Welcome to the edge of the world.
The great natural spectacle of Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, soothes and energizes, a mix of splendid isolation and thrilling beauty.
Remote and wild, Tofino is situated in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and the UNESCO-designated Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve. Home to passionate surfers, summer idylls, winter storm watching, rainforests, and stunning beaches, it has a robust and creative culinary scene that celebrates the bounty of the ocean, forests, and Vancouver Island farms.
More than 10,000 years of Indigenous culture runs deep here. Artists and creatives flourish in and around the village of Tofino, which has about 1,900 full-time residents. The place rocks an obsession with great coffee and outdoor life. Relaxed, nature-loving vibes and a multi-generational undercurrent of hippie sensibility combine to make Tofino one very cool place.
Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the luxury Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach, calls Tofino one of the world’s most special places. “It’s truly on par with any natural destination on the planet,” he says. The Wick, as it’s affectionately known, closed for three months at the beginning of the global pandemic, as Tofino and sister town Ucluelet, about 40 kilometres (24 miles) down the Pacific Coast Highway, asked visitors to stay away.
The hotel temporarily shut again in November, following the British Columbia government’s call to avoid non-essential travel. It tentatively plans to re-open in late January. (Check the BC government website for the latest travel updates.)
As a Vancouver Island resident, I visited Tofino in late fall, following a busy summer for local tourism as BC residents took advantage of the push for close-to-home travel. I carefully followed all COVID-19 public-health protocols, including wearing a mask everywhere. Local business, restaurants, and hotels were also compliant, limiting numbers and practicing safe-distancing rules.
The distancing part is easy to do in Tofino. There’s so much outdoor space you have many choices to isolate in the beauty of the coast. But town does get quite busy on weekends and retailers had lineups.
Restaurants did a solid job with cleaning, distancing, and ensuring staff mask use, as well as having takeout meals, including dinner from Wolf in the Fog. The famous plump potato-crusted oysters with a hint of truffle were crispy and terrific, even as a takeout dish. Too bad they forgot to include my can of Twin City Brewing beer. I also had a great, juicy burger from Shed Tofino.
Tofino and Pacific Rim National Park ranks as one entry among the Vacay.ca 20 Best Places to Visit in Canada for 2021 ranking, a list sponsored by the travel-trivia mobile game, Trippzy, and compiled by the travel writers and editors of the digital magazine. The ranking, which will be released in January, is focused on destinations that provide experiences suited to limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
Even during these challenging times for tourism, there’s a surprising amount of new activity in Tofino, much of it centring around food. There’s also a fun and funky new hotel, the latest stay in the British Columbia-based, retro-themed Hotel Zed chain.
While Hotel Zed also closed to visitors temporarily, it stayed open to house members from Ahousaht and Tla-o-qui-aht Nations free of charge who needed a safe place to isolate when the coronavirus reached their communities.
The Tofino Resort + Marina, which opened in 2017, has undergone several changes, including a new hotel management team. There’s a new culinary team of work and life partners executive chef Terry Somerville and executive pastry chef Kristine Morrow for on-site restaurants 1909 Kitchen dining room and The Hatch pub.
Somerville and Morrow both worked at Vancouver’s upscale Hawksworth Restaurant. Morrow was also Ontario with luxury property Langdon Hall Country House Hotel & Spa.
Former executive chef and Top Chef Canada: Season 7 winner Paul Moran departed this fall to focus on his wild food foraging business. He’ll continue to run the popular weekend-long Foraging Memories experience with the resort in the spring, taking small groups into woods and along the shore to hunt for edible treasure before they return to 1909 Kitchen for a foraging feast prepared by Somerville. Packages include a stay at the Tofino + Marina and Resort.
Somerville has big plans for the menu, including family-style dishes like Singapore black pepper crab using local Dungeness crab and “rustic-approachable” plates that reflect his First Nations, Filipino, and Punjabi family links. He and Morrow will also make good use of the restaurant’s impressive wood-fired oven.
I had Morrow’s excellent sticky toffee pudding after my dinner at 1909 and it was an indulgent delight, a comforting conclusion to a tasting meal that included Vancouver Island Kusshi oysters, cured tuna crudo, and seared beef tenderloin with yellow chanterelle mushrooms from one of Moran’s recent foraging trips.
The restaurant overlooks a harbour that’s home of the resort’s marina. There are a variety of adventure activities, including free diving and fishing expeditions. With the Cook Your Catch program, guests bring fresh-caught seafood back to the resort to have it prepared by the staff as part of a meal.
The local food scene is expanding elsewhere in town. Amorita Adair opened “super-natural grocer” Gaia Grocery in May next door to Wolf in the Fog. She calls the 1,600-square-foot food retailer and deli “a mini-Whole Foods,” a place to pick up hard-to-find items that skew more gourmet. There’s a deli counter, bulk bins, and a display dedicated to locally made goods as well.
Adair and her husband, Scott, are good examples of how Tofino just gets into your system. The former Vancouver residents started coming to the village for weekends, staying longer each year until they eventually made the move in 2016.
“We were craving less people, better pace, the ocean,” Adair says. “The big one was being able to swim and surf daily, just being able to say, ‘Hi,’ to everybody on the street.”
One locally made product Gaia stocks is jarred caramel sauce from Ouest Artisan Patisserie, a slice of Paris on the coast at the edge of the village centre. Ouest opened in April in a 160-square-foot converted shipping container that manages to be both kitchen space and retail counter.
Yes, it’s tight. Partners in life and business, pastry chef Stephen Nason and Jessyca Fulsom, cheerfully roll with it and locals have fallen hard for their macarons and pastry.
