At the edge of an island on the edge of a continent, sits the ruggedly beautiful surf town of Tofino, B.C., Canada. One of Vancouver Island’s gems, Tofino had been on my “must do” list for years. Luckily I live in B.C., so it was convenient to visit and combine our stay with other stops in the province. My “Tofino must dos” cover not only what to do, but also where to stay and eat, and how to maximize your time, whether you’re travelling with or without kids.
You can get to Tofino fairly easily from Vancouver, by taking a 1.5 hour ferry to Nanaimo then driving 2.5 hours from there. Aside from Tofino’s stunning visual setting, this small coastal town checks all the boxes for great amenities. The “au naturel” locals seemed very proud to live there – for good reason.
Cohen and Vayla were six and four when we went in August 2018. They were able to do nearly everything we wanted to do. But while we love our kids like the locals love their waves, you may want to get a babysitter once or twice for an adventure activity or nice dinner. Most hotels can provide one and ours were great.
So here are my Tofino must-dos, in no particular order…
Stay in a beachfront hotel or B&B
Tofino’s beaches are one of its biggest draws. Whether you want to surf or sit on the beach drinking Coronas all day, it’s extra convenient to be staying right on one of Tofino’s long, rugged, Canada-esque beaches. We stayed at Pacific Sands Beach Resort, which I highly recommend.
Situated on Cox Beach Bay, Pacific Sands ticked most of the boxes for ideal family accommodations. The all-suite, all Oceanview rooms have kitchens and comfy beds. There was free coffee and hot chocolate all day, an awesome selection of movies to borrow (with free popcorn!), a fire pit with S’more roasting each night, kids’ camps in July and August, bikes for rent in all sizes (including Chariot attachments to pull young children), and a Surfside Grill with delicious fish tacos.
Two other hotels I was interested in with rave reviews were the Crystal Cove Beach Resort and the iconic Wickaninnish Inn. Both were fully booked when I got around to researching four months prior to our trip, so book far in advance. If money is not a concern, the Wickaninnish is the way to go. There are also many beautiful B&Bs in the area – Chesterman Beach has some of the best. BriMar Bed & Breakfast was a top pick, but was also fully booked.
Enjoy the multiple gorgeous beaches
Chesterman Beach, Mackenzie Beach, Cox Beach Bay, Wickaninnish Beach, Long Beach… the list goes on. Travellers come to surf, stand up paddle board (SUP), surf-SUP (yes, it’s a thing), beachcomb, hike, walk, swim, frolic and play at the rugged West Coast beaches of the Clayoquot Sound.
We rode our bikes, walked, and went for runs on the beach. We felt the frigidity of the cold waters seeping through our wetsuits. We searched for sea creatures, crossing paths with anemones, crabs, and starfish. We sat in our beach chairs in the sun drinking Hey Y’alls while our kids played in the sand. We hiked trails overlooking the beaches, and watched brilliant sunsets over them.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to hang out at ALL the beaches. But we loved Cox Beach Bay and Chesterman Beach. Cox Bay has the funky anemones and great surf. Chesterman has a sandbar that leads to an island when the tide is out – perfect for walking and searching for crabs and starfish. It also has calm waves for swimming and practicing surfing or SUP.
Surf or Stand Up Paddleboard
Anyone who’s familiar with Tofino knows it’s a surf town. But there are other ways to experience that nice cold water that reminds you just how alive you are every time you submerge. I highly recommend trying out a surf lesson or for something less intense, a stand up paddleboard (SUP) lesson. If falling into cold water on repeat isn’t your cup of tea (it’s actually not bad with a wetsuit), getting out on a kayak would be perfect.
Nick and I had both surfed (well, more like tried for me) in other countries and to be honest, it’s not my fave. Mainly because it’s hard and my wimpy arms are too weak. But I love.love.love. being on or in the ocean. And stand up paddle boarding (SUP) is great, but I wanted to try something new.
So we booked a SUP surf lesson.
Yes, attempting to surf on a stand-up paddle board. We booked with Tofino Paddle Surf, lined up a babysitter, and headed to Chesterman beach with a group of four beginner SUP surfers and a ridiculously good-looking Tofino-cool instructor. Unshaven.
I was a bit naive in thinking it wouldn’t be that hard. It wasn’t impossible, but I just couldn’t catch a wave. After covering the fundamentals, safety, paddling, and technique, out we went into what I would call “medium-sized” waves with our boards (high enough to almost knock you over as you’re walking through them). The next part of the lesson was getting used to stand up paddling on more volatile waters than the calm bays of Hawaii or the flat Okanagan Lake where I live.
So by the time I was ready to catch waves, I had limited time and my wimpy arms failed me again. “Paddle deeper and harder!” yelled hot teacher. Um, OK, whatever you want. But alas, I did not ride a wave in, while my superstar hubby was riding waves in left, right, and centre. WTF? I guess he’s stronger and more talented than me (and also looks really good in a wetsuit).
Even though I didn’t ride a wave like I thought I would, I still loved every moment, because I was on the ocean, in nature, getting exercise, and challenging myself to try something new. Plus I got to (attempt to) SUP surf with two hot babes, so I consider it a success.
