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“Momma Bear” is not more than a few yards away from us, and her tiny cubs — the size of housecats — bounce along behind her. According to our guide, this is the first time that the two-month-old cubs have come down from the trees, where they have spent much of their time since birth. Fortunately, we are on a boat offshore from the island where the bears are roaming, so Momma won’t be upset about the proximity of humans.
Getting up close and personal with nature is the main draw for tourists to Tofino, a town of 2,000 people on the Pacific Coast of British Columbia. During the summer, the population explodes to more than 20,000 with visitors who come to surf, kayak, hike, watch whales, bears and storms and eat seriously good food. The centerpiece of the area is Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, home of the Nuu-chah-nulth people, who are indigenous to the area.
Tofino is situated on Clayoquot Sound, which was declared UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 2000. It is considered the surfing capital of Canada and was named the best surf town in North America in Outside Magazine’s 2010 Editors’ Choice Awards.
The beaches are always busy with surfers, no matter the weather or time of year, but on a sunny day, it’s an especially wonderful place for relaxing in the sun and planning that night’s dinner. In the spring, visitors can enjoy the extraordinary sight of approximately 20,000 gray whales swimming past the shore on their migration path.
In addition to its natural attractions, Tofino is a comfortable spot thanks to its outgoing and welcoming residents. Every destination likes to boast of its friendliness, but Tofino really delivers. Ask locals for directions, and they’re more than likely to walk you to your destination (it helps that nothing is very far away). The area also offers gracious accommodations, a dynamic arts scene and restaurants that serve fare made with local and fresh ingredients.
In fact, it’s hard to go wrong in Tofino’s restaurant scene. We ate at the Spotted Bear, Shelter, SoBo and Tough City Sushi, which offers spectacular views of Tofino’s picturesque inlet. They all served carefully crafted and well-presented dishes. The concept of “farm to table” is taken seriously here, and fresh seafood is frequently caught that day.
Tofino is also home to a Relais et Chateaux property — the Wickaninnish Inn. This 75-room hotel put Tofino on the map for luxury travel and offers several dining options, including The Pointe, where guests can enjoy beautiful Pacific views. The property also houses a full-service spa.
During my visit, I stayed at a bed and breakfast called BriMar, where my room offered memorable views of the beach and sky, as well as a comfortable, spacious environment. Lavish breakfasts featured fresh ingredients and high-quality presentation.
Tofino is often paired with the nearby town of Ucluelet, each anchoring one end of the Long Beach Peninsula; the two towns serve as bookends for Pacific Rim National Park. The park draws more than one million visitors each year to its impressive swaths of wilderness coast and sound. There are a number of easy to moderate hikes that include views of the water, or meditative walks through old-growth forests.
Things to Do Near TofinoWhile Tofino’s setting makes it seem far away and isolated, it is an easy and comfortable trip from the U.S. The Victoria Clipper ferry runs from Seattle to Victoria, and the trip takes about two-and-a-half hours. Victoria in itself is a charming harbor city, so it’s a good idea to spend a night there if time permits.
The five-hour drive from Victoria to Tofino Island provides a number of rewarding stops. Among them are Coombs, an old fashioned tourist town famed for its “goats on the roof” — yes, live goats graze on grassy rooftops. Meanwhile, visitors sit below them, snacking on ice cream cones and goodies procured at an old-fashioned country store, where the shelves and aisles are crammed with fun snacks such as baconnaise (mayonnaise with bacon).
Another popular mid-island stop is Chemainus, the Town of Murals, lined with houses and buildings adorned with astonishingly artistic murals that illustrate the pioneer heritage of the Chemainus Valley.