Before this past weekend, I’d never been to British Columbia. Growing up on the west coast, I’m embarrassed to admit that, but can only chalk it up to a case of “backyard syndrome,” a tragic affliction that sucks the urgency out of immersing yourself in the amazing places in your backyard. B.C. was a victim of my own backyard syndrome.
While this Canadian province is full of incredible places, we spent most of our time in one of them: Tofino. A weekend didn’t do this incredible corner of the world justice, but I tasted enough to know this place nourishes the soul and brings you closer to yourself. And considering the significant strengthening of the U.S. to the Canadian dollar, you’ve got a reason to go now. Here’s how to do a quick—but expectation-exceeding—trip to Tofino, too.
1. Don’t skip the city
Our long weekend began with an evening in Vancouver. It wasn’t nearly enough time to explore this world-class city. We stayed at the Fairmont Pacific Rim (as opposed to the Fairmont Vancouver Airport Hotel), which gave us a chance to experience the city for an evening. This wasn’t your grandma’s Fairmont: It was hip and modern, with a sophisticated and energetic crowd. The concierge recommend we hit up some sushi at Miku, which was within walking distance from the hotel. The food was great, but the atmosphere lacked intimacy and felt a bit corporate. Next time, I’ll plan on the highly recommended Tojo’s.
2. There are plenty of ways to get there
We woke up the next morning bound for the town of Tofino, which I’d never heard of until we featured it in our March/April ’15 issue of AFAR Magazine. You could opt to take a either ferry or a 35-minute prop plane flight from Vancouver International Airport. Although, be warned: Tofino is perched on the western edge of Vancouver Island and exposed to the wild Pacific Ocean, so the area gets its fair share of weather. We opted for the plane, and after about an hour delay we were diverted to Qualicum Beach on the other side of the island. From Qualicum, we took a two-hour shuttle to Tofino, conveniently arranged and paid for by our airline, Orca Airways. We didn’t mind—the ride was so scenic, the time passed quickly.
If asked, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a 5-star hotel that sits on the wild Pacific coast north of San Francisco. There really isn’t one unless you know of the Wickaninnish Inn, a 75 room Relais & Chateaux property on the cusp of its 20th anniversary, owned and operated by Charles McDiarmid, a native Tofician. The land was bought by Charles’ father in the 1950’s. He was Tofino’s first doctor—but his vision was that the area would become a tourist haven. It was realized in part because of the inn he and his sons built in 1996. Listening to Charles tell the story of its founding over a delicious dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, The Pointe, created a deeper connection to all things locally owned and operated. His passion for the hotel, his guests and employees, and the role the inn plays in putting Tofino on the map is contagious.
4. Get ready to eat (and drink) very, very well
For being a town of just under 1,900 people, Tofino has excellent restaurants. Our first stop was the casual Wildside Grill. Owned by a fisherman, this roadside stand wedged between a yoga studio and coffee shop gives you access to a fresh, local catch daily. While spending time with the owner, Jeff, he couldn’t help but tell me where and when the fish I was eating was sourced. I loved the fish and chips, and the fish tacos and spot prawns were must-haves. For upscale dining experiences, head to the Wolf in the Fog and The Pointe. The Wolf in the Fog was named Canada’s Best New Restaurant 2014 by Air Canada. The team is passionate about fishing and foraging in their backyard, and the atmosphere is comfortable with a hint of sophistication. If you’re into beer, check out the Tofino Brewing Company. It’s a cool, local hangout where everyone brings their dogs.
5. You can surf—and do it in a rainforest
Who knew you could surf in Canada? Because of where Tofino is perched, giant Pacific swells make for some great surfing. According to Charles McDiarmid, wetsuit technology has evolved so rapidly that surfing in 50 degree water isn’t a problem. Not to mention, your backdrop is temperate rainforest, and you’ll see a variety of wildlife from orcas to bald eagles. There are several surfing schools where you can learn how to ride the waves, too—we like Surf Sister.
6. If you want to really (and I mean really) splurge, stay here
I had heard about Clayoquot Wilderness Resort from our Travel Advisory Council. They raved about it—and now I know why. Gary Bedell, the resort’s General Manager, picked us up in a helicopter with his pilot, Duke, on the beach at the Wick. We landed on the deserted beach, explored sea caves, ducked through narrow mountain valleys, and went whale watching. In between, we stopped at the resort for lunch prepared by Chef Ryan Orr. The bison burger was delicious, and the pizza we ordered for an appetizer was devoured in no time. Each course was paired with delicious wines. The resort, including its 24 luxury guest tents, is perched on an elevated piece of land straddled by a flowing river. It’s well known for its vast array of wilderness activities that are tailored specifically to guests’ desires and skill level. But let it be known: This resort is for the top 1%. If you can afford $5,000 a night for you and a loved one (with a minimum 3 nights), then definitely consider this once-in-a-lifetime experience. For those who want to go all out (as if you haven’t already) then opt for their cloud camp, a camp designed for two that sits on a mountain top. You can only access the camp by helicopter, and it comes with a personal chef and private masseuse. Oh, and it’s an extra $5,000 per night to stay here.
7. Go any time of the year
Tofino is a place you can visit all year long. Summer is most appealing to the masses for the beautiful weather. Winter travel is picking up steam, too, because of the powerful storms that lash Vancouver Island—Toficians love storm watching, and the Wickaninnish Inn has created storm packages for its guest. Unlike the east coast of Canada, temperatures don’t change much and range from winter lows in the high 30’s to summer highs in the mid 60’s.
For those within a non-stop flight to Vancouver International Airport, trips to British Columbia should become a habit. The wide array of activities and price points make B.C. appealing and accessible to an adventurous, culturally curious traveler who has an appreciation for fresh local foods, beautiful views, and a direct line to the heavens.