Hot Springs Cove and wildlife watching by boat or seaplane
This is a definite Tofino must do if you like adventure and aren’t on a budget. I grouped the amazing and natural Hot Springs Cove in Maquinna Provincial Park and wildlife watching together as we did them on the same excursion, but you can book them separately. We booked with Ocean Outfitters, who took us on an unforgettable boat trip through Clayoquot Sound.
The boat ride to Maquinna Provincial Park was 1.5 hours. The water was a bit rough, but the boat was covered and no one got seasick. We spotted eagles perched high on trees and sea otters frolicking, popping in and out of the water. We opted to take the “hearty” way home (the outside passage with more volatile waters) to search for whales. Us four wildlife enthusiasts geeked out as we spotted several gray whales popping in and out of the water, whale tail and all. You’ll also have a chance of spotting humpback or orca whales, black bears, dolphins, and sea lions.
Upon arrival, we took a mystical two kilometre walk through the rainforest on a boardwalk to reach the hot springs. Our six-year-old easily did this and our four-year-old only needed to be carried a bit on the way in, but walked the whole way back.
The hot springs are natural hot pools surrounded by rock walls and waterfalls right next to the ocean. It was bit crowded due to the pools being small, but we wiggled our way around, testing out each pool from hottest to coolest. Cohen won’t even go in hot tubs, so he enjoyed the pool next to the ocean, with the cold water lapping in to cool it down. Us girls soaked in the hottest of the hot. We ate lunch and explored (Cohen loved searching for crabs, but Vayla didn’t “ever want to see one again!!!”)
Sample fabulous restaurants
Our second babysitter allowed us to have a long and relaxing dinner at the Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn. Perfectly crafted culinary delights paired flawlessly with sommelier recommended wine, and the wonderful service complemented the even better view. It was one of the best dining experiences we’ve probably ever had. The Pointe is perched overlooking Chesterman Beach, with floor to ceiling windows. You won’t regret the halibut.
Another restaurant that impressed us was Shelter, on the main road as you come into town. It had a contemporary and trendy vibe, a great patio with heaters, and excellent food. We heard Wolf in the Fog was also good, but didn’t make it there.
As mentioned, the Surfside Grill at Pacific Sands was great, but Tacofino is a non-negotiable Tofino must do. This taco truck makes such epic tacos that it’s lined up daily. Many people told us we had to go there, and it didn’t fail to deliver. The crispy cod tacos and seared tuna tacos were probably the best fish tacos we’ve ever had!
Hiking, biking or other outdoor activities
Another Tofino must do is to get your heart pumping in the beautiful surroundings. Our hotel had bike rentals so we rode them on the beach and along the smooth path that runs parallel to the main highway coming into Tofino. We rode to the shopping area where Tacofino is – a six kilometre round trip – that our six-year-old easily did while our four-year-old was pulled behind Nick.
If you’re a runner – get out in the morning for a beach jog before it gets busy. The morning I went it was cool with a nice fog, and the sand was hard-packed and easy to run on. There was hardly a soul on the beach yet. The fresh west coast air and exercise de-stressed any annoyances I had from being with my family 24/7.
There are some great board walks between the beaches for walks and hikes. One we liked was the walk to Pettinger Point, which was fantastic to watch the sunset from. The boardwalk starts on the north end of Cox Bay. Follow the signs and you’ll reach the top to see the point that separates Cox Bay and Chesterman Beach. You could even take a bottle of wine or champagne up there for sunset (why we didn’t think of this)?!
The Ucluelet Aquarium is 45 minutes away from Tofino, but worth the drive if you have kids. Ucluelet is Tofino’s quieter sister, with less tourists and amenities. The draw for us was the catch and release Ucluelet Aquarium, housing all local marine creatures. We went on our way out of town, as you have to drive partway there to get to the main highway regardless.
The aquarium is fairly small, but houses a surprisingly large number of different sea dwellers. Many of which you’ll have likely never seen, let alone heard of. Hoping to see feather duster worms or sea pens? You’ll see them here. Our favourite was the touch tanks were you could “pet” starfish, anemones and other slimy souls.
Tofino Must Dos as part of a larger trip
Enjoy Tofino must dos as part of a smaller Vancouver and Vancouver Island vacation, or plan an epic Alberta and B.C. road trip. This might include visiting Calgary, the beautiful towns of the Canadian Rocky Mountains (Canmore, Banff, Lake Louise, or Jasper), a stop in the Okanagan Valley, a few days in Vancouver, and a week or more experiencing Victoria, Tofino and other highlights of Vancouver Island.
Highlights of this trip would include the rocky mountains and Canada’s most beautiful lakes (Moraine Lake is breathtaking), wine tasting and enjoying the lakes and beaches in the Okanagan Valley, visiting Stanley Park and the Vancouver Aquarium, and outdoor activities such as surfing, whale watching or maybe even hiking the beautiful West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island. I’ve spent considerable time in each of the above (including living in Jasper, Calgary, and the Okanagan Valley) and can promise this trip will not disappoint!
Have you checked out my Top 10 Exhilarating YOLO Travel Experiences yet?