CANADIAN RESORT GOES HOLLYWOOD
THE Wickaninnish Inn in the British Columbia town of Tofino has Champagne breakfasts, individual plunge pools overlooking the Pacific Ocean and a guest book that the inn's owner, Charles McDiarmid, tries hard to keep under wraps.
Some of the guests, Mr. McDiarmid said discreetly, are ''people working on the many different sets in Vancouver.''
The ''sets in Vancouver'' -- 120 miles away -- are the film and television stages of the booming production center that insiders only half-jokingly call Hollywood North. And as nearly everyone in town knows, Mr. McDiarmid's ''people'' have included Danny DeVito, Uma Thurman, Susan Sarandon, Alanis Morissette and Donald Sutherland.
Rather than hanging out in their trailers all week, movie stars and film executives are heading to Tofino, a remote town of 1,700 on the Pacific Coast lined with pristine white sand beaches, old-growth pine forests and, increasingly, multimillion-dollar homes. With 12 films and 11 series, including ''Smallville'' and ''Battlestar Galactica,'' currently being produced in Vancouver, it has come as no surprise that celebrities are now calling Tofino their second home, with some joining the rush to buy property.
Once a quaint fishing and logging village, this hippie-surfer resort on the edge of Vancouver Island has been getting fancier and pricier by the season. Tackle shops now share the same sidewalk with galleries. Seedy bars have been displaced by brew pubs. Even simple lunch spots have a tony feel: foodies across Canada flock to the fabled purple lunch truck called Sobo (short for Sophisticated Bohemian) for the ''killer'' fish tacos with fresh fruit salsa (6 Canadian dollars, or $5.40 at 1.15 Canadian dollars to the U.S. dollar).
Swap the pines for palms, strip off a few layers during the winter and it's a mini-Maui. But unlike Maui, Tofino still has rustic charms.
Its appeal is not hard to figure out. Just 35 minutes by Learjet from Vancouver (five hours by car and ferry), tiny Tofino is enveloped by Clayoquot Sound (a Unesco biosphere reserve), the 150,000-acre Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and some of North America's best surfing spots. All around are tree-carpeted mountains with eagles flying overhead, cathedral-like valleys filled with 1,000-year-old trees, white glaciers gleaming in the distance, and crystal-clear waters as far as the eye can see.
Beyond the world-class surfing (winter swells can measure up to 40 feet), there's kayaking, whale watching, fishing, boating, hiking, bathing in natural hot springs and storm watching -- all of which makes Tofino a kind of wonderland for outdoorsy types.
Among them is Sarah McLachlan, the Canadian singer and the founder of Lilith Fair. Four years ago, she bought a woodsy one-story house on a stretch of pearly sand called Chesterman Beach -- one of only 60 ocean beachfront plots in the town.
''TOFINO'S a close-knit town at the end of the world, surrounded by verdant green rain forests, raw ocean and a peaceful inlet,'' Ms. McLachlan said. ''I was very lucky to have been able to buy up here four years ago, and now I want to cry every time I have to leave.''
Noncelebrities, of course, have fallen for Tofino, too. In the last few years the demand for homes on Chesterman has skyrocketed.
''The beachfront land has doubled in value in the last two years from under $800,000 to over $1.5 million,'' said a longtime local ReMax agent, Linda Pettinger. A teardown with 100 feet of oceanfront along the beach recently sold for 1.6 million Canadian dollars to Brendan Morrison, a Vancouver Canucks hockey player, setting a record for land alone.
There are still deals to be found farther into town. Migs DeCastro, a Californian who works in Vancouver as an occupational therapist, just bought a 2,000-square-foot, five-bedroom house with his fiancée and another couple for 330,000 Canadian dollars. They were drawn, he said, to the great surfing, beautiful rain forests, friendly locals and anti-corporate feel.
''After hearing what those beautiful beach houses were going for, I was surprised that I didn't need to spend millions to get a place up here,'' said Mr. DeCastro, who plans to use it as a weekend getaway.
Jamie MacDougall, a Sotheby's agent who specializes in British Columbia vacation homes, said the demand was still growing. ''We now have a list of people waiting to get beachfront properties from California to Alberta,'' Mr. MacDougall said. But none are available, he added, so agents have taken to going door-to-door along the beach asking if people are interested in selling.
''It's got a Whistler buzz,'' he said, referring to the popular ski resort, ''and that means it's actually still a deal, because the prices are just going to keep going up.''
Not bad for a place where, less than four decades ago, there wasn't even a paved road connecting to the rest of Vancouver Island and the outside world. But while Tofino's new reputation has certainly helped fuel the hot market, it was another incident that first propelled this rugged, left-leaning town to the front pages.
In 1993, loggers and hard-core environmentalists clashed over the loss of the island's old-growth pine forests, among the world's last. On one side were the old-timers who made a living from logging. On the other were post-hippie newcomers in VW vans like the current mayor, John Fraser, an American who moved north decades ago.
