A 400-pound black bear flips a barnacle-encrusted rock on the shore of a secluded Vancouver Island bay. I watch in awe from a 21-foot Grady-White boat as the animal devours pawfuls of crabs and mussels. Piloted by Tofino Resort & Marina guide Ryan Mountain, our vessel bobs silently at a safe distance.
On this adventure tour, we’ve braved huge Pacific Ocean swells and spotted a grey whale surfacing next to Vargas Island. But this ravenous bear is by far the highlight. It’s only 4 p.m., but he’s making me hungry for dinner too.
I’m savouring a four-day, food-driven getaway on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Tofino, a 45-minute flight or six-hour drive from Vancouver, has long attracted surfers and soul-searchers, lured by its wide-open beaches and pristine temperate rainforest. Today, the quiet B.C. town of 2,000 is equally renowned as a food destination.
Freshly caught seafood tops my culinary bucket list in Tofino. On our sunny ride back to the marina, Ryan stops in Lemmens Inlet to check the crab traps he baited with lingcod at the start of the tour. Measuring the largest of the 10 Dungeness crabs in the traps, he sadly notes that it’s five millimetres shy of eating range. The crustaceans must reach a minimum width of 165 mm before they can be added to my dinner menu, so back into the ocean they go.
Of course, I still get to feast. At 1909 Kitchen, Tofino Resort + Marina’s intimately lit waterfront bistro, I sip a 2018 Fairview Cellars Sauvignon Blanc and tuck into a huge seafood platter with no regrets. In addition to two pounds of chilled crab, I gleefully inhale Kusshi oysters and albacore tuna served with white radish. Clean-living decadence has never tasted so good, as I tell both the chef and the owner.
Chef Terry Somerville credits a tight-knit team with elevating his shared-plates vision: “Our master forager, Paul Moran, finds incredible mushrooms, kelp and other organic ingredients.” His wife, Kristine Morrow, also creates innovative pies and tortes.
“Tofino has always been a special, therapeutic place for me and my wife,” co-owner and avid fisher Willie Mitchell adds. “I love nature, so this is my happy place.” The B.C. native, who snagged two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings, bought Tofino Resort + Marina in 2016 with fellow ex-NHLer, Dan Hamhuis. As the resort’s hands-on president, Mitchell splits his time between Vancouver and his two-acre property in Tofino.
SURF AND TURF
Chesterman Beach is my next destination. I feel the anticipation when I wake up in my airy suite overlooking Lone Cone Mountain on Meares Island. After breakfasting on eggs benny with smoked salmon and crispy potato rosti, I borrow one of the resort’s KHS 4 Season 500 fat bikes and ride south on the new multi-use path by the Pacific Rim Highway.
A glorious wall of white noise greets me at Chesterman Beach. Clad in neoprene bodysuits, surfers ride the waves while joyful dogs sniff mounds of seaweed. My fat tires are ideal for navigating this 2.7-kilometre stretch of hard-packed sand. I gaze toward the horizon, with only open ocean between Tofino and Japan, some 7,400 km away. Inhaling the breeze on the edge of the world feels restorative.
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After returning my bike, I stroll up Campbell Street to Shed for a casual patio lunch. Proprietor Jay Gildenhuys recommends the vegetarian Attenburger: “It’s a very earth-conscious choice, named after Sir David Attenborough, who advocates eating less meat.”
My black bean- and quinoa-based patty is ultra-savoury, and the Virgin Island sauce (similar to Thousand Island dressing, with tofu supplanting mayo) provides the right hint of sweetness. Fried dill pickles with buttermilk ranch dressing are another must-eat.
Chef Matty Kane heads up Shelter, Shed’s fine-dining sister establishment. It’s an easy choice to go there later for dinner. Seated by the front window, I enjoy a signature Stepping Stone cocktail (Tofino West Coast Gin, Moderna vermouth, Woods amaro, orange) and soak up the ambience of the airy dining room, built with reclaimed cedar and fir beams from the World War II-era Tofino airport. A surfboard from Hawaii-born legend Gerry Lopez graces a central pillar, and the wood-burning fireplace smells cheerful.
Kane, a Newfoundland baker’s son, epitomizes Tofino’s go-with-the-flow attitude. “I came out here 13 years ago on a three-day trip and loved it so much that I just stayed,” he says. “Something I really love is the Tofino Ucluelet Culinary Guild, which Shelter spearheaded back in 2010. It helps local chefs get the best fresh produce from Vancouver Island and the Okanagan.”
I take full advantage with a multi-course feast. My flat iron steak, sourced from Hopcott Farms in the Fraser Valley, is chargrilled to medium-rare perfection and served with truffle fries. Even more memorable are the crispy Brussels sprouts with Grana Padano and toasted breadcrumbs.
As Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” plays in the background, I dig into my dessert of salted-caramel pot de crème and espresso mousse cake.
ON THE ROCKS
Every day in Tofino serves up new treats. Brunching at the iconic Wickaninnish Inn, I relish the elegant presentation of my scrambled eggs with oyster pearls and Hasselback potatoes. In the oceanfront dining room, chef Carmen Ingham describes his farm-to-table philosophy: “We change our tasting menu three or four times a month. I’ll bring in whole animals, from lamb to pork, and we’re blessed with amazing seafood. In my downtime, I go dog-walking and pick berries with my family.”
After brunch, I drive to Long Beach. In this national park reserve, the sun mystically illuminates the fluffy clouds. Gulls fly low above the sand as I watch expert stand-up paddleboarders battling the currents near craggy Lovekin Rock. A driftwood beach shack enhances the picture-postcard vibe.
My afternoon blends alcohol with artistry. A scrumptious lunch of battered cod and chips awaits me at the Pacific Sands Beach Resort’s Surfside Grill. I dine outdoors, swigging a Victoria-brewed Hoyne Pilsner, which inspires me to head up to the Tofino Brewing Company.
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At this converted boatyard, I chat with Allan Pearson, a surf instructor and volunteer firefighter who works for the 2011-founded craft brewery. Gesturing toward my flight of beers, Pearson notes: “That Spruce Tree Ale is a massive beer for us. It’s hard to pick enough spruce tips! We want to do things sustainably and make the most consistent beer we can.”
Next door, the Tofino Distillery offers accessible, handcrafted cocktails. I quaff a Tijuana Go Surfing (jalapeno vodka, mango nectar, lime) and pick up a bottle of Old Growth Cedar Gin. Before dinner, I explore local art galleries, admiring Roy Henry Vickers’ innovative takes on Haida motifs and Mark Hobson’s vivid paintings of local wildlife.
At Wolf in the Fog, I’m excited to discover the eatery’s standards haven’t slipped since enRoute magazine named it Canada’s best new restaurant in 2014. From fried Humboldt squid with poblano mayo to pork belly with maple sour cream, each course is a tour de force.
For a final change of pace, I check in for a night at the new Hotel Zed Tofino. The funky, 1970s-dream exterior only hints at the party inside: a bike path through the lobby, mini-disco and retro arcade with Donkey Kong and Galaga.
As I relax in my spacious room—with an era-appropriate rotary phone and leather lounge chairs—I listen to the gentle rain coming down. I’m wistful that my time in this coastal world is wrapping up. In the morning, I grab blueberry scones for breakfast at the nearby Tofitian Café and fresh-baked loaf of lager rye from Summit Bread Company to take home. I know I’ll be back for another taste of Tofino.