Dramatic, wave-whipped beaches and brooding, mist-licked forests make the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve a must-see for anyone interested in experiencing British Columbia’s raw West Coast wilderness. The scenic drive through the center of Vancouver Island is only a taste of what’s to come. En route from Nanaimo make sure to stop at the sprawling food and crafts menagerie, Coombs Old Country Market, with a grassy roof where a herd of goats spends the summer months.
Mystical Cathedral Grove (above photo) between Parksville and Port Alberni is the spiritual home of tree huggers and where forest trails wind through a dense, breathtaking canopy of vegetation, offering glimpses of some of BC’s oldest trees, including centuries-old Douglas firs more than 3m in diameter.
Vancouver Island’s favourite outdoorsy retreat is Tofino and it’s not surprising that surf fans, families and city-escaping Vancouverites keep coming: packed with activities and blessed with stunning regional beaches, the funky community sits on Clayoquot Sound, where forested mounds rise from roiling, ever-dramatic waves.
We’re cosying in at The Shoreline cabins, located in a pocket of tranquility just off the highway. This hidden gem is perfect for waking up to glass-calm waterfront views. Time to chill out and peace out.
Coffee, then the world.
A glimpse of the view from the deck of our cabin at The Shoreline.
Today we’re hiking up to the Cox Bay Beach lookout. It’s a muddy, steep, jungle-y, somewhat dodgy climb but once at the top the panoramic view rewards us.
Couples that shralp together stay together. The heavy, constant rollers of the Pacific Ocean against wide expanses of beach have made this one of the world’s hot spots for surfing. Whether beginner or experienced you’ll find outfitters to help you catch the wave, year-round.
Tim’s a bit rusty but he gets up eventually, for at least half a second.
We’ve worked up a good appetite so after a hot bath we head straight to The Wolf in the Fog restaurant for a culinary experience worthy of our surfing safari. Just look at this beautiful potato-crusted oyster with celeriac and truffle mayo—reason alone to come to Tofino! We also recommend Sobo (meaning Sophisticated Bohemian), a brilliant place to dive into fresh-catch seafood for dinner and there’s a hearty lunch menu as well as take-out soups and tempting baked goods. Other favourites include Shelter, the Rhino Café (for the donuts and breakfast bagel) and The Common Loaf Bake Shop. While Tim is finishing his coffee Sandi nips into Merge, a lovely shop full of curated and handmade goods, and emerges with a fine pair of hoop earrings.
The legendary TacoFino truck serves up fresh fish tacos and a host of other satiating specialties. Serendipitously, a few steps away is Chocolate Tofino with heaping house-made ice cream (try the lavender honey) and delicious chocolates to-go including salted caramel, wild blackberry buttercream, passionfruit, lavender, masala chai and tiramisu rooibos truffles. We might never leave Tofino.
Masala Chai Truffl
Visible through the mist and accessible via kayak or tour boat from the Tofino waterfront, Meares Island is home to the Big Tree Trail, a 400m boardwalk through an old-growth forest that includes a stunning 1500-year-old red cedar.
Be careful not to step on any banana slugs crossing your path. These forest dwellers can grow to a length of 8 inches (20cm).
Meet the animal that’s making everyone say, “What's all over the beach?” Brilliant blue Velella Velella’s aka “by-the-wind-sailors” are colonial hydrozoans (related to jellyfish) that float on the surface of the ocean, catching plankton food with their tentacles. The sail on top of their body allows them to be blown about by the wind. When the wind and currents are just so, millions of them get carried here and get stranded on the beaches and die. They are not dangerous to humans.
The sleepier town of Ucluelet (nicknamed ‘Ukee’ by locals) has more than a few charms of its own and is a good reminder of what Tofino was like before tourism arrived. Forty-one kilometers south of Tofino it’s well worth a stop for a day or two. Star hikes include the 2.8km (1.7m) round-trip Willowbrae Trail which leads down steep steps to both Florencia Beach (above photo) or Half Moon Bay (the most romantic cove on the Long Beach stretch) and the Wild Pacific Trail that winds around wave-slapped cliffs past a lighthouse and along the craggy shoreline fringing the town. Don’t leave town without trying the cinnamon buns (or anything) at Zoe’s Café.
Sandi finds a natural resting spot to take in the view on the Wild Pacific Trail.
The kid-luring touch tanks at the Ucluelet Aquarium are filled with local marine critters, most on a catch-and-release program.
The relaxed vibe here calls for a good read and a fascinating local one is “White Slaves of Maquinna”, John R. Jewitt's narrative of his three-year capture and confinement at Nootka in 1803.