The Navajo Piper rattled a bit. The English couple in front of us on the eight-seat plane went white knuckle, but laughed it off once we landed, expertly, at Long Beach airport.
Special places are a little hard to get to and among national parks Pacific Rim is very special.
Perched almost halfway up Vancouver Island jutting into Clayoquot Sound, the park straps a section of Pacific Rim Highway, a wavy two-lane blacktop that glides through both Tofino and Ucluelet. Natives, tourists and seasonal workers run up and down the highway like mice all day. At the rim of the world (or at least, Canada), the park is a study in contrasts – the wide, wide open spaces of endless, monster beaches, and dark brooding rain forest – with virtually nothing between it and Japan except the mighty ocean.
We had just come from muggy Toronto, via Vancouver, and the air was briny and fresh. We grabbed our rental car and overshot our lodgings, heading straight for Tofino and wild-salmon chowder at SoBo, a trendy little spot grown up from its food-truck origins. There we watched boys in “I heart BC” T-shirts court girls in tie-dye skirts. Tofino, blessed with open water, islands, mountains, cedar-shake buildings and surfer shops, is a gentrified fishing village that has long welcomed draft dodgers, new-style hippies, university students who've scored the best summer jobs imaginable, and tourists. We spun back to Long Beach Lodge on Cox Bay. The lush drive to the main entrance runs past two-bedroom cottages, which families prefer. A mid-size hotel, it has snagged the prime spot on this particular stretch of sand and specializes in marine adventures, such as whale-watching, fishing and particularly surfing.
The Great Room, for dining, is a big, comfortable post-and-beam affair overlooking the water where surfers bob like sea lions, and stunted Sitka spruce, the windblown branches frozen like a bad comb-over, thrive.
Pacific Rim and environs is not “pretty”; it's wild, natural and spumy. There's spray off the ocean and fog banks heading in. “It's a rain forest,” our B.C. friends warned us. “It's not like vacationing anywhere else. It's damp.” Despite the cautions, and the umbrellas and Helly Hansen raingear provided by the hotel, we drew the sun card. Magnificent, sparkly weather.
I'd come for the trees, and made three treks, starting with a short, “yellow-gate” trail across from the lodge, with our guide Josh and his sweet old lab, loping along. An easy hike, it was a primer on berries, banana slugs and tree-spotting. Like most of the residents, Josh had about three gigs going, and had guided whale-watching tours. “I can smell whale breath,” he said. “I know when they're close.” From there, we tried the Rainforest Trail in Pacific Rim National Park, one of eight trails, including the Shorepine Bog Trail, a Dr. Seussian landscape of tight little trees in flat, open licheny space. The Rainforest Trail was gloomy, the mighty red cedars more majestic, maybe 600 to 700 years in age, but still not real old-growth.
We went on again, to Tofino Botanical Gardens, an extraordinary, eccentric place. Our hosts were George Patterson, who started developing the land in 1997, because he wanted to create something different than the traditional botanical garden, and Josie Osborne, short, blond, sweet and ready for fun. The entryway is full of plantings and wooden sculpture, before you come upon a frog pond and children's garden past the cottage-like entrance. The landscaping and quirky gazebo would fit in anywhere in Beatrix Potter, but the walk through the pocket gardens displaying plants from other coastal regions, leading to a forest walk down to the mud flats, is pure rugged Vancouver Island.
Darwin's, the onsite café that serves up fresh soups, breads and smoothies, proves it's impossible to have a bad meal anywhere in this region. The Darwin part is a tribute of sorts, curios, art and an old microscope set up a corner of the café. When Josie charmed us with the free-range chicken eggs in her apron (“look how big this one is”), George commented wryly, “You spend thousands on plants, and the kids love to see the $2 chickens the most.”
We ended the evening with dinner at the Wickaninnish, a gorgeous hotel on a headland with rugged rocks to one side of the dining room and pure unadulterated beach on the other. Also post and beam, with floor-to-ceiling windows on an almost complete hexagonal shape, with a central fireplace, the restaurant offered a deep wine list and a menu of local delicacies. A scrim of running salmon in hammered copper separated off one seating area; a giant Haida Gwaii mask set off another. The sun (sun! again!) slipped down below a light veil of cloud.