Four Adventure-Filled Days on Vancouver Island
Original Article by Alexandra Pollack for goop and Black Tomato
In stark contrast to most vacation destinations, Vancouver Island can be at its best when the weather is at its worst. So much so that those in the know time their visits specifically to catch the winter storm season, though the best time to get in on the bounty of adventure opportunities is between March and November. And nowhere is the fierceness of the Pacific Ocean, the otherworldliness of its jagged beaches, and the magic of the surrounding wilderness more accessible than in tiny Tofino, British Columbia (how tiny? Under 2,000 people reside here full time). Taking up the westernmost tip of the island, Tofino is an unexpectedly cool surf town with a serious sustainability-minded food scene and an activity roster that runs the gamut from Lomi Lomi massages to close encounters with black bears.
To complement our newly launched Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver guides—and in honor of the goop shop (finally) offering shipping to Canada—, we asked Black Tomato, one of our go-to travel companies for truly unique getaways, to put together an adventure-centric itinerary that focuses on taking in the most of the area’s natural beauty in a relatively small time window—meaning, a long weekend, plus an extra day tacked on either end, is all you need.
Check In: The Wickaninnish Inn
With the rolling waves of the Pacific Ocean out front, a dense rainforest in the back, and jagged cliffs or beaches on either side, family-owned hotel The Wickaninnish Inn is about as close to nature as you can get without pitching a tent among the pine trees. (However, if a tent is what you’re after, The Clayoquot Wilderness Resort—the sustainability-minded, hyper-luxe hotel-slash-campsite nestled into the stunning UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere Reserve—does all the work for you.) Though overused, in the context of its driftwood-dotted interiors, ample fireplaces (there’s one in every room), and on-site woodcarving shed, “rustic” is by far the best adjective for describing the inn’s warm, welcoming personality. For storm chasers, observation points to take in the drama from a comfortable distance are scattered throughout the property, including the guestrooms, where floor-to-ceiling windows, overstuffed chairs, and binoculars are worked into the minimalist décor for that very purpose. (For those hell-bent on experiencing some weather first hand, each room comes with rain gear and wellies). Best of all, you can get a view from the top before you even step foot on the grounds by hopping on a seaplane over from the mainland.
Leaving Vancouver Island without a whale sighting is like visiting Arizona and not peeking into the Grand Canyon. Prime whale watching season coincides with migration schedules, so your best bet for spotting pacific grey and humpback whales in their natural habitat is during the spring/summer season. Meanwhile, minke whales and orcas swim these waters all year. A 12-seater Zodiac boat tour offers the best visibility and a “sighting guarantee”—so if no whales are around during your voyage, you’ll receive a raincheck ticket for another tour.
Proof positive that the inn is 100% committed to making guests feel like family, the on-site restaurant, The Pointe, has a dining atmosphere that most resembles a low-key dinner party. Save for the impressive floor-to-ceiling windows in place of walls and Executive Chef Warren Barr’s decidedly elevated menu, the wooden tables and roaring fire are all about comfort. Ordering is essentially foolproof: The seafood is caught in local waters (whatever you do, don’t skimp on the oysters) and the bulk of the produce comes from surrounding areas.
Tempting as it may be to lean on the convenience of room service, a trip into town for a coffee-and-donuts breakfast at Rhino Coffee House is an important stop on the best-of-Tofino tour. And not just any donuts: the ones here range from classic to novelty to savory donut egg sandwiches—all of which you can take to-go and walk down to the water for some mandatory surfer ogling.
For a place so rich in wildlife (seals, porpoises, whales, etc.), it’s the native population of black bears that’s the biggest draw. Bear families (cubs included) are known to come out to collect crabs and clams at low tide, which means that the best way to catch a good glimpse is via Clayoquot Sound, from the comfort of a blessedly heated cruiser.
Tofino is a surf-town at heart, one that’s home to prime surfing conditions almost year-round. Whether you’re into paddling out or paddle boarding, a pro or just beginning, getting on a board here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Lessons are offered in private or group settings and make for a particularly great family bonding experience if traveling with the littles.
Nestled right into the harbor, at Ice House, your dinner of sustainably sourced, perfectly prepped salmon or halibut comes with some of the best views on the island. Weather permitting, ask for a table on the water-facing patio and make a meal of the freshly shucked oysters and daily catch; the baked umami tsunami oysters are a fun riff on the traditional dish. Dining with a friend? Go for the Cajun crab boil option. PSA: The restaurant is currently closed for the season and will reopen January 2018.
For thrill-seekers, heli-hiking is a special brand of fun. As the name suggests, this activity combines the birds-eye views of a helicopter ride, which will drop you off at the starting point of a breathtaking hike (guided, of course), with the serenity of traversing the flora- and fauna-rich landscape of the Pacific Rim. While not for the faint of heart, the experience is unforgettable.
If Tofino Brewing Co. (the hops don’t travel far to get here and availability depends on what’s in season) and its adjacent tasting room look achingly cool—airy, open floor plan and slick, all-wood everything—that’s because they are. The kelp stout, for example, is brewed using kelp sustainably sourced from the waters surrounding the island. The spruce tree ale, which is a good option for those who don’t enjoy straight up beer, is made with regional spruce tips.
While so many local restaurants double down on fresh seafood, Shelter owns the comfort food market. Burgers, steaks, fried chicken, and more (including some excellent fish) are all made of sustainably farmed, local ingredients and prepared in a way that’s impressive without trying too hard. The lodge-like interior is more gastropub than traditional restaurant, making it a good spot to take a beat after a long day.
Lovingly referred to as “reedle deets”, the baked goods at this adorable, local-run/local-beloved bakery (it’s located in nearby Ucluelet, and totally worth the hour or so drive) are handmade from mostly organic, all-local ingredients. Note: the fruit galettes are unreal. The to-go soup-and-sandwich menu is a godsend when planning beach picnics and long hikes. On the heels of the coast-wide effort to honor the environment, Zoe’s is upping recycling and composting and cutting down on food waste and paper packaging, so bring your own if you can.
Paddling through Clayoquot and Barkley Sound offers a unique vantage point for wildlife sightings—eagles, whales, crustaceans, etc.—and plenty of opportunities to breathe and unplug. Hopping in a kayak is also a good solution to seeing the quaint neighboring fishing village Ucluelet without having to get in a car. If you’ve got time to spare, overnight trips are a big hit with stargazers.
The Wickaninnish Inn’s Ancient Cedars Spa is tucked right into the Pointe restaurant structure and is built out with indoor-outdoor treatment rooms to harness the crisp, healing ocean air and the soothing soundtrack of crashing waves. Services range from traditional, European-style massages to local kelp-spiked facials to healing rituals steeped in the island’s rich indigenous culture. Post- or pre-hike/surf/kayak yoga sessions can also be arranged.
It makes sense to save this slightly more dressed-up dining situation for your last night on the island. The seasonal menu at Wolf in the Fog (sharing plates are a good way to make the most of the offering) is a love letter to the region’s bounty, be it foraged mushrooms, fresh-off-the-dock oysters, or cocktails that capture the essence of the surrounding pine trees. Take your meal to the next level by signing up for the Catch & Cook package: Start with a guided fishing expedition, then grab a drink at the bar while Chef Nick Nutting preps a multi-course dinner using your day’s catch.