Enjoying the highlights of a beautiful region: Tofino, British Columbia
By Tab Hauser
Vancouver, B.C. for many tourists is a starting point for cruises to Alaska giving the city a day’s look before boarding. What travelers should know is that Vancouver and Vancouver Island nearby offers beauty, softadventures, great food, bears, whales, easy nature hikes and more. Our visit started on the coastal nature town of Tofino for three nights. From there we spent two nights in Victoria followed by two nights in Vancouver.
First Stop: Tofino
Our visit started with a rented car at Vancouver airport for the short drive to the BC Ferry Terminal (www.bcferries.com). From here we crossed over to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island in a large comfortable ship and then drove a mostly scenic 3 ½ hours to Tofino where checked iSea kayaking is very popular in British Columbia. nto the world class Wickaninnish Inn, (www.wickinn.com).
As we arrived late evening we went straight to the dining room for their meticulously prepared tasting menu sampling only local sourced food and regional wine.
Tofino to me is like the Caribbean of the north. It is an easy going laid back place for people that enjoy the outdoors and good regional food.
With only two full days here we carefully chose a few “must do” things to do. We started with a Tofino Sea Kayaking tour (www.tofinoseakayaking.com) to Meares Island.
This will get you to see the beauty of the local water and experience walking in an old growth forest with trees over 500 years old.
Another highlight in Tofino was our bear watching cruise with The Whale Centre (www.tofinowhalecentre.com). These cruises travel inland through flat water and leave at low tide because that is when the bears come down to the water and lift rocks looking for food.
From our open 24 foot boat we spotted 13 bears in different areas including three different mothers watching over one to three cubs each. A free must do activity here should include some easy hiking in the Pacific Rim National Preserve. We chose the Schooner Cove Trail because it is 1.2 mile hike through the lush forest arriving at a scenic beach.
The path is nearly flat going over a boardwalk much of the time. Another option in Tofino would be a whale watching cruise. Whether you see bears or whales can depend on the season. For complete information on activities go to www.tourismtofino.com
Tofino’s six square blocks on the water is a nice town to stroll around. Here we peeked into shops, sampled smoked salmons, tried a local beer and looked at menus. Tofino is a destination for foodies of all budgets and it is difficult to single out a place to eat. Whether we had a meal at a restaurant or shared a takeout table with surfers, everything was fresh and delicious.
One morning we ordered room service at the Wick Inn and had their salmon platter. This room temperature plate consisted of both cold and hot smoked fish and my favorite, smoked maple which they call salmon candy. The salmon is abundant here.
From the Wick Inn we drove four hours to the old city of Victoria with a stop half way at the Stamp River Provincial Park. If you are here in spawning season this is an easy place to watch the salmon migrate and jump the powerful rapids. It is a sight not to miss.
Victoria, our next stop, is a city centered on a pretty harbor. Most sights are within a 20 minute walk or a five minute water taxi. On arrival we checked into the Marriott Inner Harbor and strolled the waterfront. The harbor here is always bustling with seaplanes, boats of different types and water taxis all making the landscape fluid.
Robert Bateman Gallery
After taking it all in we walked past the landmarked structures of the Fairmont Empress (1908) and the Parliament building (1897) before ducking into the Steamship Terminal and seeing the Robert Bateman Gallery (www.batemancentre.org). for his paintings on nature and animals.
Our walk continued along the shore to the Fisherman’s Wharf (www. fishermanswharfvictoria.com). Fisherman’s Wharf is worth a visit to see the different houseboats that are creatively painted and decorated. At the docks there are casual places to eat.
You may also find a friendly sea lion opposite the fish and chips counter who swims up and takes raw fish from people’s hands. From the wharf we took a water taxi back to the main dock enjoying the views of the buildings in the early evening sun.
With a tip from the friendly concierge at the Marriott we decided a sunset would start the night off properly at Clover’s Point several minutes away. This narrow peninsula lets you watch the sunset over the water while seeing the light change on the tall mountains to the east. Our entertainment that night was a ghost walk with www.discoverthepast.com. This 90 minute tour around the buildings by the harbor was more entertaining and historical than scary.
Gardens and Whales
Our second day started early with a visit to the region’s best attraction called Butchart Gardens located 30 minutes north of Victoria. These gardens were the home of Robert and Jennie Butchart who lived near their cement plant and quarry.
In 1907 they commissioned a Japanese garden to be built. In 1912 when the quarry was exhausted Mrs. Butchart built a sunken garden that was completed in 1921 and is the highlight here.
Other gardens include the Japanese, Italian, Rose and Mediterranean. This place receives a million visitors a year so consider arriving when it opens or late in the afternoon when the bus tours are leaving.
Allow a leisurely 90 minute stroll. We continued our day in Victoria with a quick visit to Chinatown and the Victoria Market of which neither impressed us.
From the market we walked to the waterfront for a nice lunch at Nautical Nellies before taking a whale watching cruise with Springtide. (www.victoriawhalewatching.com).
