I had heard tales from other travelers of a timeless coast populated with giant cedars, where First Nations traditions shape the culture and the presence of ancestors could be sensed in the very earth beneath your feet, where some believe that animal spirits possess the power to influence the character and fate of a man or woman.
This legendary coast that’s so lost in time is Vancouver Island’s Pacific coast. Pacific Rim National Park Reserve stretches for miles along this wild strip of land. The West Coast Trail invites those who crave solitude and adventure to disappear into the wilderness. The isolated communities of Ucluelet and Tofino are the only hubs of civilization for miles.
I arrived in Tofino on Orca Airways, a no-frills, but efficient small-plane carrier that runs daily flights from Vancouver, British Columbia, across the mountainous midsection of Vancouver Island. A heavy layer of low, white clouds covered the gray beach and forest like a down comforter. As we approached the landing strip below the cloud layer, the light was soft and diffused as if someone had turned down a dimmer.
The shuttle to the Wickaninnish Inn was waiting on the edge of the airstrip. On the short drive to the inn, the driver, an amicable young man who grew up in Tofino, remarked at how he’s seen the local economy—and the opportunities—shift in his lifetime from logging to tourism. He commented that Orca Airways flights are usually at capacity, and the only highway on the more than five-hour drive from Victoria has a growing stream of cars.
My arrival at The Wickaninnish Inn (known as The Wick to assist those who become tongue-tied when pronouncing the entire word) confirms the driver’s assertions. Guests with a well-rested aura casually lounge in the lodge-like lobby or browse the extensive collection of fine art works by local artists, many with coastal First Nation motifs.
The Wick is a Relaix & Chateau member and has been recently recognized as the “Top Canadian Resort” (Condé Nast). According to owner and hands-on Managing Director, Charles McDiarmid, the Tofino community was fearful that a luxury inn opening in their town might bring unwanted changes and degradation of the pristine coastline. Fortunately, his father, Dr. Howard McDiarmid, who had moved to Tofino in 1955 to run the rural hospital, had earned a reputation in the community as one who fostered a deep respect for Tofino’s unique environment and the First Nations people and traditions in the area. The Wick opened its doors in the mid-90s and put any remaining concerns to rest. The property reflects the natural world outside its windows—everywhere from public spaces to the guest accommodations—in its attention to detail in architecture, handcrafted furnishings and décor.
The influx of travelers with cash in their wallets ushered in a new era for Tofino. Other beach resorts and restaurants opened. Soon word reached the outside world that the coast is one of surfing’s best kept secrets. It didn’t take long for surfing outfitters and guides to set up shop. Today, the stretch of coast from Tofino south to Ucluelet is an ecotourism hot spot, and Clayoquot Sound has become a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
I joined Tmiska Martin, a Tla-o-qui-aht woman who owns T’ashii Paddle School, on a guided hike through an old-growth cedar forest to her First Nations village on the beach. She told me stories of how her people saved the forest from the logging industry by staging a massive protest on the land. Without that intervention, Clayoquot Sound would not be the rich, pristine reserve it is today.
With the influx of visitors who come here to experience raw nature, the culinary scene in Tofino has emerged with eateries catering to everyone from surfers to luxury travelers (and sometimes they overlap). This means everything from food trucks to The Pointe (The Wick’s fine dining restaurant) to one of Canada’s newest culinary hot spots, Wolf in the Fog, with plenty of casual eateries in between.
Tofino seems to attract “bests.” Shortly after opening, Wolf in the Fog was named “best new restaurant in B.C.” Chef Nicholas Nutting moved his life to remote Tofino to take advantage of the sea, abundant with fresh catches, and a forest that sprouts with foragable delicacies. His culinary team shares his passion in celebrating the natural foods of this wild place.
I met Chef Nicholas on the town dock as he was preparing to set out for a morning of fishing, and he invited me to go along to see what we could catch. We sputtered out of the harbor and opened throttle for the open sea, dreaming of wild salmon. The best he caught that day was a rock fish, whose life he spared. But the spectacle of humpback whales breaking the nearby surface took our minds entirely off the meager catch. Not one to return empty-handed, chef checked his crab pots in the harbor on the way back.
That evening, in Wolf in the Fog’s contemporary and popular dining room, my Cedar Sour (made with cedar-infused whiskey) packed the flavors of the forest. And my fresh seaweed salad tossed with that morning’s Dungeness crab catch showcased the flavors of the sea.
Back at The Wick, I asked McDiarmid if he was concerned that new establishments, like Wolf in the Fog, would erode business from his four-diamond restaurant. His smile was my answer, and he added that there’s room in the community for Chef Nutting and others like him, people who will respect and preserve this exceptional place.
Don’t look for high-rises or mega-resorts to go up any time soon in Tofino. Here, luxury is small-scale with plenty of privacy, solitude for those who desire it and a big helping of nature at its most raw.
Planning Your Tofino Adventure:
Tourism Vancouver Island, http://www.tourismvi.ca/
Tourism Tofino, www.tourismtofino.com
Orca Airways, http://www.flyorcaair.com/
Wickaninnish Inn, http://www.wickinn.com/
Wolf in the Fog, http://www.wolfinthefog.com/
T’ashii Paddle School, http://tofinopaddle.com/