Surfing & Hot Springs In Tofino On Vancouver Island [PART 2]

Vancouver Island Coastline

Exploring Vancouver Island’s West Coast

Vancouver Island, Canada

The second half of my Vancouver Island road trip took me to the island’s West coast, and the fun little hipster surf town of Tofino. It’s a lush wilderness outpost on the edge of the sea.

I was on a self-drive road trip with Canada By Design — their Coastal Cultural Explorer Tour of Vancouver Island.

Which means I was following a basic itinerary, while my accommodation, a rental car, and some activities were included in the price.

This 8-day journey across Canada’s Vancouver Island was mixed with adventure, a taste of First Nation’s culture, and dramatic Pacific Northwest scenery.

Yet I was on my own, taking my time to enjoy this road trip at my own pace.

Driving To Tofino

For the first half of the journey, I’d explored parts of Vancouver Island’s East coast. Today’s drive was a long one (about 6 hours) which took me across the island from Telegraph Cove to Tofino over the stunning Pacific Rim Highway.

I managed to drop into some native art galleries, hiked an ancient old-growth rainforest, and enjoyed beautiful mountain scenery and lakes along the way.

First Nations Longhouse

K’ómoks Longhouse Mural

iHos Gallery Vancouver Island

iHos Gallery in Courtenay

First Nations Art Galleries

During this road trip around Vancouver Island, I’m constantly reminded of the deep history of the landscape, first populated by the peoples of the First Nations around 7,000 years ago.

Driving into Courtenay, I stumble upon a K’ómoks native longhouse, decorated with a colorful mural featuring an eagle & whale. These cedar buildings were often shared by extended First Nations families, everyone participating in daily tasks like preparing food, building canoes, etc.

At I-Hos Gallery, local people express their identity through art. This gallery, with its masks, wood carvings, intricate prints and textiles, is designed to tell stories as much as please the senses.

Stories of origins, about their technological and spiritual relationship with the natural world, about how they lived, how they died, and how they endured to become modern descendants of First Nations cultures.

Vancouver Island Goats on a Roof

Goats?! On a Roof?

Coombs Vancouver Island Goats

Coombs Old Country Market

Goats On A Roof!

My eyes started to play tricks as I entered the town of Coombs. What first looked like a green hill with goats appeared to become the roof of a long, wood-pannelled building.

I found them. Vancouver Island’s famous “Goats On The Roof!”

In the 1950s, Kristian Graaten and his wife, Solveig, left Norway and emigrated to British Columbia.

When they decided to build a market in the mid-70s, Kris used the Norwegian tradition of lining roofs with grass/sod. It may sound eccentric, but this roof traps the warmth of the building, reducing heating bills up to 25%.

It’s also soundproof, easy to maintain, and the perfect place to keep your pet goats! Which has turned into a huge tourist attraction for his roadside Coombs Old Country Market, a fun location to stop for lunch.

Cathedral Grove Vancouver Island

Yes, I’m a Tree Hugger

Vancouver Island MacMillan Park

MacMillan Provincial Park

Hiking Cathedral Grove

A twenty-minute drive west, and things got even more vertical. If you’ve never seen a majestic Douglas Fir, your first sight can be overwhelming.

Imagine the average fir tree, the kind you’d hang your Christmas ornaments on. Now double it in size. Now double it again. Maybe a third time. Now you’re getting close – but maybe not close enough, since a fully-grown Douglas fir can reach 225 ft / 75 m into the sky!

At the heart of MacMillan Provincial Park stands Cathedral Grove, home of the densest collection of these trees. It’s an opportunity to stretch your arms around their trunks, failing to make it even halfway (the widest has a circumference of 27 ft / 9 m).

When you stand there in the quiet, gazing up towards the distant canopy where the treetops meet the sunlight, it feels unchanging, like time itself has stopped to listen. Some of these trees are 800 years old.

Tofino on Vancouver Island

Ice House Oyster Bar in Tofino

Tofino Town Vancouver Island

Beware of Grandma… She Bites!

