What is it about this small community of only several hundred residents that attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors each year? Is it the dense, richly hued temperate rainforests covering steep slopes and rising into the mists? Or is it the rhythmic, soothing rollers hypnotically breaking against the beaches and rocky headlands? It is undeniably all of the above—and more.
The special vibe of the Tofino region is rarely duplicated. Located at the end of narrow Esowista Peninsula, the area has a vibrant energy and a natural, wild feeling. From the moment you step barefoot onto the warm beach sand, take a deep breath of salt air and let the breeze wash over you, the stresses of life melt away.
Tofino of Yesterday
For thousands of years Tofino and the larger region called Clayoquot Sound was home to the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations. This land of plenty had abundant food sources both on land and in the sea, enabling diverse and thriving First Nations cultures. Spanish explorer Juan Perez was the first European in the region to make contact with the natives in the late 1700s. In 1778, several years after contact by Perez, Capt. James Cook arrived at Nootka Island and claimed the region for Great Britain. For many years the region was used as a base for fur traders and by the latter part of the 1800s the Tofino of today had a number of European settlers that had built homesteads.
By 1959 the logging road linking Port Alberni to the coast had been completed. Young people, eager to experience west coast waves, began to move to the region and makeshift camps and squats were established along the coast. These young hippies established the surf culture for which Tofino is so well known. Pacific Rim National Park was established in 1970 and the rough winding road through the centre of the Island was paved in 1972, literally paving the way for Tofino to blast off into the tourist stratosphere.
Tofino of Today
In terms of reinventing itself, Tofino has arguably gone further than most other communities on Vancouver Island. And go far it has. Tofino and surrounding area have some of the most expensive real estate in North America putting it on par with large cities such as Vancouver and New York. This is in part due to the influx of foreign buyers to the West Coast, but limited land availability and the raw beauty of the region are big contributing factors. In fact, most real estate transactions are now completed with outside buyers as the steep pricing has outpaced the financing abilities of most local residents.
Today, Tofino is a mix of rapidly dwindling hippie atmosphere replaced by increasingly refined urban chic,—some might say pretentious—fancy resorts and restaurants, and mainstream attractions. Sill home to a few loggers and fisherman, Tofino is now all about year-round tourism. Annually, the area attracts upwards of one million visitors, and there is no shortage of activities to keep you busy—especially if you enjoy the outdoors.
As you would expect in a regional service centre, Tofino has all manner of shops from clothing and souvenirs to groceries, hardware and marine service. The usual assortment of kitschy souvenir shops dot the main street, along with must-see attractions such as the Roy Henry Vickers Eagle Aerie Gallery, located in an impressive traditional Northwest Coast longhouse. Plus, there are some tasty restaurants to sample, both in town and at the resorts.
What to Do in Tofino
Tofino is best known for its long sandy beaches, beautiful beginner-friendly surfing waves during the summer and crashing rollers during the winter. No longer the exclusive domain of hippie surfers, the waves are crowded with boarders of all ages and genders. If you are new to surfing you can give it a go with one of the local surf schools such as Tofino’s first surf shop Live to Surf, the girl-friendly Surf Sister Surf School, Pacific Surf School or Tofino Surf School. Lessons are reasonable and a morning of instruction and equipment rental ranges from $50-$75. Once you’re hooked you can think about buying your own board!
Surf beaches popular with learners include Mackenzie and Chesterman beaches just outside Tofino. However, the most popular beach is Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park. Long Beach, at over 10 km in length, is the longest continuous beach on Vancouver Island, and consists of three beaches; Long Beach, Combers Beach and Wickaninnish Beach. The triad offers something for everyone from dog walkers and sand castle builders to extreme windsurfing. The most popular access point is the several large parking lots at the north end. The always bustling Green Point Campground is located midway along and the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre is located at the south end.
The region is very well known for its whale watching and nature tours. A number of operators offer tours from Tofino and Uclulet to see some of the 20,000 grey whales that migrate up and down the coast each year from Alaska to Mexico. You may also see transient orcas, sea lions, sea otters, bears and a host of other wildlife in front of your lens. Several well established companies include Jamie’s Whaling Station and Westcoast Aquatic Safaris. For more information on Island whale watching, check out our whale watching article.
Fishing charters are an the ideal way to see an area from the water. Trips that last four hours or more allow time to look around while fishing, and are often filled with wildlife viewing including whales, porpoises, seals, and all manner of sea birds. Many guides are knowledgeable about local wildlife, and a big bonus is the return to the dock with fish for the grill or freezer. A number of charter outfits are located in Tofino and Uclulet, and there are several options of where to go. Before booking a charter, inquire whether the fishing is better inshore amongst the protected Islands of Clayoquot Sound or offshore on the banks. Offshore fishing can be much more productive, but at the same time the seas can be larger with big swells and chop moving in from the open ocean. Even seasoned fisherman often turn several shades greener, so if you are prone to seasickness, staying on the inside is a good option. If you have to go offshore, choose a charter with a larger boat that will handle rougher waters with greater ease. A few charter outfits to check out are Hymax Charters, Cleanline Sportfishing, Tonquin Charters and Tofino Fish Guides. Also consider taking a charter from Uclulet for a chance to visit famous Barkley Sound while fishing sheltered inshore waters. If you fish from Uclulet, check out Salmon Eye Charters. However, I would personally recommend High Roller Charters. I have fished with Todd on several occasions for salmon and halibut and he is a first-rate guide delivering first-rate success.
