So much has been written about Vancouver, said to be one of the top cities in the world for lifestyle, wellbeing and prosperity, but what about Vancouver Island? This vast, pristine island nudging Canada’s west coast is paradise for hikers, naturalists, surfers, New Agers (any left?) – plus a few remaining First Nations i.e. indigenous, people. So off we set to revel in the sight of the Pacific and the food of the Pacific Rim. We weren’t disappointed.
After a mesmerising 1 1/2 hour trip by car-ferry across the strait, we landed in Nanaimo, a ramshackle town sprawling around a bay dotted with more islands. There seem to be dozens of them but it was the densely forested interior of the biggie that beckoned. Slightly larger than Belgium and a tinge smaller than Taiwan, its 31,000 km2 size beats any other island off North America’s west coast. Another interesting factoid: half the island population of 865,000 lives in the capital, Victoria, leaving endless wilderness for the rest of us.
It took us 4 hours to drive across the narrow middle east to west. Valleys, rivers and hillsides blanketed in pine-trees, conifers, cedars and spruce meant that deep green ruled. Not a human in sight, apart from some swimmers plunging into a rushing stream. We passed one underwhelming town, Port Alberni, known for its sawmills and humungus paper production, also designated the “salmon capital of the world”. Not particularly enticing. On we cruised until finally we reached the other side to enter a bewitching world of pastel hues, mists and – almost – mellow fruitfulness. Through the Looking Glass?
Long Beach and Tofino
This was Long Beach, in fact a succesion of sandy beaches altogether stretching 16km up a peninsula, edged by towering trees and a few campsites. At its northern end was our destination, Tofino, a delightful little town now geared to visitors but originally a First Nations settlement. Then came fishermen and, decades later, a few peace-loving hippies. Clapboard houses, a good selection of restaurants and bars, a few hotels, craft shops and a supermarket – and that was it! Oh yes, and plenty of whale-watching and bear-spotting tours setting off from the harbour. The more energetic youth head for Long Beach to leap onto their surfboards.
We stayed at Duffin Cove, a cool cabin-style place teetering on the edge of the bay. Peaceful and uplifting, the ever-changing views from our balcony morphed from dense morning fog into clear sparkling sunshine. It was all very chilled and Canadian, with no reception or breakfast laid on, but plenty of alternatives nearby.
Our favourite place to kick off the day, seemingly the only place open at 8.30, was Harbourview Coffeehouse – overlooking the harbour and with peerless views of the infinite ocean and islands from their deck – when you could see anything that is. Because. That. Fog. Excellent coffee and croissants too.
Eating out in Tofino
Our dinners easily rivalled the morning fog, starting with Korean deliciousness at Jeju, a friendly, arty little restaurant just back from the harbour. Here we indulged in fine slices of scallop with yuzu vianaigrette, marinated kelp and pickled radish, then classic mouthwatering gyozu followed by beef tartare – plus lots of seaweed thrown in. Charming service kept us happy too.
Another evening we had booked at the very popular Wolf in the Fog. What a name, so apt, as there are wolves a-plenty in some areas and of course no lack of fog. This large, rowdy restaurant was equally fabulous – fuelled by an enormous bar (though my cocktail was SO disappointing). Here the highlight was a textural seaweed salad with puffed rice, mushroom and daikon, as well as charred Humboldt squid with kimchi and nori. Hard to beat Pacific Rim cuisine.
All good things come to an end – and no, on our zodiac adventure over the choppy waves we hardly saw whales (just two minimal humps) though plenty of sea otters and seals. And this time for part of the trip we were completely immersed in fog. Despite being drenched by sea-spray we felt safe in our padded floatsuits, making us look somewhat like astronauts.
Farewell to the wilderness
Then it was back on the road through the forested interior, stopping at the magnificent Cathedral Grove where towering Douglas Fir trees and lichen-clad branches reminded me of the rainforest in New Zealand’s Fjordland. But this was something else: British Columbia‘s big island – what a wonderland.
And then there were the sunsets – go west, next stop Japan!