Story by Mark Sissons
UCLUELET, BRITISH COLUMBIA — “When you came to the junction 10 years ago everything was to the right — the park, Tofino, the beaches,” says Oyster Jim Martin as we hike along his life’s work — Ucluelet’s famous Wild Pacific Trail.
Martin, who acquired his nickname as an oyster farmer in a previous life, is responsible for conceptualizing and constructing this nine-kilometre (5.6-mile) network of paths hugging the spectacular coastline of the Ucluth Peninsula. It only took him about 35 years.
“Back then Ucluelet was all about logging and fishing and there wasn’t an atmosphere welcoming to tourism,” he says as we stop to admire the view from one of the trail’s numerous lookout points. “This trail helped Ucluelet really come into its own.”
Coming into its own is what Ucluelet — which means “people of the safe harbour” in the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth language — is all about these days. Long in the shadow of Tofino, its funkier and more famous neighbour 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the north, this unpretentious working harbour town the locals affectionately call “Ukee” is becoming a popular wild west coast getaway. Today, it offers visitors everything from whale watching and kayaking excursions to fresh dining options and a range of accommodations.
Staying True to First Nations Life
Take Wya Point Resort, for instance. Located a short drive north of Ucluelet on its own stretch of private beach, this First Nations-owned and -operated ecolodge set on 600 acres of old-growth forest offers three tiers of accommodations. Modern one- and two-bedroom timber frame lodges feature fireplaces, modern kitchens, spectacular ocean views and walk-on beach access. Spacious yurts deliver a novel “glamping” experience — all the romance of camping with modern conveniences just steps from a sweeping beach. And well-spaced, secluded oceanfront tent camping spots on groomed pitches complete with fire pits offer serenity amid lush vegetation to the soothing soundtrack of Pacific waves.
Only a few years old, Wya Point is already a successful model of culturally and ecologically sensitive, sustainable development along this still largely pristine stretch of coastline that includes world-famous Pacific Rim National Park’s beautiful islands, endless beaches and magnificent seascapes.
“This is an actual village site of the Ucluelet First Nation. That’s special for our people,” explains Tyson Touchie, the band’s former economic development officer who has been intimately involved in the development of Wya Point since its inception. “What makes this place special is it really means something to our people because we actually own it. It’s been a long time coming.”
According to Touchie, the band elders only gave the resort their blessing when assured that not a single tree would be cut down during construction, and that whatever was built could one day be removable to let their sacred forest recover. “ The resulting construction is sensitive not only to our cultural needs but is also low impact,” he explains while showing me around this impressive cluster of post-and-beam cedar lodges.
That evening at the Kwisitis Feast House, a Ucluelet First Nation-operated restaurant with a panoramic view of Wickanninish Beach attached to the Parks Canada Kwisitis Visitor Centre in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, Touchie shares stories of life growing up in this wild neck of the west coast woods. His grandfather carved the grand canoe on display in the Visitor Centre, which was developed in collaboration with local First Nations to accurately capture the cultural history and natural features of the area.
The next morning after fuelling up on fresh pastries and coffee at Zoë’s Bakery and Café, a popular breakfast spot in downtown Ucluelet’s Village Square, I set off on a two-hour harbour tour with Majestic Ocean Kayaking, which offers guided paddling tours around Ucluelet, Tofino, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and Clayoquot Sound.
As we circumnavigate Ucluelet’s harbour, owner Ted Eeftink scouts for black bears that occasionally wander along the western shore of Vancouver Island. On this intertidal excursion we encounter a river otter scrambling over the shoreline rocks and a few curious harbour seals popping their heads out of the water, content to pose for my camera as great blue herons and bald eagles circle overhead.
An Aquarium Rides a Wave of Progress
Opportunities for up-close and personal interaction with marine life also abound at the Ucluelet Aquarium, a non-profit public facility that displays everything from spotted ratfish and Humboldt squid to basket starfish. It’s most popular resident animal is the Giant Pacific Octopus, which has to be released and a replacement found every four months because it doubles in size during that time. Collected each March from nearby Barkley Sound and Clayoquot Sound, the aquarium’s remaining specimens are released back into the ocean by November.
