Vancouver Island: Beaches, Forests and Fresh North Pacific Cuisine
Original Article by Amber Gibson for Spafinder
Vancouver Island has grown in popularity among adventuresome travelers over the last several years for its outdoor sports and marine activities. Nearly half of the island’s 750,000 population lives in and around the capital city, Victoria. But no trip to the island would be complete without spending a few days in Tofino on the western coast. Tofino is a small port town, with less than 2,000 year-round inhabitants, but it’s a hugely popular attraction for surfers and as a weekend getaway for those living in Victoria. The ocean and rainforest ecosystems here are simply magnificent, including one of the largest stretches of old growth rainforest left on the planet. The rich canopy and undergrowth press right up to the beach, where the sand is hard enough from all the rain to go for a run or bike ride. Or jut sit on the exposed rocks at low tide and reflect on life at the edge of the Pacific.
I ate a lot of wild salmon and took a lot of baths on Vancouver Island. What can I say? The tubs at these resorts were irresistible, with jaw-dropping views, and after working out with Michele Shorter, my sore muscles needed the soak. Smoked salmon is standard breakfast fare at hotels around the world, but nowhere else is it this fresh, tasty, or vibrant. There’s no better, or healthful, way to wake up.
Where to Stay
In Victoria, enjoy the ocean view from Oak Bay Beach Hotel, an independent 100-room luxury boutique property. Although the hotel is styled after an English manor house, it reopened in 2012 after extensive reconstruction, so the furnishings and technology are neat and modern. The hotel’s theater hosts live dinner shows and movie nights, popular with both visitors and locals. After a hectic schedule of long haul flights, my first night in British Columbia ended perfectly with a therapeutic seaweed bath waiting for me in my spacious bathroom after dinner. The hotel staff will draw you a bath too—just ask the concierge for your choice of seaweed, lavender, or acai berry from the in-suite bath menu. I can’t think of a better way to relax after traveling.
From Victoria, you’ll drive north along the Eastern coast before cutting west to Tofino and Long Beach Lodge Resort. This seaside resort is even smaller than Oak Bay Beach, with just 61 rooms, split between guest rooms in the main lodge and standalone cottages. You’ll see surfers catching waves in Cox Bay from your window, and this is the only hotel in Tofino that offers an on-site surf school, as well as standup paddleboard lessons.
Just a couple kilometers up the road is the most luxurious option in town—The Wickaninnish Inn. The Relais & Chateaux resort overlooks Chesterman Beach and has 75 rooms among two lodge buildings with scaly textured adze beamwork throughout. The design and operations of the local family-owned hotel very much respect the environment and traditions of Tofino. The resort was built with preservation top of mind, and reclaimed wood used throughout the property creates a rustic, yet polished vibe. Even the wooden hotel door hangers add a playful touch: “Watching the waves from my window, please come back later” instead of the standard “do not disturb.”
A gallery in the beach lodge displays sculptures and paintings from several Vancouver Island artists for sale, and is worth a visit even just to admire. Wander down to the carving shed, just a few minutes away on the beach and you might see an artist at work. When I visited, I chatted with Christen Dokk Smith, a local woodworker by way of Norway, carving a life-size boy out of maple. Rooms at the Wick are so comfortable that on a stormy day, relaxing with an ocean view bath or warming yourself with a mug of hot chocolate by the propane fireplace are equally tempting possibilities.
Where to Spa
Before your treatment at Boathouse Spa & Baths, take a dip in one of three heated mineral pools outside while enjoying the seaside view. Locals adore the small spa, which has a waiting list of 200 people clamoring for membership. Luckily, hotel guests receive complimentary pool access and priority for booking massages, facials, and body wraps. My “By the Sea” massage incorporated local Pacific seaweed, which seems natural for Victoria’s only oceanfront spa. Weekend yoga and water aerobics classes are free when you stay at Oak Bay Beach Hotel.
The Ancient Cedars Spa at The Wickaninnish Inn is hands down the nicest in town, but everyone knows it, so appointments fill up quickly. Daily morning yoga classes are held in a cozy loft adjacent to the spa, so you’ll be listening to crashing waves and inhaling fresh sea air with each ujjayi breath. The classes are semi-private, with a maximum of five students, so there’s plenty of opportunity for individual adjustments. The slow flow hatha style is appropriate for all levels, too. After a rejuvenating yoga practice, head back inside to check in for a hot stone massage or facial using organic seaweed products by Seaflora. A small wooden cottage houses a couple’s treatment room with a stunning ocean view that you’ll wake up to after a soothing treatment induces you to sleep.
