Canada's Coastal Enclaves: Seattle to Vancouver Island
- San Juan Island
Distance: 500 miles
Experience: Ferry-hopping to Canada's wild west coast
For years I had heard about this place. Mystical, remote, rarely visited. It was at the dead end of a 100-mile drive across a cloud-shrouded mountain range on a lost peninsula where excellent waves peel through isolated coves, near amazing restaurants, a top-notch brewery — everything you could ever want in a coastal enclave. The most unbelievable part: It's in Canada. Tofino is on the western edge of Vancouver Island, deep in a rainy evergreen forest so far away that a buddy of mine who lives in nearby Seattle says that getting there takes him longer than flying to Hawaii does.
I decided to make my journey to Tofino even longer, plotting a multiday, multimodal trip by plane, ferry, and highway. I flew from San Francisco to Seattle-Tacoma, and drove two hours north on Interstate 5 in a rented Nissan pickup.
It was one of those rare bright, blue days in Seattle, when everything seems to sparkle in the sunshine after being washed clean by rain. At the ferry terminal in Anacortes, I pulled into the ferry's lower level, where I felt a sudden shudder of calm. All I had to do was set the parking brake, climb to the foredeck, and stand in windy sunshine as that big ship carried me and my wheels to a world of bald eagles, killer whales, sea otters, and salmon.
A little more than an hour later, the ferry pulled into Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. I drove off the ship and stopped for dinner at the Cask & Schooner. Three young men were getting drunk inside. I ordered a pint of blond ale and a big poutine — thick-cut fries under gooey melted cheese and gravy. Afterward, in the fading dusk, I drove quiet country lanes through green pastures overlooking placid coves.
The next morning I drove onto another ferry for the one-hour journey through the Haro Strait to Vancouver Island. On deck, staring out at the countless forested islands, I decided that car ferries were my new favorite mode of transport. On a car ferry you're free to relax, move about, gawk at the scenery — you can simultaneously chill out and make progress.
After disembarking in Sidney, I made my way to Trans-Canada Highway 1, which runs along Vancouver Island's east coast. After two hours I turned onto Highway 4, which cuts through the steep mountains and river gorges of the island's interior. It was hard to remember this was a surf trip. Two more hours of hairpin turns alongside whitewater rivers and vast lakes got me within smelling distance of the sea. And despite Tofino's absurd isolation, 50-degree water, and near-constant rain, this outpost of 1,900 residents is "the surf capital of Canada," as one local told me. That's partly because Canada has very few beach towns. Tofino also has endless beginner waves on spectacular beaches, plus a placid and protected inland sound where you can SUP and kayak into Canada's Pacific Rim National Park Reserve.
I checked in to the elegant Long Beach Lodge Resort, just outside town. I grabbed a board and a (very thick) wetsuit from the beautiful French-Canadian woman at the surf-gear rental desk and sprinted across a beach wilder and more pristine than anything in Maine or far-northern California, into the surf at Cox Bay. "In the winter the waves get to, like, 30 feet on the outside," said the friendly, bearded local next to me. "Guys get towed out there on Jet Skis and basically take off on one wave and get blasted up into the trees on the beach." My conditions were milder, and after a dozen playful rides, I headed in to warm up.
After a short drive into town, I became a full-blown believer in the Tofino hype. It seemed that every home had a fishing boat in its driveway, with larger commercial rigs bobbing at anchor. Signs pointed to local salmon farms; water taxis offered rides to see whales, bears, and hot springs on nearby islands; and Tofino Brewing made beer with local spruce and kelp. At Wolf in the Fog restaurant, decorated with broken surfboards, I drank tequila, ate smoked-cod fritters and charred octopus, and talked waves with the bartender.
The next morning, as I ordered coffee, a young and confused-looking guy approached. "Do you know which way the beach is?" he asked.
I asked if he was lost. "No, I just don't know much about beaches," he said.
"I want to see one."
He was from Toronto and had flown across the continent and rode ferries and buses to get to Tofino. I felt like asking if he'd ever heard of Nova Scotia — plenty of nice beaches out that way. But I bit my tongue.
I got back in the car and headed to Nanaimo for my final ferry ride, a two-hour trip across the Salish Sea to Vancouver. I thought about the clueless kid. In warmer climes, Tofino might be just another fishing town with mild waves and lousy food. But that Canadian naïveté transforms the place into a surf town capable of holding its own against any other.
The epic journey to get there only adds to the charm, especially if you throw in a few boat rides along the way.