It may seem odd to start a perfect weekend in Tofino, Canada’s surf capital, by facing away from the waves.
But to engage with the soul of this place, begin by acknowledging that this area, consistently voted among the world’s top tourist destinations, is on the traditional unceded territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation. The Nuu-chah-nulth peoples have lived on these lands for thousands of years.
Long stretches of beaches with pounding surf, postcard-worthy sunsets and sunrises, and the area’s cool, laid-back vibe of the hippie-meets-hipster culture is a rightfully enormous draw. It’s thrilling to walk along hard-packed sand while listening to the churning waves and think that the next stop out there in the roiling Pacific is Japan.
Exploring Tofino and its roots
I kicked off my Tofino weekend with a different kind of powerful experience, taking a 10-minute boat ride across the channel from the small coastal town to nearby Meares Island.
I walked through the rainforest along a pleasingly higgledy-piggledy cedar plank boardwalk, stopping to marvel at the towering old-growth giants along the aptly named Big Tree Trail. Some are more than 1,000 years old. Occasionally, I’d lay my cheek against the rough bark and hug one — not easy when they measure 20 feet around. Yes, we hug trees on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Tofino is the kind of place where you feel weird for not hugging one.
Indigenous peoples call the Western Red Cedar “the tree of life” for the many things the roots, bark, and wood provide, from medicine to woven materials and canoes. When these old-growth cedars, hemlock, pine, and fir were threatened by commercial logging, protestors took to the trees to halt loggers in Clayoquot Sound in the 1980s, living in the topmost branches in protest. On the ground, they blocked access to trucks. The protest culminated in 1993 in what became known as “the war in the woods.”
Much of this stand against logging took place on Meares Island. Now a Tribal Park, its protection and stewardship is ensured by the Tribal Park Guardians.
To get to the Big Tree Trail, sign up for a tour, take a water taxi or kayak over and do the ¾-mile-long walk. The boardwalk gets slippery when it rains, which happens often here. It’s uneven in spots, so take your time.
One-of-a-kind hotels, shops and restaurants
Look for signs in Tofino shops and restaurants with the Tribal Parks Allies logo, which means 1% of guests’ bills go to supporting the work of the Tribal Park Guardians. Hotel Zed Tofino, which opened in May 2020, was the first accommodation partner.
The new hotel embraces a ’70s theme that younger guests call “retro” and Boomers will call “looks like my teen self’s rec room.” If Sean Connery’s James Bond designed a ski resort lounge, this hotel lobby would be it, complete with a conversation pit and freestanding circular fireplaces.
There’s a lobby psychic den for Tarot card readings and a private disco. Pull the secret volume in a bookshelf and it slides back to reveal a hidden video game arcade.
The Zed is also home to Roar live-fire restaurant, where executive chef Kaelhub Cudmore’s team uses a ferociously hot Mibrasa grill from Spain to prepare excellent food using hardwood and charcoal. Much of Roar’s seafood and seaweed comes from Indigenous-owned Naas Foods in Tofino, which buys from T’aaq-wiihak day fishers.
Bar manager Dinah Kisil runs the creative cocktail program, which uses local ingredients and spirits, including small-batch spirits from Arbutus Distillery in Nanaimo, southeast of Tofino.
Find a more luxurious experience at Pacific Sands Beach Resort, an all-suites stay surrounded by forest and fronting onto crescent-shaped Cox Bay.
The rooms have restful beach décor, plush beds, fireplaces, and well-equipped kitchens. Some have hot tubs. There are rain slickers in the closets for visitors who come to walk the beaches in the rain and wind of the winter storm season.
Yoga and surfing, too
Go from snuggling in your cozy bed to a morning beach yoga session in a few minutes. I did a dawn walk along the Sunset Trail boardwalk to Pettinger Point, following a forest path that opened up on spectacular views of the resort and the ocean churning against black rocks.
You can also take a lesson with expert instructors from Surf Sister Surf School at the on-site Surf Shack. All ages and stages are encouraged to pull on a wetsuit and give it a try in shallow water, with classes led by women who really want you to succeed.
There’s no on-site restaurant, but Surfside Grill serves excellent takeout fish and chips and fish tacos. As the day winds down, guests sit around propane fire pits dotted all over the property to toast the setting sun.
A perfect weekend in Tofino: Water, waves and more
Tofino is a small town, with a population of about 2,000 people. In summer and most weekends, it can get very busy. Dinner reservations are a must.
