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10,000 years old and still full of secrets

Tofino: one of those rare places on earth that you can still experience with the awe and wonder of the first people who laid eyes on it. On this rain-drenched Vancouver Island peninsula, temperate rainforests give way to driftwood-strewn beaches and you can still spot the animals depicted on totem poles – ravens, bears, orcas, sea lions, eagles – in the wild.

The Northwest Coastal People arrived in the area over 10,000 years ago and were some of the most sophisticated hunter-gatherers in history. Their abundance of food, from wild Pacific salmon to root vegetables, afforded them time to cultivate their arts, sciences and oral history. Today you can still get a taste of their traditions while indulging in the area’s famous surf culture and luxurious hospitality.

Begin the experience at Long Beach Lodge Resort, a cozy 41-room hotel at the edge of Cox Bay. In addition to surf lessons out back, guests can request a forest walk with surf instructor and arborist Josh Lewis. He can point out, for example, the vitamin-C-rich needles of a western hemlock or the frond of a licorice fern, an ancient appetite suppressant with the texture of chewing gum. When your appetite returns, head back to the lodge to watch the sunset from the Great Room and try the signature Coastal Potlatch, a modern take on a traditional seafood-infused broth, topped with a potato-leek oven fritter.

Next, pay a visit to the nearby Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach. This 75-room Relais & Châteaux property is run by Charles McDiarmid, whose family has lived in Tofino since the 1950s. From the Pointe Restaurant’s 240-degree ocean view you can watch surfers catching waves, crows breaking mussels on the rocks and even spectacular storms while you dine on sumptuous dishes featuring ingredients borrowed from First Nations cookery, such as smoked wild Pacific salmon, locally foraged chanterelle mushrooms and wild huckleberries.

In the Wick’s Ancient Cedars Spa, indulge in the Hishuk Ish Tsawalk treatment. The service draws on indigenous West Coast cleansing ceremonies and includes a saltwater foot soak and a full-body exfoliation using a local seaweed polish, and wraps up with a lengthy hot-stone massage.

From the Wick’s beach exit, slip down to the former studio of late master carver and local character Henry Nolla, where a new generation of artists produces totems, masks and other wooden artworks, all steeped in the aroma of fresh cedar shavings.

For more West Coast First Nations artwork, head into town to visit the Eagle Aerie Gallery, which houses the works of Roy Henry Vickers. Displayed in a longhouse, Vickers’ famed works tell the stories of the West Coast people in minimalist, almost comic-book clarity.

Another talented First Nations artist whose work appears regularly in Tofino is Joe Martin, a master craftsman of cedar dugout canoes. His canoe-steaming ceremony in October marks the opening of the annual O’Neill Coldwater Classic surf competition.

Martin’s daughter Gisele has carved out a niche offering foraging excursions and wildlife-spotting tours by canoe with the family-run Tla-ook Cultural Adventures. She’ll demonstrate some of nature’s clever surprises, like how bull kelp can be used to store liquids and how unravelling a strand of step moss reveals its age (one step for each year). Her excursions remind you how much of the natural world our modern eyes miss. But in Tofino, a place plucked from an ancient time, learning to see is half the fun.

(Natasha Mekhail is a Montreal-based travel editor who aspires to be a Tofino surf bum.)

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