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revelling in 'tofino time'

West coast of Vancouver Island a national treasure

Kids these days, let me tell you.

I grew up wanting to travel. I grew up swinging as high as I could on my backyard swing in the deluded hope of seeing the world beyond my narrow neighbourhood boundaries. I never even made it to Disneyland as a child, for heaven's sake, and I swore on a stack of National Geographics that my offspring would have every opportunity to travel far and wide.

So starting the day they were born, I hoarded air miles like a crazy person to send them gallivanting to places where people don't even speak English. And then the day came when one of the kids was leaving home for good, and I wanted to make the final family vacation a memorable one, so I offered to take them anywhere they might want to go: Hong Kong; New York; Paris

And what did they choose?

The place just around the corner, the place they've been sojourning since they were toddlers, the place they love most in the world next to their own island home: the west coast of Vancouver Island, where Canada comes to an abrupt end on the shores of the Pacific Ocean and the bracing salt-air has reawakened generations of families to their abiding love for one another.

Wait: You're telling me you gave your kids a choice between Canada and the continent and they picked the West Coast over the Costa del Sol? What gives?

Well, this isn't any old beachfront we're talking about -- it's a national treasure. The federal government recognized that way back in 1970, and turned most of the 41-kilometre stretch of wild, wind-whipped coastline between the towns of Ucluelet to the south and Tofino to the north into Pacific Rim National Park Reserve (www.pc.gc.ca/pacrim).

There are at least a dozen separate beaches along that scenic span, each with its own unique appeal: famous Long Beach teems with surfer dudes, for example, while moony couples and families with small children favour quieter and more sheltered beaches such as the sandy alcove near Florencia Bay.

Still, there are lots of great beaches in Canada. What makes this one so special?

Something about the sound of the ceaselessly pounding surf -- rolling all that way across the Pacific from Japan -- calms the stride and senses of even the most tightly wound traveler. Within 48 hours, you'll have lost track of the days of the week -- and that's when you know you've settled into that peculiar Canadian time zone known by locals as "Tofino time." Four days of vacation here is as good as a week anywhere else.

OK, but isn't it a hassle to get there?

The journey is part of the total holiday package, my friend. No matter how you choose to arrive, the iconic coastal scenery en route is spectacular. If (lucky you) you're in the demographic that can afford to fly to Tofino, Orca Air's $159 per person one-way trip takes about an hour from Vancouver (www.flyorcaair.com).

But most people bound for the far left coast travel by BC Ferries between Horseshoe Bay on the mainland and Nanaimo on the east side of Vancouver Island. The 90-minute, one-way trip starts at $51.55 (high season mid-week) for a car and driver (www.bcferries.com; 1-800-888-BC FERRY). From Nanaimo, it's an easy four-hour drive along Highway 4 to the other side of the island.

It's definitely worth stopping in Coombs, near Parksville, to see the goats browsing the grass-topped roof of the colourful local market, and farther along, at Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park to walk among the majestic old-growth trees.

But I see in my road atlas that Highway 4 more or less ends at the ocean and then you have to decide whether to turn left for Ucluelet or right for Tofino. What's the difference between the towns?

A decade or so back, the tree-huggers lived in Tofino and the tree-cutters lived in Ucluelet and most visitors turned right at the T-junction. But with the decline of B.C.'s forest industry, Ucluelet was forced to reconsider its economic options and began reinventing itself as a tourist destination.

Especially in high summer, Ucluelet is quieter than Tofino. Its restaurants and accommodations are marginally less sophisticated, but correspondingly less pricey. If your ideal holiday leans more toward adventure travel -- a few days of kayaking through the nearby Broken Group Islands, for example -- then Ucluelet is the perfect jumping-off place for your adventures.

All the same, I hear it rains constantly out that way.

First: last summer it rained so little that Tofino actually briefly closed the door to tourists because water supplies were running perilously low in early September. (Meantime, the town fathers and mothers have been working furiously to address that little problem so it doesn't happen again.) Second: pack rain gear. The weather can be ... uh ... moody in this part of the world; locals refer to the eighth month as "Fog-ust," in fact. Still, you haven't really lived until you've witnessed a raging West Coast storm shattering beach logs into toothpicks on the shore.

So where would we stay?

The area's most popular properties book up months in advance, and include luxury lodgings such as The Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach near Tofino (high season from $460 a night; www.wickinn.com; 1-800-333-4604); condo rentals such as those offered by Tofino Vacation Rentals (high season from $225 a night; www.tofinovr.com; 1-877-799-2779); family-friendly resorts such as Tauca Lea in Ucluelet (high season from $295 a night including continental breakfast, www.taucalearesort.com; 1-800-979-9303) and Pacific Sands (high season from $235 a night, www.pacificsands.com; 1-800-565-2322) in Tofino; and intimate B&Bs such as Ucluelet's A Snug Harbour Inn (high season from $270 a night, www.awesomeview.com; 1-888-936-5222).

