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Tofino: The ultimate West Coast getaway

Just a five-hour drive from Victoria, Tofino is one of the best places places to visit to reconnect with nature and enjoy the West Coast food scene and culture.

When Time magazine named Tofino one of the world’s greatest places in 2022, I was reminded that Vancouver Islanders don’t have to travel far for an epic getaway.

Just a five-hour drive from Victoria, Tofino is one of my family’s favourite places to visit to reconnect with nature and enjoy the West Coast food scene and culture.

Over spring break, my youngest daughter and I made the most of our three days together in Tofino by whale watching, exploring local beaches and forests, eating the best the West Coast has to offer and relaxing in a remote floating sauna on Clayoquot Sound.

The latter, highlighted in the Time article, is a new experience offered by Tofino Resort + Marina, which negotiated a lease with the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation to place a floating sauna in their territory, accessible only by boat.

The half-hour boat ride to reach the sauna is also an opportunity to look for wildlife in this UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve. And although we didn’t spot any bears (that would happen on the drive home) or whales (later seen on a whale-watching tour), we did see plenty of eagles and a great blue heron.

As the boat rounded the corner and entered the quiet inlet, we got our first view of the wood-fire sauna sitting on an anchored dock not far from the shoreline.

Inserted into the dock were two hammock-like nets, suspended over the water, where I spent a lot of my time lounging on large pillows looking out to the wilderness that surrounded me from all directions.

My daughter opted to paddleboard around a distant island, and while I had planned to take out one of the kayaks, I kept getting distracted by an inviting Muskoka chair in front of a crackling outdoor fire pit and the sauna.

Before leaving us, the boat captain got the fire going and explained how we could reach him by walkie-talkie in case of emergency, since there’s no cell service here. He parked somewhere nearby, out of sight, allowing us to enjoy the silence of this stunning setting.

I had wondered if I would get bored that afternoon so I’d brought along a book, but never once opened it during our three hours off the grid.

We timed our Tofino trip to coincide with the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, a two-week-long event in March to celebrate the annual migration of grey whales from Mexico to the Arctic.

An estimated 20,000 grey whales pass by our coast in March and April on their 13,000-kilometre journey north, so spotting a few on a Tofino whale-watching tour feels guaranteed in the spring.

Prior to heading out to the open ocean with Jamie’s Whaling Station, I heard that everyone going out on whale-watching excursions was returning with tales of sightings.

This proved true for us as well — we spotted a few individual whales just outside Tofino Harbour and three swimming together past Vargas Island. Farther out, we saw a large herd of sea lions lolling on rocks and an adorable raft of otters floating past our boat — the Chinook Princess.

The festival offers plenty of activities for Tofino locals and visitors to enjoy, such as the ocean-themed parade that kicks off the festival, educational talks and film viewings on the topic of whales and conservation.

This year, for the first time during the festival, Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Park hosted a special cultural experience, called Naa’uu, featuring local Indigenous culture, art and history. The event included a buffet with traditional Indigenous fare such as salmon, bannock, venison stew and shellfish, and song and dance performances.

“It’s not a potlatch, but for locals and tourists to have a better understanding of our struggles, our history and to know who we are as a people,” says Terry Dorward, Naa’uu liaison for Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks. “It’s the first of its kind in our history to provide a historical and cultural event.”

Dorward says the three-hour event was so successful, there are plans to offer it again this fall and possibly this summer.

Where to stay and eat

Pacific Sands Beach Resort, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, gives every guest easy access to Cox Bay with a sprawling lawn dotted with Muskoka chairs, picnic tables and fire pits all looking out to an unspoiled beachfront view. The resort is located near Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and is just a 10-minute drive to Tofino’s small but charming downtown. Half of the accommodation on site is pet-friendly.

The suites and three-level beach houses have fully equipped kitchens. For the outdoor enthusiast, surfboard rentals and lessons are available on site. And if you want to get out and enjoy Tofino’s new 25-kilometre walking and bike pathway through Long Beach, Pacific Rim National Park and Ucluelet, you can rent bikes there as well.

Surfside Grill, an onsite takeout restaurant, is the perfect spot for a quick and tasty taco or fish and chips.

Wolf in the Fog has been winning awards since opening in 2014, beginning with being named Canada’s Best New Restaurant that year by Air Canada and enRoute magazine. Its ever-evolving menu showcases the best of Tofino’s foraged and seasonal ingredients. I ordered the smoked oysters in truffle oil wrapped in potato strings as an appetizer and enjoyed melt-in-your-mouth fresh halibut for a main. Be sure to order the restaurant’s signature cocktail, The Cedar Sour with cedar-infused rye.

Pluvio, in nearby Ucluelet, is another award-winning restaurant that is worth the five-hour drive from Victoria. The attention to detail in their dishes is second to none.

My daughter, a picky eater, enjoyed her three-course meal and I was shocked when she wolfed down her appetizer, the Pluvio “humdog” — a humboldt squid marinated in tomato oil and served on a grilled bun. (I’m not sure she realized she was eating squid for the first time).

I ordered the chef’s tasting menu and was pleased they were able to swap out the pork and beef on the menu to accommodate my pescatarian diet. Every item on the tasting menu was delicious, but some of my favourites included the tuna lettuce wraps, charcoal grilled spot prawns and “Lois Lake” steelhead.

Kim Pemberton was hosted by Tofino Tourism, which didn’t review or approve this story. Follow her travels on Instagram at kimstravelogue.