Tofino, British Columbia, Canada: Getaway on the Top of the World

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Getting away from everything becomes a reality in Tofino, British Columbia.

Located on the remote west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada, step onto hard-packed sand at one of four main beaches and have the unique experience of feeling like you are at the edge of the world. The next stop across the roiling Pacific Ocean is Japan — or New Zealand, depending on how you face it.

Tofino Mixes Laidback Vibes and Old Growth Coastal Rainforest

The lookout from the Cox Bay hiking trail. Photo courtesy of Tourism Tofino

Located within the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, the district of Tofino is a pristine place of wild natural beauty, situated within an old-growth coastal rainforest. The main town is also named Tofino. And the cool, laid-back vibe of the hippie-meets-hipster culture in the town, population 2,500, defines the area’s mellow personality.

It’s a place that takes its coffee seriously, where cars, and even bikes, have surfboard racks and chefs serve the freshest, locally sourced seafood, craft beers and British Columbia wines.

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The area is also immersed in the living history of the Tla-o-qui-aht (anglicized to Clayoquot) First Nations people, who have called these lands home for thousands of years.

Hit the Beach

The packed sand beaches in Tofino are ideal for cycling. Only single-gear bikes are allowed on the sand. Photo by Jeremy Koreski

Take your pick of beaches to stroll. Long Beach stretches several miles. Others arc around paradise bays that give Canada’s surf capital its name. I like to have lunch in the Great Room at the Long Beach Lodge Resort, where the windows face onto Long Beach for a primo view of surfers.

Birders, boarders, photographers, cyclists, hikers and walkers also have good reason to be here to listen to the endless, deep rumble of the surf and breathe in scents of spruce and cedar from the old-growth coastal rainforest giants around them.

Calmer waters on the Tofino Harbour side draw kayakers. Several tour companies lead sea kayak groups for paddlers of all experience levels to the islands of Barkley Sound to spot harbour seals, sea otters and eagles.

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Tofino Gives Visitors a Sense of Awe

Charles McDiarmid, managing director of family-owned luxury Relais & Châteaux property The Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach, says whether it’s the surf, forests or solitude, Tofino always draws people back.

“Today, we’re an urban population on this planet,” says McDiarmid. “And when people come to Clayoquot Sound, I think as part of our mission, they should leave with a real sense of awe and appreciation and wonderment and take that back with them to the city to appreciate what these places represent.”

The love of the place is personal for McDiarmid, whose dad, Howard McDiarmid, came to Tofino in 1955 as the town’s only doctor. He bought a splendid piece of ocean-facing land for his family’s cabin. The McDiarmid sons grew up there with their parents, who were determined to see the area preserved and protected. With gentle stewardship, The Wickaninnish Inn opened on the family property in 1996 with the motto “rustic elegance on nature’s edge.”

Embracing Winter Weather with Storm-Watching Season

Enjoying storm season near Pacific Sands Beach Resort. Photo courtesy Pacific Sands Beach Resort

There’s no dressing up here. Pack comfortable outdoor wear, including a waterproof jacket. Tofino is a rainy place, with 130 inches of rain annually, much of it in winter. Howard McDiarmid helped popularize the idea of making Tofino a four-season getaway by adding a winter storm-watching season to draw visitors from November to March. It’s become a popular time to visit.

Like many Tofino hotels, The Wickaninnish Inn provides heavy rain slickers and rain pants in the rooms. Layer up and hit the beach to experience nature at its most extreme. Fierce winds whip up the surf and the pelting rain falls nearly horizontal. The reward comes when you dry off and cozy up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate or a glass of something to warm your insides.

How to Get to Tofino

Getting to Tofino requires patience and flexibility because the weather and remoteness dictates most travel plans. There are direct flights from Vancouver to Tofino-Long Beach airport, or via seaplane to the Tofino Marina. You need a car to get around. New local car rental company, Otus, has everything from motorcycles to tiny cars and mini vans in its fleet.

