Story by Michelle Hopkins
UCLUELET, BRITISH COLUMBIA — “Over there … come quick!” someone shouts, pointing to the water a few feet away. I rush to get to the bow of the boat … what I witness is truly a Bucket List moment. Pretty soon I hear a “whoosh,” see a spout of mist, and suddenly the barnacled behemoth appears — literally right beside our boat. It playfully sprays through the waves for a game of hide and seek. Then its tail arches up, water cascades from its scalloped edges and he soon disappears into the depths — only to return moments later.
Here I am, up close and personal with a 20-plus ton grey whale that follows our boat for nearly an hour. Kira, the naturalist with the Canadian Princess Fishing Lodge Resort in Ucluelet, explains to the lucky crowd that this is extremely rare.
Meanwhile, I gingerly crouch down and touch this oddly beautiful mammal’s back. By the end of my adventure, this mischievous whale sprays me a total of five times.
Grey Whales and Bears on the Pacific Coast
The three-hour tour is made equally interesting by our captain, Keith Nakagawa, who knows these waters like the back of his hand. A seasoned seaman for more than 34 years, he regales us with his whale tales. He tells his attentive crowd how he once chanced upon the mating rituals of two males and a female grey whale, adding with a laugh: “these whales were unbelievably active.”
For avid fishermen, Nakagawa says Ucluelet offers the third largest fishing waters in the province — rich with salmon, halibut, and bottom fish. This part of British Columbia, on the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island, is also well known for its surfing, hiking and wildlife.
When I was invited to take part in the Pacific Rim Whale Festival in both Ucluelet and the more well-known village of Tofino back in March I didn’t hesitate — having never spotted a whale up close, I started packing my bags right away.
My home in Ucluelet was the Canadian Princess Fishing Lodge and Marine Adventures. It is as quaint and rustic as the seaside town. Less sophisticated and quieter than Tofino, Ucluelet has a charm all its own. This fishing village boasts a number of craft shops, restaurants and little cafes.
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That night, I dine in the Quarterdeck Dining Room aboard the historic HMS Princess, which is permanently moored outside the lodge. Built in 1932 in Ontario, the HMS used to be named the William J. Stewart and was considered one of the country’s finest coastal crafts.
The West Coast-inspired menu, as you would expect, is heavy on the seafood and offers a fabulous menu featuring Ocean Wise-certified ingredients and that is crafted by new executive chef Jeff Keenliside. I highly recommend the smoked salmon chowder and the blackened fish tacos. I sat with a fun group of people, including hotel staff members, all of whom created a memorable dining experience in a vessel rich with history.
Hiking Along the Wild Pacific Trail: The following day, after participating in a workshop on aboriginal cedar basket weaving run by members of the Ucluelet First Nation, I was ready for a little exercise. With the sun beaming down on us through a forest of old-growth cedar trees, we hiked the rugged trail that weaves along the edge of reefs where shipwrecks, whales and vistas seem to go on endlessly. It is Ucluelet’s most famous nine-kilometre (5.6 miles) trail network and I understand why.
Tofino Botanical Gardens: I’ve visited Tofino numerous times over the years and yet somehow I had never taken the time to check out the Botanical Gardens. The day dawns wet and miserable yet it really didn’t matter. These gardens are truly whimsical and fairytale like. The forest is a treasure trove of hidden surprises — mossy wooden benches, a lagoon and a network of paths and boardwalks sprinkled with sculptures, carvings, shelters, sheds and an old, dilapidated salmon trawler. The driftwood/cedar shake structures are fabulously quirky.
If you are looking for true botanical gardens you might be disappointed, but it is a pleasant stop nonetheless. After meandering around the grounds for awhile (with umbrellas in tow), we headed into the quaint eatery, aptly named the Darwin Café, for a cappuccino and a delicious salad made of organic greens from the garden.
Marine Adventure with Long Beach Lodge Resort: The next morning after a great night sleep in my oceanfront room, I met up with a group for the lodge’s Marine Adventure tour. Although this voyage didn’t include any whale sightings, we witnessed a young black bear searching for his dinner along the shores. He completely disregarded our pure delight at his attempts to capture its prey.
What made this journey even more unforgettable was our captain/guide Josh Lewis. His breadth of knowledge is ridiculously amazing — whether he’s speaking about the region, its people, customs and geography, he has an answer. Mark your calendars for next year’s Pacific Rim Whale Festival, which runs in mid-March. The Festival is chockfull of inspirational talks, interpretive walks, children’s fun, culinary events, First Nations cultural workshops and spring art show.
MORE ABOUT VISITING UCLUELET
Pacific Rim Whale Festival: The 2016 edition will mark the 30th anniversary of the festival. For more information, visit the event’s website.
Where to Stay in Ucluelet & Tofino: Canadian Princess Resort (1943 Peninsula Road, Ucluelet) is part of the Oak Bay Marine Group. A recent search for room rates in June returned results starting at $128 per night. Reservations: 1-800-663-7090; Long Beach Lodge Resort (1441 Pacific Rim Highway) has room rates available in June starting at $329 per night but is sold out for all of July, according to its website. Reservations: 1-877-844-7873.
Getting There: Orca Air flies daily to Tofino from Vancouver Airport’s South Terminal. During the summer, Orca Air also flies once per day from Victoria to Tofino. From Tofino, it is a 30-minute drive to Ucluelet. BC Ferries has daily 90-minute sailings between Vancouver and Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. From Nanaimo, it is a three-hour drive to Ucluelet.