The party of Spanish naval officers who happened upon Tofino during the summer of 1792 might well be amused by the swelling popularity that has recently gripped this once-sleepy fishing village at the tip of the Esowista Peninsula on Vancouver Island. Just half an hour by Learjet from Vancouver, one hour by chartered aircraft, and five hours by car and ferry, Tofino, and neighboring Ucluelet, have become what many now call Hollywood North, a favorite hangout for actors and film execs ensconced in big-screen projects on the island and, increasingly, intrepid travelers seeking off-the-grid getaways. Bordered on three sides by ocean and the 150,000-acre Pacific Rim National Park to the south, Tofino holds obvious appeal for outdoor enthusiasts but also, surprisingly, for art lovers, history buffs, and those accustomed to luxuries like farm-to-table tasting menus, organic wine flights, and full-body seaweed wraps. Here are five great reasons to visit Tofino and Ucluelet now.
If you do nothing else on your visit to Tofino and Ucluelet, by all means, surf. With 22 miles of surf-worthy beach and a water temperature that consistently stays at about 50°F, Tofino is the ideal spot for both novices and seasoned long boarders. That Canada’s most famous surfer, Pete DeVries, has been riding the waves of Tofino’s Chesterman Beach since age seven must mean something. (This is also the beach that singer Sarah McLachlan now calls home.)
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With a handful of surf schools, the mindbogglingly beautiful oceanfront and wilderness surrounds of Clayoquot Sound (a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve) have drawn scores of surfers since British Columbia Highway 4 was extended to Tofino in 1961. At the forty-one-room, cedar-shingled Long Beach Lodge Resort, built by Victoria native Tim Hackett when he fell in love with the beach while camping here in the 1960s, there's a full-service Surf Club Adventure Center and an oceanfront “Great Room” boasting floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the vistas of Cox Bay. It’s the perfect place for vacationing surfers to roost while they get their feet wet.
Meanwhile in Ucluelet, 25 miles south of Tofino, the go-to guy for surfers is Tyson Touchie of Wya Point Surf Shop. Touchie, economic development manager of the Ucluelet First Nation who settled the region millennia ago, has an infectious enthusiasm for Ucluelet and deep knowledge of its history which makes him an idyllic ambassador for visitors.
Creative Food and Drink Scene
How do I love thee, Wickaninnish Inn, let me count the ways. A Relais & Chateaux property opened over a decade ago by Tofino native and Cornell School of Hotel Management graduate Charles McDiarmid, the distinctive Wickaninnish Inn (or “The Wick,” as some call it) with its beach-facing rooms, sumptuous spa, and seamless service has limitless allure.
However, the culinary invention that unfolds in the kitchen of its The Pointe Restaurant is among its most memorable highlights. Housed in a former art gallery, crisscrossed by cedar beams on cathedral-like ceilings with panoramic windows that overlook the ocean, The Pointe offers a 4,000-bottle wine list and an ever-changing menu based on seasonal, local ingredients. Dishes like oyster panna cotta with seaweed and Tofino Dungeness crab pavée are just a few exceptional creations here. Executive Chef Warren Barr also offers a weekly tasting menu paired with BC’s finest wines as well as international bottles.
Meanwhile, former The Pointe chef Nick Nutting opened the trendy Wolf in the Fog last June, another one of Tofino’s culinary gems. So local is this artsy, surfer-vibe eatery that all fish on its menu are sourced from a dock just a block away. In addition to tasty craft cocktails, Wolf in the Fog is known for its oysters, served lightly smoked, wrapped in potato, and fried. Visitors looking for a more casual meal should check out Hank’s Untraditional Barbeque where there’s comfort food aplenty such as beef ribs, pork belly, or seafood stew, all agreeably accompanied by a pint of Kelp Stout (yes, kelp) from Tofino Brewing Company.
First Nations Culture and History
A Meares Island Cultural Tour offers an engaging day trip for those visiting Tofino and Ucluelet. One of a handful of islands surrounding Tofino in the Clayoquot Sound, Meares is home to Opitsat, the main village of the Tia-o-qui-aht First Nations. Since 1984, Meares has had tremendous historical importance for British Columbia when logging was planned and a coalition of First Nations and environmentalists blockaded the island. In the end, logging was prevented and the protest was the start of a province-wide environmental movement.
Tsimka Martin, a Nuu-chah-nulth guide, provides her deep knowledge of and passionate narrative on the natural and cultural history of the region as she leads hikers on a three-hour tour along The Big Tree Trail through forests that contain some of the tallest cedar trees in British Columbia.
Another significant spot for travelers interested in the cultural and natural history of the region is the Kwisitis Visitor Centre at Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The center showcases exhibits developed in partnership with Local First Nations with photographs and beautifully crafted, life-like displays telling the story of the First Nations who settled the region. Cushy lounge chairs are scattered throughout the center so you can whale watch over Wickaninnish Beach between exhibits.
Refreshing Hot Springs and Luxurious Spa
Accessible on a twenty-minute scenic flight by small craft on Tofino Air over the Clayoquot Sound coastline or an hour-long water taxi ride, Hot Springs Cove comprises a nook of natural sulfurous springs on the island-bound Maquinna Provincial Park, about 25 miles northwest of Tofino. A forty-five-minute hike through woodlands leads you to an outcropping of rocks surrounding hot springs that spill onto a remote beach. Slip into your bathing suit in a series of changing rooms just off the trail and then hop in and enjoy the energizing experience of marinating in hot water while the cool, ocean waves lap over you.
Meanwhile, at the more indulgent Ancient Cedars Spa at The Wick, choose from a range of treatments that incorporate First Nations wisdom with polishes, creams, and soaks derived from Tofino and Ucluelet's natural bounty. Try the “West Coast Sacred Sea” treatment, which includes a full-body exfoliation using Vancouver Island seaweed.
Embedded Artistic Community
Everywhere you look in Tofino and Ucluelet you'll see local art. It bedecks the walls of the Wick, decorates the region's smattering of surf shops and coffee shops, and is on statement-making display at the Roy Henry Vickers Eagle Aerie Gallery in the heart of Tofino. A recognized leader in the First Nations community who also received the Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal in 2003, Vickers has become an ambassador, of sorts, for the region. His haunting prints depict nature and animals in vibrant colors reflecting the mythology of the Northwest Coast people. The cavernous Eagle Aerie Gallery, built in Tofino in 1986 as a traditional longhouse, has since held several retrospectives of Vickers’ stunning prints and carvings.