THE ROAD TO TOFINO

Tofino is a truly unforgettable place. Those who have made the journey leave with unforgettable memories of kayakers peacefully paddling the Clayoquot Sound, surfers enjoying world classwaves set against the stunning backdrop of old growth forest, crisp mornings in warm cafes, and sitting in reverence ofsunsets againts immense mountainous skylines.

Its 9:30 in the morning and as we take the BC ferry to Vancouver Island, I catch my first glimpse of the distant snow-capped North Shore Mountain Range with the Vancouver city scape in the foreground. We reach the place where the plankton and silt-laden fresh water flowing out of the Fraser River merges with the salt water of the Strait of Georgia, a long and eerily distinct line forms between the two. Despite the beauty of my surrounds, I head back down to the car to catch some sleep, it’s been 24 hours now since we left Sydney and I didn’t catch a wink of sleep on the plane.

Before we know it the cliffs of Departure Bay loom out of the fog and we are herded off the ferry into the fast moving traffic of Highway 19 along the east coast of Vancouver Island. The rain is pelting down as oversized utilities with really big tyres speed past me. We speed up the coast in what is admittedly a less relaxed scenario than I had anticipated.  But Vancouver Island is no ordinary island—with a landmass comparable to that of Taiwan; it is the largest body of land off the west coast of North America. It is home to nearly 800,000 people, half of which live in the wider metropolitan area of its picture perfect, increasingly bohemian and epicurean capital city, Victoria. 

Victoria is overwhelmingly the most popular destination for tourists who visit the island, but on this journey we single mindedly set our sights on a place that holds an almost mystical attraction, Tofino — set at the end of a peninsula on the island’s rugged west coast and surrounded by the Clayoquot Sound on three sides and the Pacific Rim National Park on the other. Not only does this region boast the most temperate climate in country, I am told Tofino is also home to the best surfing beaches in Canada. Surfing beaches in Canada? Having grown up surfing Sydney’s crowded northern beaches, I must admit the idea of a small and isolated surf community in the frigid Pacific North West is something that appeals to me. Still, this is something I will need to see with my own eyes.

Having slept off a goodly amount of jetlag overnight in Qualicum Beach we hike around a stunning nearby lake in true outdoorsy Canadian fashion and proceed to Coombs for a much anticipated brunch at the world famous Coombs market. Set up originally by Kristian Graaten and his wife, Solveig—after emigrating from Norway with their children in the 1950’s—this iconic and traditional Danish wooden building complete with sod roof (maintained in spring by a trip of grazing goats), remains true to its organically inspired roots and is well worth the stop before setting off across the island. 

We hit Highway 4 turning west and head for the first designated stop at Cathedral Grove, where we walk in awe through this majestic and ancient stand of towering Douglas-fir trees, some over 800 years old. The largest of these giants you will find on the northern loop which measures 76 metres high and 9 metres in circumference. The trees are easily accessible and the trails are short, making the experience visitor friendly. The southern loop snakes along the banks of Lake Cameron through the ancient Western red cedars.

There are plaques explaining how these magnificent trees were the most sacred to the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth people because they obtained virtually everything they needed for survival from them. From woven water proof hats and cloaks to timber and bark for construction. The rain mists down through the forest canopy and I shiver from the marked drop in temperature since we left the coast. We head back to the car and for a moment I marvel at the hardiness and ingenuity of the First Nations people who made their life in this harsh and beautiful place. 

The scenery changes dramatically as the road winds towards the interior past snow-capped mountains, shockingly beautiful lakes and ancient forests.  The rain continues to come down and the mist gets thicker the higher into the mountains we climb. We pull off the road at one of the many hiking trails to stretch our legs and explore the forest. A sign at the head of the trail says ‘Beware! Black bears in the area. Make plenty of noise so as not to surprise the bear, if confronted do not run’. My wife is keen to explore, me less so. We are not really equipped for the rain—or the bears for that matter—but we press on through the mud chatting loudly as we go.

Back in the car and one change of clothes and footwear later, we are on the road again. It takes around 3 hours to drive from Coombs to Tofino, but we take a few hours more to see the many sites along the way, snap some pictures and sit in reverence of the raw beauty of this place. 

The small fishing town of Port Alberni is close to the midpoint of the journey and from here onwards Highway 4 becomes the Pacific Rim Highway. We drive on through the rain, cautiously navigating the winding single-lane road revealing striking vistas at every turn. As we reach the west coast we decide to turn left towards Ucluelet, a small town which sits at the southern end of the string of beaches that runs all the way to Tofino. 

We stop for a hot beverage and pastry at the hip and cosy Barkley Cafe before heading towards Amphitrite Point Lighthouse—you’ve probably seen pictures—where I catch my first glimpse of the stunning coastline near Little Beach. 

Before long we’re surrounded by the Pacific Rim National park— 126,500 acres of lush old-growth rainforest and pristine beaches within the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. 

As we approach the Tofino peninsula, the national park gives way to small beachside communities nestled among ancient cedars, twisted Sitka spruce and moss-covered maples which spill out onto the sand. The houses are traditional yet architecturally exquisite, finished in local Douglas fir and yellow cedar; they sit tastefully in the natural environment.

It is clear that the Tofino area inspires many artists and artisans. Any doubts I had about Tofino’s thriving surf culture are quickly dispelled—there are surf shops and surf schools on every corner and every second car has boards on the roof. Although it’s early spring, the weather has been unseasonably cold, and as I see surfers packing hooded 4.2mm wetsuits into vans and heading off to find waves, my initial doubt turns to respect. 

Tofino is also a thriving centre of eco-tourism. It is a world class destination for sea kayaking, whale watching and bear viewing.  Visitors can take a First Nations guided dugout canoe tours to explore the 1000 year old cedars on Mears Island, or visit Hot Springs Cove—approximately 40 kilometres north west of Tofino and accessible by boat or float plane followed by a hike through the forest. 

There is so much to do that we find ourselves unsure as to whether we will get around to it all. Of course we won’t, so we settle back into the laidback atmosphere and try not to do too much. In the mornings I am content to stroll down to the wharf and peer across the Sound at the untouched wilderness beyond, such is the grandeur of the scenery.

 It doesn’t take me long to find where the locals prefer to congregate for breakfast and coffee—The Common Loaf Bake Shop is a Tofino institution staffed by an eclectic mix of people who are serious about their grains. It is here over a hot beverage and a lazy breakfast every morning that we consider our next move for the day.

In the evenings there is a dearth of dining options to choose from.  The Point Restaurant in the Wickininnish Inn sets the bar extremely high with its award winning farm-and sea-to-table cuisine and magnificent 240 degree panoramic views over the Pacific and Chesterman Beach. The award winning Wolf in the Fog serves unforgettable dishes using fresh locally sourced ingredients, whilst Sobo and Shelter Restaurant both have tasty food with a relaxed and cosy atmosphere.  

Much of our time we spend hiking the spectacular old growth trails and flawless beaches of the Pacific Rim National Park with many of the trails following the original routes of the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth people. We feel privileged to walk amongst trees that may have been here for as long as 2000 years and are nourished not only by the deep sense of history but also by the pure, moist forest air.

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