“I could live in Tofino,” my 15-year-old daughter declares after just a few days in this tiny town on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
We’ve ventured west from Kelowna, trading the dry landscape and smoky sky of the Okanagan Valley for misty mornings and wide beaches ringed by rainforest. After months of Covid isolation, Vancouver Island is a literal breath of fresh air, and as soon as we pass Cathedral Grove on Hwy. 4 — the windy road that connects Qualicum Beach on the island’s east coast to Tofino on the west — we’re in holiday mode.
We reminisce about past vacations and talk about what we’re most looking forward to on our first mother-daughter trip in nine years. Tofino is a destination for families that like the great outdoors, and my daughter Avery can’t decide what will be more fun: surfing, or foraging for mushrooms with a local chef.
After we check in to the new Hotel Zed — and check out the funky hotel’s mini disco, retro arcade, and common area that looks like Don Draper’s office — she’s won over to Tofino’s charms, and we haven’t even set foot on the main street. But the laidback town will soon work its magic on us both.
Explore like a local: on a bicycle
Marc Vezina, the owner of TOF Cycles, delivers colourful beach cruisers right to the hotel the next morning. He leaves us with a map and instructions to ride them on nearby Chesterman Beach at low tide. After the water recedes, the hard-packed sand makes it easy to cycle all the way to Rosie Bay to explore the tide pools and a cave that’s only accessible when the tide’s out.
We break in the cruisers on the hotel’s yellow-and-turquoise bike path that runs right through the lobby and then pedal the four kilometres into town along a paved trail that parallels the highway.
We hit Common Loaf Bake Shop for wholesome toast slathered with jam and peanut butter, browse boutiques that sell surf-style clothing and local art and jewellery, and wander down to Anchor Park where we learn about Tofino’s nautical history and see Meares Island peeking at us through layers of fog. For lunch, we cycle to the original Tacofino food truck and gobble up the best fish tacos on the west coast.
Sign up for a surf lesson
In recent years Tofino has gained a reputation as Canada’s surf town, and it’s probably the best place in the country to learn how to stand on a surfboard successfully. That afternoon, we meet up with Vici Wewel, an instructor with Surf Sister, an all-female surf school credited with making the sport more accessible to women and girls.
Wewel runs through the basics of the sport on the beach at Cox Bay, which is famous for its sandy bottom and consistent whitewash.
“With surfing, you learn to be patient with yourself and with the ocean,” she says.
Wewel demonstrates this virtue by standing in the 15C water with Avery the entire lesson (both are wearing thick wetsuits) while giving her personalized pointers. With what looks like minimal effort from my driftwood perch, my daughter is soon balancing on her board and going with the motion of the ocean.
“I’m doing good!” Avery yells, with a smile plastered across her face.
While she rides wave after wave, I breathe in the salty air and relax into the sound of waves and gulls. We both leave the beach refreshed and energized, ready for our next adventure.
Commune with nature on a stand-up paddleboard
Before surfing took off, the main way locals and visitors connected with the surrounding sea was in a kayak and, more recently, on a paddleboard. Starting this winter, paddleboard rental company Swell Tofino is opening a second location inside Hotel Zed so guests can launch right from the hotel’s dock into the Tofino Inlet and surrounding bird sanctuary at high tide. It doesn’t get more peaceful than gliding across the calm water while a great blue heron wades close to shore or a bald eagle swoops overhead.
Hug a tree in an old-growth rainforest
When Pacific Rim National Park Reserve opened in 1970, it put Tofino on the map. Suddenly, there was a reason to drive to the end of the road to see expansive Long Beach, whose wide, sandy crescent extends for 16 kilometres in the pleasing shape of a seahorse. While we love a good beach, Avery and I agree the star of the park is the adjacent old-growth forest.
We take to the Rainforest Trail, a set of two, short loop pathways constructed of elevated wooden boardwalks and stairs that gain you entry into an otherwise impenetrable realm of towering western red cedars, Sitka spruce and hemlock. We’re soon swallowed up by fifty shades of green, and marvel at prehistoric ferns growing in abundance, neon green moss blanketing every tree trunk, and the pleasing smell of damp and decay that signifies a healthy forest. By the end of the hike, we’ve each hugged an 800-year-old cedar tree (and feel a bit like hobbits next to Treebeard).
Bond over Tofino’s amazing, hyper-local food
My daughter, a pescatarian, is in seafood heaven in Tofino. We feast on salmon chowder and seared scallops at SoBo (short for ‘sophisticated bohemian,’ which is Tofino in a nutshell), where chef Lisa Ahier buys her seafood from local fishermen.
At Wolf in the Fog we shovel in seaweed salad and roasted black cod drizzled in cedar jus. We enjoy our perch at the bar where Avery is spoiled by the bartender, who keeps shaking her up crushable virgin cocktails.
We linger over albacore tuna tartare and Thai curry bowls stuffed with lingcod, salmon, mussels and clams at Shelter Restaurant. Seriously, the fresh fish and shellfish here will turn any child into a seafood lover.
“Food has always been a focus in the town, which makes sense since we have access to local seafood and great produce on the island,” says Jay Gildenhuys, Shelter’s owner.
We also eat salty nori straight from the sea, and cut tasty chanterelle mushrooms from the forest floor, during a foraging class with local chef Paul Moran. This self-sufficient craze is yet another way to connect with nature (and teach kids more about the wild origins of their food).
Sated and entirely under Tofino’s spell, we return home after three days of bonding over hikes, bikes and food. We vow to return next summer, and may even expand our bubble to include Dad and little brother.
Know before you go:
Travel responsibly and read Tofino’s Covid-19 information before heading to the town. Some popular family activities, such as tours to Hot Springs Cove, remain closed at this time.