For years, I have been vocal about my dislike of the Pacific Northwest. As someone who spent summer vacations in Nova Scotia and Maine, the differences between the two coasts were stark.
The East is simple: You listen to the waves, eat some lobster and make conversation with strangers about where to find the best fried clams. It’s relaxing. The West Coast is not relaxing. It is about being chill. And “chilling” is a competitive sport. How many miles was your run? How long are you willing to wait for a simple ham and cheese crêpe at a farmers’ market before you lose your patience? How many food groups have you eliminated from your diet? (Clearly not enough if you’re eating a ham and cheese crêpe.)
And Vancouver, well, that city is like a hot dumb guy. Gorgeous, but not a lot going on underneath the handsome looks. Good for a weekend fling.
So whenever someone tried to lure me out west, that was the spiel I recited. And the rebuttal was constant: “Go to Tofino,” they said. “You’ll love Tofino,” they said.
I had my doubts. For starters, the town’s tourism logo is a Volkswagen bus. (Nothing smacks of “chilling” like #vanlife.) It’s famous for an annual surf competition. People use the word “hippie” a lot to describe it. None of these things bode well. Eventually though, I gave in – pretty much just to shut everyone up.
So one sunny September day, I climbed into a rickety-looking six-seater plane and flew to a remote tip of Vancouver Island.
And five days later I returned home with a souvenir of it permanently inked on my body.
What gets lost in the image of Tofino, B.C., as a laid-back surf spot is the reality that, at its heart, this is a small town in the middle of nowhere. The full-time population is less than 2,000 and it is literally at the end of the road (the Pacific Rim Highway). The first Europeans to settle here were Norwegians in the 1800s. Back then it was a fishing village and that air remains: Everybody knows each other and they’re all in it together. This is no pretentious hipster haven.
On my first morning, I head out on Tranquil Bay for a casual, impromptu wildlife-watching cruise with Tod Byrnes, a local photographer who also runs Chesterman Beach B&B. First he sets some crab traps for his dinner. He doesn’t seem particularly rushed, chatting with passersby as we get ready and then patiently exploring every cove to increase our chances of animal sightings as the sun plays hide and seek with the clouds. (It pays off, as we spot multiple bears strolling along the island shores.)
I will get to know this relaxed, easygoing demeanor well during my time here, as it proves to be a common personality trait. Perhaps no one is in a rush to go anywhere, it occurs to me, because there is nowhere to go. Everything they need is right here and everyone is operating at the same slow pace.
If you are looking for a vacation destination that will instantly eradicate your stress, you’d be hard-pressed to do better.
To move here permanently is a different story, though. The late summer weather is lovely, but soon cold-weather storms will arrive, with gale-force winds and violent waters. It’s fun to watch for a few days – and “storm season” has proven to be a strong tourist draw – but not for months.
“There are challenges to living here,” is how Don Travers of Remote Passages Marine Excursions, a popular whale-watching operator, puts it, as we prep for a tour on Day 2 that will bring us close to grey whales, sea otters and sea lions. Still, to him the appeal of calling Tofino home is clear. “I always ask people, ‘Why are you here?'” he says. “If they don’t know, I tell them: ‘You came for the wilderness.’”
Surrounded by dramatic coastline and old-growth forest, the citizens of Tofino enjoy a wonderful quality of life in a region of spectacular natural beauty. But the veil of hipsterdom hides the determination and effort that goes into it all. People who move here either find a way to make it work, or they turn back. As a result it’s a hotbed of entrepreneurship: More than 600 business licences are issued each year. Many residents hold multiple jobs and in peak visitor season may work up to 70 hours a week – while still fitting in a daily surf, of course.
Even that sport is deceptive, I learn on my third day. The stereotypical image of the surfer is not one of an industrious individual. “There’s something about the surf lifestyle,” Krissy Montgomery, owner of Surf Sister and one of the forces behind the annual Queen of the Peak all-women surf competition. "It’s so laid-back.”
