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.
If, like us, you're not into surfing, you can get onto the water by boat. You can take a Marine Adventure from Long Beach Lodge. We saw a sea otter or two and, strangely, cows grazing on seaweed. At the small village of Ahousaht on Flores Island, we met a crinkly, crusty woman who had once worked the commercial fisheries. She told us, “I like that Harper. He has good hair. I voted for him.”
Or you can get out in the waves by kayak. The next day, I got up early and returned to Tofino Sea Kayaking (the operator also runs a café called End of the Road, plus a well-curated book spot – everyone seems to work three gigs). Our guide Tim patiently coached five of us (a mother-daughter from Kerrisdale; a young German couple from Cologne) through the workings of the double kayak. Then we made our way under glorious sun through channels filled with bull kelp and kelp crabs, chittering kinglets, starfish, a luminous red-eyed medusa or two. The channel was busy: One of the original native dugout canoes – heavy, but impressively carved – carries tourists who paddle, 10 to a boat, giving them a hint of what transportation was like many years ago.
We were making our way to Meares Island, the site of the famous Clayoquot Sound clear-cut logging protest, which seems to have defined the residents. The mantra “the most biomass per square metre” in the temperate rain forest was repeated endlessly; the fact that the protest seemed to put Tofino on the map, while Ucluelet appeared to languish as a logging town, was also a point of pride. The Big Tree Trail boardwalk through Meares Island took us to the real old-growth cedars: Trees so big you can stand six or seven people inside; tree tops with multiple spires called “candelabra” and “cake-fork”; trees 1,000 years old or more called “Hanging Garden” or “Old Mother” (which sadly was felled by winds a few years ago). With hemlock growing right through the cedar “nurse logs” that fall and decay, it is a dizzying brocade of monster roots and twisted limbs – trees entwined and soaring, vine-like, up other trunks, everything searching for light. Layer in lush moss, the strange “witch's broom” wheeled form of branches, and Old Man's Beard lichen, and it's impossible not to think in fairy-tale terms.
Once I got my tree curiosity out of my system, it was all about the beach. We returned to the park and had a pair of wide-handled cruiser bikes delivered, from Tof Cycle, to the parking lot at Incinerator Rock. From there we cycled for two hours over a stretch of sand untrammelled by development any more sophisticated than the raggedy driftwood huts the surfers erect for shelter.
Everything is in motion. The surfers, the kite-fliers, dogs, kids (this seemed to be the land of the three-child family). Skimboards and boogie boards, all backlit by diamante water and sunshine. Freshwater streams run down from the thick Sitka spruce that stand like green wallpaper where the beach just stops. It is the most magnificent unspoiled 22 kilometres anywhere.
We ate our last meal in The Great Room at the lodge, and watched an elf-like two-year-old in white dance from the hotel straight to the water's edge. She couldn't keep away, her older brothers whirling around, her parents keeping close. We rose the next day and hopped on the Navajo. It drove up through a fog bank, Pacific Rim hidden again, the white cloud like cotton batting nudging the mountains.
IF YOU GO
Tonquin Beach: Find this magical little beach away from the main action in Tofino. If a beach can be cozy, this one is. Check out the boardwalk stairs: Each has the name of a local but in a different font, turning this municipal endeavour into an eye-catching example of community spirit.
Tacofino Cantina: Delicious and affordable Mexican cuisine served out of a big orange truck at the back of the Live to Surf parking lot. Tacos, burritos, salads, fresh drink and more. Buen provecho! (1184 Pacific Rim Highway; 250-726-8288)
Where to sleep
Long Beach Lodge Resort: A beachfront lodge with oceanview rooms and 21 cottages set back from Cox Bay. 877-844-7873; longbeachlodgeresort.com. From $169 a night.
Wickaninnish Inn: A Relais & Châteaux property on Chesterman Beach. 800-333-4604; wickinn.com. From $460 a night.
Pacific Rim National Park
Sandy beaches, towering rain forest, an archipelago of more than 100 islands. And wildlife: The swim beach at Kennedy Lake is closed because of recent cougar activity. pc.gc.ca/pacificrim
The Globe travelled as a guest of Tourism B.C.