So you think you have seen big trees? You may change your mind once you have seen the giant cedar and spruce trees of Meares Island. Once the scene of clashes in the mid 1980’s between the Nuu-cha-nulth First Nation, environmentalists and loggers over the logging of these ancient trees, the island is now off limits to loggers. The Big Tree Trail is a popular day trip and a most of the water taxis will take you there, but getting there is also half the fun. Consider riding over with Dennis of Clayoquot Connections aboard the Kleco, a converted lifeboat. Or perhaps take a paddle in a traditional native dugout canoe or Stand Up Paddle Board, accompanied by a native guide with T’ashii Paddle School’s Cultural and Canoe Tours and Tofino SUP. Lastly, you can also get there by kayak with Tofino Sea Kayaking.
A visit to Hot Springs Cove, located in Maquinna Provincial Park at the north end of Clayoquot Sound and about a two hour boat ride from Tofino is a must. And for good reason; the secluded hot springs, the only ones known on Vancouver Island, reachable only by water or air, are a natural wonder. The steaming water from the geothermal hot springs emerges from the forest and cascades down a waterfall into a series of natural rocky pools leading to the ocean. When the tide comes in, the cool ocean water mixes with the hot spring water along with bits of seaweed and driftwood brought in by the current. A delightful walk to the springs consisting of several kilometres of boardwalk through old growth rainforest makes a perfect companion to a hot soak. Most tour companies in Tofino offer trips to Hot Springs Cove as do several of the airlines. I would recommend going early and during low tide, as the springs are not large and don’t hold more than a dozen people comfortably at one time.
Numerous hikes are located throughout the region, ranging from easy walks such as the Wild Pacific Trail in Uclulet, Tonquin Park Trail in Tofino or the Bog Trail in Pacific Rim National Park to more challenging trails such as those on Flores Island and Vargas Island that require boat access.
Where to Eat in Tofino
Tofino has top notch chefs that are putting restaurants on the map, no doubt in part from the demand of well-heeled visitors.
High end dining (think $200+ for dinner for two) can be had at the Pointe Restaurant in the Wickaninnish Inn. With spectacular 240° ocean views and award winning locally sourced dishes, the restaurant is a favourite for special occasions. Be forewarned though that unless you are a guest at the resort or a celebrity with the inside track, your chances of enjoying the spectacular views—usually the sunset for dinner guests—from a window seat is next to nil.
My pockets aren’t quite as deep, but great options do exist for us mere mortals, and a few personal favourites stand out from the crowd.
Sobo – short for sophisticated bohemian, is a Tofino favourite and an excellent choice serving killer fish tacos and excellent seafood chowder and accompanying cornbread. A decent kids menu is also a bonus, serving healthier fare such as fish tacos, fish of the day, chicken and vegetarian options. The Spotted Bear Bistro has a casually elegant atmosphere, but the food is top notch. Try the tuna or the duck!
Dialing down the atmosphere and the price a few notches still yields excellent results. Three kilometres out of town at the Live to Surf complex, and adjacent to the resort area, sits the Wildside Grill. This reasonably priced outdoor collect-at-the-window eatery serves fast food with a not so fast food taste. This place is hopping and has long lineups during the summer, but the cooks are efficient and the staff super friendly while serving up a fantastic medley of seafood, meat and vegetarian combinations. Of course we can’t forget Tacofino Cantina located in the same complex as Wildside Grill, but in a converted van at the back of the parking lot. Open only during the summer season, you can’t miss it. Just look for the lineups and the pink van just beyond the Live To Surf shop. Superb fish tacos and fresh seafood with a Mexican theme will keep you going back for more. While you are there, make sure to visit the amazing Chocolate Tofino for melt in your mouth truffles, gelato and other chocolate delicacies, all made on site. Open for many years and a local mainstay, the Common Loaf Bakery is a fun stop for coffee, lunch or snacks – especially on a rainy, cold day. The bakery has a funky upstairs rotunda seating area that allows for larger parties or families to stretch out and relax.
Accommodations in Tofino
The majority of the areas condominium, resort and beach front house developments are located south of town along beaches such as Chesterman Beach, Mackenzie Beach and Cox Bay. Prices tend to be inflated everywhere in Tofino from rustic $50 per night tent camping to luxury accommodations at resorts that cost many times that. Make sure to plan your trip well in advance as most accommodations are booked solid throughout the high season from mid June through mid September.
At the high end of the spectrum is the Wickaninnish Inn with clean, comfortable rooms, and accompanying Pointe Restaurant serving West Coast cuisine. Long Beach Lodge and Pacific Sands are also great choices.
Mid tier accommodations include Cox Bay Beach Resort, Best Western Tin Wis Resort, Middle Beach Lodge and Ocean Village Beach Resort. Accommodations within Tofino are less luxurious than the larger hotels, but take a look at the Cable Cove Inn, Vista Hermosa and The Inn at Tough City.
There are a number of cheaper, or shall we say rustic options, including Duffin Cove Resort, Maquinna Hotel, and Schooner Motel. B&B’s are also located throughout Tofino and a number of private vacation house rentals are located along Chesterman Beach with quick and easy access to sun, surf and sand. If you prefer to pitch a tent or sleep in your trailer, there are several main campgrounds Including Bella Pacifica which is just outside Tofino or the Green Point Campground in Pacific Rim National Park about 20km from Tofino on Long Beach.
Trip Ideas from Tofino:
- Whale watching
- Salmon and Halibut Fishing
- Meares Island – Big cedars!
- Long Beach – Awesome for surfing, romantic for walking, and kids will love playing in the surf and sand.
- Hiking one of the many trails in the region such as the Raincoast Trail in Pacific Rim National Park.
- Hot Springs Cove
- A visit to the Tofino Botanical Gardens – Quirky gardens amongst the coastal rainforest.
- Pacific Rim Whale Festival March 16-24,2013
- Feast Tofino May 1-31, 2013
- Tofino Shorebird Festival May 3-5, 2013
- Tofino Food & Wine Festival: June 7-9, 2013
- Ukee Days July 26-28, 2013