Surfing is not for slackers, though. It is hard work, akin to doing yoga on a small board on crashing waves. If you haven’t mastered chaturanga on dry land, good luck to you. After an hour-long lesson, I am beaten down and exhausted. The fault does not lie with my patient, upbeat instructor, rather with my pathetically weak core muscles.
Perhaps it is fitting that surfing is such a symbol of the town, since it also exemplifies the other quality that makes Tofino such an incredible place to visit: passion.
How else to explain how Tofino punches far above its weight in several areas, notably food? Sobo started life as a food truck and ended up on enRoute magazine’s best new restaurant list. When I was there the chef at Wolf in the Fog – which topped the list in 2014 – was giddy about serving gooseneck barnacles, even though prying the crustaceans off rocks requires extreme effort for minimal meat. Even casual eateries – wow. Rhino Coffee House serves up some of the best doughnuts I’ve ever had and the breakfast pizza at the Common Loaf Bake Shop was so mouth-watering I had it twice.
At the famed Wickaninnish Inn, where rooms go for more than $700 in peak season, excellent service is expected. But managing director Charles McDiarmid takes hospitality to another level. When word comes in that a family missed their flight and subsequently had to forfeit their car rental, he lends them his personal vehicle without divulging the ownership. When he catches wind that a diner in the hotel’s restaurant was unhappy about a noisy neighbouring table, he covers the bill without a word. It’s not a surprise to learn that he grew up nearby.
It was a passion for the land that ended up protecting the most notable residents here. In the 1980s, members of the area’s First Nations bands, including the Nuu-chah-nulth, environmental groups and other concerned locals set up blockades to prevent commercial logging on neighbouring Meares Island. Part of Clayoquot Sound (along with Tofino), the small island is home to ancient forest, with trees more than 500 years old. The protests became known as the War in the Woods and ultimately more than 850 protesters were arrested. But it worked. The amount of permissible logging was greatly reduced and Meares remains the largest unbroken piece of old-growth forest in the Vancouver Island area. In 2000, UNESCO designated Clayoquot Sound as a biosphere reserve.
Today, the smell of cedar is unmistakable the second I set foot on Meares after a quick boat ride over from Tofino. I follow the Big Tree Trail – a fairly easy boardwalk through the woods – to a massive Western red cedar. The Hanging Garden Tree, as it’s known, is so named because it is supports copious other vegetation: Dozens of plants and trees call it home. It is about 18 metres in circumference and estimated to be at least 1,600 years old, perhaps as many as 2,000, making it one of the oldest trees on Earth.
I encounter other magnificent Western red cedars during my time in Tofino. Each one impresses, with towering height and ropey bark, large branches reaching upward toward the sky as it ages.
So it is one of these trees that I decide to have tattooed onto my left forearm, the most permanent souvenir possible. I choose it because the red cedar symbolizes so much of what Tofino means to me: wilderness, strength, persistence and standing tall in the face of hardship. Also kindness and love. Research shows that hugging a tree can ease depression, stress and improve one’s mood. So can this place and its people.
I didn’t come here with any thought of getting inked, but within hours of arriving I knew it had to happen.
On my last full day I venture to the home of a local tattoo artist and tell him what I want, hoping that this stranger will understand my vision. He listens, then riffles through a pile of papers haphazardly stacked on a desk.
“Like this?” he asks, holding up a sketch. It is exactly what I want: realistic but not too detailed, comprised of just bold, black lines. “I drew it last year when a man came in and asked for a tree. He turned it down, saying he wanted a ‘normal tree.'”
I don’t know who that man was, but I say he’s a fool. Mind you, I was as well, almost letting prejudice keep me from discovering what is now one of my favourites places. It’s a lesson I won’t soon forget. How could I, really? Every time I look down I have a reminder.
The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Tofino and Destination British Columbia. They did not review or approve this article – or pay for the tattoo.
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