We visited a number of places our our British Columbia road trip including Whistler, Vancouver and Victoria. However, the small town of Tofino has to be my favourite. Set at the southern end of an area called Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, part of the Pacific Rim National Park, this is Canada’s (almost) westerly point. It’s also incredibly beautiful – wild, natural and rugged.
Tofino was first discovered by Spanish explorers in 1792 when the area was in habited by the indigenous First Nations people, led by Chief Wickaninnish (his name literally means ‘he who no one sits in front of in the canoe’ – possibly the best name ever!). For the next hundred years or so, the area was visited primarily by fur traders and whalers before Clayoquot Sound was opened for settlement in the 1880s. From the turn of the century, Tofino began to grow and in 1913, the C.P.R. steamship Princess Maquinna docked at Tofino and Clayoquot Island for the first time, providing regular contact with the outside world.
The first road to Tofino was only completed in 1959 and today the small, hippyish town still feels like you’ve stumbled across somewhere really special. It’s home to only 1,850 permanent residents although these numbers swell during the summer months owing to Tofino’s reputation as Canada’s best surf spot. The Pacific is cold, however! Remember to bring a wetsuit.
The town itself is peppered with restaurants and cafes, including the fantastic Sobo, as well as surf shops and a handful of operators running whale- and bear-watching tours. We took an early morning boat ride in search of bears with Westcoast Aquatic Safaris and, lucky for us, were the only people on the boat. We also saw bears!
In the centre of town, on Campbell Street, you’ll find The Eagle Aerie Gallery that displays the works of award-winning Canadian artists Roy Henry Vickers.
Just outside town are the whimsical Tofino Botanical Gardens, 12 magical acres of gardens, forests and shoreline dotted with fanciful art installations and garden buildings, such as the ‘historic’ Bernardo O’Higgins homestead. There’s also a fantastic Children’s Garden.
But however charming the town is, it’s Tofino’s dramatic scenery that is the real draw; a wild mix of ancient cedar and fir forests, windswept beaches and mountains. You really do feel like you are at the edge of the world; stand on any beach and there’s nothing between you and Japan except vast swathes of the navy-blue Pacific ocean.
We loved Chesterman Beach when we visited, especially for the oversized emerald green sea anemones and plump starfish that we discovered when rock pooling. Other popular beaches are Tonquin and Mackenzie. But these beaches are not just summer destinations, Tofino is also popular during the winter months when visitors come to witness the dramatic storms – the town can receive two to three inches or rain an hour! Not surprsingly, the seas are rough in winter months, stay clear of the rocks if you visit during this time.
The Tofino-Long Beach Airport (YAZ) sits between the towns of Tofino and Ucluelet opposite Long Beach in the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. A handful of charter carriers service Tofino including Orca Airways, KD Air and Kenmore Air. Flights from Vancouver take less than an hour. There are also flights from Victoria.
However, it’s actually more fun to drive. Ferries from Vancouver and the Gulf Islands run to Squamish, the ferry terminal near Victoria on Vancouver Island and to Nanaimo regularly. From Squamish is roughly a six-hour drive and from Nanaimo is takes around four hours. Ferry tickets can be booked via BC Ferries and you should definitely book in advance if travelling during the summer months.
The drive along Route 4 from Nanaimo is spectacular and will take you through ancient forests, including Cathedral Grove where 800-year-old trees tower some 75m above you, small towns and the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
The best time to go
Tofino is popular year-round. The summer months are when most people come but the winter months also see a good number of visitors arrive to watch the dramatic storms. The Pacific Rim Whale Festival, celebrates grey whales and marine life education and is held annually in March.
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For more ideas on travelling in Canada with kids, see our Family Guide to Canada