Vancouver Island's Tofino is Pure Heaven for Surfers, Foodies and Outdoor Lovers
On Vancouver Island, British Columbia: Port Alberni, Coombs, The Wickinninish Inn on Chesterman Beach, Schooner Cove Trail, Wolf in the Fog Restaurant, Browning Pass Charters, Sobo Restaurant, the Icebox Restaurant, Tofino Distillery
When you mention Tofino, most people who have heard of this small seaside village on Vancouver Island think that is all about surfing. With killer waves and an active Pacifc Ocean, surfing is a huge draw. The village is filled with happy, friendly, young people drawn to the area for their love of the outdoors and that youthful spirit has probably attracted more people with varied interests. In fact, unless you are the type of person who only loves big cities, there are probably more experiences to satisfy your curiosity than you can fit into your itinerary. Probably the most surprising realization, was that Tofino is a place for foodies!
We wanted to visit Tofino for nearly 20 years, to experience the raw, wild Pacific Ocean but never made the effort to plan the trip to Vancouver Island’s most northwestern town. So, one month after we registered Bella for her annual visit to Camp Orkila, we started brainstorming where we would like to take our “couple’s vacation” and decided to finally make the effort and plan a trip to Tofino. Part of our strategy was to break up the travel time to the remote location by staying 3 nights on British Columbia’s Salt Spring Island (halfway point). Without a doubt, the week-long adventure was a gift. We wondered what took us so long and when we could return.
Couples, families, friends
The drive from Nainamo to Tofino
There is only one route to reach Tofino, which hugs Route 1 along the Eastern Coast of Vancouver Island and then moves West just South of Parksville and then onto Tofino along Route 4, which takes about 3 hours from Nanaimo. We took a ferry from Salt Spring Island (where we spent 3 lovely nights before heading to Tofino), to Nanaimo, but you could also take a ferry from Tsawwassen into Nanaimo or travel in from Victoria, on the South end of the Island. Ferry reservations are required (find specifics at the end of this article).
Tim and I wanted to explore and check out points of interest on the way to Tofino, so we decided to take our time. Our first stop was along route 4 in the charming fishing town of Port Alberni. We headed for Harbour Quay to stretch our legs with a stroll along the lake. If you are travelling with kids, this is a great pit stop for a waterfront meal at the Starboard Grill, ice cream and a stop at the Alberni Aquarium and Stewardship Center.
Another stop along the drive is at Sproat Lake for petroglyph viewing, a walk and farm-to-table meal at Sprout Lake Landing’s gastropub Drinkwaters. In case you are in need of provisions, they also have a small grocery, liquor store and gelato.
For a highly unusual visual interlude, you should definitely stop in the tiny “town” of Coombs where you can marvel at lots of gigantic yard sculptures, East Asian shops, and a market that has live, grass-eating goats on the roof. Behind the quirky main “goats on the roof” attraction is a produce market and a surprisingly lovely Italian restaurant called Cuckoo Trattoria & Pizzeria, with a shaded back patio. Unless you want to travel with leftovers, we recommend splitting an entree because the portions are huge,
Most of the time, Tim and I opt for the easy button and like to stay in places with restaurants so that we don’t have to spend a bunch of time grocery shopping, cooking and doing dishes. For our first visit to Tofino, we decided on the iconic beachside rustic luxury lodging option called The Wickaninnish Inn (which is fondly referred to as “The Wick” by locals and guests).
The Wick provides guests with anything one might need to enjoy a comfortable Pacific beach respite, including 2 welcome glasses of port, wool blankets to keep you warm while watching the surf from your private balcony, stainless steel water bottles, rain parkas, flashlights and binoculars. You can also borrow inn bikes to cycle along the flat trail into town, If you are not feeling energetic or think you are going to have drinks with dinner, there is also a fee-based shuttle that transports you to and from the Inn. Although the restaurant in the Inn is highly rated and serves exquisite food with a killer view, you should not miss meals in town. Above all, A Wolf in the Fog (listed below) should absolutely not be missed.
In the summertime, the Inn hosts a crab boil on the beach. It looks like a terrific family activity, but you should know that there is no alcohol served, or allowed, because Chesterman Beach sits on Provincial Park property. There is also a carving shed on the property where guests can watch local artists create artful pieces. The Wick was so lovely that I can’t imagine staying anyplace else for future visits.
In the event that you are the type of person who would rather spend money on activities, instead of lodging, check out these other places that I noticed from the street while driving around and then vetted as “worthy” via websites. Situated right on the beach with some amenities and a 10-minute drive to town, the Best Western Tin Wis Resort seems like a good option. The Inn at Tough City and Tofino Resort/Marina also seem like great options on the harbor and have affordable room rates.
Many of the restaurants we visited were recommended by the staff at Salt Spring Island’s Stonehouse and guests Cathy and Dough, who we befriended during our dreamy stay before heading to Tofino.
In our humble opinion, Wolf in the Fog is the shining star in this town full of amazing food. As with most British Columbian destinations, the service is so welcoming and top-notch. The restaurant is kid-friendly with burgers and pasta, and showcases multi-layered flavorful dishes.
