Photo by Diana Ballon.
If I had three words to describe Vancouver Island, they would be green, rugged and wild. The island is surrounded by ocean, its old growth forests are populated with 800-year-old trees, and its people seem to have benefitted by being in a lush setting where natural beauty is still privileged over development.
Of course, I’m not the first one to be allured by the stunning beauty of this Pacific island off the west coast of B.C.’s mainland: Travel + Leisure named it the #1 Island in Continental U.S. & Canada.
We took a non-stop flight from Toronto to Victoria, B.C.’s capital city on the south part of the island, and then rented a car to drive almost five more hours to Tofino on the west side of the island.
With stops at Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Provincial Park and Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park mid-way on our journey, we were able to comfortably break up the trip and take our first steps to explore the forest we were winding through.
The drive is stunning. You gradually ascend along single and double lane roads amidst dense evergreen forest, with giant Douglas fir, cedar and arbutus trees. For the last couple of hours, between Port Alberni and Tofino, Highway 4 is windy, and the speed limit slows to as little as 30 kilometres per hour. At times, you stare out at a wall of trees in the near distance; other times catching sight of the ocean. Despite its beauty, it can also induce car sickness. Keep a bag handy for passengers with queasy stomachs.
We spent our first two nights at Long Beach Lodge. Its 21 two-bedroom cottages (as well as its rooms and suites), are ideal for families. They offer reasonably priced kids’ meals in its Great Room and – in summer – at their more casual SandBar Bistro next to the beach. With floor-to-ceiling windows, the lodge’s Great Room is a perfect place to hang out and watch the surfers, have a meal or read a book. Although the food in the restaurant is high end, the vibe isn’t: kids will be shown to a drawer of toys that can distract them while Mom and Dad indulge in a champagne cocktail.
Although the ocean water here is too cold for swimming without a wetsuit, Cox Bay, where the hotel is located, has a stunning stretch of beach where the kids (and maybe you too) will want to stretch out your arms and simply run: it’s just sand and water and sky.
While in Tofino, go whale watching, kayaking, rent bikes or paddleboards, try surfing or take a hike in the Pacific Rim National Park. If that’s a bit too intense for your crew, go for a leisurely hike on the Wild Pacific Trail in neighbouring Ucluelet (referred to affectionately as Ukee). Here you can choose between three different loops that take between 15 to 60 minutes – with large rocks to climb, rugged coastline and arresting ocean views. It’s an outdoor playground.
Take time also to explore the town of Tofino. Amongst the surfing gear stores and adventure tour operators are some great little restaurants and cafés: The Rhino is a good local spot in town for a breakfast bagel, and TacoFino Food Truck serves up a mean fish taco.
The Tigh-Na-Mara resort (House by the Sea in Gaelic) has 192 log units that range from one and two-bedroom rustic cottages to contemporary rustic studio and one-bedroom suites overlooking the water. The place isn’t about luxury – there are no elevators, granite tabletops or room service – but it is about having a relaxing vacation with the kids. With more than 20 organized activities to choose from (a total of 96 hours per week) Tigh-Na-Mara is reputed to have the most extensive recreation program on the island. Some activities are geared for kids, others for teens and still others for the whole family to enjoy together. Certain ones cost extra, such as tie-dye T-shirt making and building a birdhouse, while others, such as like listening to campfire songs by the water, are free. There’s also babysitting ($15/hour), and dinner and movie night for the kids.
The three-kilometre beach at the base of the resort is protected by the Strait of Georgia, with a tide that goes out for over a kilometre, and ocean swimming water that is reputed to be the warmest in Canada. Hiking and biking also abound at Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park on one side of the resort and Top Bridge Regional Park across the highway on the resort’s other side.
Tigh-Na-Mara’s Cedars Restaurant and Lounge serves up rustic contemporary fare, and it’s affordable. Kids under 12 eat for free when accompanied by an adult until 6 p.m. Or, you can shop for groceries within five minutes of the resort and eat in, if you’re in a cottage. Or ensconce kids in activities, and head to their Grotto Spa.
This was a surprise. Hidden within this laid back family resort, it was last year rated the top spa in Canada by Spas of America. The space is designed around its 2,500 square foot mineral pool and waterfall, with rock walls replicating a cave next to the ocean. It’s cool, fun, private and detoxifying. For $40, you can get morning or afternoon access to its mineral pool and relaxation area, or get a 60-minute massage or other treatment and take the pools for free. The spa’s Treetop Tapas & Grill restaurant offers “Endless tapas” ($57.50 per person), but book ahead!
Raining? This isn’t impossible when you’re in B.C. While we preferred to light a fire, order a picnic basket ($45), and eat our charcuterie and cheese on a red-and-white checked tablecloth in our cottage, the other option is letting the kids let off some steam in the town of Parksville. Despite having a large retirement community, Parksville has tons of recreation for kids: a sandy playground and free waterpark in the Parksville Community Park, mini golf, bumper boats and Nascar racetrack. And in summer, they have a five-week beach festival with a huge sand sculpting competition.
This ferry gateway to Gabriola Island and Vancouver is also the site of a regional airport. If you are passing through, and have a craving for something sweet, try their self-guided Nanaimo bar trail. Download a list of 34 options through Tourism Nanaimo or pick one up at the Visitor Centre or any of the participating locations.
For more information about Vancouver Island, visit www.hellobc.com/vancouver-island.aspx