Our ideal home away from home? Probably Tofino on Vancouver Island. The population is just under 2,000. Wikipedia says its 1650, but they don’t count the legion of drifters from Quebec living in the forest warmed by burned longboards and boiled lichen. We camp where we can, crash at a friend’s house or, if the stars align, stay at a swell beach resort. It’s a fascinating town all year round, and though it shows really well in summer, there’s much going for its Clayoquot and Pacific surrounds during the winter. It all just looks better when cold, wet, grey, green, quiet and ancient, and there’s still so much to do and see, starting with:
WTF? Seriously? Yes. The best way to make short work of the Georgia Strait is the only way. Chin up. Hop on an early morning Queen Of Whatever at Horseshoe Bay, splurge on the buffet breakfast, and stare out into the forbidding grey as if you’ve only ever known desert. Listen to King’s College Choir sing Miserere. Soak it up. Relax. A long, three hour drive is on the horizon, so savour these moments when someone else is at the controls.
The drive on Highway 4, snaking marvellously across the lake-strewn spine of Vancouver Island, is probably the best ride in BC. Aside from being gobsmackingly picturesque, its curves can tickle your inner Schumacher. The traffic is minimal, especially during weekdays, but be wary, as the corners are quick and the surfaces aren’t of racing pave. Also there are falling rocks. Make sure you’ve got snow tires on and some chains in the trunk, because the two passes can get pretty gnarly. Trusty web cams capture current conditions here. Good luck.
Bella Pacifica is like something out of a dream in winter. Located right on the northern end of Mackenzie Beach, it’s too fucking cold and windy to suffer Dec/Jan’s wrath, so they close, re-opening every February. It’s not so bad. They have showers and firewood, as well as electrical outlets and taps at every site. You’re pretty well exposed in a tent, which is an experience, but if you know someone with a Westfalia, give it a shot. They’re already taking reservations for 2012. Take our advice and book early. Zero in on sites 1 through 18 right on the beach (6, 9, and 10 are the best).
Our favourite restaurant in town has come a long way since its days as a purple catering truck marooned in the Botanical Gardens (where it received countless accolades, including a nod from enRoute as one of Canada’s best new restaurants). It has just closed for the Christmas holidays, but you can expect it to reopen on February 10th. We love the new open concept address and its cool collection of local art, but the star has always been the food, which comforts like little else. Mmm, Louisiana shrimp, Key Lime pie, killer fish tacos…
Even if SOBO is closed in Dec/Jan, you can still score a lot of their goods – including their coconut ice cream sandwiches – at Pacific Sands, a lovely resort on stunning Cox Bay (home of sand dollars galore and steady surf breaks). This is one of our favourite places to stay. Units are self-contained and well appointed, and wireless is strong all over the property. Bonus: the communal firepit is straight out of Camp Thunderbird, circa 1979. Super bonus: they do smores at night.
SPOTTY CELL RECEPTION
This is just a fact of life up here, and we’ve never minded it one bit (except for when the head gaskets failed in a snowstorm). The lack of reception bars might peeve a tad when you want to check the score or Tweet a sunset, but if you’re treating Tofino like a getaway, then treat this happenstance as a means to learn how to get away.
THE WICKANINNISH INN
What’s not to like about The Wick? Chef Nick Nutting has the food side of it dialed in at The Pointe, the views are outstanding, the accommodations are some of the best in the world, and man oh man is the spa ever the nicest thing ever. If you can afford it, this can be both home and springboard to the ultimate Tofitian experience.
TUFF CITY SKATEPARK
If you get 24hrs of no rain, the outdoor concrete skatepark in the heart of town is worthy of a whirl. It sports mellow, flat banks, a deep bowl section with steel coping, two burly hips, tombstone vert wall, and a welcoming host of locals. Quite a few of these are rippers, so even if you don’t skate, sit down with a coffee from Breakers across the street and watch.
Vancouver’s much loved food truck Tacofino had its origins in Tuff City, tucked away in the back of the little gravel strip mall just outside of town. We’re not entirely sure how big of a break they take in winter, but it was still there on our last trip (in November’s snow), and they were churning out the hot, super-satisfying tortilla soup that you’ll come to love them for.
Chesterman, Long Beach, Mackenzie, Cox Bay…the long-stride, hard-packed sand walks on these stretches are the main deal. If you come to Tofino and don’t hit up a beach, we can’t help you. Find the last tide line and bend to it. You never know what you’ll find washed up (everything from Humbolt squids to Japanese fishing net baubles).
Tofitians are warm, generous, kind, caring and generally some of the coolest folks in Canada. They’re inundated with tourists during the summer months, but it’s a completely different story in winter, when things slow down and everyone can breathe.
If its water-borne, coast-hugging adventure you want, this company will take you just about anywhere, including sea kayaking, out to the oyster farms, whale watching, whatever. The bears may have gone to ground for winter, but wildlife still abounds if you know where to look. And so what if you don’t? These dudes do.
The best place to greet the morn with a coffee, located at the mouth of the same gravel strip mall where you’ll find Tacofino (1180 Pacific Rim Highway).
MERMAID TALES BOOKSHOP
We love getting lost in here. Curated titles. Super selection of best sellers and nature books. Knowledgeable staff.
Duh. It kind of goes without saying. Lots of beach options, rental outlets, and local expertise. Daily surf reports here.
Excellent, locally caught fish and chips (among other delicious things) from commercial fisherman Jeff Mikus and chef Jesse Blake. Located in a Hobbit-like enclosure tucked behind The Tofitian.
Weather permitting. The boat captain on our most recent trip up a couple of weeks ago cancelled it due to choppiness. If it’s all good, expect a 20 minute boat ride and a 30 minute hike through old growth cedar forest to Hot Springs Cove, home to geothermal, 120°F springs that gush from the ground and pour down a waterfall into natural soaking pools. Transportation details here.
CANUCK GAMES AT SHELTER
It’s winter, and you know that means the Canucks are playing every other night. This is the best place in town to watch Kesler et al in total beast mode. Not a fan? Stick next to the wood-burning fireplace or dine upstairs. Best bet: panko-parmesan crusted free range chicken burger (as seen above).
TOFINO BREWING COMPANY
Lastly, the importance of very good beer (Tuff Session Ale) can’t be overstated. This stuff is made and sold on site in big ass growlers. The guys who run it are awesome, and they’re open until 11pm!