Tofino Will Make You Fall in Love With Vancouver Island

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River on the Drive to Tofino, with mountain rising in background
River on the Drive to Tofino © Linda Sheppard

Tofino will make you fall in love with Vancouver Island’s beauty. Whether you drive or fly, you will see magnificent mountains, crystal-clear rivers, and gorgeous log-strewn beaches as you approach the Tofino area. Vancouver Island, British Columbia, is the largest island on the west coast of North and South America. Interestingly, it is about the same size as Belgium and bigger than all the Hawaiian Islands. And, situated on the island’s wild west coast, Tofino is in the UNESCO Clayoquot Sound Biosphere. The Clayoquot Sound Biosphere is known for its old-growth forests and is the traditional territory of three First Nations.

So, if you love a good road trip and surfing, this is the perfect place to put your boards on the racks! Or just come and watch the surfers! Luckily, it is an easy one-day drive from Victoria, British Columbia’s capital. Plus, there are many beautiful places to stop. Alternatively, you (and your vehicle) can catch one of the BC Ferries from Horseshoe Bay to Departure Bay on the island. You will arrive in Nanaimo, a short drive from the turnoff to Tofino. Tofino is five hours from Victoria or three hours from Nanaimo without stops, so I recommend spending at least two nights in Tofino. More is even better! And a week would be heaven!

Best Things to Do in Tofino

Top Beaches on Vancouver Island

Vancouver Island has 2,112 miles (3,400 km) of shoreline and is known for its rocky coast and sandy beaches. In fact, the coastline between Tofino and Ucluelet in the Pacific Rim National Park is so spectacular it is a favorite beach destination for movie producers. For example, filmmakers, Parks Canada personnel, and local First Nations helped find the perfect location to film two “Planet of the Apes” sequels. And, Incinerator Rock on Long Beach was the backdrop for Bella and Jacob in the Twilight Saga “New Moon.” In addition, “The Fog” starring Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as “The Big Year” with Jack Black and Steven Martin were filmed here.

Best Beach for Long Walks

Long Beach and I have a history. When I first saw it as a teenager, I gasped at its beauty—31 countries later—I consider that gorgeous long beach the ultimate beach. It is the longest beach in the Pacific Rim, and eagles and ravens soar above as the waves roll in. There is easy access off the Pacific Rim Highway, yielding spectacular views, endless waves, and plenty of room for everyone. Visitors enjoy surfing and throwing Frisbees. Long walks on the expansive white sand beach are epic. Stay long enough, and Mother Nature will work her magic and fill you with awe for the beauty surrounding you.

Best Beach for Stand-Up Paddle Boarding

Mackenzie Beach and Middle Beach are good options for stand-up paddle boarding. However, weather and tides constantly change on the west coast. So get updates on current conditions at local surf shops before entering the water to surf or paddle board.

Best Beaches for Surfing

Cox Bay Beach

Cox Bay Beach had the most consistent waves of all the beaches when I visited in early spring. In fact, I counted over 30 surfers and watched Surf Sister Surf School give lessons close to the shore. Also, weathered logs rim the stunning beach, providing excellent windbreaks for picnics. And, yes, it is ideal for digging your toes in the warm sand and sunbathing with a book on long summer days!

North Chesterman Beach © Linda Sheppard

North Chesterman Beach

North Chesterman Beach is closer to town and is also suitable for surfing. As a bonus, the large rocky outcropping at the north end below the Wickaninnish Inn’s wood-clad restaurant is a beautiful place to explore.

Waves Roll to the Windward Side!

Tofino is at the end of the Esowista Peninsula. The windward side of the peninsula is on the west, where surfing is the primary sport. However, the water is much calmer on the leeward side, providing perfect conditions for stand-up paddle boarding.

And with so many beaches along the windward coast of the Pacific Rim, it is no wonder surfers and wannabees come for the waves. Tofino, also known as Tuff City, used to be known for its fishing and logging. However, today it is the surf capital of Canada!

Take Some Lessons

Cox Bay Surfers © Linda Sheppard

Swell Tofino has two locations. It operates year-round at Hotel Zed and seasonally at Mackenzie Beach Resort. Swell rents everything you need to go surfing or boogie boarding and provides lessons. In addition, they offer stand-up paddle (SUP) tours on Mackenzie Beach or the inlet behind Hotel Zed. And, good to know:  Swell is the only sports company in Tofino that offers Stand-up Paddle Board surfing lessons—an exciting hybrid sport—on Chesterman Beach!

