Vancouver Island’s Tofino is the place to enjoy nature, surf, kayak, see marine mammals, and get spoiled by the best restaurants.
As is the Relais & Chateaux Wickaninnish Inn with its Ancient Cedars Spa. To me it’s California laid-back, from its friendly staff to the earth tones in the décor of the rooms. Natural cedar carvings by Pacific coast artist Henry Nolla are prominent on the large doors and enhance both the beach resort and the adjacent Pointe property, while the beach property sits on the expansive Chesterman Beach. The original Wickaninnish Inn was located on nearby Wickaninnish Beach.
I stayed at the Pointe overlooking the islands and rocks. I loved my room (214), which had everything I could ever need: a gas wood stove, soft-colored furnishings and a private balcony (all rooms have one) where I sat at night with a Hudson Bay blanket on my lap listening to the waves, the tree frogs and watching the very slow sunset. It didn’t get dark until 11 pm.
I was so glad I was there for two days, but wished it was longer. I would have been happy with nothing on my schedule—the property is that special. Walking endless Chesterman Beach for literally hours, visiting the carving shed where Pacific coast tribal artist Feather George creates, or having dinner in the fantastic Pointe Restaurant would be enough for anyone. But Tofino has so much to offer and see. And I was encouraged to go on a guided kayak tour with Tofino Sea Kayaking to the old growth forests on Meares Island. I was so glad I did, as the experience is now one of the most memorable of my life!
Jamie’s Whaling Station in downtown Tofino also takes visitors out to see the wild marine life in small boats. I took their excursion to the hot springs, which included wildlife spotting. The ride in the 14-person motorboat went through Clayoquot Sound, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, where we saw rare puffins, other sea birds and sea otters right away! Next our handsome Captain “Benj” spotted whales! We were treated to a display of three immense gray whales diving and displaying their magnificent tails. The sight was thrilling and unexpected but we couldn’t stay long, as we were headed to Maquinna Park, named after an ancient warrior from the Nuu-chah-nulth group of indigenous people who was hailed for killing an entire ship of invading Europeans.
The nearly 10,000 original people were almost wiped out by the invaders and their diseases, but the remaining Nuu-chah-nulth (which encompasses all of the Vancouver Island tribes) are keeping their culture and traditions alive and strong as is evident in the modern carvings and land finally being granted back to them. (As I wrote in my last article, I stayed at the native-owned Wya Point Resort in nearby Ucluelet before Tofino.)
On this slightly drizzling but mild day, I walked the boardwalk at Maquinna Park for half an hour delighting in the intensely green old-growth forest, listening to birdsong and taking pictures of the incredible trees. At the end of the boardwalk are the natural hot springs embedded in a small section of rocks next to the tumultuous sea. Soaking in the natural hot springs in a small space with fellow travelers was fun. A highlight of this trip was Deogie, a local native dog that is part wolf who swims across the bay to get attention (and food) from the hot springs visitors.
The next day was gorgeous, and I walked the wide and peaceful Chesterman Beach before driving 15 minutes to Tofino Sea Kayaking in “downtown” Tofino. I joined a group of seven, led by our guide Liam McNeil, who energetically educated us in the area, the sport and all the gear required (life jacket, drip skirt, Wellington boots, and rain pants and jacket if needed, which are all included in the $79 fee for a four-hour tour). On this sun-shining day, we all blissfully paddled for 45 minutes. I was in the front of a two-person kayak, spotting Dall’s porpoises along the way.
When we arrived at Meares Island we pulled our boats onto the sand and headed for another boardwalk that meandered through the old-growth forest (which is really old; some of the cedars and spruces are 2000-years-old!). I felt like I was in a sacred place and found out that these trees produce so much carbon that it feels easier to breath here. One tree was so massive that our entire group climbed inside of it! Another cedar tree had a chunk removed a few hundred years ago by the aboriginal people who harvested pieces in a gentle way that does not harm the tree. Today, they still weave cedar strips into hats and baskets.
We could have happily stayed all day at Meares Island, but on the way back, the wind picked up and it was a bit harder—took a little longer—but Liam knew that, as he kept us entertained with folklore, spreading his knowledge of the local flora and fauna. As we paddled close to where we had started, an immense sea lion swam alongside one of the kayaks—almost the length of the boat! It was a bit disconcerting because he gave us this strangely intense look, but I think he was being playful!
Back on the the quiet streets of Tofino, I soaked in the relaxed vibe and talked to European tourists. The artsy town grows from 2,000 to 10,000 in the summer. I was there in May, the shoulder season and a great time to go. At this time, it was easy to get into the popular restaurants like Sobo (Sophisticated Bohemian) where I met chef and creator Lisa Ahier and tasted some of her delectable treats. Lisa knows all of her suppliers and everything is locally sourced, like the fresh salmon in my imaginative salmon taco filled with kiwi, pineapple and chipotle and the unusually large broiled Pacific oyster with her special sauce. Her organic greens are grown by an 85-year-old Tofitian.
Another night I went to the cozy Spotted Bear, which offers fresh and local food (seems to be the theme in Tofino) in a French-style bistro. For lunch, the food truck Tacofino is the place to get killer fish tacos. The blend of Mexican with freshly caught fish makes Tacofino a must-stop. Eating outside on a community picnic table with surfers and tourists is great too, and their chocolate-cayenne Diablo cookies are the best! I’m also hearing great things about a new restaurant which wasn’t open when I was there: Wolf in the Fog. I visited the Eagle Aerie Gallery, where First Nation artist Roy Vickers exhibits Vancouver Island’s nature-inspired screen prints.
Back home at the Wickaninnish Inn, I had an epic culinary moment as part of the Feast of Tofino (which happens every May) at The Pointe restaurant. The feast is all about the abundant seafood found in the local waters, and each week a different catch is featured. I was lucky to be there during Spot Prawn Week.
The warm wood open interior of The Pointe has a 240-degree view of the islands. The small-portioned meals and excellent friendly service made the evening special. I started with raw Black Pearl BC oysters, then grilled Spot Prawn Escabebe paired with a Riesling from BC winery La Frenz; next was Lingcod and Spot Prawns paired with a Blue Mountain Reserve. Because it was such a beautiful night we had dessert (really eye candy as it was decorated with edible violas), which was Chamomile Granite with poached rhubarb, outside on the deck overlooking the beach.
Back in room 214 the large bathtub with a view of the islands through the glass window was inviting. The soothing green slate bathroom floor and counter are the color of the Pacific Ocean, and I left my sliding glass door open so I could hear the waves crashing. Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” was playing on the Bose stereo. The “wood” fireplace was blazing. I was content.
The next morning I used the Wick’s bicycle to ride under the tall ancient trees and had a soy latte at the Driftwood Café made by handsome Australian barista Jax, before heading to the nearby airport. I had one more stop to make before heading out on an Orca Airways plane to Vancouver: Incinerator Rock on Long Beach. Here, I saw a young surfer woman putting on her wetsuit and I spotted the spray of distant humpback whales. The surfer told me how lucky she is to live in Tofino, and I felt fortunate to have visited—and to know I’ll soon be back.