Story by Marianne Hyland. Images by Ray Hyland
Do you enjoy storms? Growing up on the equator on the tiny island state of Singapore, I enjoyed storms. Besides cooling the island immediately, storms were dramatic; the darkening clouds and gusty winds heightened the anticipation and the lightning displays were, ehm … electrifying. I loved the sound of the pounding monsoon rains and the sheer volume of water dispelled from the clouds (literally it was like someone tipped a huge never-ending bucket of water on the island).
My favorite activity as a child was standing in a run-off drain, feeling the water gush around my legs and chasing after my rubber flip-flops which I had intentionally let loose to be carried away by the fast-flowing water. This inevitably resulted in the loss of a flip-flop, which I thought was a small price to pay for how much fun I had. My mother had a different point of view.
All of this is ultimately why I found myself on a sunny, mid-winter day in the little town of Tofino, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, futilely seeking a storm.
Just a week before, my husband and I were sitting at the kitchen table, pouring over maps. We were seeking a drivable adventure destination for a 3-4 day trip in the Pacific Northwest. In winter there are basically two options: the snowy mountains or the stormy, rainy Pacific coast. Given that we already live in the snowy northern tip of the Cascade mountain range, coastal storm-watching was the obvious choice.
Before researching this trip, I had never heard of storm-watching. My first thought when I saw it being touted as “the thing to do in Tofino in winter” was, “Yeah, right. Which marketing agency did you pay to come up with that one to get your winter visitor numbers up?” But the more I read about it, and the more pictures I saw, the more beguiling was the thought of experiencing a storm again, just like the ones from when I was a kid in Singapore.
Tofino, situated on the northern tip of the Esowista Peninsula In Clayoquot Sound, was named “Best Surf Town” in North America in Outside magazine’s 2010 Editor’s Choice Awards. Visiting Tofino, it is easy to understand how this tiny town (pop 2000) can have, among the feathers in its cap, an annual visitor count of between 750,000 and a million. Tofino is friendly, unpretentious and easy-going. The town is surrounded by an ancient coastal temperate rainforest, filled with rivers, lakes, the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve and some of the most exquisite beaches in Canada. The town offers just about anything you could want from a Pacific Northwest coastal location: world-famous sport fishing, kayaking, whale-watching, bear-watching, bird-watching, camping, hiking, First Nations cultural tours, and of course what we came for: storm-watching.
We began our journey with an early morning ferry ride from the mainland to Nanaimo, Vancouver Island. BC Ferry rides are costly but well-run and comfortable. Whilst it was the only way for us to get to the island, it also made the trip a special one for us. It was our first ferry ride since moving to North America and there is something about being on the water that brings out the sense of adventure and spirit of openness and exploration in the traveler. We spent time on the deck taking in this, for us, very different scenery. My uncle, an avid fisherman living in Victoria, says he loves being out on the water because the view is always changing. How true, I could have stayed out there the whole two hours (if not for the cold) and not been bored.
After docking and disembarking, we drove northwest on Highway 4 to Tofino. Michelin Road Atlas rated the drive from Victoria (south of Nanaimo) to Tofino one of the 3 best drives in Canada. From Nanaimo, Google Maps estimated a 3-hour drive to our destination. We, in our trusty (it will get us anywhere!) but speed-challenged Defender, estimated closer to four.
I must say I look forward to the drive as much as I look forward to the destination. The destination is great for relaxing and the drive is great for taking in the geography. It is by far one of the best ways to get acquainted with the land. There is always something to see and you never quite know what is beyond each corner.
The best thing about the drive across Vancouver Island to Tofino is that there is so much to see. There were wild arbutus trees on Highway 19 coming out of Nanaimo. For bicycle-enthusiasts, there is a bicycle path next to the highway. We saw coniferous trees disappearing into the mist, and old-growth forests of giant Douglas Firs covered in Moss.
The view of the water just east of Lantzville all the way to Nanoose Bay is beautiful. There is a dirt pullout at Nanoose Bay where you can stop for a photo-taking opportunity. Along the edge of the highway, are blackberry bushes (too bad it was winter!) and commercial shellfish farms.
74km east of Tofino was a dirt pullout by an amazing river. The river had carved a deep gorge in the rock. This is another great place for a picnic or quick snack. Be warned though, the rocks can be slippery and it’s hard to tell when one wet rock will be slippery, and another won’t be. I write from experience so keep your children close to you. The river is fast and deep.
As with weather-dependent plans, especially those on the coast, sometimes the weather refuses to co-operate. We arrived in the late afternoon and on our only 2 full days there, one had sporadic light rain and the other was a clear sky with sunshine. The locals were undoubtedly thrilled as they showed up on Long Beach with their surfboards. Our disappointment was palpable; no holing up in our room with an ocean view, keeping warm while watching the storm or putting on our gear to walk in the downpour. But like all good travelers we buckled down and tried to make the best of this blue-sky weather.
It wasn’t hard. Where we stayed at, a clean and cozy little chain of beachfront cabins called Duffin Cove Resort, there were great tide pools right in front of our windows. The boys were thrilled to spy tiny fish, hermit crabs, mussels and sea stars. Indeed in some of the tide pools, it took us sometime to recognize the sea stars as there were so many of them that their arms radiating from their central discs were not easily distinguishable. It would be more accurate to say that some of the tide pools were literally carpeted by sea stars. Mussels, even more plentiful, covered almost every surface of the rocks.
One cannot visit Tofino without spending time on the beaches. The low tide made rocky outcrops on Long Beach accessible and the boys had a nice time walking the path around the rocks. The best time they had was playing in the waves. Give them waves and they have to play in them. It is a slippery slope. At first, it is just the feet, then it is the knees and before long, they are in the icy cold water up to their waists.
And then they start to say they are cold. Uh-huh.
A big part of our travel experience is food. Like an army, our family travels on its’ stomachs. We usually camp so it was a rare treat having an actual kitchen at our disposal (although we still brought our regular camping kitchen-bag along, just in case). Knowing we had booked a kitchenette in advance, we were able to plan our meals. Three nights in Tofino meant that each of our boys could pick a favorite meal, which we prepared and cooked as a family. On one night it was table-top grilling on an Iwatani butane stove, complete with sliced beef, shrimp, peppers, mushrooms and our all-time favorite condiment kimchi. Another night it was steak, broiled to perfection, and on our last night it was that perennial family favorite, my homemade flatbread pizza. Daytime we had big breakfasts, and hearty lunches with lots of fruit. Not having to eat in restaurants three times a day literally doubled our travel budget.
We took the time to explore the town on foot and were thrilled to find Mermaid Tales, a locally owned bookstore with an excellent selection of books. As the welcoming owner put it, “We don’t have a lot of space so we only have on the shelves what we really want.” Overlanding is perfect for getting through a book series and the boys were thrilled to see that the store carried the final installment of a series they had been burning through.
It was a short stay but a great getaway. We saw enough to know that we were going to be back in the summer with a list of must-dos. Among them, surfing school, and skateboarding. Tofino has a wicked skatepark, so says my little skateboard fiend.
Thanks for a fun weekend Tofino, see you again soon. And who knows, maybe next time it will be raining.