Labour Day escapade to Tofino, Vancouver Island
In April, we visited Victoria, British Columbia because daughter #1 was interested in studying at the University of Victoria. Fast-forward five months. We’re back in Victoria, helping daughter #1 getting settled in her new life and taking a much-needed vacation in the process.
On Friday we headed northwest to Tofino. This small town on the west coast of Vancouver Island is quite remote. Located at the very end of Highway 4, it’s a 4½ hour drive from Victoria. This map gives you a better idea of how isolated it is:
Map data © 2016 Google
Map data © 2016 Google
But that doesn’t seem to keep people away. With 22 miles (35 km) of surfable beaches and water temperatures a cool but constant 50°F (10°C), Tofino is Canada’s surf capital. Surrounded by Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, Tofino also draws nature lovers and people just wanting to get away from it all. In July 2016, Sunset Magazine crowned Tofino the “Best Beach Town in the West,” which is sure to increase its popularity even more.
We had a nice chat with an employee at the guesthouse where we were staying, and according to her calculations, an average of 8,500 people come to Tofino every day—four times the permanent population of 2,000. We also talked to the owner of the local radio station at a craft fair in downtown, and he has observed a steady increase in tourism. This year, he said, has been the busiest in the 17 years he’s lived here. I truly hope that Tofino won’t be loved to death like so many other places. Maybe its remote location will help escape the worst effects, like rampant development and non-stop streams of cars.
But let’s begin at the beginning.
We left Victoria at 8:30 am to gray skies and a slight drizzle. As you can see in photo above, taken at the Split Rock Lookout on Trans-Canada Highway 1 about 30 miles north of Victoria, this kind of weather has its own charm. In addition, some trees, especially the bigleaf maples (Acer macrophyllum) are already starting to turn.
Another tree we saw frequently was the red alder (Alnus rubra). Its light gray trunk is like a beacon that can be seen from quite a distance.
The most scenic surprise on our drive were the Kennedy River cascades right on Highway 4. What a beautiful spot this turned out to be! Quite a few people were climbing around on the rocks.
Rescuing little sister or getting ready to throw her into the chasm? All siblings can relate!
More moss-covered bigleaf maples at a rest area nearby:
Tofino itself was every bit as spectacular as I had imagined. Its location on Clayoquot Sound is drop-dead gorgeous. See for yourselves!
Seaplanes are a popular mode of transportation—a necessity, even, to access more remote spots since there are no roads beyond Clayoquot Sound.
The town itself is the expected mix of retail stores, restaurants and cafes, and it looks vibrant and welcoming. While staying in Tofino is expensive, especially during the peak season, the town looks refreshingly middle-class and laid back. No fancy jewelry stores, boutiques or art galleries. There are several upscale resorts but they’re discretely tucked away south of town.
Lichen and moss on mountain ash
Mountain ash berries
The public landscaping in downtown Tofino is dominated by ornamental grasses. They were at their early-fall best, gently moving in the breeze.
The only succulents I saw were Yucca filamentosa, both the all-green species and the variegated ‘Color Guard’. They combine beautifully with all the grasses.
Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’
Yucca filamentosa ‘Color Guard’, flower
I was surprised to see so many fuchsia hedges. I know very little about fuchsias, but I thought they were quite tender. From what I was able to gather, this species (Fuchsia magellanica), is hardy to zone 6:
My favorite plant sighting, bar none, was Gunnera manicata. I saw quite a few clumps all over Tofino, but this one was the largest. As you can see, it was big enough to swallow me—and I’m not a little guy. With an average annual rainfall of 128.8 inches (3271 mm), Tofino receives so much precipitation that these water hogs thrive effortlessly. In comparison, Victoria only receives 27.8 inches (705 mm).
Another common sight are cordylines (Cordyline australis). In Tofino’s mild climate (zone 9a), many reach tree-sized proportions. This specimen was particularly impressive, not because of its height but because of the girth of its trunk and its many heads.
Fine dining restaurants aside (they’re usually not our thing anyway), the best food in Tofino is Tacofino, a Mexican food truck permanently parked in a shopping plaza called Outside Break just south of town. It routinely receives praise like “best fish tacos in British Columbia” and comes in at the top of where-to-eat-in-Tofino lists.
Daughter #1, who knows her stuff, says her humble bean-and-cheese burrito was possibly the best of its kind she’s ever had. I had a fish burrito—tempura-battered cod, slaw, chipotle dressing, rice, beans—and it was to die for. Possibly the best battered fish I’ve ever tasted.
For once, the hype was real.
The line was long even at 2 pm, but in hindsight the wait was more than worth it.
For most people, Tofino’s biggest draw are its beaches. Even with thousands of people in town for the Labour Day weekend (celebrated in Canada as well) and many beach parking lots filled to capacity, the beaches didn’t feel crowded. Some of the beaches—Long Beach and south—are within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and hence subject to a day-use fee.
Our favorite beach, though, was Mackenzie Beach closer to town. Based on our innkeeper’s recommendation, this is where we went for sunset. And what a sunset it turned out to be! I went a bit overboard in the picture-taking department, but it’s easy to see why. As with all my photos, you can click on each one to display a larger version.
These cabins, part of Ocean Village Resort, face Mackenzie Beach. What a great place to spend the night—although this kind of view does not come cheap.
The mountains on the other side of Clayoquot Sound caught some of the magic light as well:
This was one sunset I will never forget.
We only had 24 hours in Tofino—far too little time—but I prefer to leave knowing that there are exciting things still waiting to be explored (including the Tofino Botanical Gardens). With daughter #1 being in Victoria for at least four years, I’m sure there will be other opportunities to return to Tofino.