Way Out West on Vancouver Island
Published: May 2009
By Elizabeth Garnsey
Fun doesn't grow on trees on Vancouver Island's west coast; it <em>is</em> the trees.
And the sprawling beaches, thriving wildlife, and dazzling sea creatures. Two years ago, after a 20-year clash between environmentalists and loggers, the 650,000-acre rain forest on Clayoquot Sound was named a unesco Biosphere Reserve. What has emerged since then along the 30-mile stretch between Clayoquot and Barkley sounds is a gentle form of ecotourism. In this brave new world, yesterday's logging roads have become today's mountain-biking and hiking trails. Trophy fishing is out; catch-and-release is in–along with kayaking, reef diving, and surfing (in wet suits; it's a tad chilly for swimming even in August). And you no longer need to sleep in a tent to get close to nature: a handful of guest lodges occupy some of the last private waterfront land. The rest belongs to Pacific Rim National Park, where thousand-year-old cedars, spruces, and hemlocks and hundreds of species of wildlife make up some of the most diverse and pristine ecosystems in the world. How's that for a backyard?
Middle Beach Lodge
What Middle Beach Lodge lacks in isolation (it's only two miles from Tofino, the region's hub), it makes up for in rustic elegance. Spread across 40 oceanfront acres are 19 cabins with railed-in sleeping lofts that kids adore; a beach house with six suites and a fitness room; and two main lodges, one for families and one just for adults. Each lodge has a large timber lounge with a stone fireplace in the center, old books scattered about, and lots of big, soft sofas and chairs to flop in–backgammon boards and playing cards within easy reach, natch. There are wraparound decks to boot, affording 180-degree views of the shoreline below. These common areas are the heart and soul of Middle Beach.
Everyone, especially locals, clamors for dinner reservations in the Headlands lounge (Wednesdays through Sundays only), which dishes up locally caught seafood–salmon, crab, halibut. The beauty of Middle Beach is that it feels as if it's deeper in the wilderness than it is, and it's just a five-minute drive from Pacific Rim National Park. So families can kayak along Clayoquot Sound, ogle gray whales frolicking in the water, or escape to the primeval world of a rain forest–and still make it back to the lodge in time for dinner.
Middle Beach Lodge 400 MacKenzie Beach Rd., Tofino; 250/725-2900; doubles from $57, two-bedroom cabins from $87, double (add $13 per child 3Ð15, $18 per child 16 and over), both including breakfast.
Roots Lodge at Reef Point
A town whose name means "safe place to land a canoe" in the Nootka language, Ucluelet (pronounced "yoo-clue-let") has received surprisingly few travelers during the current ecotourism boom, unlike its neighbor Tofino. But Roots Lodge at Reef Point, which opened two years ago, is turning the tide. The lodge launched on brand recognition–the Roots chain of clothing stores is to Canadians what Banana Republic is to Americans. By the end of May it will change its name to Reef Point Lodge, and expand from being a Roots showcase to a full-fledged family resort. Organized outings make the most of the great surfing on Florencia Bay, a couple of miles up the coast; kayaking around the Broken Group Islands in Barkley Sound, just south of Ucluelet; and nearby hiking and biking trails. There's in-house baby-sitting, too, which can include field trips and crafts.
Early critics of the lodge resented what they saw as Roots' attempt to "brand the wilderness." But so far, the secluded setting hasn't been compromised by the resort's guests–families with dogs, Teva-clad newlyweds, surfers–or its architecture. The forest floor remains intact, as the main structure rests on an elevated platform, and a raised boardwalk connects the cabins (built on stilts). To be sure, all of the original 10 cabins and 14 suites bear the rugged-chic mark of the owners: they're outfitted in Roots' brown leather couches, gray fleece throw pillows, and cream jersey sheets. (There are 40 new units in the works.) But in keeping with the camping feel, they all have kitchenettes stocked with tin cups and dishes that seem better suited to a wienie roast than a luxury lodge.
Roots Lodge at Reef Point 310 Seabridge Way, Ucluelet; 888/594-7333 or 250/726-2700; double suites from $63; one-bedroom cabins from $152, double (add $10 per child 12 and under, $13 per child over 12).
A 1974 family vacation turned into a permanent move for Canadians Jennifer and Wayne Wenstob when they happened upon the little-known island of Tzartus in Barkley Sound, the water separating the old fishing village of Bamfield from the sleepy town of Ucluelet. The pair spent their first six months camping on the beach with their four children (two now help run the lodge). They moved from there to a log cabin, and eventually, in 1985, to a custom-built 26-room barge referred to by locals as the Tiltin' Hilton, which served as a base for their new business as fishing outfitters. When the barge was destroyed by a storm in 1992, the misfortune spurred Wayne, an architect, to go forward with a long-held plan: to build a lodge on the island's shore.
Extending hundreds of acres behind the Shahowis Resort is an old-growth rain forest; in front is a vast cove, perfect for mellow turns in a kayak. While the 15 guest rooms are basic–mismatched blankets and quilts, bathrooms with unfinished wood walls–more than half have a view of the sound. ²uiet hours are best spent lounging in front of the huge granite fireplace or joining an impromptu chess or cribbage tournament presided over by the Wenstobs' nine-year-old grandson, Hjalmer, and their youngest daughter, Stella, 12. The size of the great hearth is outdone only by the 12-foot-wide trunk of the spruce that rises 40 feet through the center of the lodge. The lightning-blasted tree is a staggering remnant of the storm that demolished the Wenstobs' barge. The doorway to a second-floor TV room was carved into the trunk, and the uppermost reaches were turned into floorboards and an enormous dinner table.
