Tofino has a laid-back, slightly hippie feel to it and looking at the sea and the mountains made me feel it was not quite real, the beauty was just so intense.
We had a beer at the Tough City Japanese restaurant which has a balcony on the lake, and watched the kayakers coming home and then a boat plane landing, and various swifts and cormorants flying around or in straight lines over the water, and it really was very lovely.
From Tofino you can see Mears Island, and several other islands that recede in layered shadows into the haze of the distance, and it really is incredibly beautiful. The lady in the Coop supermarket where we went to do some shopping said that she lived on Mears Island, and would get a water bus home, and when I read about the island, it is owned by a First Nation and there has been controversy over logging rights awarded by the government. So even in the most idyllic of spots, you get a sense of the complex realities of relationships between indigenous peoples and those who have settled here afterwards.
What a wonderful joy, to go down to the beach and drink a bottle of wine under the heavens after a barbecue in the yard. Chesterman Beach is a popular spot for surfing, with the waves rolling in from across the Pacific. Even in May, there were many dedicated surfers from early morning to the late evening, catching the waves even at low tide.
The beach is lined with beautiful houses, many of which have a few wooden seats on the beach in front of them. The islands off the coast are accessible at low tide, but have signs on warning visitors: “Private Property: Keep Out”. The beach is littered with bivalve shells and seaweed that looks a bit like a spring onion turned upside down with the bulb inflated.
Beware of the bear
During the night, I went outside with my torch to have a look at the night sky, keeping an eye on the bushes in case there were any black bears lurking around! Looking up, the stars were incredible, almost like a Cathedral Grove but rather than trees, millions of sparkling stars. It gave me a feeling of real joy, despite it being rather chilly and feeling sorry for myself.
Black and brown bears are often seen around here, but they are shy animals and tend not to get into fights with humans. Our villa had various pamphlets on what to do if you had a Close Encounter with a bear (or other wildlife such as cougars and coyotes). The basic advice was to act loud and rowdy. Grizzly bears are a different matter – they are only seen further north on Vancouver Island, but the rule of thumb is to give them as wide a berth as possible, and if you do get near them, act submissive and pray.
On the Pacific
After Tofino, we decided to explore further afield, going along the coast to Ucluelet and trying out the different micro-climates along the way. Down the coast, the beaches are awe-inspiring. The surfing waves roll in from hundreds if not thousands of miles away in the Pacific, and the beaches are festooned with tree-trunks smoothed down by the waves and then tossed up on the beach. There is nothing between this place and Japan, and the real risk of a tsunami if there’s an earthquake offshore is really sobering to think about. They have signs all along the beach on what to do in the event of a tsunami, but in reality you would only have a few minutes to try to find high ground.
We went to Long Beach just beyond Incinerator Rock and breathed in the sea air. Long Beach is part of the Pacific Rim National Park, and spans 16 km, running all along the west coast of the island. The most striking thing about the beach is the smooth trunks that are washed up on the shore. These are often quite large, bleached by the sun and worn smooth by the waves, and they litter the beach like giant matchsticks.
Those with cars need a day ticket for the national park, but it is relatively inexpensive and gives you access to the parking all along the coast within the boundaries of the National Park. We were told that the fine for non-payment of parking is only a little more than the parking itself, and we couldn’t see anyone checking.
Higher and higher
After Long Beach, we went further along the coast to a stretch of rainforest, also awe-inspiring. The trees are higher than those we saw in Cathedral Grove, and the wooden path that they have built through the different levels of forest allowed you to get a sense of the multi-layered forest, with the younger trees at the top and then much older growth at the bottom, some of the trees being 800 years old. Looking down from the walkway, all you could see was the tangle of undergrowth and the huge trunks of trees, some of which have fallen down and form a kind of base for other growth, and everywhere ferns, moss, and a startling variety of other plants.
The rain forest walk made a big impression on both of us. It was incredibly moving to see the astonishing biodiversity and to walk through the forest, starting in the upper levels of the new forest with its relatively young trees, and gradually going down to the forest floor. It was like entering another world, somewhat similar to the feeling you get when you’re snorkelling and observing life in the ocean. There was still a fair bit of pristine rain forest left here, mainly because of huge environmental protests against the logging industry which took place in Tofino in the early 90’s.
It is somehow tragic to think that without those protests, we might have lost more of the forest and of course just so sad to think of all the other forests around the world which have been felled… heartbreaking.
