Although it takes some effort to get there from the mainland, a visit to the west side of Vancouver Island restores the mind, body and soul
As I write this, the view from the back window of our fifth-wheel is spectacular.
The setting sun is casting an orange glow over the seascape; gentle ocean waves are spilling over rocky islets and cascading onto a pristine sandy beach. Where are we? We’re in Paradise by the Pacific. More specifically, we’re settled into an RV park a few miles south of the community of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
If you look at a map of Vancouver Island, you’ll see there’s only one road leading to Tofino (pronounced tuff-EE-no).
B.C. Highway 4, known as the Pacific Rim Highway, bisects the island, beginning at Parksville and heading west 30 miles to Port Alberni. From there, it continues 60 miles to a T-intersection on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Turn left, and within 10 minutes you’re in Ucluelet (you-CLUE-let). Turn right, and within 30 minutes you’re at the end of the road
Pacific Rim National Park Reserve
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Between these two charming seaside villages is Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which provides access to miles of rocky coves, sandy beaches and many designated trails through dense coastal rain forests.
To get there from the United States, board a Washington State Ferry in Anacortes or the Blackball Ferry in Port Angeles to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia. From there, drive north on Highway 1, the Island Highway, for 70 miles to Nanaimo. If you take a BC Ferry operating out of two terminals in Vancouver, you will arrive in Nanaimo. Now drive 23 miles north on Highway 19 to Highway 4 near Parksville, head west, and you’re on your way.
Highway 4 is narrow and curvy in spots, so drivers need to keep their eyes on the road. However, passengers can gawk to their heart’s delight at snowcapped mountains,
crystal-clear streams and lakes, lush meadows and dense forests. A popular tourist attraction between Parksville and Port Alberni is Cathedral Grove, a stand of old-growth forest in MacMillan Provincial Park.
Here, an easy stroll through ancient hemlocks, Douglas firs and western red cedars will give you an idea of how most of Vancouver Island looked not much more than a hundred years ago. The parking lot cannot accommodate large RVs, and parking on the shoulder of the highway is not permitted, but no worries; you’ll see lots of similar trees on the coast.
Port Alberni is the only community along this route that has major shopping outlets, such as Walmart and Canadian Tire, so you may want to stock up with groceries and RV supplies, depending on how long you plan to stay on the coast. I would recommend at least a week to sample some of the natural, cultural and culinary riches this region has to offer. Outdoor adventurers and nature lovers may want to stay forever.
Funky yet surprisingly sophisticated, Tofino and Ucluelet are small, friendly towns chock-full of youthful energy, with upscale resorts, spas and restaurants that rival the world’s finest. We stayed the entire month of May in Tofino and a few extra days in “Uke.”
Early on, we stopped by the Tofino Visitor Centre to inquire about things to do during our stay. When I asked, “What are the top three things we absolutely have to do?” the friendly gal pulled out a map and circled three attractions: Chesterman Beach, theTofino Botanical Gardens and the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island. And those were just her suggestions in the Tofino area; there are many other activities all along the coast, including in Ucluelet.
We lucked out with warm sunny days during most of our stay — locals were saying it was unusual for May. Reportedly, the warmest weather on the coast is from June to September, with average daily highs in the mid-60s Fahrenheit. Bring some extra layers and rain gear, as coastal weather can vary widely from day to day. The winter months are considered best for storm watching, ideally from a beachfront cabin in front of a cozy fire. Winter is not suitable for RVing unless your rig is equipped for cold conditions.
In 2015 National Geographic rated Tofino one of the Best Spring Trips, primarily because offshore waters are spring feeding grounds for thousands of whales, mostly grays and humpbacks, and occasional orcas. Various whale-watching outfitters provide seagoing opportunities to observe and photograph these gigantic mammals, but you may not even need to go to sea. A local commercial fisherman reported that you could watch whales spout in 30 feet of water right off Chesterman Beach.