Where to Dine
It’s rare to see a line out the door at a vegetarian restaurant, but Victoria’s Be Love has great food served in a cozy setting that even carnivores will enjoy. An extensive drink menu includes superfood cocktails made with kombucha, apple cider vinegar, and aloe vera juice. Hearty quinoa and brown rice bowls are popular, along with seasonal specials like crispy pumpkin ravioli and roasted local squash stuffed with apple tabouleh and spiced lentils. Save a little room for a vegan dessert too—the chocolate treats in the bakery case are just the right size if an entire slice of cheesecake (made with cashew cheese) sounds like too much.
In Tofino, there are far more excellent dining options than you might expect for such a small town. Tacofino is the favorite local spot for Mexican food, which you should follow up with chocolate bonbons and housemade gelato at Chocolate Tofino for dessert. Wolf in the Fog was named Canada’s best new restaurant in 2014 by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine. It’s a well-deserved accolade based upon the decadent series of dishes I enjoyed at the bar. I started light: a seaweed salad with puffed wild rice and daikon, followed by a potato-crusted oyster dressed with truffle oil. Charred Humboldt squid is impossibly tender, served over citrusy jicama, and local smoked steelhead trout comes with heartier fall root vegetables and housemade quince sauce. Even if you can’t get a reservation, the restaurant saves many open tables downstairs along with seats at the bar upstairs, so it’s worth stopping in. The staff here is so enthusiastic and happy to modify dishes for allergies and dietary restrictions. The crowd was a nice mix of local regulars, including families with well-behaved kids in tow and visitors who had traveled far to try Chef Nicholas Nutting’s food. The wine list is well-curated, small but with interesting local bottles, and the cocktail program is the most ambitious in town.
For fine dining and panoramic ocean views, The Pointe Restaurant at Wickaninnish Inn is a no-brainer. Chef Warren Barr’s ingredient-driven menu is inspired by the surrounding temperate rainforest and ocean, balancing science and creativity to showcase the best of Canadian cuisine. “I want to glorify non-exotic ingredients,” he says. The weekly tasting menu is the best way to see this in action, as Barr dresses fresh seafood and meats with housemade hemlock oil, elderflower cordial, salal berries, and root vegetables.
What to Do
Lush green wilderness surrounds you on the five-hour drive from Victoria to Tofino. The serenity is calming but there’s not too much to do in between. One stop worth making is at Teafarm, Canada’s only commercial tea farm, with 800 camellia sinensis plants. Along with its estate grown tea, the farm blends one hundred rare teas from all over the world. Try your Chinese zodiac sign tea and sit down for some tea-infused sweets, including lapsang souchong and star anise ice cream and a gluten-free keemun chocolate cake.
Once you’re on the beaches of Tofino, spend as much time outside as possible. It’s the pristine natural landscapes that draw visitors here from all over the world. Weather can be unpredictable, but enjoy every non-rainy day with a walk or jog along the sea or zip up your wetsuit and take a surfing lesson. Go beachcombing at low tide and you’ll find mussels, anemone, starfish, barnacles, and little clam burrows in the sand. Where the beach ends, the forest begins, from the tallest sitka spruce trees and the biggest red cedars to the undergrowth lush with ferns, huckleberry, and salal bushes. Book a private nature hike or winter storm watching tour with Long Beach Nature Tours to learn more about the geography and weather the region is famous for.
Tofino is not a big town, and you could explore the entire place in just one afternoon. Eagle Aerie Gallery is a great showcase of First Nations artwork while Mark Hobson Gallery displays some breathtaking Pacific coast landscapes, including plenty of more affordable prints.
There are several local companies making outstanding bath and body products that you’ll find in local retailers and online. Seaflora’s potent seaweed serum, sea kelp concentrate, and other skin-care products are all made from wild, organic seaweed harvested in small batches off the coast of British Columbia. Tofino-based Sea Wench Naturals and Tofino Soap Company both make excellent soaps with essential oils, nutrient-rich extracts, and shea and cocoa butters. In Victoria, Elate Cosmetics crafts clean, vegan cosmetics with love, and the creme lipstick feels heavenly on my lips and comes in a cool wooden tube. And I’m obsessed with the fresh, sweet scent of Rainwater Soap & Candle Co’s citrus balsam candle.