Our Favourite Family Vacation Didn't Require a Passport!
When asking our tween/teenage children what their favourite family vacation has been, they will unanimously declare "Tofino!" (with a close second to Biarritz, France.) I will admit Tofino ranks at the top of the list for my husband and me too. It was strange to think of all the places we have traveled trying to find unique experiences and interesting cultures, the one that made the biggest impression on our family was waiting for us in our home country of Canada! If you have active kids (children, tweens, or teens) and are craving breathtaking nature, interesting excursions, unique culture, delicious food, chilled out people, and total relaxation...head to Tofino, Canada. It is truly one of the most underrated places on Earth for a fabulous family vacation.
Getting to Tofino
There are two different ways to get to Tofino (on Vancouver Island) - by ferry or by plane. We were arriving from different locations around the globe so the easiest way for us was to fly into Victoria. Luckily for the boys and I, we were able to fly over the Rocky Mountains and around the tip of Vancouver Island. What a view!!
The drive from Victoria to Tofino takes a good 4.5-5 hrs (don't underestimate this, it really takes that long). However, we had planned to break up the drive with stops in the town of Coombs and for a walk in the Cathedral Grove. There are many great stops along the way, make more than a few if you have time.
First Stop - Coombs, BC
At approximately the two hour mark into our drive, we stopped in the small town of Coombs. This is a small community of shops and restaurants with the number one sightseeing attraction being the Old Country Market. The market is a store selling fresh food, imported goods, unique gift items, freshly baked treats, ice cream and more. It really is a unique and fun store to go in and have a look. My oldest son found a jukebox in the restaurant and happily said "Hey mom, come and look at this. It's one of those machines that has things in it that makes music." He had no idea how to work it :-)
Believe it or not, the highlight of the Old Country Market, and probably the main reason for our stop was the the goats! The roof of the store is home to many happily grazing goats. You can watch them hop in and out of their luxurious log wood homes, munch on grass, and occasionally lock horns. They are a fun reason to get out of the car and have a stretch.
Second Stop, Cathedral Grove
We purchased some beautiful sausage rolls from the market to take for a picnic in Cathedral Grove, only a short 15-minute drive away. Cathedral Grove, located in MacMillan Provincial Park, is a magnificent forest of giant Douglas Firs. A very well groomed trail is located on both sides of the highway and leads you through a path showing mother nature at its best. You will not believe the size of these trees! After a day of traveling (and a year of living in the desert), breathing in the clean air from these trees was divine. We would highly recommend this stop!
Our Accommodations in Tofino
There are a few hotel options in Tofino but we opted for our preferred traveling style of a self-catering short-term rental. We were traveling with our family, my husband's sister's family, and his parents, for a total of 11 people. When looking for a rental to suit us, I quickly learned, there is not a lot to rent for a group this size. My advice is to plan and book early.
We found our rental on VRBO but Airbnb also had a few options. The house was beautiful although maybe not 100% practical due to a strange bathroom/bedroom layout. What it lacked in practicality was more than made up for with the hot tub on the deck! The kids loved being active all day and then running back to our house (often cold from the ocean) and jumping into the hot tub! Their routine consisted of hot tub, snacks, play games (my nephew learned how to play cards on this trip and was relentless in his quest to dominate the game President), snacks, and repeat! Like most of the rentals, the house was located a few kilometres outside the town but you could easily bike there on a paved path and Chesterman beach was a short walk across the road. The house was situated in a lush, dense, wooded area where you could see the tide rise and fall throughout the day. It was perfect.
The Town of Tofino
Tofino is home to only a few thousand people but don't underestimate what a town that size can have. This part of Canada is rich in First Nations culture so be sure to visit the art galleries to see some spectacular pieces and purchase books retelling the beliefs of this culturally distinct group of First Canadians. There are also quite a few nice dining options but remember to book well in advance, as in, before you even arrive in Tofino (especially for the popular restaurant The Fog and the Wolf.) There are many gift boutiques, grocery stores, surf shops, excursion outlets, parks, etc. on the main street. Heading away from the main area, walk down to the waterfront and watch the floater planes take off and land on water. A more than nice town to walk through.
The Beaches in Tofino
Tofino is lucky to be home to many beaches. But to be clear, these beaches are not the south of France, Mediterranean style beaches. They are long beaches on the cold Pacific Ocean. Bring your sweatshirt, not your bikini. The water is rough, churning up beautiful waves for the surf lovers. For those not in the mood to surf, endless hours can be spent beach combing for washed-up driftwood. All taking place against the backdrop of Canada's spectacular rugged wilderness. Also unlike the south of France (don't get me wrong, we LOVE the south of France), people are not packed in like sardines so there is endless amounts of room for the kids to run. For our family, the beaches were perfect!