Not seeing any spouts off Chesterman, we booked a two-and-a-half-hour boat tour with the Whale Centre in Tofino. Howie, our experienced and knowledgeable native guide, introduced us to a dozen gray whales, some of which he recognized, such as one named Ghost Face. He also got us up close to sea lions sunning on a rocky islet, a cluster of seals thrusting above the water as if posing for the cameras, several tufted puffins, and a bald eagle perched on a cedar branch that responded to Howie’s screeching imitations by tilting his head in our direction. Check out the Whale Centre’s free whale museum and be sure and ask for Howie if you plan on taking this tour.
Paddling and Surfing
If you enjoy water sports with a little adventure thrown in, look no further. The informative map of Tofino and Ucluelet from the visitor center lists numerous operators that provide guided kayak and canoe tours to protected harbors where you can paddle with sea lions and seals while seabirds soar overhead. You might even see the occasional bear, as we did, foraging along a rocky shoreline.
Our encounter was actually on a beach in Ucluelet where my wife, Sandy, and I were walking our dog, Bella, along the water’s edge. About 50 yards away at the high-tide line, a large black bear was overturning rocks in search of tasty morsels. We had planned an escape route — swim to Japan! — if he decided we were a more desirable menu item. With some relief, we went our separate ways and survived to dog walk another day.
Planning Your Trip
Right on the Pacific Rim Highway, the Tofino Visitor Centre is packed with information on things to see and do and places to eat and sleep in Tofino, Ucluelet and Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Helpful staff members are on hand to dispense travel literature and maps, answer questions and share their favorite local experiences. Parking is ample for RVs.
National Geographic also rated Tofino “one of the top surf towns in the world.” With waves
to suit all ability levels, surf shops that rent equipment and pro instructors, you’ll be riding
the curl before you know it. During our stay, top surfers from around the world competed while hundreds of cheering spectators lined the beach.
If you’re not quite ready to “hang 10,” you might want to try stand-up paddleboarding, which allows almost anyone to get out on the water and explore sheltered coves and bays. More proficient paddleboarders ride the ocean waves like surfboarders, except they stand up and paddle back out to catch another wave. Fun, and a great core exercise as well.
Within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve are eight designated trails, some with boardwalks that meander through old-growth forests and bogs. Others hug the coastline or lead to sandy beaches. The park charges a fee for use of these trails to help with maintenance. Several trails and beach accesses within the park are designated wheelchair-accessible.
Outside the park are additional free trails, such as the Wild Pacific Trail near Ucluelet. This easy, well-maintained trail has two sections: a circular 1.6-mile loop past the century-old Amphitrite Point Lighthouse and a 3.4-mile one-way stretch that undulates along the rugged coastline. Both offer awesome panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean. Closer to Tofino is Tonquin Trail (1.6 miles round-trip), which provides scenic vistas from a clifftop deck. A bench is provided for sitting and contemplating what’s important in life:
the answer is written in the waves.
If you want to combine a short hike with a boat ride and a hot soak, many operators offer half-day tours to remote Hot Springs Cove, about 26 nautical miles north of Tofino. During our excursion with Ocean Outfitters, we again encountered whales, seals, sea lions and various seabirds. From the dock, a half-hour hike to the hot springs through an ancient rain forest is like a step back in time; some of the trees were already 200 years old when Columbus arrived in America. And no doubt, First Nations people used the naturally heated pools and waterfalls for an occasional happy soak.
If you have a hankering to get out on the water and catch a big one, more than a dozen sportfishing charters are available to satisfy your urge. Experienced guides who know how to catch fish — primarily salmon, halibut and lingcod — will take you off shore on safe, comfortable and fully equipped boats. If trout is more to your liking, several operators also provide remote fly-fishing excursions to lakes and streams. Fresh fish, crabs, prawns,
clams and oysters can be purchased at several outlets in both towns, for those who just want to eat seafood rather than fish for it.
Thousands of years before Europeans arrived, First Nations people occupied these lands. Currently, four tribes remain in the area: one in Ucluelet, one on Long Beach within the national park boundaries, and the other two near Tofino on outlying islands.