Whale tours are a leading attraction in Victoria because the whales stay close to the city. Tours can be done in open inflatables or on larger boats where you can get some protection from the wind or rain. The inflatables gets you to the whales faster but you can bounce a lot in choppy seas.
We opted for Springtides 54 foot for the better ride. The downside to this larger boat was that it was packed with a tour group making it a little crowded.
On board a naturalist talked about the area wildlife. Leaving Victoria Harbor our captain set a course west to the San Juan Islands in the United States due to previous sightings.
On our way out we lingered around a hump back whale just outside the harbor. That afternoon we viewed several orca whales either traveling solo or in groups of two or three from about 250 yards away. During our three hour tour the captain passed by rocky outcrops to view the sea lions.
After departing we walked to the Royal B.C. Museum founded in 1886. For those interested in native history there is a good viewing of artifacts from the people of the First Nations. Go to www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca to see what is being displayed or playing in their IMAX. At night we visited the Empress Hotel to stroll around the lower level looking at very old photos and menus before completing the evening at the Bengal Lounge upstairs. This lounge is a throwback to the English Empire days of soft leather couches, tiger skins and slow ceiling fans Here we enjoyed their signature classic cocktails that have been the poured the same way for over 100 years.
Ferry to Vancouver
Our last leg of our trip to Vancouver started with a 9AM ferry boat to city. Vancouver is squeezed between the mountains and sea and has moderate temperatures.
Their residents have a reputation for loving the outdoors and it is said one can ski in the morning, golf in the afternoon and later take in a sunset kayak ride. To enjoy the outdoors the city is bordered on the west by Stanley Park which covers 1001 acres making it one of the largest urban parks in North America.
This was also our first stop on the hop on-hop off bus tour. To slow down and learn about the park we opted to take a 45 minute carriage ride. This ride went through part of the park where we learned about the different wild life that lives in this second growth forest.
Stanley Park has the perfect bike / walking trail that goes 5 ½ miles along the seawall. There is another 17 miles of paths inside the park. After our carriage ride we hopped back on the bus that looped around the park with stops for photos.
Being hungry we hopped off the bus at the water taxi stop for the Granville Island Public Market on Granville Island (www.granvilleisland.com). This market should not be missed. We enjoyed different smoked and fresh pepperoni salmon sticks along with ethnic and regional foods from the counters. The market is lined with produce, seafood, and meat counters, pastry shops, cooked foods and more. In the courtyard there was live music to be enjoyed along with the water views.
To the Lookout!
With the afternoon sun getting lower in the sky our next stop was Vancouver Lookout! (www.vancouverlookout.com). Here 553 feet above the city you get a 360 degree view of the region. We were able to see Vancouver Island 20 miles to the west and the entire profile of 10,800 foot Mt. Baker 60 miles away to the southeast. Dinner that night was in the lively area around English Bay and Denman Street.
Our second day started with Sea Vancouver (www.seavancouver.com). This was a fun “wind in your hair” inflatable boat ride that circles around Vancouver Harbor, zooms around Stanley Park to English Bay and goes slowly in False Creek before returning. On board the captain stopped at different points of interest. From the marina we walked ten minutes to Robson Street for lunch and another five minutes to the Roedde House Museum. (www.roeddehouse.org/en)
This fully restored Victorian home in the Queen Anne revival style was built in 1893 for the family of Gustav Roedde, the city’s first bookbinder.
Visiting here is a good way to see how a middle class, immigrant family lived at that time. We finished our afternoon by getting a feel of the city by walking along Davie Street and then hopping back on the bus to finish its loop.
That night we had dinner in lively Gastown where the streets and pubs were full of people.
Our last day started with Fly Over Canada (www.flyovercanada.com) located at Canada Place on the water. This is an exhilarating eight-minute simulation fly over covering the best of Canada. It was so moving and enjoyable that we regret it ended.
The Suburbs Are Worth a Visit
Wishing a break from the city we drove 15 minutes to Capilano Suspension Bridge Park (www.capbridge.com) where we were totally removed from the urban landscape.
This park started in the early 1900’s and is made up of pedestrian suspension bridges and nature trails. The largest of the seven bridges stretches 450 feet across and is 230 feet above Capilano River. The “Treetops Adventure” has seven smaller bridges 100 feet high connected to the evergreens. Nearby is acliff walk where we spotted a bald eagle on a tree.
Our day continued with a short drive to Grouse Mountain (www.grousemountain.com). They call this the peak of Vancouver because it has a bird’s eye view of the city. Here we took the cable car to their lodge for lunch and watched the entire city get totally engulfed in fog.
After lunch we viewed their resident rescued grizzly bear and watched a corny lumberjack show before getting on the chair ride to the peak at 4039 feet. At the peak you get to see the higher mountains to the east. We ended our visit coming down the cable car with the sun setting over the ocean.
Vancouver offers many activities to do that includes renting bikes for Stanley Park to various museums of any interest. There are also a host of water activities. Further, if you are a skier or hiker visitors can drive two hours to Whistler Mountain where the winter Olympics were held. The best place for planning a trip here would be to visit www.tourismvancouver.com