Activities

Family-friendly tips for visiting Tofino

The misty mountains of Tofino, British Columbia, cast a spell over a band of city dwellers.

Photo: Scott Ballem

Behind us, the cutest beehive-shaped cabins you ever did see at Ocean Village Resort in Tofino, BC.

There’s only one road into Tofino, which forces you to slow down. And I mean that in every sense. Trading our home on a busy downtown street for a cabin on the beach, it felt like someone hit the slow-mo button on life. I’m not even going to try to sidestep all the West Coast clichés: During our five days in this sweet seaside town, my husband, Scott, and I remembered what it felt like to really relax; our seven-year-old, Beatrice, became obsessed with the mystic properties of crystals and four-year-old Orson transferred his adoration for construction workers to surfers.

Not to sound like a beanie-headed hippie, but our time in Tofino changed us. It was waking up to mountains that seemed to rise out of the sea, watching the kids run to the beach in their PJs before breakfast, and the sand dollars they treated like ancient dinosaur fossils. It was falling asleep to the sound of waves and the peace that wrapped around us like the dense Tofino fog. We were in awe the whole time. Fuzzy feelings aside, we had a phenomenal time. Here are the details.

Tofino

Layover
It’s a journey—especially if you’re coming from the east coast—which includes a ferry to Nanaimo and then a three-hour drive to Tofino. To break it up, we eased into West Coast life with two nights at Vancouver’s Times Square Suites. Our cozy one-bedroom-plus-den had a kitchen (we grabbed eggs, yogurt and cereal from the store a block away), a pullout couch for the kids (which thrilled them) and in-suite laundry, which is a blessing because, well, kids. We didn’t spend much time inside though. Instead, we explored nearby Stanley Park, with its woods, beaches, cool splash pad and the sprawling Vancouver Aquarium, where the kids got to feed the sea otters their favourite snack, shrimp frozen in ice cubes! Another must-do: the dreamy and delicious Granville Island Public Market.

Photo: Todd Byrnes

Breathtaking Tofino by air. Photo: Todd Byrnes

Eat
It’s a good thing our first meal happened at Wolf in the Fog, because we had time to go back. The massive mains are perfect for families. We shared the Block Party: fried chicken, barbecued ribs, pulled pork, cornbread and greens. Moving on to tacos, Tacofino is a BC institution, with seven spots on the coast. In Tofino, the famous goods are doled out of a truck to waiting crowds. We braved the lineups three times, but the most memorable meal was the one we ate in our fogged-up car during a downpour. For treats, we loved Chocolate Tofino’s crazy array of handmade chocolates and gelato, starring local honey, lavender and blackberries.

Sleep
It’s hard to improve on a beachfront cabin, but shape it like a beehive and you have the coziest, most charming hut around. Ocean Village Resort on MacKenzie Beach is ideal for families. Cottages have tidy kitchenettes and sliding doors that open onto the sand; there are firepits and barbecues, laundry and an indoor heated saltwater pool. We truly would have never left if our next stop wasn’t the plush Pacific Sands Beach Resort. Our favourite thing about it (besides our two-level beach house, on-site Surf Shack for rentals and lessons, free kids’ camp and nightly s’mores roasts) was front-row seats for the surf show on Cox Bay. We watched them like a television show from our big warm bed.

Photo: Lauren Ferranti-Ballem

My little superhero family, pre-paddle boarding experience.

Play
The rainforest islands in Clayoquot Sound, which runs along the west coast, are inhabited only by black bears and other wildlife. When the tide rolls out, the bears lumber down to the shore in search of crabs and clams. The bear-watching boat tour with Jamie’s Whaling Station and Adventure Centres cruises just close enough to watch the buffet unfold. My dream of becoming a family of beach-bum surfers was born the day we pulled on wetsuits at Tofino Paddle Surf (they even had the cutest, tiniest version for Orson). I’m too much of a scaredy-cat for swells, so this was upright paddling on a surfboard. To my surprise, I got up (and stayed up!) on the first try. Once Scott and I were comfortable, the kids each took a seat at the front of one of our boards. It’s hard work, trying not to fall into the inky water from a standing position, but we rocked it (the fear of flipping our kids overboard was a great motivator). More must-dos: explore the tide pools, trail walk in Pacific Rim National Park and wonder at the carvings at Roy Henry Vickers’ Eagle Aerie Gallery.

donut

Doughnut stop at Habour Quay in Port Alberni: delicious fried dough with a moody view.

Pit stops
The long and winding road into Tofino has plenty of wonderful reasons to pull over. Make sure to hit these.

Coombs Old Country Market
A quaint, well-curated store with local foods and gifts. And, oh yeah, goats live on its green roof.

Cathedral Grove
Worship the soaring ancient Douglas firs (the oldest are 800 years old), and breathe in the intoxicating smell.

Harbour Quay, Port Alberni
A beautiful waterfront park, steps away from the Donut Shop—totally kitschy and delicious.

Sutton Pass
You can’t actually stop on this single-lane road that’s at an altitude of 240 metres, but be sure to take in the stunning view.

4 things to know before you go
Here are a few of the finer practical points of travelling the coast with kids: 
1.
Book your ferry and be on time If you’re driving from the BC mainland, you first need to ride BC Ferries to Vancouver Island. Ferries fill up fast, so it’s very important to not only book your spot in advance but also check in at least 30 minutes before departure. Arrive late and you’ll lose your reservation and have to wait hours for the next ferry (or the ferry after that—we learned this the hard way on our trip back).

2. Pack layers Even in late June to early July, I was surprised by how cool it got in the mornings and evenings. (It did, however, give me an excuse to purchase a gorgeous handmade wool hat.)

3. Cook crab If your place in Tofino has its own kitchen, you must cook your own super-fresh crab. No joke, you’ll find the Crab Lady on Campbell Street, the main drag, across from the Gas N Go. Look for her hand-painted sign. 

4. Every month brings different festivals to this coastal town—art, oysters, surfing and whale celebrations, to name a few. Visit tourismtofino.com for more.

Some of the writer’s costs were covered by Tourism Tofino and Destination BC.

A version of this article appeared in our April 2016 issue with the headline “Go West,” pp. 20-1.

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