Tofino is a town of a few thousand people located on beautiful Vancouver Island. It attracts people from around the world because of its pristine nature, and opportunities for outdoor adventure – but not enough people know about its remarkable culinary scene. In this article, Hans Tammemagi walks us through all sides of Tofino.
Tofino, British Columbia, perched on the western side of Vancouver Island, has a harsh but compelling beauty: big waves, fog-enshrouded beaches and treacherous islands.
Whenever I visit, I immediately head to the long sandy Chesterman Beach, where I love watching rollers crash in from far out in the Pacific Ocean. The afternoon light glints on the water, reflecting the clouds and highlighting the many surfers clad in rubber suits, toting their boards. At a rocky promontory, anemones and orange and purple sea stars cling to the rocks. I walk along the beach with a tangle of bleached logs marking the high-tide line. Today, a father and son manoeuvre a kite as big waves crash on the sandy shore. And the beach stretches for miles.
Rainforest Hiking in Tofino
Later, Ally, my wife, and I explore the other face of Tofino, the rain forest. The Rainforest Trail in Pacific Rim National Park is a must for all visitors to Tofino.
We wander along boardwalks past giant red cedars and Douglas firs. Moss hangs from branches. Ferns and nursery logs cover the ground. Green, moist primordial growth surrounds us. We are in a sombre deep canyon, where the sun barely reaches. We wander in awe amongst tall trees that soar skyward like turrets and flying buttresses. Some of them exceed 800 years in age with a girth of over nine metres.
Shafts of golden light angle down to the dusky forest floor like sunbeams through high stained-glass windows. The occasional chirping of birds sounds like monks quietly chanting. The air is still and full of spirits. Amongst these ancient creatures, moss covered logs and ferns, I feel a reverence, a spirituality, a deep intimate closeness with nature.
Forest Foraging (and Dining)
Early next morning, I head into the forest with Paul Moran, one of Canada’s best chefs, as well as an awesome forager. He gathers spruce buds, salmonberries, salal blossoms and then tramps into the tidal flat and fills plastic bags with sea asparagus, sea chives, sheep sorrel and more. Later, Chef Paul prepares a flatbread (pizza) by blanching sea asparagus and searing sea chives with a blow torch. He garnishes the top with clams and the products he foraged half an hour earlier.
“The quality of the ingredients is critically important,” he says, which explains why he and other top chefs are pursuing foraged products almost feverishly. I’m not surprised that Tofino has gained a formidable reputation for cuisine, and fresh seafood is ingeniously incorporated into almost every dish.
Paul, who has won many cooking awards including Top Chef in Canada, has started his own company, Wild Origins, the only one in Tofino that takes you out seeking the fruits of the forest and sea. The best part is that he helps you cook what you’ve gathered. His favourite dishes include stuffed morels; spot prawns, Dungeness crab ravioli and smoked fish.
“I love being in Tofino. I get to combine my culinary and adventure passions,” he enthused.
Tofino Surfing and Sipping
Back on Chesterman Beach black-suited surfers straddle their boards on waves rolling in from an ocean that stretches forever behind them.
Reaching the Wickaninnish Inn, I sit at On the Rocks Bar and chat with Tyler McDiarmid, the head bartender/mixologist. Tyler vigorously shakes a “Feather George,” a signature drink, which includes cedar-infused rye whiskey, vermouth and apricot liquor. Garnished with a cedar shaving it looks — and tastes — as good as the views of the wild coast.
“Cocktails have become a rage in Tofino, and here at the Wick they are just as popular as the Pointe Restaurant’s fine cuisine,” Tyler confides enthusiastically.
In the evening, we head to Roar Restaurant at the retro Hotel Zed, where we are almost bowled over by a trio of bicycles. How were we to know the Zed is the only hotel in the world with a bike path through its lobby?
Earlier I had joined Chef Chad Martin and Dinah Kissel, one of top female mixologists in the world, near Ucluelet — Ukee to locals — in a secluded cove at low tide where they gathered wild vetch, sea asparagus and Miner’s lettuce under a cloudless deep-blue sky.
Later, Ally and I sit at the Roar bar while Dinah (who has since moved to Vancouver), juggles bottles and shakers in preparing a “Lesser of Two Evils.” Sea asparagus, picked only hours earlier, garnishes the cocktail, which features gin and seaweed-infused sherry. “Best gin & tonic ever,” Ally murmurs happily.
An aroma of barbecuing, herbs and smoke from open flames tempts us to dinner. We watch Chef Chad shuck three large oysters and place them on the grill where he drips pork fat over them using a red-hot steel cone, a flambadou. Surprise! Huge flames roar upward throwing off immense heat. The finished oysters are outstanding: soft and juicy but with a hint of pork belly.
“Everything on our menu is fresh and local,” says Chef Chad.
Seeking Out Culture in Tofino
Next day under a clear cerulean sky, I head to the carving shed at the north end of Chesterman Beach. An artist carves a mask and wood chips cover the dirt floor. Many finished carvings line one wall and a totem stands solemnly in the middle of the room, surrounded by numerous chisels, adzes and other hand tools. The room suggests a history of creativity, imagination and Indigenous culture.
Indigenous history and culture are everywhere in the Tofino area. One of our favourite places is the Roy Henry Vickers Gallery which is in the style of a Native longhouse. It was built in 1986 by Vickers and some of his friends in the traditional manner. Not only is Vickers a renowned painter, but also an accomplished carver and author of several books. We love visiting his gallery when Vickers makes a presentation, for he is a powerful speaker.
We drive to the Wya Point Resort, owned by the Ucluelet (Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ) First Nation, a few kilometres north of the town of Ucluelet. We are immersed in northwest-coast Indigenous art including traditional cedar house posts and carvings featuring salmon and ravens. Spray flies high as waves crash onto the rocky islands bordering the sandy cove.
And nothing beats a sun-setter drink with the western sky transforming from deep blue into mauves and oranges.
A Few Other Quick-Hitting Things to Do in Tofino, BC
Tofino is a place to be savoured, so it’s important to explore everything in-depth, but if you have some extra time, here are a few more things to consider.
- If you liked Chesterman Beach, you might also want to visit Long Beach or Cox Bay Beach.
- Thirsty? Grab a pint at the Tofino Brewing Company or take a few sips at Tofino Distillery.
- Visit Hot Springs Cove or Schooner Cove.
- Go hiking on the Wild Side Trail or the Big Tree Trail.
- Pop by the Tofino Botanical Gardens.
- If you want to do something more adventurous, consider kayaking around Clayquot Sound.
- You may also want to squeeze in a visit to Radar Hill to get some stunning views of Tofino and the surrounding area.
However you choose to travel in Tofino, there’s plenty of great food and culture to dive into, and no shortage of truly fresh air.
Hans’ writing is eclectic including travel, environment, Indigenous culture and things quirky. He has penned 10 books including one national best seller. Hans writes for Canadian Geographic, Westworld, Ensemble, Zoomer, British Columbia magazine, Explore, Northwest Travel, Canada’s History, the Globe and Mail and the Vancouver Sun. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and former adjunct professor, he has a strong affinity for the environment around us. He lives in the Gulf Islands where he enjoys kayaking and photography.