“It’s as good as anything I’ve had in Paris,” I overhead a customer say when he arrived to pick up his daily croissants.
Nason trained in Japan, where chefs are true to the French style but favour a lighter hand. They’re also devoted to making each pastry visually stunning. Nason made a name for himself in Toronto for his exceptional macarons as head pastry chef at La Bamboche on Avenue Road. He’s getting the same raves in Tofino.
“My passion is decorating and designing wedding cakes,” Fulsom says. “Steven hates decorating cakes. That fiddly little stuff is what he calls it, monotonous. I’m excited about it, right? I’m happy to sit around and punch and shape like 200 flowers. I’m in it.”
I’m captivated by their artistry. The display case has old-school choux (cream puff) swans filled with a cloud of delicate whipped cream, Paris-Brest piped with a thick ring of praline cream and mirror-glazed, strawberry mousse-filled domes made in St. Petersburg moulds that look like they were plucked from the top of Saint Basil’s Cathedral.
Down the street at SoBo, chef and owner Lisa Ahier and her team celebrated her triumphant appearance on CBC’s Dragon’s Den. She inked a deal with Arlene Dickinson that will help get the restaurant’s products, including its signature smoked wild salmon chowder, into stores.
While you can pick up the frozen product from a freezer at SoBo, I preferred to sit down to a steaming bowl of the creamy soup at the restaurant on a rainy afternoon. The chowder was packed with local fresh and smoked salmon, a generous splash of cream and a nice hit of chipotle and garlic. It went very well with Ahier’s excellent corn bread. (Note: SoBo is among the Tofino restaurants temporarily closed during the pandemic’s second wave.)
Calories in, calories out, right? It’s easy to be active in Tofino and there’s an ambitious new opportunity with ʔapsčiik t̓ašii (pronounced ups-cheek ta-shee), a new multi-use pathway that will run along a 25-kilometre (16-mile) stretch of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. It’s slated to open in early 2021.
Located in the traditional territories of the Tla-o-qui-aht and Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ (Ucluelet) First Nations, the path looked mostly completed when I visited, a well laid-out, scenic route for pedestrians and cyclists. Linking with existing bike paths, as well as beach access roads, the wide, dark brown pathway mimics the forest floor, hugging the Pacific Coast Highway in places and also meandering in and out of the forest. There are gentle bridges and passages defined by wooden posts.
Speaking of bike paths, you can also take one right through the lobby of Hotel Zed Tofino. The colourful striped bike path scoots past a sunken living room-style reception area with two free-standing gas fireplaces where Sean Connery’s 007 wouldn’t look out of place lounging on one of the long sofas with a chilled martini.
The BC-based hotel chain has a signature look that’s fun and funky. Staff members are called “rebels” and the vintage-styled rooms have 1970’s rotary-dial phones — with instructions for younger guests baffled by the concept.
The hotel has a mini-disco room with light effects, a small video-game arcade with classic consoles, and a cozy psychic reading nook, complete with crystal ball, all with limited access and regular cleaning during the COVID-19 crisis.
You’re handed a reusable bag with a jar of ground coffee from local fave Rhino Coffee House and milk or cream at check-in to make your morning cup with the kettle and French press in your room.
For outdoor fun, follow the path to the bird sanctuary behind the hotel to spot waterfowl and wading birds. A mini-golf course is planned for next year as the hotel expands with a second building.
Tofino is also popular with campers. Surf Grove, the first new campground here in more than 20 years, opened phase one at top surf site Cox Bay this year. Phase two follows in spring 2021. The on-site surf shack has rentals and lessons with Pacific Surf School.
There are several kayak outfitters in Tofino, as well as companies offering surf lessons for beginners, including the all-female instructor crew at Surf Sisters.
While there are no mountains to scale there are plenty of great hikes, including Tonquin Trail on the edge of downtown. The 4-kilometre (2.5-mile) round trip includes Tonquin Beach, where I watched a determined seagull try to swallow a sea star — whole.
Also worth exploring are the two boardwalk loops of the Rainforest Trail on either side of the Pacific Coast Highway. The easy passages include some short stair climbs that make it feel like you’re walking up amid the trees, immersed in the calming beauty of the Tofino forest.
MORE ABOUT VISITING TOFINO
Where to Stay: The Tofino Resort + Marina is a short, easy walk to the centre of town. It has 63 rooms, half of which can be accessed from an outdoor corridor, no elevators and a stand-alone reception area with limited contact, all of which makes responsible travel easier. Housekeeping doesn’t enter your room until you check out. The hotel has on-site dining at 1909 Kitchen and The Hatch pub. Rooms are spacious and have a locally made signature scent I was just crazy about. (More is coming on that this spring.) Bathroom amenities have biodegradable packaging.
Address: 634 Campbell St, Tofino, BC (see map below)
Room Rates: A recent search of the property’s booking engine showed a price of $139 per night for a January weekend stay. Check for specials, including rates for BC residents.
Hotel Zed Tofino is a member of the Tribal Parks Allies, local businesses committed to supporting the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s vision of achieving a socially and ecologically just conservation economy. Each room has a copy of “ʔiisaak (Respect) in the Garden”, a book that details Indigenous peoples’ role as guardians of the forest and the many protests and actions to save and preserve Clayoquot Sound, including blockades in the 1980s and ’90s to stop logging.
Address: 1258 Pacific Rim Highway, Tofino, BC (see map below)
Room Rates: A recent search of the property’s booking engine showed a price of $149 for a January weekend night stay. Check for specials, including rates for BC residents.
Editor’s Note: Linda Barnard was a guest of Tofino + Marina and Resort and Zed Tofino, neither of which previewed this story.