Of course, beginners should start with lessons from one of the surf schools in town. Surf Sister Surf School encourages women to grab a board and ride the waves. And watching them teach a class at Cox Bay Beach made it look like so much fun; when someone caught a wave, everyone cheered!

Kayaking

Kayaking on the leeward side is suitable for beginners or experienced kayakers. But sea kayaking in the waves requires more skill. So, check out Tofino Sea Kayaking; their staff guides day trips for beginners and experienced paddlers. In addition, they also rent kayaks and gear to experienced kayakers. 

Enjoy the Vancouver Island Wildlife

Tofino and the surrounding area hold the same allure as Alaska. Like Alaska, the rainforests are home to deer, elk, and wolves. Furthermore, the island has over 800 cougars, the highest concentration in North America! And close to 7,000 black bears call the island home, with many living in this area. However, unlike Alaska, there are no grizzly bears in Tofino.

The Pacific Ocean off Vancouver Island is home to whales, dolphins and porpoises, sea lions, sea otters, bald eagles, and much more. Then, biannually migrating birds arrive at the mud flats and beaches near Tofino by the thousands, offering some of the best birding in Canada.

Bird sanctuary surrounding a lake. Evergreens cover an island, mountains rising in background.
Peaceful Bird Sanctuary at Hotel Zed © Linda Sheppard

In Tofino, The Whale Centre knows the best places for whale watching—Gray Whales, Humpback Whales, and Orcas. But they also offer Bear Watching Tours! So, you can watch from the safety of a boat as black bears scour the water’s edge for food, on the beach and in tide pools at low tide. With luck, you might see a wolf or two as well! 

The Whale Centre also offers an adventurous full-day bird-watching tour, which travels up to 25 miles (40 km) offshore. In addition, you may spot ocean birds such as the rare Short-Tailed Albatross, with a wingspan of up to 91 inches (230 cm)!

Or, take their shorter tour along the coastline to view birds like puffins, oystercatchers, sandpipers, and many others. If you’re lucky, you may see bird colonies in the nesting season. Additionally, Tofino is on the Pacific Flyway, and thousands of birds can arrive in a single day during migration!

paved off-road bike path through old-growth forest woodlands, with natural railings on the sides of the trail
Off-road Bike Path through old-growth forest © Linda Sheppard

Go for a Bike Ride

Have some fun and ride a bike on the beach! Just across from Chesterman Beach, Swell at Hotel Zed rents single-speed beach cruisers with oversized tires. And, there is a second Swell location at Mackenzie Beach. Or you could check out Tofino Bike Company, a few steps from Chocolate Tofino. And in town, you can rent electric bikes or scooters at Tuff City Scooter Rentals and cruise the recently completed multi-use path. This off-road path takes you past wind-swept beaches from Tofino to the fishing village of Ucluelet, 25 miles (40.3 km) away. 

Best Time of the Year to Visit Tofino

Although Tofino is a year-round destination, you will enjoy the best weather in summer. And summer life is easy! Food deliveries now come to the beach, so you can spend the whole day playing or reading under the warm sun. Plus, outdoor patios are open in summer. And ice cream is considered a necessity in summer, right? Also, a selection of hikes provides clear views over the Pacific Ocean, and their tequilas at sunset are heavenly.

Generally, accommodations are less expensive in spring and fall, making it a great time to visit. Naturally, the salty air can be cooler, but the sun shines frequently. Of course, hiking, surfing, beachcombing, and bike riding are still fun, but bring rain gear just in case! Another bonus is the short or nonexistent lines.

In winter months, Tofino wraps her arms around travelers who arrive for storm watching. Waves crash on the rocky coast with a boom, and white spindrift soars through the air. While conversations grow deeper around the fireplace, wood-fired saunas can soothe aching muscles. And a massage at the spa is one of the best things to do now. So, is winter the best time of year to go to Tofino?

Top Places to Eat in Tofino

ROAR – a Live Fire Restaurant!