Welcome To Tofino

Making it across the width of Vancouver Island, I finally arrive to the quirky Pacific coastal town of Tofino. A place I’ve heard so much about.

Tofino is the gateway to Vancouver Island’s wildest and most spectacular scenery, and in the summer, it’s an enormously popular destination for visitors, greatly multiplying its small local population of 2,000.

Pacific Rim National Park is right next door, a 500-kilometer expanse of rainforest trails, rugged wave-battered coastlines and pristine beaches.

However it’s best to visit in the summer months, as winter conditions can get a little fierce (it’s a haven for storm-watchers in the winter).

Tofino is ideal for hiking, surfing, hanging out at the beach, wildlife viewing, or just strolling down boardwalk paths through pacific northwest temperate rainforests.

Vancouver Island Whale Watching

Pod of Orca Whales

Black Bear Tofino

Black Bear Feeding On Crabs

Hot Springs Vancouver Island

Hot Springs Cove

Whale Watching & Hot Springs

You can’t visit Tofino and not go whale watching! But I’ll give you a tip, rather than take a dedicated whale watching trip, join the Hot Springs Cove Tour with Remote Passages.

Because there’s a very good chance you’ll see whales (and other wildlife) on your way to the hot springs. Like I did. It’s like two tours in one.

As part of the Maquinna Marine Provincial Park, Hot Springs Cove gets its name from the nearby Ramsay hot springs (it hits up to 50 C / 110 F in places), which are only accessible by boat or float-plane.

The trip had us speeding through the waves in an inflatable zodiac, stopping to watch playful Orcas (don’t call them killer whales!), large sea lions, sea otters, and even a black bear fishing for crabs on the coastline.

After the boat ride, it was time to relax by soaking in these steaming-hot natural pools & waterfalls while enjoying an epic view.

Surfing in Tofino

Long Beach Surf Shop

Vancouver Island Surfing

Surfing Chesterman Beach

Surfing Around Tofino

If you surf, or want to learn, Tofino is a good place to hit some waves. In fact they call themselves the Surf Capital of Canada. Although keep in mind this is the Pacific Northwest, and chilly 50 – 60 F water means you’ll want a wetsuit.

There are a few surf-shops in town that can outfit you with a board, wetsuit, and even a surfboard car rack. I stopped into Long Beach Surf Shop and rented a longboard for a morning surf session at Chesterman Beach.

Tofino is a surfer’s paradise – so if you’ve been following my surfing adventures, you can imagine my reaction to these miles and miles of surfable coastline, reliable beach breaks, and uncrowded waves.

There are a few good surf-spots in the area, and waves for all abilities. Long Beach is a popular spot, a 15-km stretch of undeveloped coastline that’s regarded as the park’s most photogenic.

Chesterman Beach and Cox Bay are two more. Winter usually has the better swells, and fewer tourists — but crazier weather and colder water too.

Coastal Sunset in Tofino

Colorful Tofino Sunsets

Tofino Sea Plane Trips

Take a Scenic Flight with Tofino Air

Places To Stay & Eat

As part of my Coastal Cultural Explorer Self-Drive Tour, accommodation in Tofino was included at the stunning cliffside Middle Beach Lodge.

For good food, I recommend checking out Wolf In The Fog for dinner, and Tacofino for a delicious food truck experience at lunch.

Tofino has a super fun farmer’s market every Saturday, where you can sample all kinds of good food, or pick up some locally-made artwork/crafts.

If you’re looking for a great place to watch the sunset with a beer and some fresh oysters, check out Tofino’s Ice House Oyster Bar. Thank me later. ★

Bonus Video! Vancouver Island Road Trip


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More Information

Location: Vancouver Island, Canada
Self-Drive Tour: Canada By Design
Useful Notes: With a self-drive tour your accommodation, rental car, ferry trips, and some key activities are included. You present pre-paid vouchers for these things on arrival. The rest of the trip is yours to create as you go.
Recommended Guidebook: Lonely Planet Pacific Northwest
Suggested Reading: Island Of Dreams

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Vancouver Island Road Trip. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Vancouver Island Road Trip. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about visiting Vancouver Island? Are you planning a trip? Drop me a message in the comments below!