The Pointe Restaurant, inside the Wickaninnish Inn, scores highest in the “multi-sensory culinary experience” category in our book. The inventive, delicious food is delivered to tables surrounded by curved window walls framing the Sea. The young, friendly staff knows the area well and is eager to offer up suggestions for adventures.
The seafood chowder at SoBo, located in town, makes it worth a visit and the Ice House Oyster Bar has great seafood in a unique location. It is located inside a working ice house structure that stretches out onto the Sound, making it a perfect spot for sunsets. It is very small, so reservations are recommended.
Our new friend, Cathy from Salt Spring Island, also highly recommended Tofino’s Kuma for Japanese comfort food and Norwoods in Ucuelet for farm-to-table Pacific Northwest fare, both of which we did not have time to experience.
There is much to experience in the Tofino area, but I would say that most activities fall into the “outdoor” category. In fact, there is so much to experience, I would say that you need at least a full week to explore. For a great overall look at things to do in Tofino, check out this local website where you can find listings for outdoor adventures, live music and events.
The Tofino area is home to a black bear population that has opportunistically adapted to eating shellfish, on the beach, at low tide. Taking a guided boat tour to the popular bear beaches is a real treat. During our excursion with Browning Pass Charters, we not only had a relaxing afternoon cruise through the beautiful scenery where we spotted bald eagles and seals, we had the opportunity to marvel at 3 black bears turning over rocks on the beach and dining on crab. It was truly spectacular! If you don’t have a long lens on your camera, I recommend renting a longer lens for your camera (like I will for my Olympus) so that I can capture better shots next time.
It is incredible in British Columbia. There is something about the colder waters on the edge of unspoiled coastline that provides just the right environment for prolific sealife. Our favorite tidepooling in the area was found on Long Beach, which is accessible by walking a 1.5 mile boardwalk Schooner Cove Trail through a fern and moss-laden forest to the beach. This trail would be tricky for young kids as there are no barriers on the edge of the descending trail and lots of stairs. Don’t forget check the local tide charts to plan your visit when the sealife is easiest to find. Head straight to the large rock outcropping that you see at the bottom of the trail and start searching for pools teeming with life! After you have satisfied your exploratory nature, head to the Long Beach-side patio at Sandbar Bistro (May-September) for some food and beverages.
Imbibing in Tofino at local crafters is limited, but rich. There is an industrial warehouse district that has a coffee roaster, bakery, Tofino Brewing and Tofino Distillery. If you want to spend an hour our two checking out the local creations after a day’s adventure, definitely head over to the industrial district. It has a cool, creative vibe and fun to talk to the free spirits working on their craft. We had a great time tasting vodka, gin and absinthe at Tofino Distillery. They even have mini-sized cocktails to showcase their spirits.
Just behind Tofino Distillery, Tofino Brewing has tasting flights and growlers to go.
Other recommendations of activities we were unable to fit into our short visit, but will definitely experience next time: boat ride and hike to Hot Springs Cove (which is said to be crowded), Saturday Farmers Market, Tofino Botanical Garden, kayak, take surf lessons, paddle to Meres Island in a dugout war canoe with a First Nations Guide and consider booking an Indigenous people-led cultural tour.
As we sat on the top deck of the ferry heading to mainland BC, Tim gazed out at the Vancouver Island Mountain Range towering above the Straight of Georgia, sighed, and said “I am too relaxed and sick of beautiful views. I need to get back to the city so I can feel productive.” So…if you are in need of total relaxation, love natural beauty and scenery, delicious food and outdoor adventures, use our my itinerary as a starting point, jump online and start making arrangements for your “quintessential Northwest” vacation. You will not be disappointed, feel VERY relaxed and reconnected with your favorite travel companion(s) by the end.
IF YOU GO
ABILITY TO UNPLUG: High. We had wifi at our hotel, but otherwise, International rates apply and are very expensive, which leads you with opportunity to unplug and enjoy the company of your travel companion(s).
If you cross the US/Canada border and the traffic is heavy, consider taking a 10-minute detour to the quaint, Southern California Coast-like town of White Rock and find Marine Avenue. There about a mile's worth of restaurants, bars and shops directly across from a beautiful beach. We like the Boathouse Restaurant's rooftop deck. Shout out to our friend, Nate Y., who shared this tip with us.
Cell and data coverage will not be available as you drive West across the Island. I highly recommend purchasing a Vancouver Island paper map so that you can track your trip and know where you are going.
Fill up your gas tank in Parksville before you get on the remote Provincial Road, route 4, that takes you to Tofino.
If travelling from the South or East, make advance ferry reservations for the Tsawwassen Ferry Terminal, which takes you to the Gulf Islands. If you are in need of a bite to eat or leg stretch before your ferry ride to Salt Spring Island, check out the Tsawwassen Quay Market at the terminal. It has a very impressive collection of fresh food and sundry vendors (including one that sells high-quality jackets for those who forgot to pack for Coastal weather).
If you are arriving or departing from Nainamo on Saturday or Sunday, consider stopping at Chateau Wolff estate winery for wine tasting near the ferry terminal.