Jessica, Hjalmer's mother and the oldest of the Wenstobs' three daughters, takes guests out on the sound in search of dinner (Rachel, the second-oldest, and her mother serve up the fish with vegetables from their own garden). But the catch might prove secondary to the birds you can spot–bald eagles, Steller's jays, great blue herons–and the teeming life in the water. Jessica points out orange-and-purple starfish, and you can't miss the ubiquitous bull kelp, whose gas-filled bulbs float on the water's surface like the distended eyeballs of some fantastic sea creature.
No stay here is complete without a walk in the woods led by Hjalmer and Stella. The kids offer wild huckleberries on the way to their pride and joy–a 1,500-year-old hollow cedar tree. It's a tight squeeze getting in, but worth it for the chance to shimmy up to a 25-foot-high peephole in the trunk. Look out below, Swiss Family Robinson!
Shahowis Resort Tzartus Island, Barkley Sound; 250/388-6515; doubles from $270, including meals and boat transfer from Bamfield; kids 3Ð12 half price (under 3 free).
Elizabeth Garnsey is a Travel + Leisure contributing editor.
GETTING TO VANCOUVER ISLAND'S WEST COAST
Tofino has a commercial airport with flights from Vancouver, Seattle, and Victoria. But we recommend flying to Vancouver, renting a car, and taking it on the ferry to Nanaimo. From there, drive the beautiful, winding Highway 4 for about three hours to reach Middle Beach or Roots lodges. En route, in tiny Coombs, don't miss Coombs Market for an ice cream cone–and check out the goats grazing on the grass roof. About 30 minutes farther down the road, take a walk through Cathedral Grove, a stand of giant Douglas firs wrapped in thick emerald moss–a teaser for what's to come, treewise, in Pacific Rim National Park. Getting to Shahowis Resort is a bit more complicated: Ask the lodge to charter a floatplane from Vancouver or Victoria (from $140 round-trip per person)–or drive to Port Albert and take an exciting 21/2-hour ride to Shahowis on the Lady Rose mail delivery boat (800/ 663-7192; $9; free for kids seven and under). Or park in Bamfield or Ucluelet for a 20- or 40-minute jaunt in the Wenstobs' speedboat.
Common Loaf Bake Shop 180 First St., Tofino; 250/725-3915; lunch for four $16. Hippies and whole foods are the staples here. Kids love the cheese buns–warm rolls shaped like hot-dog buns, stuffed with melted cheddar–and the "seven layers to hell" brownies.
West Coast Crab Bar 601 Campbell St., Tofino; 250/725-3733; dinner for four $40. Get a crab fix at this local favorite, where marine-themed tchotchkes hang on every wall and even the ceiling.
Schooner on Second 331 Campbell St., Tofino; 250/725-3444; dinner for four $58. Come early–before seven–to check out the real schooner anchored in the bar area, and to nab a table–the surf-and-turf menu packs the house every night.
Tofino Sea Kayaking Co. 320 Main St., Tofino; 250/725-4222; 21/2-hour trips start at $28 for adults or kids, six hours at $51 for adults and $46 for kids (minimum age six). Watch for starfish, anemones, and sea cucumbers on a gentle 21/2-hour paddle through the intertidal zone around Tofino, or take a six-hour excursion up Lemmens Inlet, which separates two big mountains on Meares Island (home to the Ahouset First Nations people), in Clayoquot Sound.
Sea Trek Tours & Expeditions 441B Campbell St., Tofino; 800/811-9155 or 250/725-4412; two-hour whale-watching trips from $37 for adults, $28 for kids 6Ð12, $19 for kids 2Ð5. Go on a whale safari or take a glass-bottom-boat ride to Meares Island. If you're lucky you'll see harbor seals, tufted puffins, and river otters along the way. Another trip takes you to geothermal hot springs, where you can get a steamy shower under cascades, then dip into one of several swimming holes cooled by ocean waves.
TWO ESSENTIAL SIGHTS
Pacific Rim National Park 250/726-4212. Explore the park's broad beaches and rain forests. The Shorepine Bog Trail is a 30-minute walk through the aptly nicknamed "weird woods," where centuries-old shore pines look like five-foot-tall broccoli stalks.
Tofino Botanical Gardens 1084 Pacific Rim Hwy.; 250/725-1237. The Children's Garden path has countless wonders: lifelike carved wooden animals–a black bear clinging to a tree, a cougar set to pounce–and kid-sized gates and passageways guaranteed to keep out the grown-ups. There's also a Japanese garden, a berry patch, and a frog pond.
EVERYBODY'S SURFING NOW
Surfing is the fastest-growing sport in the area, and it's no wonder, with the coast's chest-high swells. Two surfing schools teach families (or individuals) the finer points of catching a ride: Inner Rhythm Surf Camp (2490 Pacific Rim Hwy., about two miles north of Ucluelet; 250/726-2211; from $44 per person for a three-hour lesson, including all gear) covers the basics of beach safety, paddling, and wave etiquette, and aims to get beginners from their bellies to their feet. Surf Sister Surf School (Long Beach, in Pacific Rim National Park, 10 minutes from Tofino; 877/724-7873; from $124 per person for two-day weekend clinics, including equipment but no meals) is for women and girls (though private lessons are offered for the boys in the family), with beginners' clinics, teen camps (both day and overnight), and weeklong day camps for mother-daughter combos. Experienced hotdoggers can get outfitted at Live to Surf (1180 Pacific Rim Hwy., Tofino; 250/725-4464) and then head straight for the waves.