The fog rolled in and out of Chesterman beach with the tide. At times it was not possible to see ten feet in front of your face and then moments later it was crystal clear with beautiful blue skies above. When the tide was in, an island lay a few hundred metres from shore but when the tide was out it could easily be accessed on foot. The kids loved jumping over streams to get to the island to then climb the rocks. I'll say it again, Tofino was the best vacation for active kids.
The best memory of Chesterman beach was watching the kids discover- bull kelp. At first, it looked like they were holding large snakes, then bullwhips, and then after closer inspection, we could recognize it was a sea plant. They thought this find was the best! They spent all day untangling the washed-up mounds of bull kelp, playing with it, chasing each other with it, hitting each other with it... What more fun could a group of kids have- even my teen! There is something very special watching your kids in nature, completely unplug, unwind, relax, and having fun being lost in their own imagination.
Long Beach is similar to Chesterman Beach except there seemed to be a lot more of the famed driftwood here. While I spent the morning walking up and down the beach examining many pieces of the washed-up wood the boys preferred participating in a different activity, wrestling. As you can see from the photos, the beaches are a far cry from crowded and perfect for allowing your young teenage boys to run a bit wild.
Schooners Beach was by far my favourite beach in Tofino. Mainly because to get there, you have the opportunity to hike a few kilometres through a beautiful forest. It is really dreamy. The hike in puts this beach at the top of my list.
Schooner Cove Hike
Schooner Cove Beach
Surfing in Tofino
Cox Bay Beach
Surfing in Tofino is a major activity and part of life. During the summer months, the Pacific water is calmer and great for beginners. During the winter months, the water is much rougher and we were told this is the time for the serious surfers to hit the waves. In August, with the sun shining, the Pacific water was still FREEZING! I cannot imagine what that water feels like in January! Regardless of the temperature, my husband and oldest son were excited to grab a wet suit and board and take some lessons from the highly recommended Pacific Surf School. They tried the waves at Chesterman Beach and Cox Beach but preferred the latter. Regardless of the beach you pick, a wetsuit is essential!
While they surfed, the rest of our group explored the beach and sea life and admired the rough wilderness backdrop.
Ocean Kayaking in Tofino
If you want to spend a beautiful afternoon on the water, give kayaking in Tofino a try. We reserved a four-hour trip around the inlets and a tour of Meares Island with Tofino Sea Kayaking. Each parent went in a double kayak with one child and our oldest teenager set out on his own in a single kayak. We were led by two very friendly guides who entertained and engaged us all with information about this very special area in Canada. It was definitely a memorable afternoon.
Along the way to Meares Island, we were lucky enough to see many massive jellyfish swim by our kayaks and a Bald Eagle high in a tree.
We docked our kayaks near the start of the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island and began our walk. A boardwalk leads you through a portion of this culturally significant Island which is home to some of the tallest trees in British Columbia. Our guides shared information about the importance of the area to Canada's First Nation Community and about the aggressive protest that happened there between the Nuu-chah-nulth and the MacMillan Bloedel company in 1984. Now seeing the beauty of this area, it is hard to believe that it was almost destroyed.
Fishing in Tofino
Fishing in British Columbia is a big industry and Tofino is no exception. There are only a few commercial companies that are able to take passengers out into the Pacific on fishing excursions so make sure you book ahead if you want to give it a try. We used the company Tofino Fishing and were very happy with their service. The guides were very professional and made the fishing fun for the kids. Warning - the excursion is quite long, a little over 5 hours, and in open water (insert potential sea sickness here) so make sure your kids are able to handle a long boat ride before signing them up. Our youngest (10) just so happened to be the one that loved it the most. Can you tell?
Wildlife in Tofino
When the opportunity came to go bear sighting in Tofino, I jumped at the chance. For our half day tour of bear watching, we signed up with Adventure Tofino Wildlife Tours. Jens, our captain, quickly got us geared up in head-to-toe floatation suits, raincoats, hats, and gloves, and then we were off to walk to the dock where our Zodiac was waiting. With our huge suits, we definitely felt like stay puff marshmallows but once on the boat, we were thankful for their warmth as it was a cold, drizzly morning. The kids nabbed the best viewing seats in the front of the boat and we were off. After a half hour boat ride we came to our first bear on the edge of one of the inlets. It was so exciting! We saw a few more bears before patiently resting in an area that our captain assured us would be worth our while. Eventually, we saw them! A mamma bear and her cub...love! We spent so much time watching the duo from a few metres away as our captain fed us information about the bears and the area. It was fascinating watching the mama bear teach her cub to flip rocks searching for crabs and all the while on constant lookout for danger.
The Suits and the boat
And then mama and her cub
See you soon Tofino!
Our bear watching excursion wrapped up the end of our short, but fabulous, holiday in Tofino, British Columbia. I was sad to think it had taken me this long to visit this beautiful part of Canada but so happy that I had the chance to experience it with our family. Some places you leave thankful for the visit but know the chances are slim that you will ever return. Others are places you are sure you will experience again. See you soon Tofino!