Exploring Vancouver was great. I can totally understand why the city is among the world’s most livable cities. But as usual, I got itchy feet after a a few days and it was time to move. Time to head for adventure, time to head into the wild – time to explore Canada’s rugged and wild West Coast.
It was early in the morning, still pitch black outside and thick flakes of snow were unceasingly hitting the car’s windshield as we waited to board the ferry to Vancouver Island. It was an unpleasing start of our trip and we hoped that once on the island, things would change for the better.
A journey across rugged Vancouver Island
After the one and a half hour ferry ride, we arrived in Nanaimo. Still cold, still windy and worst of all, still snowing. And we still had a three hour drive ahead of us to make it to Tofino, our final destination in the North. To get to Tofino, you have to cross the island via the Pacific Rim Highway which takes you across the Clayoquot Plateau. It is a very scenic drive as the highway takes you through ancient rainforest and along enchanted rivers and lakes. But as we approached the plateau, the snow picked up even more and driving became a real challenge. The sight of a car which had just hit the ditch didn’t really make things better but there was no choice – we had to keep going. With sweaty hands, I clinged to the steering wheel and slowly made my way up. Despite the conditions and the risky driving, the landscape still looked magical, all covered in bright white, no noise outside but the gentle falling of the snow. Once we passed the peak, it suddenly cleared up quickly. “Thank god”, we sighed with great relief. And after another ten minutes, the landscape looked completely different. The snow was gone, the towering pine trees lining the road seemed to lead the way and for the first time, Vancouver Island showed its real face. Wild, rugged and beautiful – and only one more hour down the winding road before we would arrive in Tofino.
The Wild West Coast
Tofino, once a sleepy fishermen village, popular among hippies, is nowadays an internationally renowned touristic hotspot. But despite its increasing popularity, the town has managed to keep its authentic and picturesque charm. Tofino is surrounded by rainforest, small and uninhabited islands, reserves of the Canadian First Nations and the mighty Pacific. Wherever you go, the ocean and its wild coast are not far away.
This is what we came for, so on our first day we decided to hike along some of the beaches that are dotting the coast. It was that sort of weather that Tofino in winter time is famous for. A whistling onshore wind together with fine spray, a mix of rain and saltwater, was blowing in our faces. Chased by the winds, grey clouds were passing by quickly, and the sea spray created a white mist which was slowly moving inland across the beach. True to the motto “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes”, we came prepared and enjoyed the solitude that weather like this brings with it. Weather like this clears your head and the howling wind seems to make room for clear thinking. I can understand that people say winter season is actually the best season to come to Tofino.
Hiking the Wild Pacific Trail
Another thing Vancouver Island in general is famous for, is its superb hiking. Tofino itself boasts a number of well signposted hikes, from easy to challenging, taking you along the coast and into the evergreen rainforest. However, one of the highlights, the famous Wild Pacific Trail, is located outside of Tofino, in its neighboring town of Ucluelet. The Wild Pacific Trail is ranked no. 1 attraction in Vancouver Island and even in all of British Columbia on Trip Advisor. Ratings like that lead to high expectations which which can in turn cause big disappointment. But the Wild Pacific Trail lived up to all of the expectation we might have had.
“A walk on the Wild Pacific Trail will weave itself into your soul, whether this is your first visit or a daily ritual.”
The trail starts taking you through an evergreen rainforest, dripping with moss and ferns. Once you enter this fairy tale habitat, you are struck by an intense smell of foliage, wood, moss and soil. The moss, which is covering the ground and trees, absorbs almost every ambient noise. All of this makes walking inside the forest almost an meditational experience – quiet, without distraction and seemingly detached from the outside world. And thinking about the fact, that these holy grounds have been inhabited by the local Yuułuʔiłʔatḥ Indians for thousands of years already, makes it even more fascinating.
The trail leads to the island’s famously rugged and wind-swept coastline. Heading towards the historical Amphitrite Lighthouse, you will pass strangely bent trees sculpted by the salty winds and the relentless power of the Pacific Ocean. It was there, where a long lived dream of mine came true. I already saw them from afar and when I walked closer, across the rocky headland and through puddles of seawater, I couldn’t believe my luck. Two mature bald eagles, just resting on a big rock. Their sharp eyes focused me as I was stubling across the rocks and eventually one of them took off to scout the area. I always wanted to see these majestic birds, the kings of the air. Coming from Germany, the only chance to see these creatures is in the zoo or on TV and so finally seeing them in their natural habitat was a very special moment.
We finished the Wild Pacific Trail and also did a couple of more which were close by and just as enthralling. In between, we recharged our batteries with a classic fish and chips meal at famous Jiggers food cart in Ucluelet. Freshly caught Halibut and crispy chips with the salty smell of the sea in the air.
Tofino cold water surfing
Tofino is considered the surfing capital of Canada. With several beaches, the winter storms creating regular and consistent swells and the dramatic coastline framing the spots, surfing Vancouver Island is a highlight. The only problem is that winter is the best season and winter is cold. I am talking water temperatures of about 8 degrees Celsius and wearing a 5mm wetsuit complete with a hood, gloves and thick boots. Very different from surfing Bali or Catanduanes, Philippines in boardshorts.
Since I was there, I just had to try it. And the good thing about conditions like these is that the lineup usually less crowded. So I geared up and headed to Cox Bay where I found a choppy but acceptable swell. I paddled out into the sun and the wetsuit did its job – it wasn’t actually too bad. But the rude awakening came when I did my first duck dives, where you push your board into the water and dive underneath the approaching waves. My face, the only body part exposed to the ice cold water, felt like being stung by a thousand needles. Wow, what an intense sensation. But I managed to paddle out and got a few waves after all. The cold, the thick wetsuit and my lack of paddle power soon took its toll and I had to resign for the day. As I paddled back in, the sun was setting and painted the shoreline in the brightest orange I had seen for a long time. It was a good end of the day – my last day on Vancouver Island and in Tofino.
Vancouver Island and especially Tofino are very special places. The island’s rugged coast, its wilderness and untamed beauty are captivating. And I think the partly stormy weather just emphasized the region’s unique character. Walking this wild coast of Canada instantly gives you a sense of freedom that is hard to find nowadays. The enchanted rainforest, the everlasting battle of the elements at its shores and a generally relaxed and welcoming vibe make this place a must see for Canada travelers. I was lucky to have had the chance to see Tofino and its surrounding area, but I really wish I could have stayed longer. I will come back … someday … to the Wild Coast.