As my tiny propel plane hovered over foggy mounds of old growth forest waiting to land, my first thought was: Why don’t more people know about this place? While it’s well-known to Canadians and sees crowds of them in the summer, most Americans have never heard of it … probably because the locals like it that way.
Well, the secret’s out. Tofino is a magical, sleepy surfer town located on Vancouver Island, about a five hour’s drive from Victoria, Canada, the capital of British Columbia. The offseason—fall through spring—is the perfect time to visit for outdoor activities, fine dining, and a very ‘British Columbia’ experience all to yourself.
Surfing Cox Bay
You can go surfing just about any time of year in Tofino, and Cox Bay is one of the best places to learn how to surf on vacation. You’ll find calm, small waves in this sheltered bay, with a breathtaking rocky coastline on both sides of you. The foggy, gray waters are warm as long as you’re in a wetsuit, and friendly surf instructors hailing from as far as Australia will help you catch your first wave.
Winter is a far less-crowded time to visit Tofino, and while not every restaurant or shop may be open, the town’s tourism board has dubbed it “storm watching” season. Many hotels offer experience packages around the season and Chocolate Tofino (a chocolate and ice cream shop) has a storm-watching special: free ice cream if the power goes out.
There are plenty of hiking trails in Tofino depending on your skill level and time commitment. Long Beach, the part of Pacific Rim National Park that is closest to Tofino, is known for its Western Hemlock, Western Red Cedar, and Pacific Silver Fir trees.
Trails in the area that are part of the national park include the Rainforest Trail, Schooner Cove Trail, and Nuu Chah Nulth Trail. Another adventurous option is the Lone Cove trail—located on Meares Island, about a 15-minute water taxi ride from Tofino. It’s short and steep but offers gorgeous views of the ocean. Also on Meares Island is Big Tree Trail, which has old-growth forests of 1,000+-year-old trees. Read more on Tofino’s hiking trails here.
Food & Drink
Little Tofino’s sophisticated dining and cocktail scene surprised me. I visited during the increasingly popular food festival Feast Tofino and had the privilege of attending a long-table dinner on the beach hosted by the area’s renowned chefs. Watching the fog roll in over the ocean while eating food caught on the same shores just hours before was an incredible experience, but you don’t have to go to a food festival to experience the same thing.
Stand-out restaurants serving local food include Shelter, Wolf in the Fog, SoBo, as well as Tofino Marina and Resort’s 1909 Kitchen and The Hatch Waterfront Pub. The town is also home to the renowned Tacofino food truck (be prepared to wait in a line), which now has mainland locations.
Don’t leave without stopping at Tofino Brewing Co.—a popular local hangout with a beer garden and ocean-inspired beers like Kelp Stout, which truly embodies “boat-to-table” culture.
British Columbia is known for its diverse wildlife. If you’re looking to spot bald eagles, orcas, or black bears, take a boat tour from the Adventure Center at Tofino Marina. Brand new speedboats are comfortable on the notoriously choppy water and manned by local guides who do everything they can so you can see spectacles like a breaching whale or black bears eating salmon.
Hot Springs Cove
About 30 miles northwest of Tofino is Hot Springs Cove: seven magical, natural rock pools of geothermal water. To get here, you can take a half-day (six hours) tour from the Adventure Center on a “Sea to Sky” trip—travel by boat there, and fly in a seaplane back to Tofino. The hot springs are a 30-minute hike through old growth forest, and one of the best things to do while you’re in Tofino.
If the weather permits or you’re visiting in summer, Vancouver Island’s wide and sandy beaches are some of the best things to do in Tofino. Fat-tire biking at low tide is a great way to enjoy the waterfront if it’s too cold to lounge or swim.
There are five major beaches to explore in Tofino: Wickaninnish Beach along the South Beach Trail; Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve; MacKenzie Beach, which is known for its calm waters; Cox Bay Beach for surfing (competitions are hosted here); and Chesterman beach, a local favorite and spans over one and a half miles.
More from SmarterTravel:
- What to Pack for British Columbia, Canada: 32 Essentials
- Bliss in British Columbia
- 10 Secret Places to Visit in British Columbia