For an additional fee, many properties offer recreational activities such as surfing lessons, guided nature walks, canoe and kayak trips, day excursions to nearby Hot Springs Cove, and whale- and bear-watching tours.

What if we'd prefer to make our own arrangements?

There's a wide range of adventure options, with prices to suit just about every budget; best to visit the websites or call for specifics.

Recommended for whale-watching, nature and fishing tours:

- Jamie's Whaling Station & Adventure Centres: www.jamies.com or 1-800-667-9913
- Subtidal Adventures: www.subtidaladventures.com or 1-877-444-1134

For surfing lessons:

- Surf Sister: www.surfsister.com or 1-877-724-7873

For kayaking excursions:

- Majestic Ocean Kayaking: www.majestic.bc.ca or 1-800-889-7644

For sight-seeing flights:

- West Coast Wild Adventures www.wcwild.com or 1-250-726-7715

Is there any free fun to be had?

Except for the cost of the park-use permit ($69.35 for a family season pass), the pleasures of Pacific Rim Reserve -- and there are many -- are absolutely free. Bone up on the area's history and culture at the Wickaninnish Interpretive Centre; hike the tranquil rainforest trails and comb the expansive beaches; explore tidepools at noon and count falling stars at midnight; chuck a disc along the shoreline and ride the relentless surf on a Boogie board.

You could pass your entire vacation in the park, but plan to spend at least one afternoon wandering the Wild Pacific Trail along Ucluelet's dramatic shoreline -- a wonderful place for a picnic.

Any other good picnic spots to recommend?

Tofino locals favour the isolated little beach at the end of Tonquin Park Road, at the very end of town -- it's a bit tricky to find, but it is marked on the widely available tourist map produced by Long Beach Maps (www.longbeachmaps.com). There are lots of picnic tables -- and a tidy toilet -- at Big Beach Park at the foot of Matterson Drive in Ucluelet. And of course, you can always spread a blanket on the beach ...

What about indoor activities?

Groovy Movie, located in a quirky retail complex just south of Tofino, offers a great selection of films to play on your laptop or in-room DVD player. And you could happily spend several hours shopping in Tofino or Ucluelet. In Tofino, don't miss Fibre Options for hemp and other natural-fibre clothing, and Reflecting Spirit Gallery and The Lounge Collection for tasteful local arts and crafts. In Ucluelet, try Mystic Horizon and Image West on the main drag for interesting souvenirs.

So we might be able to afford a few expensive extras after all?

Three recommended indulgences: stay at least one night at The Wickaninnish Inn for the sole purpose of savouring their scrumptious guests-only beachfront crab feast ($50 per adult; $35 for kids). And no matter where you bunk, book at least one treatment for your best beloveds at the Wick's Ancient Cedars Spa (www.wickinn.com/spa.html; 1-250-725-3113), unquestionably the best in B.C -- and quite possibly, Canada.

Perched on the rocky bluffs of Chesterman Beach, the spa's magical setting is rivaled only by the quality of treatments such as the blissful hot stone massage. It's the perfect way to end the day after paddling in an authentic aboriginal canoe to hike the ancient rainforest on nearby Meares Island ($64/per person for four-hour tour; www.tlaook.com; 1-250-725-2656).

Speaking of feasts, where should we eat?

The local food scene has improved dramatically in the past few years, thanks in large part to the arrival of Culinary Institute of America-trained Lisa Ahier and husband Artie. Their funky SoBo (for sophisticated bohemian) restaurant near the Tofino Botanical Gardens draws SRO crowds for lunch and dinner; don't miss the fish tacos and polenta fries.

The Wick's Pointe Restaurant offers a sophisticated brunch and extravagant dinners; Tauca Lea's Boat Basin is the fine-dining dinner option in Ucluelet. But if you're looking to fill up on the fly, try the Common Loaf bakery for sandwiches, Big Daddy's Fish Fry for fish-and-chips, or Holy Guacamole in the little green trailer for authentic Mexican snacks -- all on Tofino's main drag.

And if you're staying in a resort or condo you'll have a kitchenette, so stock up on supplies at the local Co-op in either Tofino or Ucluelet; Trilogy (www.trilogyfish.com; 1-250-725-2233) in Tofino offers fish fresh from nearby waters, and an impressive assortment of locally made cheeses.

Who needs the Costa del Sol -- how can I find out more?

Pick up the phone and talk to the first person who answers at any of the above numbers and you're sure to get enthusiastic and detailed answers to most of your questions. For general British Columbia travel information, including accommodation bookings, visit www.HelloBC.com or phone 1-800-Hello BC. For Tofino tourism information, visit www.my-tofino.com; for Ucluelet tourism information, it's www.uclueletinfo.com

Julie Ovenell-Carter currently lives on a small island in B.C., but as soon as she wins the lottery she will divide her time between a brownstone in Manhattan, a pied a terre in Paris, and a condo on Chesterman Beach.

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