T’ashii Paddle School, a First Nations company, offers guided dugout canoe trips from Tofino to nearby Meares Island, including an exploration of the Big Tree Trail. Appropriately named, this boardwalk trail through old-growth forest has some of the biggest and oldest trees on the coast.
Tsimka, our guide, taught us how to paddle a seven-person dugout canoe (carved by her father), as well as some cultural traditions, such as paddlers singing a greeting song when approaching the land of another tribe. If a welcome song was heard in response, it was safe to go ashore. She sang the greeting song beautifully in her native language while stomping her foot to simulate a drum. Although we heard nothing back, we went ashore anyway.
Taste of Tofino
Every month a different festival celebrates some aspect of life on the coast, from art and music to shorebirds and whales. We enjoyed the Feast Tofino festival (April 26 through May 5 this year) where renowned local and visiting chefs combine their culinary talents to prepare unique “boat-to-table” full-course dinners. We were not disappointed by the array of seafood featured at Jamie’s Restaurant and Wolf in the Fog. The food at both establishments was so good, we wanted to lick our plates.
During our walk, Tsimka pointed out various trees and plants that were used by her ancestors for different purposes, and described how native people have struggled in recent years to protect homelands from clear-cutting by logging companies. After returning to the dock four hours later, we understood why the gal at the visitor center ranked the Big Tree Trail among the top three things to do in Tofino. Combined with the dugout canoe paddle, we ranked it number one.
Partly historical, partly natural, the Tofino Botanical Gardens provides a network of paths leading into a moss-draped rain forest, where garden plots display tropical plants such as palm trees and giant Himalayan lilies, as well as local plants: skunk cabbage, salmonberry and medicinal herbs used by First Nations.
Unexpected sculptures, driftwood shelters, a children’s garden, and a frog pond into which a local kindergarten class releases tadpoles each spring make this an enjoyable experience, one in which conservation and meditation are encouraged. A fine way to end the day is relaxing on the garden’s outdoor patio at Darwin’s Café, overlooking a landscape of flowering plants while enjoying organic tea, coffee and pastries.
The Kwisitis Visitor Center within the national park features interactive exhibits and during the summer offers interpretive walks that explore the natural and cultural history of the Pacific Rim. Various galleries in both communities sell aboriginal art, including paintings, carved masks, woven baskets and jewelry. Considered a must-see is the Eagle Aerie Gallery in Tofino, a traditional longhouse displaying original paintings and reproductions by native artist Roy Henry Vickers.
Both communities have fitness centers, tennis courts and miles of paved bike paths. Tofino also has pickleball courts, a regulation nine-hole golf course near the commercial Long Beach Airport, and a brewery that offers tours and samples of original craft beers such as Kelp Stout and Tuff Session Ale. Ucluelet has a “catch-and-release” aquarium where visitors are encouraged to learn about and handle various sea creatures, which
are returned to the ocean at the end of the tourist season.
Miles of sandy beaches provide various options: kite flying, bike riding, beachcombing, clam digging, exploring tidal pools or just relaxing on a blanket with a good read and beverage. If you enjoy bird watching, this area is world-class because of the numerous species that live here or migrate through in the spring and fall.
When returning to the United States, U.S. citizens must present a U.S. passport, passport card, NEXUS card or enhanced driver’s license.
A half-day outing that we often enjoyed started in late afternoon at Tacofino Cantina, a small food truck located at the back of a gravel parking lot. We didn’t mind standing in line for what is arguably the best fish taco on the planet. Entertainment is provided by crafty crows, snatching tidbits from the plates of tourists who leave them unattended.
For dessert, we walked across the lot to Chocolate Tofino for handcrafted gelato and chocolates to die for. The outing usually ended back at our RV site where I would build a campfire, stare into the embers and think about all I really want: peace, love, understanding and a scoop of salted-caramel gelato.
At the end of our joyful month on the Pacific Rim, we reluctantly retraced our route across Vancouver Island back to more mundane activities. With images of shimmering waves, sandy shores and towering conifers ingrained in our memories, we decided to set our watches on Tofino time: “Half the pace, twice the pleasure.”