There’s one road in and out and I recommend renting a car in Victoria and doing the 4.5-hour drive from the charming provincial capital. The second half of the trip is incredibly scenic. The two-lane road passes lakes and forests as it follows a series of mountain passes. Or drive one way and fly the other.

Tofino is consistently voted among the world’s top tourist destinations. Here are a few ideas on what to do, see, eat and where to stay in and around Tofino.

Walking Amid Rainforest Giants

Hikers admire a centuries-old, massive western red cedar in Pacific Rim National Park. Photo by Jordan Dyck

Take a walk in the coastal temperate rainforest of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on two half-mile paths that follow a series of boardwalks, bridges and staircases with railings. The Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations consider these lands as their traditional territory.

Learn more about the place and nature through interpretive panels. Marvel at the girth of the towering western red cedars, some of which were already 500 years old when Capt. James Cook sailed to this region in the late 18th century.

Rent a Bike in Tofino

Some resorts have bicycles for day use or rent a cruiser beach bike to explore the beach or the new ʔapsčiik t̓ašii (pronounced ups-cheek ta-shee) multi-use pathway. The wide, gentle 15-mile route ducks in and out of the trees from Tofino to Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Stop at beaches along the way. There are toilets at beach stops.

Nature on View

There are several tour companies in the area that specialize in whale, bear and otter-watching excursions, including Indigenous-run Ahous Adventures. Jamie’s Whaling Station has boats ranging from a 45-passenger vessel with enclosed seating area, to wild rides on open zodiacs. Spot resident grey whales, humpbacks and the beloved black and white orcas.

Surf’s Always Up in Tofino

Surfer in Tofino. Photo courtesy of Destination BC, photographer Ben Giesbrecht

Why not add surfing to your skill set? Several surf schools offer beginner lessons with expert instructors. With Surf Sister, women and men of 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.

Shopping in Tofino

Campbell Street is Tofino’s short main drag. There are a variety of cool clothing stores where you can pick up a Tofino toque, which seems to be the headgear of choice here no matter what the weather. Stop in at Mermaid Tales Bookshop for a great read, while photographer Jeremy Koreski’s shop and First Nations artist Roy Henry Vickers’ gallery are must-visit spots.

Where to Eat in Tofino

The Pointe Restaurant. Photo by Jeremy Koreski

The Pointe Restaurant

One of the best views in Tofino is at The Pointe Restaurant in the Wickaninnish Inn. The curved cedar dining room has 240-degree ocean views, with a large hammered copper fireplace in the center of the stylish room.

The Pointe was the first fine-dining establishment in Tofino and chef Clayton Fontaine continues the tradition of using local, sustainable seafood, interesting ferments and foraged ingredients to make sophisticated dishes. Even the butter is made in-house. And there’s an excellent wine cellar, including a solid British Columbia wine list.

Shelter

At the newly renovated Shelter, sit by the cozy fireplace and look out through a wall of windows at the Tofino Marina, Meares Island and the Vancouver Island mountains in the misty distance. The menu has contemporary favourites.

I love the thick seafood chowder made with local fish and shellfish. The bar is always hopping. Before dinner, stop at Indigenous-owned Naas Foods across from the restaurant and pick up a can of umami-rich smoked kelp flakes. Many local chefs use it in place of finishing salt on fish.

Wolf in the Fog

Located on Tofino’s main street, the Wolf is marking its 10th anniversary this year. Named Canada’s Best New Restaurant by Air Canada and enRoute Magazine in 2014, the upstairs dining room is a welcoming, rustic space, presided over by a driftwood wolf sculpture.

The main-level patio is sweet in the summer months. Local fishers keep the restaurant supplied with fresh ingredients as well as inspiration for chef Nicholas Nutting, who fishes and forages as well. Excellent cocktails, too.

Shed Restaurant

Tofino takes surfer refuel food seriously. The meaty burgers and bowls made with locally caught grilled salmon or poke tune always fit the bill. The outdoor patio faces one of the town’s main intersections, so it’s the place to be pretty much year-round, thanks to well-placed heaters.

