The Golden Coast
Vancouver Island's western shore pairs high-end pampering with wild adventures
Approaching the remote west coast of Vancouver Island, you enter a realm that, on a map, resembles a whale’s tail. At its centre is the Long Beach segment of Pacific Rim National Park and at its extremities, the Esowista and Ucluth Peninsulas with the resort centres of Tofino and Ucluelet.
Welcome to the edge of Canada — the west coast of the West Coast. Standing on one of its beaches, gazing out at the illimitable Pacific, it’s possible to feel as the ancients did, that a ship might sail off the flat Earth and find itself careening into a black and empty universe. But there’s nothing empty about this coast: it’s the most enthralling confluence of natural grandeur, wilderness adventure and creature comforts in all the land.
Imagine, in one place, fishing, surfing, kayaking, camping, hiking, whale-, bear- and bird-watching, First Nations cultural touring and in winter, storm-watching as eight-metre-high waves lash in from Japan, an IMAX-worthy fury of wind and waves at their wildest. On a perfect day, the traveller might go in search of killer whales after breakfast, hike an ancient rainforest in the afternoon and dine on fresh local oysters and Dungeness crab. With this in mind, here is our list of the best of the edge.
With a spectacular setting on the Esowista Peninsula’s northern tip and a tightly-knit tourism infrastructure, globally renowned Tofino needs little introduction.
THE RESORT HOTEL
The doyen of Tofino’s hostelry for the past 16 years, the Wickaninnish Inn (tel: 250-725-3100; wickinn.com) — “the Wick” — qualifies as a destination in its own right. It’s a member of Relais & Châteaux, the international fellowship of outstanding country inns, and both Travel + Leisure and Condé Nast Traveler (UK) rank it Canada’s best hotel.
The resort’s original 45 rooms underwent a $2.7 million renovation earlier this year. It transformed the building, which was looking tired, into a wilderness palace, its public spaces defining rustic elegance, its bedrooms through the roof with gas fireplaces, soaker tubs, custom-built furniture and original art.
Overlooking the sweeping Chesterman Beach panorama, innkeepers Todd Byrnes and Linda Kay’s oceanfront Chesterman Beach B&B (tel: 250-725-3726; chestermanbeach.net) is a bed-and-breakfast as designed, say, by Four Seasons. Ideal for families, its top-of-the-line Garden Suite sleeps up to six and comes with queen beds, kitchenette, dining area, gas fireplace, sun room and that incomparable beach and its dazzling sunset straight out the door.
THE HOTEL RESTAURANT
The Wick’s Pointe Restaurant feeds the eye with its wraparound ocean view, while the kitchen shows dedication to local product with oysters, mussels, wild salmon, halibut, albacore and the much underrated Pacific octopus. Ling cod paired with deep-fried prosciutto redefines surf-and-turf with gusto. Outlandish Carbonara brings a deconstructed pasta dish in which the diner melds scallops, clams and bacon with squid-ink-blackened noodles, demonstrating that three plus one can equal 10.
THE DESTINATION RESTAURANT
She cooks, he manages. The trajectory of Lisa and Artie Ahier zigzagged from running the exclusive Cibalo Creek Ranch in West Texas to three years in a catering truck before they established SoBo (tel: 250-725-2341; sobo.ca) — for “Sophisticated Bohemian” — as Tofino’s most intensity-driven resto.
At lunch, Ahier turns out the best deep-fried oysters on Canada’s West Coast and gilds her bivalves with jalapeño, avocado and tequila for a tsunami of sweet, salty, hot and sour. At dinner, she turns to fish and seafood with racy accents. Her flavours aren’t big, they’re gargantuan. Left Coast (what they call BC in Alberta) seafood stew is a glorious melange of halibut, scallops, mussels and clams in an uncommonly rich tomato-fennel broth. A few bites and you know why Random House is set to publish The SoBo Cookbook next year.
THE FIRST NATIONS ADVENTURE
Tla-ook Cultural Adventures (tel: 877-942-2663; tlaook.com) outfits wilderness expeditions in authentic Native dugouts. A half day sees paddlers off to Meares Island to hike a 10,000-year-old rainforest, while a full day is for exploring Native fishing grounds and clam beds on Echachist Island, concluding with a beach feast of wild salmon and Dungeness crab.
Through March and April, 17,000 grey whales pass the coast en route to their summer home in the Arctic — the greatest of all whale migrations. And in summer, pods of humpbacks and orcas are seen frolicking and breaching along the coast.
Several local outfitters, including Jamie’s Whaling Station (tel: 250-725-3919; jamies.com), Ocean Outfitters (tel: 250-725-2866; oceanoutfitters.bc.ca) and Remote Passages (tel: 250-725-3330; remotepassages.com), offer excursions in Zodiacs and spacious cruisers. The bonus is frequent sightings of sea lions, seals, bears, bhttp://oceanoutfitters.bc.caald eagles and sea birds.
The “bear guy” is Mike White of Browning Pass Boat Charters (tel: 250-725-3435; browningpass.com). “Captain” Mike knows where to find ’em as they prowl Clayoquot Sound shorelines in search of juicy crabs. His cruiser can move in close because bears don’t worry about what’s on water, only threats posed by landlubbing wolves and bigger bears. Sightings frequently extend to bald eagles, porpoises, seals and wolves.
It’s no surprise that Tofino ranks as the surfing capital of Canada: with its 35 kilometres of beaches, it’s a natural. Cox Beach is the surfers’ choice and was the site of the 2009 O’Neill Cold Water Classic (won by a local lad).
PACIFIC RIM NATIONAL PARK
Long Beach is above all long — 10 kilometres of golden beach and a natural for swimmers, surfers, hikers and beachcombers. Photographers revel in its wafting mists and marine life — sea stars, barnacles and anemones thriving in tidal pools.
