Surfing in Canada? Oh, yes. Canadian travel writer Kristin Kent discovers not only miles of untamed wilderness on Vancouver Island’s wild west coast, but a growing surfing scene among the orca-inhabited ice-cold waters.
“Is this right?” I ask my husband Dave. “This can’t be the route.”
The map threatens to zigzag us from sea to mountain to another sea, up another mountain, and back down to sea again. My husband, having once lived on-island, smirks, and says: “You just wait.”
The map is dead-on—and it is glorious. During our one-week road trip, we’ll traverse potholed mountain passes and weathered logging roads in this part of British Columbia. We’ll trek old growth rainforest and national parks where salmon spawn and bears roam free. This is where the Pacific Ocean first plows into land, where eagles and osprey fly overheard as surfers delight in the surging swells.
Eco-tourism is a huge draw for visitors like me, but thanks to a motley crew of cold-water surf pioneers—the Okes family in Port Renfrew and the Bruhwilers in Tofino—surfing has ballooned in popularity, and there’s good reason.
Massive storms brewing in the Pacific Northwest regularly pummel the area, creating incessant rain, punishing winds, and one of the most wave-rich coastlines on the planet.
It’s largely uninhabited until the summer months, when vacationers come in droves. I prefer traveling during shoulder season, when the weather can turn on a dime and I can bank on an empty beach.
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Our first stop is Port Renfrew, Canada’s tall tree capital. But first, we stock up in Victoria, as we’re told that, aside from Shirley Delicious, a cuter-than-cute café in the tiny town of Sooke, there are few supplies along the way. And, we soon find out, there’s also zero cell reception.
Then just past Jordan River, a local surf spot, is a sight I didn’t expect to see.
The next morning, we wake to the sound of the ocean crashing against our cabin. It’s music to your ears. Do yourself a favor and stay at Wild Renfrew for this very reason. It’s that good.
We make the five-hour drive to Tofino, up winding mountain passes and rock faces, past rivers and glorious lakes. Despite the overwhelming number of places to stop along the way, such as Horne Lake Caves and Cathedral Grove, we make the trek in one fell swoop.
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Tofino is in the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. People come for whale-watching, bear-watching, bird-watching … heck, they even come for the storm-watching.
First-time visitors often have a tough time describing Tofino. Locals tell me the word ‘magic’ is often thrown in the mix. I’d also throw in ‘spiritual’, as the untamed landscape had a profound effect on me.
It’s an enterprising town with a growing arts scene and, for a place home to just 2,000 people, has a surprising number of innovative restaurants. Wolf in The Fog—known for serving lesser-known seafood such as gooseneck barnacles—was named Canada’s best new restaurant in 2014.
The town is also considered a mecca for surfing in Canada, and veteran surf champions like Peter Devries and Olympic 2020 hopefuls like Matea Olin live here. Kat Leslie is a surf instructor with Surf Sisters, conveniently based at the Pacific Sands Beach Resort, one of a handful of accommodations that offer front-row seats to nature’s greatest waterpark. As she puts on her neoprene wetsuit—aka the Canadian bikini—she tells me Tofino is known for a friendly line-up, until you disregard surf etiquette.
“One person per wave!” she says.
Andy Herridge once taught in Tofino, but has since opened his own surf school, Wick’d Surf Camps, in the lesser-developed but equally charming town of Ucluelet, a 30-minute drive away. He tells me he came here for the surf, but stayed for the community.
Colorful characters live here. Take ‘Oyster Jim,’ a man who envisioned an expansive hiking trail adjacent to the Pacific Rim National Park, where you’ll find the town’s best surf. He turned his dream into reality by building the Wild Pacific Trail.
The wild west coast has lived up to reputation; it feels like the edge of the earth here. And either way, it’s the end of the road for this particular adventure.