Canada By Design

This is a post from The Expert Vagabond adventure blog.

Vancouver Island Road Trip: Whales, Waterfalls, & First Nations Culture [PART 1]

Vancouver Island Flowers

My Vancouver Island Road Trip

Vancouver Island, Canada

Just when we’re about to give up searching, a group of humpback whales pop their heads above the water, feeding on a school of fish swimming in the turbulent coastal currents. Then they dive below, flashing us glimpses of massive tails.

But the whales come later in this tale. My first impression of Vancouver Island is not whales, but trees. So many trees.

They rise in a green wall on each side of the road, or fall away to reveal incredible views of cliffs, rivers, inlets, the straits that separate it from the mainland, or the endless sweep of the Pacific to the west.

There’s no doubt about it: Vancouver Island is a natural wonderland.

I arrive to the island by ferry, just a 2 hour journey from the city of Vancouver to Nanaimo. After driving off the boat, I grab some breakfast at a coffee shop in town, and begin my 8 day Vancouver Island road trip.

Vancouver Island Driving Adventure

Canada by Design Self-Drive Tour

Vancouver Island Highway

Exploring Vancouver Island’s Wilderness

Canada By Design Self-Drive Tour

This is not your typical road trip. I took a self-drive tour with Canada By Design – specifically, their 8-day Coastal Cultural Explorer, starting and ending in Vancouver.

As you’d imagine, the itinerary takes in all the most beautiful spots on this mesmerizing, rugged stretch of coastline – but as the title suggests, it’s also designed to open your mind as well as your eyes, giving you a taste of the inhabitants’ rich, culturally fruitful relationship with this vast expanse of natural beauty, both now and in the past.

While some aspects of the trip have been planned (accommodation, rental car, and a few activities) I’m basically free to move at my own pace, and take side-excursions whenever I see something fun along the way.

Canada By Design’s local experts put together a general itinerary for me to follow along with recommendations. But there is plenty of free time to figure stuff out on my own too — and have a real adventure.

As someone who prefers independent travel over group tours, this is an ideal mix of convenience and freedom.

I don’t have to worry about the more tedious aspects of planning a trip, and can just relax and enjoy the discovery of a new travel destination.

Vancouver Island Kayaking

Sea Kayaking on Quadra Island

Vancouver Island Wildlife

Wild Deer On the Side of the Road

Lighthouse on Quadra Island

Cape Mudge Lighthouse

Exploring Quadra Island

My first stop is Quadra Island, which crumbles off Vancouver Island on the eastern side, marking the passage northwest into Johnstone Strait.

Many hundreds of years ago, long before Europeans set foot on these shores, it was called “Tsa-Kwa-Luten” – gathering place in the Kwak’wala tongue.

Based on the relics and carvings discovered in this area, it was well-named.

I spent my time wandering around the island, hiking some trails, photographing wildlife like deer and bald eagles, and rented a sea kayak with Quadra Island Kayaks to paddle along the coast.

Sea kayaking is a popular sport here – there’s tons of varied coastline to explore.

I saw seals playing off the side of my boat, and watched jellyfish float under the surface of the water. Some of the smaller islands also have colorful starfish clinging to the rocks.

Cape Mudge Vancouver Island

Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge

Totem Pole on Quadra Island

Nuyumbalees Cultural Center

Vancouver Island Bald Eagle

Bald Eagles Nesting Nearby

Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge

My home for 2 nights is Tsa-Kwa-Luten Lodge, located within a large peaceful forest on the coastline of Discovery Passage. The lodge, owned by the Laichwiltach people, is built on the site of a former First Nations village.

It’s decorated with indigenous art from the area, and surrounded by wildlife like deer, bald eagles, and seals. In the early morning at low-tide, you can find ancient petroglyphs carved into rocks on the shoreline.

