Tofino Bound: Vancouver Island’s Boast On The Coast

Above: The rocky shoreline of Tofino, Vancouver Island, Canada (Photo: chbaum/Shutterstock)
Above: The rocky shoreline of Tofino, Vancouver Island, Canada (Photo: chbaum/Shutterstock)

There’s something about Tofino that gets under your skin in a good way. And you don’t come back the same person as you left. That’s not lofty, esoteric claim. It’s the absolute truth.

It’s not a big place, less than 1.900 year-round residents, but it has managed to carve out a unique niche in a crowded market where destinations are desperately fighting for tourist dollars. And it’s done it by just being itself. It’s rustically beautiful, with not a single condo tower to be found. It’s remote enough and handy enough via quick flights from Vancouver or Victoria. And it has attracted businesses that are welcoming to tourists, but don’t specifically cater to them.

Tofino is much like the guy totally at ease with going to a wedding reception wearing jeans and a sports jacket. It’s laidback and chill, free-of-attitude kind of spot where there’s no pressure to do anything other than to have a good time. And on that count, it truly delivers.

Surf’s up

Located on the southern tip of Clayoquot Sound and the Pacific side, it’s not surprising that Tofino is an ocean playground. The waves are good and consistent which attract surfers to its waters. Surfers here are just the tourists. The locals here live to surf and surf to live. Many head out for a couple of hours even before their workday begin. These days, though, it’s all about paddle surfing.  It’s the hottest new sport on the planet right now and you’ve got to try it here.

Before you embarrass yourself in front of fellow surfers or paddle boarders and beachcombers, do yourself a favour and sign up for some lessons. Your ego will thank you. Tofino Paddle Surf takes students to a quiet, calm bay where you can fall off your board in relative seclusion. Once you’re sure-footed and can get vertical for a sustained amount of time, you venture farther out to tackle some waves.

Speaking of waves, there are some rockin’ ones come late fall and winter. The surf kicks up along with the wind for some truly spectacular, moody and brooding scenery. The Tofino travel folks are rather brilliant. They’ve turned storm watching into a second peak tourism season. Hotels with great views fill up with nature lovers, photographers and never-leave-your-room type couples. To see nature unleash her full fury is a wild, woolly and wonderful experience.

Eat to the beat

In Tofino, you don’t eat in a restaurant: you dine. There’s a big difference. Because of its relaxed pace, don’t expect to squat, gobble and go. Just chill and plan on spending on evening sipping and supping. A long-time favourite of locals and tourists is SoBo. It started out as a food truck by the side of the road. (Long before food trucks were cool.) It served things like wickedly good fish tacos and polenta fries. Now it has a brick and mortar location in town that features a kicked up menu showcasing local products, everything from crab to wild prawns and organic vegetables. Chef Lisa Ahier (a transplant via Texas and author of the new SoBo Cookbook) isn’t shy about her spicing. Flavours are fresh, bold and delicious. On your must-try list include: Key lime pie and the SoBo Margarita that is so potent a maximum of two drinks will be served per patron.

Shelter is one of those restaurants where you can say, “Everything is good” and mean it. Chef Matty Kane does an amazing job with letting the flavours of his ingredients shine through every dish. When you have some of the best produce, meat, seafood and cheese right in your backyard, it’s the right thing to do. Don’t mess with them. Let them be as they are. Very Zen. Natch, the seafood is the star of the menu. Mussels. Local. Halibut. Local. Crab, oysters, salmon. Local times three. Carnivores are equally happy with lamb sirloin, a classic steak and frites, or a rotund juicy burger.

And, as a side note, Kane is also one of many people you’ll meet in Tofino who came for a vacation, fell in love and then moved there for good. Just be forewarned. It could happen to you, too.

For dessert, teeny tiny Chocolate Tofino is the place for sweet treats. Kim and Cam Shaw make chocolate that will ruin you for life. It’s unlikely you’ll have any ever again that is as fresh and beautifully nuanced with things like blackberries. Don’t leave without a cone of lavender honey ice cream in hand, or a chocolate bear, filled with miniature chocolate fish and sea creatures – a couple of their signature not-to-be-missed items. And yes, Kim and Cam came to Tofino for a holiday and ended up coming back to live and work. See a trend here?

Stay here

There are plenty of hotels scattered along the beach around Tofino. One of the favourites is the all-suite Pacific Sands Beach Resort (pacificsands.com), located on the edge of the spectacular Pacific Rim National Park. It’s the best of all worlds. It’s luxurious, yet casual, and contemporary, yet cozy.  The suites are amenity packed, from well-stocked kitchens, fireplaces, hot tubs, soaking tubs with a view, and balconies. It feels more like staying at a fabulous friend’s cottage than a hotel.

When you’re feeling lazy and don’t want to cook, just phone up the food & beverage folks and ask them to deliver a continental breakfast to your door, or grab gourmet frozen entrées from guest services to throw into the oven. Sheer perfection!

The best tactic for your stay? Book a beach house for you and a gaggle of friends. A two-bedroom one, for example, sleeps six people comfortably and costs $430 a night and up during winter storm season, less than $75 per person. The beach is at your doorstep. If it was any closer, you’d be IN the water! Use this as your hub for whale watching, beach combing, s’more making, cycling (bikes for rent on-site) and spa time next door at the Ancient Cedars Spa (at the Wickaninnish Inn).

Just one more warning….  When chatting to the staff and how much they love working at the resort and in Tofino, you’ll already be plotting your return. It really is that amazing.

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Michele Sponagle

Canadian journalist Michele Sponagle is a prolific creator of lifestyle editorial, from travel to style, from relationships to food trends. She has been there and done that in more than 60 countries — and still counting. She has contributed to most of Canada’s leading media outlets and racked up more than 10 National Magazine Award nominations and one win from the Travel Media Association of Canada for best family feature.

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