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Published: Saturday, August 11, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Tofino much more than just a wilderness getaway

Watch bears and get close enough to a feeding whale to smell its breath

  • An aerial view shows Chesterman Beach.

    Todd Byrnes

    An aerial view shows Chesterman Beach.

  • Tofino is a remote village on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Floatplanes are a popular way to explore the area.

    Jackson Holtz

    Tofino is a remote village on the west coast of Vancouver Island. Floatplanes are a popular way to explore the area.

  • Tofino is defined, in part, by a quirky, hippie vibe. That's celebrated with this iconic VW van that doubles as a tourism information center.

    Jackson Holtz

    Tofino is defined, in part, by a quirky, hippie vibe. That's celebrated with this iconic VW van that doubles as a tourism information center.

  • The view from Long Beach Lodge offers dramatic sunsets.

    Jackson Holtz

    The view from Long Beach Lodge offers dramatic sunsets.

  • The view from Long Beach Lodge offers dramatic sunsets.

    Jackson Holtz

    The view from Long Beach Lodge offers dramatic sunsets.

  • Pet pig Hamilton is a favorite resident in Tofino.

    Jackson Holtz

    Pet pig Hamilton is a favorite resident in Tofino.

  • Fog lifts as we set out on a Browning Pass bear-watching voyage.

    Jackson Holtz

    Fog lifts as we set out on a Browning Pass bear-watching voyage.

  • The bears come out to feast on crabs and have their photos taken by tourists at Browning Pass.

    Bertie Gregory

    The bears come out to feast on crabs and have their photos taken by tourists at Browning Pass.

  • Stairs lead down to a beach from the Lighthouse Trail.

    Jackson Holtz

    Stairs lead down to a beach from the Lighthouse Trail.

Getting to Tofino never has been easy, but that's part of the allure.
Sitting at the end of a remote peninsula on Vancouver Island's west coast, the village is like the bait at the end of a fishing hook.
It's easy to swallow and be snared with affection.
On the Pacific side, giant swells hurl derring-do surfers toward the long white beaches. Inland, vast waterways snake among forested mountains.
At Tofino, where the tidal waters meet, the area's abundance is celebrated with a thriving gourmet food scene and a bustling, year-round tourist trade.
Until recently, Tofino served mostly as a gateway to the wilderness for grizzled backpackers who'd catch a floatplane into the bush for weeks at a time.
Today, the town offers plenty of activities for more leisurely visitors.
During a recent five-day visit, I enjoyed the comforts of a rented condo while still packing in loads of adventure.
It all starts with the journey to Tofino.
From Snohomish County, it's fastest to cross into Canada and take the BC Ferries (www.bcferries.com) from Tsawwassen or Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo, about two-hours on the water. The drive then takes about three hours winding over two mountain passes.
For lunch and a laugh, stop at the Old Country Market (www.oldcountrymarket.com) in Coombs to see the goats on the roof.
This was my second trip to Tofino but my first in summer. I'd visited a decade ago for a November weekend watching giant waves crash under a low, gray sky.
In summer, the sky opens up to reveal snow-capped mountains, coastal islands and brilliant sunsets that paint the sky.
I spent my first sun-kissed day visiting Hot Springs Cove with Ocean Outfitters (www.ocean outfitters.bc.ca). It's a four-in-one excursion that runs $119 (all prices Canadian, U.S. a little less) for an adult and $89 for a child. There's a boat ride, hike, a hot-springs soak and then the return trip.
The day begins with a 90-minute boat ride including a bit of whale watching. We got close enough to a feeding gray whale to smell the giant mammal's fishy breath.
My guide for the morning was Misty Lawson, 28. She regaled her small crew with one story after the next of growing up in Tofino and harmonizing with the ever-present ocean.
The boat drops passengers off at a small dock in the middle of nowhere. A two-mile boardwalk leads through ancient forests to a series of natural hot springs. Water emerges from the ground at 122 degrees then fills several pools before mixing with the frigid ocean.
Bring shoes that can get wet to make it easier to climb in and out of the rock pools.
For an extra $56, skip the boat ride back and instead hop a floatplane. I rode with Atleo Air and it was well worth it. From about 1,000 feet in the air the mountains seem within touching distance and watching a gray whale surface and dive from a plane was the highlight of the trip.
Another day, I went on a six-hour kayaking tour with Tofino Sea Kayaking (Tofinoseakayaking.com) for $115. Riding the tides, we explored La Croix Reef off Vargas Island, paddling through kelp forests and watching seals and sea lions play while bobbing over giant swells.
The only company we had during a lunch break was a bald eagle, spying on us from a nearby tree.
Dorothy Bart started the kayak business 25 years ago, and she was the first outfitter in Tofino. "People laughed," she said.
Today, her business is one of several in town. Bart's shop also serves as a kayaker's resource center.
Another day, I got up early to join Mike White aboard his 37-foot Browning Passage (browningpass.com). The three-hour trip costs $95.
White, a local who remembers Tofino in the days before the road was built in 1959, started offering trips up the inlets in 1999.
"At low tide, these silly bears come out," he said. His inlet tours quickly transformed into bear-watching expeditions, an activity that's become one of the most popular for Tofino visitors.
The black bears emerge from the woods to scour the beach for tasty crabs. They pay little notice to the people snapping photos from nearby boats.
Fueling all these adventures are plenty of good restaurants.
At Shelter Restaurant (www.shelterrestaurant.com) the patio overlooks the inlet. The view was a lovely accompaniment to a bowl of steamed clams.
Spotted Bear (spottedbearbistro.com) was more gourmet, and chef Vincent Fraissange makes the most of local ingredients. It's definitely the most interesting food in town.
RedCan Gourmet (redcangourment.com) has the best sandwiches, and I liked Caffe Vincente's coffee, although the ambience at the Common Loaf Bake Shop can't be beat.
For the best ocean views, the pricier dining rooms at the Wickaninnish or Long Beach Lodge are the places to go.
Make sure to plan enough time to wander through town visiting the galleries and gift shops.
Stop by Sew Tuff Quilting Company to meet the town's most-loved resident, Winston, a pet pig. He'll either be enjoying the sun at the shop or delighting children at the Saturday market.
Before leaving this bit of paradise, hike the newly built Lighthouse Trail. The steep walk splits off to visit small, tidal beaches and offers fabulous viewpoints.
There's no fee to use the trail and typically solitude is easy to find, if you don't mind an eagle soaring overhead.
While the sunshine isn't guaranteed, an opportunity to touch the edge of the world is. In Tofino, the edge of the world is in easy reach.
Touring Tofino
BC Ferries: For schedules, fares and reservations, www.bcferries.com/ or 888-223-3779.
Accommodations: Check www.tourismtofino.com for information about resorts, hotels and inns. Condo rentals available through Tofino Vacation Rentals, www.tofinovr.com, 250-725-2779.







Story tags » Outdoor RecreationTravelCanada

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