Tofino used to be a sleepy fishing village that nobody really knew about, nestled up on the north-west of Vancouver Island. It became a Mecca for surfers in the seventies and ever since the rest of the world has been slowly catching on to how incredibly beautiful and full of charm it is.

When we finally reached our accommodation, The Long Beach Lodge, I could hear the waves crashing as I opened the car door.

We checked in, and once I stepped in to the room I saw that the Lodge was situated right on the beach and when I opened the doors of our balcony, sea-spray hit me in the face. The rooms at The Long Beach Lodge are lavishly appointed with fireplaces, a soaker tub built for two that is situated behind a shuttered wall through which you can see the ocean. Pretty romantic. When I went to hang up my coat, there were two khaki green Gortex jackets already hanging there. “That’ll be for the storm watching,” said my companion. Ah yes, the storm watching.

Tofino is becoming as well known for its winter storm watching opportunities as for its perfect summer weather. Brides book their winter weddings in Tofino, hoping for the most dramatic natural backdrop imaginable: Lightening streaking through the sky above wildly crashing waves (which happens almost daily through winter). If you set a course straight from Tofino, the nearest land mass you’d hit would be Japan, so those winter storms have a lot of time to build momentum before hitting Canada’s wild most western coast.

Being that we were there in early June and it was gloriously sunny outside, we left the Gortex hanging and went for a stroll on Long Beach, which was indeed long, and mostly deserted. There was a group of teens strumming their guitars, and small pockets of surfers sitting by their boards watching the waves or floating on them, waiting to catch a ride in to shore. The surfers were a varied bunch, and we walked past a couple of deep-tanned silver-haired types. 

A small town with big personality

Tofino is tiny, but tucked into every street downtown is enough fine dining restaurants, cafes, galleries and stores to keep everyone happy, from the dreadlocked surfer dudes to the more upscale traveler. My first port of call was Shelter, a restaurant with a large patio overlooking the ocean that is reminiscent of a beach shack despite its hip modern lodge design. The menu offers west coast standards with a modern twist, and both the fish and chips I ordered and the macadamia crusted pacific halibut that my compadre chose were delicious (huge portions too).

Shelter was a perfect spot for people watching, as all types seemed to congregate on their patio, and if they weren’t there they were walking along the ocean side in front of us. We sat, feeling more than a little stuffed, contemplating what we had left of the afternoon and decided that we wanted to get out on the water. Fortunately, we were able to grab a last minute trip with Mike White, the owner of Browning Pass Charters, and I doubt we could have found a better guide anywhere.

Best viewed from the ocean…

Tofino looked postcard pretty behind us as we left the dock. White pointed out Stubbs Island, which was the original social hub and trading post in the area, once housing a hotel, boardwalk and beer parlor as well as houses. These days Stubbs Island is pretty much deserted and privately owned by the Bloom family (as in the owners of the Bloomingdales department store chain) and opened to the public just one day a year.

We sailed on further into the sound, past dozens of tiny islands dotted with wind-ravaged trees, White tells us that when he was a kid they used to call them “Dead men’s islands”. When I ask why, his answer makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “The native people used to put their dead in cedar boxes and set them on these islands. They’d have lids on them so everything would just rot away in the end, but we knew what was in them,” White says, “we stopped seeing the coffins sometime in the forties when they started burying their dead instead.”

White pointed towards a black mass in one of the trees, and as we got closer the mass turned in to an eerie here were two young eagles in a nest, hanging their wings out and flapping them, almost ready to fly. Apparently the nest had been there for years, as the adult birds build a nest and hold it for their entire life. Depending on the time of year, you can go on boar watching expeditions, or see various types of whales in the waters around Tofino.

…or from the air

The next morning we’d booked to see Tofino from the air in a float plane. Heading down to the dock, I ran into Jason Bertin owner of Atleo Air, whose plane I was about to go up in. Bertin’s wife Misty was manning the office, and his toddler was playing on the dock. There are a lot of family owned and run businesses in Tofino, it’s that kind of place. Misty was born in Tofino, and although she’s traveled extensively, she can’t imagine calling anywhere else home. Bertin came to Tofino on vacation 10 years ago and never left.

Flying over the area was stunning. “We love to show off this little part of the coastline, going up to the glaciers, over the ocean to view the whales and the wildlife,” said Bertin. From above, you could see how neatly the high-end resorts were tucked in to the trees or teetering on the cliff-tops, as well as the little deserted islands that filled the sound.

Besides pleasure tours, Bertin does a lot of charters and yacht transfers, flying people from Tofino Whistler, Victoria or Vancouver. He’s been a bush pilot for many years, working in the Yukon and Northern BC before he settled here. “I just fell in love with the lifestyle here,” he explains, “it’s like we are still living a bush lifestyle but we’ve got fine dining restaurants up the street. We’ve got it all, right here.”

Taking in the sights

We spent the rest of the afternoon checking out the delights of this not-so-bustling downtown metropolis (to be fair I should add that Tofino does have ONE stoplight). Strolling around the downtown core is easy, and there is much to see and do. I advise you get a slice of pie at Sobo, which is allegedly Donald Sutherland’s favourite spot to eat in town (he regularly visits Tofino, staying at the swish 5 star Wickaninnish Inn when he does), and be sure to visit the Eagle Aerie Gallery, as it is spectacular.

Sadly, our brief visit to Tofino was over too fast, and I left wishing I’d had the time to take a surf lesson, or chill out at the amazing spa at the Wickaninnish Inn. But then it’s always better to leave wanting more right? You have that stuff to look forward to if you ever have the opportunity to return (and I really hope that I get to).