Bright Yellow flames leaping toward the grill ready for cooking a tasty meal
Live-Fire Cooking © Linda Sheppard
Platter filled with salad, whole coho salmon, and veggies
Coho Salmon Platter © Linda Sheppard

On my recent visit, I sat at the Chef’s Table at a new live-fire restaurant, ROAR. But all diners can enjoy the magic of the talented Red Seal Chef and her team cooking food in 800-degree wood coals. Order Flambadou Grilled Beach Oysters, Fired Roasted Chicken with fingerling potatoes, or whatever your server recommends. Believe me, everything looks amazing! The subtle hint of smoke brings richness—even wildness—to your meal. Trust me, you don’t want to miss the opportunity to experience this unique live-fire cooking (and eating!)

ROAR’s cocktails are a unique west coast pleasure! Try the Woodward with Arbutus barrel-aged gin and Woods’ Amaro Chiaro distilled in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, there’s always the Last Wave with red chili and pineapple-infused tequila! But this may be your only chance to try the off-menu Spyhopper, a west coast cocktail created for the Pacific Rim Whale Festival! With red cedar rum, a sprig of cedar, and a smoking cedar splinter, you will know you are on the west coast of Vancouver Island!

Stemless wine glass filled with a yellow beverage, topped with foam, a cedar sprig, and a burning cedar splinter
Spyhopper Cocktail ROAR Restaurant © Linda Sheppard

The dessert list had my favorite, Crème Brûlée; it came as a trio with three insanely delicious offerings, vanilla white chocolate, dark chocolate chai, and raspberry. Oh my goodness, when I pushed my spoon against the caramelized sugar topping and felt it crack, I knew I was in for an absolute delight! Finally, the decadent, rich custard, with its perfectly creamy consistency, was paired with a magnificent crisp sugar shell.

Liquid desserts like Limoncello made in-house or Affogato with krupnik liqueur, espresso, and vanilla bean gelato looked terrific too!

Pizza With a Whole-wheat Crust, Anyone?

For a simple healthy meal, try the pizza at Common Loaf Bakeshop. This colorful downtown bakery has plenty of variety, including Vegan Stromboli and Chicken Pesto on Peasant Bread. Plus, there is a cozy seating area, and the Bulletin Board is worth a read. I love to read neighborhood postings; they are a great way to glimpse what a community holds dear. The rainforests, infrared sauna sessions, and deep environmental care show clearly here. You will leave feeling warm and fuzzy, with your bag of outrageously delicious cookies or “cinnies” (also known as cinnamon buns).

You Must Have Chocolate for Dessert—Or Any Other Time!

Fancy cut glass filled with hot chocolate elixir, and a plate filled with fine chocolates, and yellow cacao pod
Hot Chocolate Elixir, Cacao Pods, and Fine Chocolates © Linda Sheppard

Surely, one of the best discoveries in Tofino has to be Chocolate Tofino! As soon as you walk in, you will notice the intoxicating aroma of chocolate that fills the air. Take time to admire their fresh homemade gelato and gorgeous handmade chocolates. Each item has a name intended to tantalize your taste buds, and you have a big decision to make!

Chocolatier and co-owner Kim says Wildflower Honey Ganache is her favorite, and after my tasting, I can see why! I tasted a selection of fine handcrafted delights. All of them were rich with chocolate that instantly melted in my mouth. But the Organic Lavender Truffle completely surprised me with a soft ganache that brought a gentle lavender flavor to my taste buds. Indeed, it is now my very favorite chocolate!

Kim and Cam are famous for their fresh gelato, including their Salted Caramel Gelato, which leaves just the perfect hint of salt on your lips. And I believe I heard a quiet moan when someone near me first tasted the Strawberry Mango Smoothie Sorbet.

But I requested a Hot Chocolate Elixir because I love hot chocolate. No cocoa powder here! Just liquid chocolate warmed with oat milk, whipping cream, and chocolate shavings. An elixir is said to have restorative powers. I know this profoundly satisfying chocolatey drink made me feel better!

a waffle bowl filled with Gelato and a spoon
Gelato at Chocolate Tofino © Linda Sheppard

Don’t Laugh—Roadside Food Trucks 

The fresh and hot fish tacos from Tacofino Food Truck are a Tofino “thing.” In fact, Tacofino can have a line so long it meets up with the line coming from Chocolate Tofino! So, if two or more are together, divide and conquer! One of you orders the Tacofino favorites, Baja Style Fish Taco with tempura battered Pacific Cod and Tuna TaTaco with seared sesame-soy albacore tuna. Meanwhile, the other picks up some chocolate Bear Claws with cashews or Hazelnut Rainforest Crispy Logs for an evening treat—if they last that long!