A short drive away from the lodge is the Nuyumbalees Cultural Center, which displays an array of Native artifacts of cultural, artistic and historic value to the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

Potlatch masks, totem poles, ceremonial costumes, and more. The craftsmanship was incredible!

Telegraph Cove Vancouver Island

Telegraph Cove, BC

Telegraph Cove Sea Plane

Sea Plane Parked In The Cove

Wildlife & History In Telegraph Cove

Driving further North, my next stop was the tiny former lumber/canning community of Telegraph Cove. With a population of only 20, this is one small town!

However it feels like a picture postcard, nestled on the edge of a tiny bay in the middle of the Pacific North West wilderness. These days tourism is the main draw, wildlife fans visit for access to excellent whale watching, grizzly bear viewing, sea kayaking, and fishing.

In the morning I met with Mike Willie, owner of Sea Wolf Adventures, for a local whale watching & First Nations cultural experience on his inflatable zodiac speed boat.

Mike is a member of the Musgamakw Dzawada‘enuxw First Nation, and his family has lived off this land for generations.

First Nations Wooden Mask

Ceremonial Mask at U’mista Cultural Center

Vancouver Island First Nations

Mike Willie of the Musgamakw Dzawada‘enuxw

U’mista Cultural Center

Before we go looking for humpback whales, Mike takes me to Alert Bay and the U’mista Cultural Center to learn about some sad history.

In 1884, the Canadian government outlawed the most important of all ceremonies performed by Canada’s First Nations – the Potlatch – to assimilate and acculturate the country’s indigenous people.

Half a century of arrests and confiscations later, cultural treasures of the Kwakwaka’wakw remained scattered.

Today U’mista works to promote the Kwakwaka’wakw language and culture, and to preserve the heritage of the 5,500 Kwakwaka’wakw making a living in and around modern Vancouver Island.

The center sits next to a recently demolished Indian Residential School, a tragic part of Canada’s history.

Humpback Whale Tail in the Water

Humpback Whale Watching

Whale Watching Telegraph Cove

Searching For Whales With Sea Wolf Adventures

Whale Watching In The Rain

So after a somewhat depressing yet eye-opening experience learning about Canada’s indigenous First Nations history, it was time to cheer up and head out on the whale watching part of our wildlife & cultural trip.

Mike knows these waters like the back of his hand, and it wasn’t long before we came across a pod of three giant humpback whales feeding on fish along a roiling tidal current.

It was mesmerizing watching the massive animals crest the surface of the water, arching their back in the “hump” shape they’re named after, before diving into the depths with a flick of their large tail fins.

Humpbacks are about as large as a school bus, growing up to 60 feet long and weighing 40 tons!

Myra Falls Vancouver Island

Myra Falls in Strathcona Provincial Park

Strathcona Provincial Park

I had some more time to venture off my itinerary, so I decided to visit Vancouver Island’s largest provincial park, called Strathcona. The park is known for it’s many lakes, mountains, waterfalls, and glaciers.

The drive through Strathcona Provincial Park was spectacular, tons of amazing scenery to take in on the winding mountain roads. Not very busy at all, I was able to stop at a few overlooks and a waterfall called Myra Falls.

Much of the park was empty, too far for most Vancouver Island tourists to venture, but well worth the trip if you have the time! If I had more myself, I would have loved to do some overnight hikes in the area.

Road Tripping Vancouver Island

After experiencing the nature, wildlife, and culture of North Eastern Vancouver Island, it was time to drive to the opposite coast and see what the West side had to offer.

Make sure to read PART 2 of my Vancouver Island road trip, where I visit an ancient rainforest, take a dip in some natural hot-springs, catch a glimpse of orcas and bears – plus give cold-water surfing a try. ★

Bonus Video! Vancouver Island Road Trip

(Click to watch Vancouver Island BC – Road Trip on YouTube)

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Vancouver Island Road Trip. More at ExpertVagabond.com
Vancouver Island Road Trip. More at ExpertVagabond.com

Have any questions about visiting Vancouver Island? Are you planning a trip? Drop me a message in the comments below!