they opened the brewery, the guys never could have imagined the overwhelming support.”
“Tofino is incredibly unique,” says Campbell. “It’s apparent to everyone, ranging from those visiting to those who’ve grown up here, that it’s a special place … [that’s] welcoming and progressive, while maintaining a true sense of community and a small-town feel all at the same time.”
We can sense the community spirit behind every handwritten store sign, every food truck’s locally sourced ingredients, and every roadside produce stand. Everything in Tofino is tied to its heritage, its land, the ocean that surrounds it, and its people’s distinct hunt for adventure.
You and Ucluelet
Approximately 30 minutes south of Tofino, explore the beachfront town of Ucluelet (pronounced you-KLEW-let):
- It’s less busy and less touristy than Tofino.
- It’s much closer than Tofino to popular local attractions, the Wild Pacific Trail, the Broken Group Islands, and Kennedy Lake.
- It’s a haven for fishing. Hire a fishing guide right in the harbour.
The Wildside Grill, which fisherman Mikus opened nine years ago with chef Jesse Blake, is a perfect example of this fusion of sensibilities.
Every week, Mikus launches his boat into Tofino’s waters to personally catch the restaurant’s sustainable seafood. “It’s my backyard,” he says. “It takes me 20 minutes from my front door to my boat. I go out into the harbour with a sunrise and eagles and seals. It’s a pretty spectacular commute, compared to Vancouver’s rush hour.”
“I love selling fish off the boat and telling stories about where they were caught,” says Mikus. “Tofino’s visitors look for a local type of experience. They’re very conscious of where food comes from.”
Mikus is a true embodiment of the Tofino spirit. He laughs as he tells us how, just the other day, he was wondering how the chickens were doing (the restaurant doesn’t just serve seafood). So he drove down the road to the chicken farm and had coffee with the farmer. For many of us, having a relationship with our food and those who tend it may seem completely alien. For Tofitians like Mikus, it’s second nature.
“Tofino is paradise. We’re really big on local and small farms and building relationships,” says Mikus. “Go and see it with your own eyes. Talk to the farmer. Most people who do this stuff are very excited to talk to customers because they’re proud of their products.”
As we leave, we promise ourselves to follow his advice when we get home. Taking home some of Tofino’s spirit of social responsibility might just be the best souvenir possible. That, and the sand we can’t seem to get out of our shoes.
Bite into local
We salivate watching the food roll out, from panko-crusted cod to oysters and chips. All of the restaurant’s dishes are fresh and local, and as we bite into it, we get an almost religious appreciation of how we’re all connected.