My six-year-old son has a problem. He is fixated on Legoland, the faraway quintessence of his favourite toy. The theme parks plague his daily thoughts, and even infect his nighttime dreams. Everything that happens in his carefree existence somehow justifies a visit. "Yeah, after school's over, we can go to Legoland," he'll say. "Since I've been such a good boy, we can go to Legoland, right, daddy?"
It has become a chronic ailment - but not one I'm willing to blame him for. What kid wouldn't want to go Legoland? The lure of giant spaceships and cities made from millions of pieces of interlocking plastic bricks might even outweigh a forest made of candy when it comes to a kid's fantasy vacation. To be totally honest, even I want to go.
Going to Legoland, however, isn't as simple as driving to the cottage for a typical family vacation. Of the four worldwide, the closest one to our home in Nelson, B.C., is in Anaheim, Calif. (the others are in Billund, Denmark; Gunzburg, Germany; and Windsor, England). Anaheim is a destination that racks me with fear. I close my eyes and see huge lineups and crying children, sugar crashes and an endless barrage of "I want this" and "I want that." What with Disneyland around the corner and SeaWorld down the highway and a million McDonald's and Toys 'R' Us in between, I can picture money flying out of my wallet like a flock of scattered pigeons.
But my son is at the age now where he deserves a bona-fide vacation to somewhere really cool - an amusement-park-style, kid-specific holiday full of wonder and excitement. The problem is, we're not really an amusement-park kind of family. My wife gets motion sickness sitting in the back seat of the car. Our two-year-old son would - because he's too small for the rides his brother will want to do - spend the vacation showering us with temper tantrums.
Regardless, the requests keep coming. The obsession keeps growing. "Maybe we can take this ship to Legoland with us," he supposes after building one out of Lego one night. "I bet you they have ships 500 million trillion times bigger than this one. I bet you can climb right in them and they take off and stuff."
Just another setup for that inevitable request: "Dad, when are we going to Legoland? The one in Denmark? That one looks the coolest."
And, of course, just like every other dad who wants to please his kid, I allow the obsession to continue. "We'll see son," I say hesitantly. "We'll see."
And then one night, after the kids are asleep, it hits me as I watch the Discovery Channel. A husky Lorne Greene-ish voice narrates a National Geographic special on Alaska, and I catch some clichéd quote about how nature is a giant puzzle. Just that evening, my son had commented on how building Lego was like working on a puzzle. I do the math: nature = puzzle = Lego = Legoland = amusement park. Simplified, nature = amusement park. I had my hook.
My wife and I immediately start researching locations with the best kid-friendly adventure opportunities per square kilometre, and come up with two destinations: the heart of the Amazon Jungle and the West Coast of Vancouver Island.
Since the latter is only a short regional flight away (and doesn't house every creepy-crawly on the planet), we decide on a week-long trip to the town of Tofino on the northwestern coast of Vancouver Island. To amp up the adventure factor, we book our trip for early November, just in time for the open Pacific's first barrage of winter storms.
Now, I have to make the sales pitch to my son, which takes some creative manoeuvring. Finally, after a week or so of describing this incredible amusement park's tunnels and caves, orcas and grey whales - some of the biggest animals in the world - and thousand-year-old cedar and Sitka spruce trees - some of the planet's oldest living creatures - I have him hooked. He can't wait. The Legoland paradigm will be shelved for now, but dad better be speaking the truth.
Tofino really is a giant amusement park, but without the crowds and the concrete and the manufactured fun. Not to mention the fact that it comes with far more interactivity and potential for learning than its competition. These characteristics become apparent on our first day spent exploring a thick maze of old-growth rain forest in Tonquin Park, just a short walk from Tofino's main drag. A maze of unmarked trails winds through an ecosystem that raves with life.
The forest is like some giant chaotic playground - a weave of roots and plant life with tunnels, caverns, ladders and slides as far and wide as the imagination. We barely have to leave the beach, which happens to be as breathtaking a beach as you will find anywhere. The afternoon turns into an adventure a world and a time apart, lost in a friendly jungle on a sea far, far away. And for November, the weather is unseasonably warm and dry.
The next day, we head to Hot Springs Cove, an hour-long boat ride from Tofino through open ocean and uninhabited inner passages. We stop in Clayoquot Sound to watch 40-tonne grey whales feed on plankton. Marking their locations every few minutes or so, giant, geyser like plumes erupt from the water. Ike Campbell, our Ahousaht native guide, steers us out to an outcropping full of barking, bobbing sea lions. Rare black coastal herons and bald eagles soar overhead. My son is smiling from ear to ear, struggling to take it all in without missing anything.
We continue on under beautiful blue skies on calm seas until we arrive at Hot Springs Cove, where a boardwalk through a remote rain forest leads to a natural hot spring tucked into the rocky shoreline. We soak in soothing, crystal-clear waters, climbing from pool to pool, piling rocks onto little ledges.
"This is just like playing with Lego," I say to my son.
"Oh yeah," he replies, as if he had almost forgotten about his favourite toy. On the way back, he wiggles into a cave underneath a 1,000-year-old cedar tree.
During the boat ride back, porpoises ride our bow wave. We stop to watch a harbour seal lounging on a barnacled rock. A patchwork of deep green carpet spreads inland as the Coast Range rises to peaks and glaciers high above. Campbell shows us petroglyphs and ancient aboriginal burial sites. We wait for the mystical green flash as the sun drops into the sea far out to the west, giving way to a sunset coloured purple and rose. "Bye-bye sun," says my two-year-old, his tantrums forgotten at home.
After days spent rummaging through piles of bull kelp, dissecting beached jellyfish and crabs, staring up at 900-year-old Sitka spruce trees, watching the year's first tidal surge reshape the long, sandy plains of Chesterman's Beach with giant, powerful waves, it all comes together. A trip like this evokes real questions from my son. How-the-world-works kinds of questions.
At one point, near the end of the trip, he says, "Wouldn't it be great if you went to kiss the earth and it kissed you back?"
It's the perfect question, one that lends itself to the perfect answer. "The earth does kiss us back," my wife explains. "It grows flowers for us, gives us food, water, playgrounds. In fact, it's kissing us all the time."
And as yet another smile spreads across his red-cheeked, beautifully innocent six-year-old face, he bends down to kiss the beach.
Special to The Globe and Mail