THE WILDERNESS PARK
Pacific Rim National Park’s Rainforest Trail occupies boardwalked circular loops on either side of the Pacific Rim Highway. Loop A, on your left heading towards Tofino, is the more spectacular of the two. Excellent signage guides visitors through dense forest of red cedar only to descend into a valley of 100 varieties of epiphytes — plants growing atop other plants, drawing their nutrients from rain, wind and fog. A magical walk in the woods.
Pronounced “Yew-Kloo-Let”, it translates as “people of the safe harbour” in the Nootka language. Locals call it Ukee and don’t mind if you do, too. Ukee has long endured the reputation of Tofino’s ugly-duckling sister, but no longer. Its great escapes draw on a different sort of coast chiselled in black volcanic rock, gentle coves and offshore islands.
THE RESORT HOTEL
Black Rock Oceanfront Resort (tel: 877-762-5011; blackrockresort.com) is Ucluelet’s luxe property, its rooms and suites with floor-to-ceiling windows, fireplaces, flat-screen TVs, kitchenettes, showers built for two and sprawling balconies. For all this, it’s a remarkably subdued-looking resort; playing second banana to the oceanscape is part of the plan.
Dian and Brian McCreary’s Reef Point Oceanfront B&B *(tel: 877-726-1230; reefpoint.ca), on a secluded and curiously unnamed cove, is Ucluelet’s luxe bed-and-breakfast. Two decidedly romantic suites come with amenities including soaker tubs for two, fireplaces, kitchenettes, private decks and a hot tub looking out to sea. Breakfasts lean towards sumptuousness in the order of fresh fruit, smoked salmon frittata and organic coffee. But the heart of any stay is the spellbinding view of the cove. Often guests spend their days in Zen-like contemplation as the ocean turns from deep blue to silver glitter and the cove transforms to a playground for scores of urchin-eating sea otters.
THE RESORT RESTAURANT
Black Rock’s Fetch isn’t just a resort restaurant, it’s one of the exciting places to eat on the West Coast. Dining here is like decorating a Christmas tree, its baubles the likes of citrus pearls, char-grilled lime and smoked shellfish oil.
The inspired amuse-bouche from chef Louise Pickles’ gleaming open kitchen may be a sweet, chunky Qualicum Bay scallop seasoned with thyme and truffle and garnished with preserved lemon and baby shimeji mushrooms, a gastro-universe in two bites. Cornish hen brings half a plump bird, the leg battered in polenta and deep-fried and the breast crispy-skinned in a crust of herbs. Beef tenderloin comes accompanied by smoked fingerling potatoes and a “bar” of poached veal cheek and foie gras capped with black garlic.
THE DESTINATION RESTAURANT
Toronto-bred chef Richard Norwood chose laid-back Ucluelet to open his own restaurant and has been pleasing locals and tourists mightily for the past three years. Norwoods (tel: 250-726-7001; norwoods.ca) is an intimate 34-seat bistro with an acrobatic open kitchen and diners perched on bar-height stools. Norwood’s cooking leans to big, masculine portions and flavours to match: salad of baby romaine, pork belly and Parmesan crisps strikes impeccable balance. Centre-cut BC pork rack is a juicy, char-grilled chop gone international with Indian spices. The essential dessert? Jump at the dreamy goat-cheese cheesecake with strawberry compote and toasted hazelnuts.
The great Pacific safari brings tourists up close and personal with bald eagles, bears or killer whales, but Archipelago Wildlife Cruises’ (tel: 250-726-8289; archipelagocruises.com) Raincoast Maiden does ’em all in one trip. No wonder Trip Advisor ranks it the number one tour in all Canada.
The 23-passenger Maiden’s agenda for the five-hour cruise encompasses grey, humpback and killer whales, bald eagles, harbour seals, sea lions, sea otters and black bears. Plus a cruise through the Broken Islands and “gourmet” lunch aboard, Island beer and BC wine optional.
“One of our most exciting sightings,” recalls Toddy Landry, who, with her husband Al, captains the 16-metre-long yacht, “was a pod of transient whales attacking a seal colony in search of lunch. And where resident whales are fish-eaters, transients — nomads — are carnivorous. It wasn’t pretty, but it was a kind of nature few humans ever witness.”
Forty kilometres out of Ukee lies the Big Bank, where dedicated anglers are pretty well certain to land a whopper. Just waiting for the hook are oversized halibut and all three wild salmons — Chinook, coho and sockeye. A dozen local charters ply the often choppy waters, and return with epic catches. The aquarium Now here’s a twist: the good folk of Ukee collect the marine life at summer’s beginning and release it back into the ocean in October. Installed in a stylish new $1.8 million building earlier this year, the marine life kickline, from the Giant Pacific Octopus (who knew an octopus has three hearts?) to sea stars and other denizens of tidal pools, has never been so accessible. “Our feeling is, the world’s aquaria are more like art galleries,” says managing director Dave Hurwitz, “but they drop the ball when it comes to education.” This lively aquarium (tel: 250-726-2782; uclueletaquarium.org) plans to fix that.
Ucluelet’s Wild Pacific Trail (wildpacifictrail.com) has emerged as one of the coast’s most successful attractions, 8.4 kilometres of gentle—much of it is accessible to wheelchairs—hiking. It follows the Ucluth Peninsula’s rugged coast among ancient cedars and spruces, giant upturned root systems, fallen trees festooned with mosses and ferns and stinkaroo skunk cabbages with canary-yellow cobra hoods. Ocean vistas with benches are frequent, a blessing for those who might contemplate the nature of wonder.