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Getting lost on Tofino time

"What day is it again?" my daughter Kathryn asked as we strolled barefoot along Chesterman Beach early one foggy August morning. Sooner or later, everyone loses track of the calendar in this part of the world. The locals call it "Tofino time," a curious and illusory lengthening of minutes and days that effectively slows the stride and speech of even the most manic arrivals to this tiny seaside town on British Columbia's far left coast. Like a giant metronome, the Pacific surf resets the rhythm of life with its slow and unrelenting pulse.

We were halfway through a week-long holiday, the last summer vacation we would probably take as a family. "It's Thursday, I think."

"Twelve more days, then," she said matter-of-factly. In less than two weeks, she would leave her childhood home and move into residence at Simon Fraser University. "I'm getting excited."

A young mother walked toward us through the gentle surf; I could see a tuft of black hair peeking from the blue Snugli strapped to her chest. Suddenly time slowed even more to a day 18 years earlier when I walked along another beach clutching my own infant girl. Memories of early motherhood filled the quiet space between two waves.

"I miss sniffing babies," I said aloud.

My daughter laughed. "I thought you said you weren't going to miss me?"

When she was little and still learning to read a map, Kathryn studied the route to Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island and told her dad, who was driving: "Go straight and then turn right at the end of the world."

A four-hour drive from Nanaimo, Tofino is a quiet place at the end of a dead-end road where generations of families have come to say hello to each other. Back before we had children, when we were still young enough to believe that the frantic pursuit of career success was all there was to life, my husband Brad and I came here from Vancouver whenever we needed to stop the clock and reconnect. And decades before, Brad camped on the white-sand beaches, which now form part of Pacific Rim National Park, with his own parents and siblings.

Kathryn and her brother, Adam, first saw the Pacific surf on a spring vacation in 1999 when she was 10 and he was 7 and we stayed at the Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach. Now, our family was back - not because we needed to say hello, but because we needed to say a long goodbye.

It was the children's choice to return to this sleepy beach town, a decision that surprised me at first. More quirky than charming, Tofino attracts the sort of people who probably liked to colour outside the lines when they were little. (And it's attracting more every year: the population now swells from 1,500 to more than 20,000 in the summer.) It's still a little grubby in the corners. Except for a handful of remarkable restaurants and hotels, the motley assortment of shops and eateries is a reminder of the town's peace-love-tofu-tree-hugger heritage.

But over the years as I have listened to friends reminisce about family holidays... leaky tents, road trips in crowded sedans - I have come to believe that they are not so much about place as family proximity. In an age where children take their meals en route to soccer practice and working parents text-message their kids between meetings, a destination that delivers plenty of family face time can be as exotic as any European capital.

On their first visit to Tofino, my kids saw grey whales from a kayak and collected shell treasures, but I don't think it was so much the things that happened that made an impression as the things that didn't happen. The phone didn't ring, the computer didn't beckon; there were no landmarks demanding attention, no cultural divides to be crossed. Everyone they loved best was present and accounted for, and finding a sand dollar on the beach was the day's most urgent business.

One of Kathryn's lingering memories of our first visit to the Wickaninnish Inn was the way I looked after having a hot stone massage in the Ancient Cedars Spa. I looked like I was "walking in butter," she said, and she wanted to try walking like that, too.

This time, we booked a side-by-side treatment in the spa's cedar treatment cottage, right on the edge of the ocean, and quickly fell silent as our masseurs, Scott and Angie, placed heated stones along our bodies. Apparently the radiant warmth would open our seven chakras, thereby clearing the path for a flow of positive energy and greater psychic wellness - or something. All I knew was that it felt really good to lie under hot rocks and then have someone knead the hell out of my knots. But near the end of the treatment, as Scott lifted the stones from my sternum and belly, I felt an odd and distinctive stirring in my chest, a tangible release of - well, of something. It was as if something inside me had been blocked and suddenly the pipeline was running clear again. Later, after Kathryn and I had unglued ourselves from the tables, I asked the masseuse about the experience.

"Which stones are we talking about?" asked Angie. I pointed to my chest. "Ah," she said, "that would be the heart chakra, which is all about love and relationships. Perhaps you are coming to terms with issues related to home and family?"

I burst into tears.

When they were small, the children were skilled at begging for food from strangers. They would zero in on a couple sharing a bag of chips and then stand by with puppy-dog eyes. Inevitably, they were fed.

Evidently, even at 14, Adam had not lost the knack. One night, as we walked to the beach to watch the sun set, we briefly lost him. Minutes later, he scampered up, a couple of perfectly toasted marshmallows in his hands. "Got them back there," he said, gesturing to a couple beside a small beach fire. Tofino is like that. People are more generous on the beach - with food, with laughter, with conversation.

As the sun kissed the horizon, we headed back across the beach and ran into a family we knew, a retired lawyer who has in the past intimidated me with his forceful manner. But on the beach we felt compelled to hug - a surprise to both of us. He, too, was there with his children, two of whom were also leaving for university in September.

"So you're saying goodbye too," I said.

"I can't even talk about it," he said. I laughed.

"No, really. I just hate it." And his eyes welled up with tears.

The tide was high, and we were walking along damp sand.

"Hey, mom," Kathryn called. "There's a message over there."

Beside a once-grand sandcastle, someone had carved: "I love my family." And below it, in a different hand: "Me 2."

Out of financial necessity rather than a burning desire to stay close, we were sharing one big room at the Wickanninish, so when Brad was rattled by a nightmare in the early hours of our last morning, we moved onto the balcony, where the noise of the surf would drown our conversation.

"I dreamt someone stole Kathryn," he said, embarrassed. "I couldn't find her anywhere."

The Big Dipper shimmered overhead; it was the first time I'd ever been able to pick out the elusive eighth star near the end of the handle.

"She'd been kidnapped," he went on.

Yup, I thought, kidnapped by life. "I think she's a willing hostage, honey. It's going to be fine. Let's go to sleep."

Back in bed, I listened to my family's night breathing, steady as the waves out the window. I decided that in the morning I would book next year's vacation for the same week, in the same place and ask Kathryn to come back. It was, I thought, a most reasonable ransom.

Pack your bags.

GETTING THERE

Tofino is on the west coast of Vancouver Island, an easy four-hour drive from the BC Ferries terminal in Nanaimo (http://www.bcferries.com; 1-888-223-3779).

WHERE TO STAY

It's not uncommon for rooms to be booked a year in advance at Tofino's most popular properties, such as the Wickaninnish Inn (from $460 a night; http://www.wickinn.com; 1-800-333-4604), and beachside condos such as those offered by Tofino Vacation Rentals (from $225 a night; http://www.tofinovr.com; 1-877-799-2779).

WHERE TO EAT

Tofino's food scene has improved dramatically, thanks in large part to the arrival of Culinary Institute of America-trained Lisa Ahier and husband Artie. Their funky SoBo draws crowds; don't miss the fish tacos and polenta fries (http://www.sobo.ca; 250-725-2341). To fill up on the fly, try the Common Loaf for sandwiches (250-725-3915), Big Daddy's Fish Fry for fish and chips, or Holy Guacamole for authentic Mexican snacks (780-439-0757.)

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