We also went yesterday to the Tofino Botanical Gardens – a fabulous place which was useful in terms of learning plant names as well as being a calm and quite spiritual experience. There is a friendly coffee-shop with interesting paintings by local artists, and the entrance fee gives you free access to the gardens for a further two days after the initial visit.
The gardens consist of several mysterious trails that eventually take you to the sea. It felt like going into a number of separate rooms, each with a different feel. Various sculptures in wood and stone are dotted among the shrubs and flowers, some of them in unexpected places, so you notice them more each time you walk around the garden. There are arbours and benches to sit on, and a viewing gallery on the beach where you can look over the beach and spot birds.
Totem pole by the beach
We went on to the Nuu-chah-nulth trail further down the coast towards Ucluelet. The visitor centre resembles one of their long houses and had a good selection of audio-visual exhibits, so you can hear them speaking the Nuu-chah-nulth language which sounds amazing. It was a bit disappointing that the feasting centre next door wasn’t open, nor was the shop, but there were great views over the islands opposite the centre and the wind-swept massive beach with the tree-trunks and other detritus. After the museum, we did the first part of the trail, finding a totem pole in situ which was very exciting, and then a secluded bay where I went in for a very quick dip. The water wasn’t nearly as cold as I had thought it would be but it was also full of clinging seaweed, and with a strong cross-tow so I didn’t feel like staying more than a few seconds.
After the Nuu-chah-nulth trail, we went on a shorter walk around a Bog trail. This had a very different feel from the rainforest walk, albeit with a walkway though the thick vegetation. Everywhere there were the white trunks of trees that looked as though they had been hit by lightning, and many of them just a single stake pointing up to the sky, so that they resembled totem poles, especially when a few branches or stubs were left jutting out sideways from the main trunk.
A completely different micro-climate from the rainforest, but somehow it reminded me of the Cirque de Moureze in southern France with its weird prehistoric rocks. Jenny said you could set a film in the landscape and I think that’s right, it has a very other-worldly atmosphere.
Room with a view
We went on to the Wiccaninnish Inn, which turned out to be much posher than I had expected. I thought it would be a bit faded and run-down, but it is a high-end venue for weddings and the like, and we decided that we were probably rather under-dressed for dinner in the circumstances. But it is a friendly place and they had a more informal room with a view over the sea and with a cheaper less gourmet menu.
Boat in the mist
Various companies offer Whale- and Bear-watching boat trips, and there is also a longer trip to the Hot Springs at Hot Springs Cove, which is around 1.5 hours north of Tofino in Maquinna Provincial Park in the northern end of Clayoquot Sound. The boat trips from Tofino are not cheap, although we were told that part of the fee goes towards conservation efforts around the bay.
The whale watching trip that we did was fabulous, just us and a gay couple from China/America so a very personal experience and we had capable and well informed German captain. Unfortunately as we headed out to sea, the weather turned from sunny to deep mist, and it was quite chilly. We saw some gray whales which was exciting -.- but only small glimpses as they dived under to feed and we saw their tails disappearing into the ocean.
Other than that we saw sea otters, sea lions and an eagle as well as numerous sea birds. It was good to get a sense of the other islands around Tofino, mostly completely uninhabited except by wildlife.
To the lighthouse
Ucluelet is at the other end of Long Beach from Tofino, and has a quite different feel to it. If Tofino is chic and fashionable, Ucluelet is more casual, dingier and more dowdy, but I felt it had a more easy-going and authentic feel.
We walked along the Wild Pacific trail from the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse, overlooking stunning bays lined by rocky cliffs, where we saw the odd sea-eagle perched. Other people say they have seen bears on the islands opposite, although we did not have such luck. The trail is very easy to walk, and there are plenty of benches and viewing points where you can rest, as well as take photos. The loop took us around two hours altogether.
After the trail, and even though it was early afternoon, we decided we couldn’t leave Canada without having an authentic Canadian breakfast. We were lucky enough to find the Blue Room café on the way out of Ucluelet. I ordered two pancakes with fried eggs, bacon and maple syrup and Jenny order eggs royale with salmon smoked on the premises. Very friendly service, and even though I was suffering from a heavy cold which limited my taste buds, this was absolute heaven.
The drive back from Tofino was wonderful, as it was a beautiful clear day and we saw much more than when we were driving the other way. The mountains in the centre of Vancouver Island are snow-capped and very impressive, and we passed white-water rivers and Stoate lake which is huge and very beautiful. We got to the ferry with about an hour to spare.
I hope we go back some day and can do it at a leisurely pace over a month or so, and maybe with some glamping in between motel stops.