Everything to do with water, waves, and the outdoors should top a Tofino weekend list.
Take a whale-watching tour to experience the powerful tidal grip of the ocean, then follow cues from onboard guides to spot whales. Our tour with Jamie’s Whaling Station was aboard a large boat with a spacious cabin. More adventurous types will love the large Zodiac whale-watching tours. I watched the boats go zipping by, bouncing over large waves, and was glad about the option I chose.
You never know what you’ll see on one of these expeditions. We were lucky and watched a couple of large groups of resident grey whales, although we missed out on humpbacks and the beloved black and white orcas.
Back on land
Back on land, warm up with a latte at Rhino Coffee and one of their signature donuts (the secret ingredient in some of them is beer). Then shop along and around Campbell St., Tofino’s short main drag.
There are a variety of clothing stores, beach and book shops, and galleries. Can’t miss stops include photographer Jeremy Koreski’s gallery; the Goods and Gallery shop for soaps, jewellery and the work of photographer Kyler Vos; and the House of Himwitsa Indigenous art gallery. I never leave Habit Clothing empty-handed, and general store Merge has just the thing you weren’t looking for but have to take home.
Be sure to walk all the way to the end of Campbell St. to Market & Co., a small stand of shipping containers that have been turned into businesses. Here, Ouest Artisan Patisserie turns out luscious pastries, macarons and chocolates, and the best croissants this side of Paris. Get there early.
Visitors often overlook the tiny and perfect Tofino Botanical Gardens. Although just 10 acres, the forested site includes native plants, interesting sculptures, and local artist Jan Janzen’s fanciful cedar plank gazebo, often called the Hobbit House. Check before you go to make sure the gardens are open.
Some resorts have bicycles for day use or rent a bike to explore the new ʔapsčiik t̓ašii (pronounced ups-cheek ta-shee) multi-use pathway. This wide and easy 15-mile route ducks in and out of the trees while shadowing the two-lane Pacific Rim Highway from Tofino to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. The reserve’s two elevated boardwalks flanking the road take you into the tranquil rainforest.
Getting nourished in Tofino
The opening of the Wickannanish Inn brought fine dining to Tofino 25 years ago, and The Pointe Restaurant at the Relais & Châteaux property remains an outstanding dining room. Foraged foods are hugely popular here, and the Pointe’s executive chef, Carmen Ingham, uses them with skill. His eggs Benedict with shredded braised short rib topped with truffles from the nearby Cowichan Valley is a standout dish.
Wolf in the Fog, which opened in Tofino 2014, is also a must-dine spot. Chef Nicholas Nutting’s focus is on local fish and seafood in this dimly lit, second-floor dining room where a life-sized driftwood wolf is the centrepiece. The dish of plump oysters from Quadra Island B.C. wrapped in thin spirals of potato, then deep-fried and kissed with truffle is amazing.
Shelter Restaurant, also in downtown Tofino, often has a fire going in the massive hearth to warm chilly guests on rainy days, so grab a table near the fireplace for a plate of excellent locally caught fish and chips.
What’s appealing to the over-50 luxury traveler?
- You don’t need to pull on a wetsuit (although why not?) to enjoy Tofino’s surf and nature vibes. There are plenty of soft adventure activities, from beach yoga to rainforest walks.
- Luxury beachfront properties here include Long Beach Lodge Resort, Pacific Sands Beach Resort and the Wickaninnish Inn.
- There is a real feel of leaving the world behind in Tofino, a chance to unplug and unwind among some of the world’s most inspiring natural scenery.
- To get to Tofino, you can drive about five hours from Victoria on Vancouver Island. Although there are direct flights from Vancouver to Tofino, they can be weather dependent. Visiting Tofino requires patience and flexibility.
- Many hotels offer shuttle services to and from the airport.
- A rental car is useful, especially to explore the small fishing community of Ucluelet, about 40 minutes away. It offers fantastic walking on the Wild Pacific Trail and an outstanding restaurant, Pluvio.
For up-to-date information about travel and COVID-19, visit the BC government website.
The author was a guest of Destination British Columbia, Hotel Zed Tofino, Pacific Sands Beach Resort and JW Marriott Parq Vancouver.
All photo credits: Linda Barnard (unless otherwise noted); lead photo courtesy
IF YOU GO
For additional information and resources to spend a perfect weekend in Tofino, visit Destination British Columbia.
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