Jeju

Opened in 2021 by husband-and-wife team Dylan and Sung Kim in the center of town, Jeju serves modern Korean cuisine from an open kitchen in a casual space filled with wood and light. I’m a fan of the excellent bibimbap. Jeju made the longlist as a finalist in Air Canada enRoute magazine’s Canada’s Best New Restaurants list in 2022.

Rhino

Rhino Coffee House on Tofino’s main street is as popular for its organic dark-roast coffee as its house-made donuts. Breakfast burritos and the Bro Nut breakfast sandwich—essentially a breakfast platter on a house-made, savoury donut—are the best way to start a coastal day.

Food Trucks

Tacofino, located in the Live to Surf parking lot complex, always has a lineup and once you taste the fish tacos, you’ll know why. Toki Doki at Tofino Brewing Co. specializes in Japanese comfort food, like takoyaki (octopus balls) and spicy seafood okonomiyaki.

Where to Stay in Tofino

A Premier room in The Pointe building at the Wickaninnish Inn. Photo by Kyler Vos.

The Wickaninnish Inn

The boutique hotel has 75 rooms and suites in total in two buildings. The Pointe and The Beach buildings both face Chesterman Beach. All the rooms have ocean views and gas fireplaces. The service is effortlessly elegant thanks to many subtle touches, like the Vancouver Island-quarried stone bar in the On The Rocks bar: The front is heated so guests feel cozy when they lean their elbows on the top.

You won’t see a TV in your room. It’s hidden in a large dresser or the ceiling and slides into view with a remote because McDiarmid wanted the view outside to be the main attraction.

Even the soaker tubs come with a view, although there is an automatic blind for privacy. Or raise the shade and open the patio door to hear the surf while you relax. At night, the waves and chirping Pacific tree frogs lull you to sleep.

The inn has a bespoke, hand-crafted look thanks to master carver Henry Nolla, who used a an adze he made from a steel car spring to create the rhythmic scoops in all the cedar fireplace mantles, lintels and beams. His adze is in a carved display case in the Henry Nolla Gallery in the Pointe building.

Carving Shed on the Beach

Carver “Feather George” Yearsley in the beachfront carving shed at The Wickaninnish Inn, Tofino. Photo courtesy The Wickaninnish Inn

Visit Nolla’s original carving shed, just down the beach from the inn where he lived and worked. It’s now a combination museum, art gallery and workspace, where carver George Yearsley, who came to Tofino because of Nolla, is always up to take a break and have a chat.

Known as Feather George for the graceful eagle feathers he carves from reclaimed cedar, the fragrant wood curls left by Yearsley as he works are part of the Feather George cocktail served at the at the On the Rocks Bar.

The hotel also has the Ancient Cedars Spa with a steam cave for relaxing before or after treatments a cozy library, a daily small-group yoga class in a tree-top studio and a café with a drying room for wet clothes after a storm watching session.

Linda Barnard was a guest of The Wickaninnish Inn, which did not preview this story.

If You Go:

Hotels in Tofino
TourismTofino.com
HelloBC.com

Read More:

Carving Yap’s Ancient Culture in WoodCarving a Piece Of CambodiaInto the Flow Zone: Arenal Volcano, Costa RicaRainforest Repose: Queensland’s Sanctuary Eco-LodgeInside the World’s Oldest Rainforest – Crocs, Cassowaries, and Cape Tribulation

Author Bio: Linda Barnard lives on Vancouver Island, where she’s lucky enough to be a regular Tofino visitor. The former staff movie writer for the Toronto Star started a new life in Victoria, B.C. in 2018 as an award-winning freelance travel and food writer. Her work appears in national and international magazines, newspapers and digital travel publications. Read her stories at lindabarnardportfolio.com. She is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada (TMAC) and the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW). Follow her on Instagram: @barnardwrites

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