It really was a dark and stormy night, but that didn’t stop us from rolling up our pant legs, donning yellow slickers and popping heads of rubbery kelp (Mother Nature’s bubble wrap) along the sandy shoreline of Cox Bay.
Forecasters had predicted a tempest would whip up the Pacific Ocean, throwing up 15-metre swells during daylight hours. Instead, the storms just lashed Tofino, BC, at night, leaving the days balmy and tranquil in this surfing hive on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
But that’s not always the case. Just ask the marketing whizzes behind Winter Storm Watching—a clever campaign launched 15 years ago when Charles McDiarmid (who helms the Wickaninnish Inn) and a handful of locals decided to lure tourists back during the moody months of winter. The think tank began by slashing prices (oceanfront spots are known to drop rates up to 50 per cent), offering guided walks into the needle of a storm and providing tourists with blankets, rain gear and binoculars to watch the fury from the comfort of their oceanside balconies.
What also boosted Tofino’s off-season profile was the O’Neill Coldwater Classic—an international surfing competition that deemed the winter surf off the beaches at Chesterman and Cox Bay worthy of their burly criteria. But it wasn’t actually the waves that landed Tofino the only Canadian stop in 2009 and 2010; it was its freezing temperatures and its frontier vibe that demands surfers wear neoprene hoodies, booties and a full wetsuit. Due to the lack of sponsorship funds, the international surfing competition bypassed Tofino this past fall but, unlike O’Neill, Mother Nature follows no such manmade calendar. The locals know for certain she usually delivers 10 to 15 good storms between this month and February, making now, while nippy, the prime time to surf.
There are numerous award-winning restos in Tofino. SoBo Restaurant, helmed by Texan Lisa Ahier and New Brunswicker Artie Ahier, is casual and features loads of local produce and daily seafood catches. The Pointe at the Wick offers the best views for storm watching—the waves actually lick the base of this pricey, but superb restaurant. For the finest lobby bar that also affords terrific views of surfers and storms, belly up to Long Beach Lodge.
For surfwear, head to Tofino’s oldest surf shop, Live to Surf, which stocks the hottest brands from Roxy and Billabong to Volcom and O’Neill. But, for something uniquely Tofinotian, buy a bar of soap or a jar of hand cream made by Sea Wench Naturals. Using only wild and organically grown plants from a massive garden on nearby Stubbs Island, the woman behind the label, Sharon Whelan, sells her products at The Shed, Beaches and Green Soul Organics. Rustic candleholders and vases drilled out of local river rocks can also be found in every knick-knack shop.
Ever wonder where all those patches on surfboards come from? Lots of Tofinotians are fix-it kinda guys, but for large jobs, or a customized surfboard, a trip to the Board Medic is in order. Rows of polyurethane foam board blanks line the walls of former carpenter Stefan Aftanas’s store, and he’ll tell you everything you need to know about shaping rockers, lines and curves. Aftanas shapes about 200 boards a year (selling for about $600 each), and applies board-saving surgery and exotic designs on many more.
For flat-out convenience and great value, Long Beach Lodge wins for its on-site surf program. With a fleet of 50 boards and 110 wetsuits, hotel guests can leave their room, suit up next door and be on Cox Beach in eight minutes flat. Following a short dry-land session where riptides, undertows and lateral currents are drawn in the sand, instructors will get first-timers out in the water and usually up on a board within a 2.5-hour lesson.
Tucked in behind the funky Beaches Grocery store is Coastal Bliss Yoga. In a cedar-lined studio, you can hear the whoosh of the surrounding forest during any of the 20-odd classes held every week. You don’t have to be a member; drop-in rates are available for hatha, vinyasa flow and restorative yoga. The best deal is a $5 minimum class on Tuesdays at 4:30 p.m.
The queue begins 10 minutes before the neon-orange Tacofino Cantina truck lifts open its little metal window at 11 a.m. Grab an upside-down bucket to sit on and get ready for the freshest, zippiest seafood tacos north of Mexico (where the owners have spent many a winter). Dig into the lime-mint freshies, tuna tacos, black bean burritos and other healthy hand-held foods, heaped high with a chipotle mayo and crunchy white cabbage.
Walk Right Up
The history of Tofino far predates surfers or its fishing industry. Stretching back 5,000 years to the days of the Nuu-chah-nulth, you can go on a winter “grocery walk” with Gisele Martin and discover not only a historical account of the many First Nations people, but all about their staples. Who knew that chopped-up bull kelp is divine in soups, or that salal, red huckleberries and some of the area’s 800 kinds of mosses litter these coastal forests? In the summer, Tla-ook Cultural Adventures runs paddling tours around the Esowista Peninsula, amid the harbour seals, river otters and bald eagles.