POPULATION: 1,900 (2011)
MUST DO: Take a surf or kayak lesson; Go whale or bear watching; Hike in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve;
The only way to describe Tofino is picturesque. At the north boundary of Pacific Rim National Park, Tofino, home to 1,900 people, is the most popular destination on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit each year to this base for grey whale watching, kayaking, wilderness hiking, deep sea fishing and, just recently, winter storm watching, which is becoming increasingly popular. The area also boasts some of the best beachcombing on Vancouver Island.
A nearby inlet was named in 1792 by Spanish explorers for hydrographer Don Vincent Tofiño, but the area remained largely the territory of coast Natives who reaped the benefits of the surrounding forests and abundant ocean, including hunting migrating grey whales from open canoes.
A decade into this century, less than a dozen non-native settlers were living in the area, considered then one of the remotest parts of the country. Because there was no road to the end of Esowista Peninsula, the population in this region lived on islands and boat-accessed inlets. The closest village was called Clayoquot, located on Stubbs Island — visible from today’s townsite.
In 1913 a church was built at present-day Tofino, soon followed by a post office, logging camps and stores. Access to the remote outpost was by ship until the threat of invasion in World War II saw the building of a military airport.
In the 1950s, road access began Tofino’s transformation from a remote fishing and mining village in the spectacular Clayoquot Sound to a world-class tourism destination. Nearby Long Beach, a 20-kilometer stretch of sand between Tofino and Ucluelet, a small village to the south, is the area’s biggest draw. Open to the pounding Pacific Ocean the beach — inside Pacific Rim National Park Reserve — is fantastic for beachcombing, long romantic strolls and storm watching. (Note: Be extremely cautious as huge waves can unexpectedly sweep the beach.) At the south end of the beach is the Kwisitis Centre, (formerly named “Wickaninnish Centre” after Chief Wickaninnish, the famed Clayoquot leader), a marine interpretive facility with exhibits, murals and films about the park’s history, heritage and programs. Trails off the beach lead through the rain forest.
Long Beach is also the home of Canada’s surfing crowd. Hang Ten on the Pacific rollers, but wear a wetsuit – the water is cold!. There’s a number of rental places and surf schools in Tofino. Fishing off Tofino is incredible, with salmon, halibut, cod and crab being the catch of the day. The nearby rivers and lakes offer great trout fishing.
Kayakers will love the Tofino area. The numerous inlets and bays offer sheltered paddling, while the more experienced can try the open ocean. Guided trips can be easily arranged.
Beginning in March, grey whales begin their annual migration from California to Alaska, passing right by Tofino. Hop aboard one of the many charters to view these magnificent creatures. In mid-March Tofino and Ucluelet celebrate the whales with the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, a family-oriented educational and entertainment event.
Winter is not lost on this west coast wonderland either. Storm watching continues to grow in popularity as tourists come from around the world to witness the ocean in a fury as it pounds the coastline. Frequent winter storms whip the Pacific into a fury creating row upon row of giant waves that crash in spectaclar fashion all along the coast. It truly is a sight to behold.
The town has a number of small but impressive sandy beaches with lovely municipal trails. Be sure to check out the Lighthouse Trail, which winds around the area’s seldom-accessed rocky headlands. Art galleries and craft stores line the streets. Accommodations range from campsites to the most luxurious of hotels, lodges and resorts.
Just off Tofino is Meares Island. Home to the historic Fort Defiance, the island is the traditional home of the Clayoquot First Nations. Art galleries offer native art and crafts, and hiking trails meander through the forests.
IF YOU GO
BY ROAD: From the south, take the Inland Island Highway north out of Nanaimo to the Port Alberni turnoff (Hwy. 4), near Parksville. Head west past Port Alberni to where the highway splits to Tofino (to the north) and Ucluelet (to the south). The highway is a two-lane busy stretch of pavement, so caution is needed. From Nanaimo, the 210-kilometer trip takes about four hours. From Port Hardy, take the Island Highway south to where it connects with the Inland Island Highway at Mud Bay. Continue south to the Port Alberni turnoff, near Qualicum. The 500-kilometer trip takes about eight hours. See this site for detailed directions.
BY AIR: Major carriers have scheduled connections out of Vancouver to Nanaimo. Smaller airlines have flights directly to the Tofino-Long Beach Airport. Floatplane service is also available.