Apr 17, 2014

ELLE travel escape: Vancouver Island

By: Vanessa Craft

Author: Elle Canada

Apr 17, 2014

ELLE travel escape: Vancouver Island

By: Vanessa Craft
I have just taken a hard tumble in the icy Pacific, and salt water is pouring out of my nose. Before I can stop coughing, I get hit so hard by my surfboard that I can’t tell if I’m seeing sparks or it’s the bright morning sun bouncing off the ocean. This is my first time out on the waves, but I have no intention of quitting— the prospect of getting back on the board is nothing compared to the humbling experience of wiggling my way into a wetsuit.

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A week on the road has brought us here, to Long Beach, a 10-kilometre stretch of dark-grey sand near Tofino, B.C. Usually my comfort zone consists of killer heels, city concrete and car horns, but here, surrounded by innumerable shades of green and blue, I feel so exhilarated and alive that I could be starring in a mouthwash commercial. As I haul myself up and swim out for another try, a thought hits me harder than that giant hip-crushing wave: I don’t ever want to leave.


Mapped out

My journey to the ruggedly beautiful Tofino started in Vancouver, where our family of four (two big, two little) got off a plane from Toronto and promptly checked into the Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel. (I felt that it was important to acclimate properly before jumping into a rental car for a week of driving through scenic forests to find the best swimming holes.) So we started with a decadent sushi dinner at ORU restaurant, slept in the next morning and then spent the afternoon at the hotel’s spa.

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Once we had hopped in the car and caught the ferry to Vancouver Island, our relaxed route included a stop in Victoria and then a coast-hugging drive along Vancouver Island’s eastern side through the sleepy towns of Ladysmith, Qualicum Beach and Buckley Bay. We took side trips to Denman and Hornby islands (thanks to the ferry) and then made our way to Tofino and Clayoquot Sound before catching the Nanaimo ferry back to Vancouver.

Find out where to take the best landscape photos in Victoria on the next page... Elle-Escape-Ocean-Drive-9.jpg

Deep Dive

After spending a night in Victoria, we headed to Denman Island, a peaceful artists’ enclave of 1,200 residents, as rich with hippies and hikers as it is with herons, falcons, otters, snakes and minks. But the wildlife would have to wait (including, hopefully, the cougar, whose warning sign I saw on the way in). We wanted to dive into a hidden gem of a swimming hole, Graham Lake, located near the Lindsay-Dickson Nature Reserve.

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Access to this pristine body of fresh water, dotted with leafy green lily pads, is via an easy hike through a forest with tree roots the size of just-fed pythons and giant slugs littering the dark dirt path. We emerged, squinting, from the forest and were met with a postcard-worthy scene. The kids raced down the wooden dock, laughing and shrieking, doing messy cannonballs into the still blue water while I marvelled at our luck: We were the only ones there.


Vintage setting

After a ferry ride back to the main island, we made our way to Highway 4, the only road that leads to Tofino. Within minutes we came across Cathedral Grove, an old-growth forest with some seriously vintage arboreal decor. Western red cedars and Douglas firs that are more than 800 years old tower a neck-craning 76 metres above our heads. One even has a nine-metre circumference—about the same size as some New York City hotel rooms beams of light filtered down through the trees, creating an otherworldly effect on the hiking trail. In my bug-spray-induced haze, I’m pretty sure I saw an Ewok.

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From here we joined the Pacific Rim Highway for a two-hour route that weaves, drops, climbs and twists around Sproat and Kennedy lakes like a never-ending fusilli noodle. Brave motorcyclists ripped past us while I popped Gravol. A few kilometres from our destination, a baby black bear appeared on the road. We slammed on the brakes and fumbled for the camera. The kids froze. After we managed a few photos, the bear ambled back into the bush. My heart was in my throat, but I was thrilled: That was some stellar Canadian street style.

Find out where to play and relax in Tofino on the next page... Elle-Escape-Ocean-Drive-8.jpg

Hang ten

Tofino is a town synonymous with surfing. The air smells like wet, salty cedar, and sharp rocky enclaves decorate the roadside. Our two-bedroom beach house at the Pacific Sands Resort sat on a wide public beach, and our days were spent dozing in the sand and trying to catch waves with the (very patient) instructors from the Surf Sisters Surf School.

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At night, we cuddled up by our fireplace for hours, the ocean pounding outside. We even watched a Back to the Future marathon on DVD. One evening, we gathered under the stars for a s’mores roast. This was, like, the best summer camp ever.


Spring break

It seemed fitting to spend our last day upping the wildlife ante, so we booked a Hot Springs Cove tour with Jamie’s Whaling Station. A 65- foot cruiser took us out into the open ocean to look for whales and then headed 26 nautical miles up the coast into the remote northern part of Clayoquot Sound. The sound’s inlets and islands are home to a 2,600-square-kilometre old-growth rainforest, 45 known endangered animals and my beauty holy grail: mineral-rich, skin-boosting natural hot springs. En route, our visual haul was impressive and humblebrag-worthy. We saw sea lions, grey whales, otters, porpoises, three orcas and two bald eagles diving for fish.

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The hot springs are located inside Maquinna Provincial Park and can only be accessed by water or air. The steamy waterfall bubbled and cascaded 50° C water down onto inky-black rocks before pooling into about a half dozen nature-built hot tubs. As I gingerly lowered myself into the water,I noticed a large deep-purple post-surfing bruise forming across my hip and smiled—it was the best possible souvenir to take back to the city.

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ELLE travel escape: Vancouver Island