Tensions culminated in Canada's largest single act of civil disobedience, when more than 850 anti-logging protesters, including students, Native Canadian leaders and grandfathers, were arrested. Because of it, ''Tofino has an international recognition,'' said Michael Tilitzky, the president of the local chamber of commerce.
It may have too much recognition. A summer-long drought coupled with a record number of day trippers, surfers, hikers, anglers and whale watchers prompted Mayor Fraser to threaten to cut off all commercial water use just days before the busy Labor Day weekend this year. He said the town didn't have enough water for emergencies like fighting fires, and many resorts reacted to the mayor's threat by warning off their guests. Even though water was trucked in at the last moment to keep the town nominally open, tourists stayed away, weddings were canceled, and the Wickaninnish Inn shut down completely for six nights.
''For a city that depends on tourism -- especially coming at the height of their summer season,'' said Dave Senick, deputy city editor for The Victoria Times Colonist, ''it was a black eye broadcast across Canada and the world.''
Tofino's growing popularity is also rippling across Vancouver Island. Where Highway 4 comes to a fork at the national park, there used to be clear social divide: the Mercedes S.U.V.'s turned right to Tofino, while the pickups turned left to the more blue-collar fishing town of Ucluelet, about 25 miles to the south. But that has started to change.
Jason Priestley, the ''Beverly Hills, 90210'' star and a native of Vancouver, is a fan of the area, so when he had the chance to buy a rustic resort in Ucluelet, he jumped at the chance. Whenever he's filming in Vancouver, he stays in one of the cabins, part of the Terrace Beach Resort he now owns. Rarely does he venture north.
''Tofino can seem like Disneyland at the height of the summer with all those tour buses and throngs of tourists,'' Mr. Priestley said. He said he was worried that the same might happen to Ucluelet, known as Ukee: ''I'm worried because I like the charm of Ukee as a sleepy fishing village.''
Don't tell that to the developers, who are just starting to arrive. Jack Nicklaus is designing one of his Signature golf courses as the centerpiece of a proposed 650 million-Canadian-dollar resort in Ucluelet. Spread across 800 acres along the Pacific, the resort is to have several five-star hotels, as well as 30 home sites priced between 1.3 million and 2.2 million Canadian dollars.
Make that 29 home sites. Mr. Nicklaus snatched one up in September for an undisclosed amount while surveying the land. ''This piece of property, with its dramatic mix of topography, is absolutely gorgeous,'' Mr. Nicklaus said.
Similar plans are being drawn up in Tofino, where developers are hoping to turn a 215-acre former campground along the water into a luxury-home development.
Many locals are worried about not only the pace of change but also the developments' effects on the area's rustic character.
''Most people come out here because they want to experience the wild nature, not to play golf,'' said Shawn Stephenson, who owns Word's End Booksellers in Ucluelet.
But others are of two minds about the recent spike in housing prices and influx of visitors. The former pro surfer and local heartthrob Raphael Bruhwiler grew up in a giant house on Chesterman Beach that his lumberjack father built himself. Like many longtime residents, his parents sold the beachfront home a dozen years ago, and now live in town along the inlet.
''It used to be a little year-round community out at the beach, and it's sad in a way that many of the homes on the beach are now empty most of the year,'' Mr. Raphael (sic) said, at his brightly painted surf shop in Tofino. ''But with all the tourists, I get to do what I want to do for a living -- surf.''
AWAY FROM IT ALL
Surf and Showbiz
GETTING THERE -- From Vancouver, Orca Airways has daily 45-minute flights (about 150 Canadian dollars, or about $130 at 1.15 Canadian dollars to the U.S. dollar) to Tofino's Long Beach airport (888-359-6722; www.flyorcaair.com). The five-hour drive starts with a ferry ride from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Travel north on Route 19 for 26 miles, then pick up Highway 4 heading west. When the highway dead ends (about 97 miles), head north through the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve to Tofino, 17 miles more.
PLACES TO STAY -- The Wickaninnish Inn (800-333-4604; www.wickinn.com ) has 75 rooms and suites, all with ocean views, starting at 240 Canadian dollars. If you'd rather cook for yourself, the Pacific Sands Resort (800-565-2322; www.pacificsands.ca) on Cox Bay has kitchens and fireplaces in every room starting at 150 Canadian dollars. For budget accommodations, the charming Whalers on the Point (250-725-3443; www.tofinohostel.com) has hostel-style dorm rooms (20 Canadian dollars) and private rooms (45 Canadian dollars).
PLACES TO EAT -- The purple lunch truck Sobo, or Sophisticated Bohemian (adjacent to the Botanical Gardens, 250-725-2341), is famous for its fish tacos. Shelter (601 Campbell Street, 250-725-3353) is popular for its superfresh bouillabaisse (dinner for two with wine, about 80 Canadian dollars). For top dining and beachfront views, the Wickaninnish's renowned Pointe Restaurant (Osprey Lane; 800-333-4604) is hard to beat. Dinner for two with wine is about 160 Canadian dollars.