Tofino Tuna Tostada on a searving platter, with a caraf of white wine and fireplace in the background in Hotel Zed Sunken Living Room
Tofino Tuna Tostada in Hotel Zed Sunken Living Room © Linda Sheppard

Places to Stay on Vancouver Island 

Hotel Zed—A Swanky Hotel in the Forest

Hotel Zed must be the most fun place to stay in Tofino! Creative leadership introduced a mid-century modern vibe to the hotel, creating excitement as soon as you enter!

Upon check-in, the staff grinds coffee for the morning and presents it to you in a Hotel Zed bag. And when you arrive in your room, the oversized super comfy chairs are a welcome surprise. The spacious room has all the hotel amenities you would expect, like a luxurious vanity, plush towels, and lightly scented bath products.

I could see the thought that went into each purchase. A rotary phone rests beside the bed, and velvet curtains spill onto the tiled floor outside the separate shower room (which is big enough for a small family). The nostalgic coffee bar sports cups in retro-orange and -green.

Downstairs the swanky sunken lobby with impressive teardrop fireplaces invites you to sit, relax, and enjoy a snack from the coffee shop or wine from the bar. Have you ever visited a hotel with a family-size disco room with mirrored balls, a 70’s-styled office, or a bike path through the lobby? Kids and adults love it, and the hotel is pet friendly too.

Outside are showers made from surfboards, a giant hot tub with a sauna overlooking the rainforest, and a wooden boardwalk leading to a bird sanctuary. As if that isn’t enough, the staff brings joy into every interaction.

Long Beach Lodge—Perfect for a Wedding!

Long Beach Lodge Resort is on the windward side of the peninsula and faces Cox Bay Beach. Whether you are eloping or having a wedding with 50 people, Long Beach Lodge looks like a great place to tie the knot. Feel the ocean breeze and hear waves crashing as you say your vows on the open patio. Or go for a quiet weekend and surf Cox Bay. Unfortunately, the SandBar Bistro was closed when I was there. But, it would be a perfect place for summertime al fresco dining!

Whether you stay in a hostel, rental, or hotel, Tofino is a desirable and popular travel destination—particularly in summer—so reserve early!

Places to Camp on Vancouver Island

Outdoor deck with gas firepit, and benches. Surfboards hang on the wall at Tofino's Surf Grove
Surf Grove’s Gathering Space © Linda Sheppard

Surf Grove Campsite is a new development with a wonderful sense of green space. Kids can ride their bikes, and parents can relax. Spend the day on the beach, followed by S’mores at the campfire, while the sound of waves calms the most frayed nerves. Most certainly, you will remember the ghost stories and laughter long after the campfire is out. Cox Bay accommodates both classic tent campers and RV’ers requiring full hook-ups. 

Mackenzie Beach Resort is lively, with small beachfront campsites, iconic Airstream Trailers, and convenient cabins; some are pet friendly. Also, they have the largest outdoor patio in Tofino, often hosting live music. The General Store has all the basics, from coffee to fishing rods, and Swell Tofino will rent you a surfboard and gear and give you some tips! More importantly, if you need them, they can also arrange lessons!

Stroll the beaches when you need wide-open spaces to blow away the cobwebs. If outdoor adventures appeal to you, Tofino offers marine and land experiences in spades. Go to a yoga class, get a massage, or sit in nature. And if you love wandering small towns filled with art galleries, boutiques, and cafes, you will love Tofino! But if you want to spend hours over a superb meal or try a new cocktail, you can do that too! I promise that what will stay with you long after you leave Tofino is how wonderful the Tofitians are.

Start Planning Your Next Adventure!

Ready to plan your next vacation? You could travel to Cannon Beach, explore wine tasting in Calistoga, Napa Valley, or visit West Virginia for a Ramp Meal.

Thank you to Hotel Zed, ROAR, and Chocolate Tofino for the sponsored visits! Their kind sponsorships in no way affected my article, my opinions are my own.

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