From my Adirondack chair, I watched the sun rise over the pine trees lining a Tofino beach. A surfer in a wet suit standing in the center of the half-mile-long, sandy expanse surveyed the waves building in the gentle orange light of early morning. The offshore breeze spun the First Nations-inspired mobile sculpture beside me on the viewing area of the Wickaninnish Inn. There was just enough time for me to wander the oceanfront to explore rocky tidal pools and curious driftwood collections before breakfast began.
So began another day on Vancouver Island, British Columbia, where visitors can explore the unique mix of nature, luxury and native culture that defines this increasingly popular destination, with Tofino just a 45-minute floatplane ride away from Vancouver.
A walk on the wild side
Standing on top of a bluff 30 feet above a lighthouse and the calm ocean, our guide casually mentioned: "In winter, the waves will sometimes come crashing down right where we're standing."
It seems impossible, but there's a reason they call it the Wild Pacific Trail. Outside of the village of Ucluelet, this expanding trail system offers visitors a chance to stroll through peaceful forests with scenic views in most seasons or to do some careful "storm-watching" in the wilder winter months.
Vancouver Island, at about 290 miles long and 60 miles wide, provides a huge variety of options for outdoor adventures that can be as wild or as peaceful as a visitor chooses. Its 7,200-foot-tall, glacier-topped central mountains offer rugged rock climbing and hiking trails, winter storms bring in huge waves for extreme surfers, and wild tides create challenges for the most advanced kayakers.
But the same island offers the calm of Cathedral Grove, where I walked for all of a minute to reach a lichen-covered, sound-absorbing oasis of towering trees just steps from the central highway. In Tofino's protected bay, I joined friends to paddle a native canoe with T'ashii Paddle School, floating between islands to bask in sunshine and listen to our First Nations guide tell traditional stories and corny jokes.
Vancouver Island's true wild side, complete with grizzly bears and killer whales, can best be seen on a tour with Homalco Wildlife. In an afternoon at Bute Inlet, I watched more than a dozen grizzlies in their native environment, snatching salmon out of the river, with cute cubs battling for scraps and bald eagles soaring above as I stood safely protected on raised viewing platforms. This signature experience continued on the boat back to the main island as I watched pods of killer whales, the orca surfacing and slapping their tails as if to reclaim the waters for their own.
Photo Credit: Chris Pouget
The property is a wedding go-to destination for couples who are as passionate for the outdoors as they are for each other.
A feast for the senses
"Ping!" The small bell's chime means it's time for my group to share our feelings while "forest bathing" in the Heritage Forest near Vancouver Island's Qualicum Beach. Our certified guide asks to describe the sound of the leaves, the smell of the breeze, the feel of the forest floor and what it all means to us. While the Japanese-inspired, nature-immersion experience may not be for everyone, it's a fine symbol for the feast for the senses that is Vancouver Island.
The island provides scenic views of forests, ocean, mountains and sunrises and sunsets that check all the boxes for an Instagram-worthy nature destination. But the sights don't end there: Vancouver Island's arts scene, with paintings, sculptures and carvings from indigenous artists and craftspeople, is a striking reminder of the island's heritage, not to mention an opportunity to take home a piece of the experience for yourself. Public art and galleries large and small dot the island towns. I found Tofino's Roy Henry Vickers Gallery to be among the most noteworthy for his career-spanning collection of colorful prints, tribal masks and woodcarvings.
As far as a feast for the senses goes, the scenery is nice, but a taste of Vancouver Island's literal feasts of local and regional food and drink alone make it worth a visit. At the Wickaninnish Inn, the taste of fresh fish paired with British Columbia wines in its Pointe Restaurant overlooking the Pacific is practically a sensory overload.
The award-winning former chefs at "the Wick" have branched out to start Tofino's Wolf and Fog, named Best New Restaurant of 2014 by Air Canada's EnRoute magazine, and most recently, Pluvio in Ucluelet ranked in the magazine's top 5 new restaurants in Canada for 2019. I was able to join the Pluvio chefs to forage for greens near the coast, giving my meal that extra dose of authenticity. On my final night on the island I splurged with a 17-dish Endless Tapas feast at the Treetop Tapas restaurant at the Tigh‐Na‐Mara Spa Resort, with local salmon, chowder and scallops, along with duck, bison and British Columbia chicken, just for starters. Afterward, stuffed like a grizzly in late fall, I was ready to hibernate until spring and begin the whole experience again with a vigorous hike.
Rates begin at about $290 per night; see www.wickinn.com. For more on Vancouver Island, visit https://vancouverisland .travel.