“We are the first catch-and-release aquarium of this kind that we know of in the world,” says Ucluelet Aquarium development coordinator Jessie Fletcher. Opened in 2012, this waterfront facility contains a fascinating collection of morphing displays reflecting changes in the marine environment. Its constant water-flow system also replicates outdoor tide pools that enrich the habitat of Ucluelet harbour.
That rich marine habitat attracts all manner of other creatures, including a male sea lion I spot sleeping on the rear-loading ramp of a moored fishing boat the next morning as my whale-watching tour embarks for Barkley Sound. Rising from its slumber as we pass, the great blobbish beast begins to bellow, then slides into the water where it continues to bark for handouts from nearby fishermen unloading their slithering cargo.
Riding in the front of Subtidal Adventures’ zodiac, “Discovery,” I’m soon bouncing as it skims the Pacific chop, searching for Humpback, Gray and killer whales (Orcas), as well as seals, sea lions, eagles and sea birds. During our three-hour tour, the skipper receives word that a Humpback named Pinky and her calf have been spotted in the area. Named for the skin colour within the throat grooves, Pinky was first photographed in Barkley Sound in 2006.
[box_light]Read How to Have a Whale of a Good Time in Ucluelet[/box_light]
Half an hour later we’re idling in between two of the Broken Islands Group under cloudless blue skies, watching intently for Pinky to breach and blow. An occasional deep dive with iconic full-tail flapping elicits gasps and cheers from the zodiac passengers. Later, nearing the entrance to Ucluelet Harbour, we spot and pursue an Orca hunting at full speed, its dorsal fin knifing through the whitecaps like a U-Boat on patrol.
Rounding the cape, I can see Oyster Jim Martin’s Wild Pacific Trail, hugging the coastline of the Ucluth Peninsula. As the locals like to say, experiencing Ucluelet and the still wild places that surround it really is a taste of life on the edge.
MORE ABOUT VISITING UCLUELET
Getting There: From Vancouver International Airport’s South Terminal it’s just a 50-minute hop aboard Orca Air to Tofino Airport, followed by a 40-minute drive along the Pacific Rim Highway. Travellers can also drive from the British Columbia mainland, boarding a BC Ferries ship from the Vancouver area to Nanaimo and then driving on the Trans-Canada Highway toward the Pacific Rim Highway.
Where to Stay: Located five kilometres (three miles) north of Ucluelet, Wya Point Resort is a luxurious eco getaway by the sea. The one- and two-bedroom timber-framed lodges feature contemporary decor, floor-to-ceiling windows and private decks with scenic ocean views, plus full kitchens with dining areas, and cozy lounges with carved beams and gas fireplaces. Some lodges offer direct beach access. Rustic yurts on wooden platforms are also available.
Telephone: 1-844-352-6188 (toll free) or 1-250-726-2625.
Room Rates: The lodges rates vary depending on season. Here are the rates for summer:
Where to Dine: A great place for an al fresco lunch is RAVENLADY Oyster Forte, an upscale food truck operated by prominent local chef Mickey Phayer that serves up a variety of fresh oyster-centric cuisine playfully divided according to an aphrodisiacal theme into “Foreplay” appetizers and “Consummation” main dishes.
If you’re hankering for meat, head for Hanks Untraditional BBQ, which uses unique flavour combinations, along with varied and interesting cuts of meats. The chefs source half hogs and lambs, and butcher and cure them in-house to their specifications.
If you’re visiting Tofino, The Pointe at the Wickaninnish Inn is renowned for its fine dining and exquisite atmosphere, while the year-old Wolf In the Fog ranked among the 2015 Top Restaurants in Canada.
Other Activities: Pull on a wetsuit and take a Standup Paddle Board (SUP) lesson on the beach in front of Wya Point Resort from Wya Point Surf Shop’s expert local First Nations instructors. For an evening of friendly competition and down-home cooking, head to Howler’s Family Restaurant and Bowling Alley.