There is a magical place way up on the northwestern side of Vancouver Island, in British Columbia, called Tofino. This map will show you exactly where it is. I went there somewhat randomly and I ended up loving it so much, I kind of wanted to stay forever.
To get there, you take a little 7-seater prop plane from Vancouver, which lands at an airport that is approximately the size of your house. As you fly in, you see the incredible landscape of Clayoquot Sound and the countless inlets, bays, and islands that define the landscape.
True story: we arrived late and the car rental guy was no longer there, so the guy who flew the airplane had to give us a ride. Canadians are nice.
In San Francisco, where I live, eating locally is still sort of in the trend/fad category. In Tofino, it’s pretty much a requirement, since it sits out in a pretty remote section of the Pacific Rim. It also happens to be a prime spot for fishing. This means the food there is a lot better than you’d expect for a town that has a year-round population of fewer than 2,000 people.
SoBo is definitely my number one Tofino restaurant. You could do like we did and eat there once or twice a day so you can work through the entire menu, but if you only have one chance to try it, don’t miss the seafood chowder, which is without a doubt the best I’ve ever had. Like ever. The catch of the day is delightful, and the wine list features a good variety of local B.C. wines plus some international options. Desserts are also fantastic, with offerings like chewy plate-sized cookies, house-made ice cream, and berry crumbles that feature local fruit.
Just down the road you’ll find The Common Loaf, the town’s excellent bread bakery. Grab a fresh, yeasty loaf for your breakfast toast, or try a gooey buttertart square dripping with caramel-soaked raisins. They offer gluten-free options, too, as well as other treats like cinnamon rolls, muffins, and cupcakes. You can get sandwiches there as well.
Making sushi in a place like Tofino feels a little like cheating: with fish this fresh and abundant, how could you possibly screw it up? Tough City Sushi is up to the task, with mouth-watering local salmon and albacore sashimi. The “Real California Roll” is also a hit – featuring freshly cracked dungeness crab and creamy avocado. While the ambiance is definitely not your typical upscale sushi bar, the stellar view of the harbor makes up for it.
For a taste of the casual surf scene and some top-notch fish and chips, don’t miss Wildside Grill. A collaboration between a commercial fisherman and a chef, this unassuming takeout window offers simple preparations of extremely fresh fish.The fish tacos are a standout. The only thing that would make Wildside better would be if they served beer to wash everything down.
Just around the corner from Wildside Grill you’ll find Chocolate Tofino, where they make gorgeous chocolates and other treats right in their teeny tiny shop. They have been voted best ice cream in all of British Columbia, and after (ahem) several samplings I am inclined to agree. The maple pecan flavor is out of this world–especially on a fresh waffle cone dipped in melted chocolate just seconds before you eat it.
We thought about staying at the posh Wickanninish Inn, but opted for a more affordable place we found on VRBO.com. If you’re like me and you want to check it out, but can’t afford to stay there, you can take a morning meander down Chesterman Beach–one of the prettiest beaches in the area–and stop in for tea and scones, served with a view at the Driftwood Cafe.
There are two Tofino eateries near the southern edge of town that offer a slightly more hipster decor: Shelter and the Marina West Motel. Shelter has a great Asian rice bowl with fresh salmon and lots of vegetarian options, and some of the fanciest bathrooms I’ve ever seen. At Marina West you can sit on the patio at Jack’s Pub or dine in the garage door-chic Green Room.
What to do between all those meals? There are some great short hikes in all of the nearby wilderness areas, like in the temperate rainforest in Pacific Rim National Park. We glimpsed some lovely scarlet huckleberries among the lush greenery.
You can go whale watching on a big or small boat and spot gray whales, sea lions, harbor seals, and if you’re lucky, a puffin. Even more unique is to go out on a small boat at low tide and look for black bears in the inlets. We went with Jamie’s for whale watching and Adventure Tofino for the bear trip.
You can take a walk along Chesterman Beach, Long Beach, or any one of the many beautiful and peaceful beaches in the area. It’s a big surf town, too, but the water is a little too cold for my taste.
When departure day came, I was definitely not ready to leave Tofino. But as our prop plane pulled up off the airstrip and into the sky, I caught a few last looks at the incredible landscape below, and I felt OK because I knew I’d make it back someday soon.