Tofino reminds me a bit of the town of Byron Bay, on Australia’s east coast, before it became too famous — the perfect combination of chilled-out nature playground and laidback surfie town – and the pull of some ‘Tofino time’ is impossible to resist. Just ask the thousands of Canadian and international travellers who pack the town in the summer months – they can, and enthusiastically do, attest to that.
For me, the greatest lure Tofino has is the cool, calm waters of Clayoquot Sound. A massive kayaking fan from way back, I relish any opportunity to head out with paddle in hand, and when the waters of Clayoquot Sound are calling, the only answer is yes.
The Sound, which surrounds the tiny town, offers not only some of the most scenic paddling in Canada, but easily the best opportunities for on-water wildlife encounters. An up-close inspection of starfish communities clinging to the rocks is a given, and you’d be unlucky not to run into some soaring bald eagles, lounging seals, playful otters and graceful whales – greys, humpbacks and orca, depending on the time of year – on a day out. In summer you can also catch glimpses of black bears as they forage on the small beaches that dot the shoreline.
Leaving the sheltered waters of the Sound, the merciless waters of the Pacific Ocean offer a challenge for advanced sea kayakers (stick with the summer months, when the ocean is calmer), but more importantly, the pounding waves are irresistible to Canada’s small but dedicated surfing community. You’d want to be keen, and have a wetsuit – water temperatures hover around 6°C year-round – but the rewards make it more than worth it. The best waves roll in to Long Beach in winter, so serious surfies are better off avoiding the crowds and coming back when the conditions are pumping. If you do want to try your hand on the gentler breaks of summer, surf camps are available for novices.
Hikers will find many long and short trails winding their way through the towering old-growth rainforests of the Pacific Rim National Park. Wandering the endless windswept beaches and beachcombing among the ghostly skeletons of thousands of washed-up trees is equally distracting. More dedicated trekkers can tackle the highly-rated endurance test of the West Coast Trail which follows the rugged coastline all the way from Port Renfrew in the south to Bamfield in the north. You’ll need to book well in advance for this.
Save a soak at Hot Springs Cove, accessible only by boat or float plane (take the boat and you get a free whale-watching cruise into the bargain), for after you’re done with the strenuous activities, a soothing dip in the naturally heated waters is just the ticket for a relaxing end to your stay.
And once you’ve soaked up the serenity, kick back with some mouth-watering famous ‘killer fish tacos’ from SoBo (the bright purple truck at the Tofino Botanical Gardens) and a glass of Okanagan pinot gris. Or pick up some fresh seafood from the local fishermen, cook it on the barbie and crack open a Piper’s pale ale.
Does it get any better than this?
More top outdoor adventures
ON TWO FEET
The delights of the Rockies’ ski resorts in winter is well known, but it’s in summer that these mountain meadows really come alive. Carpeted with wildflowers, teeming with wildlife and framed by unspeakably beautiful views, the hiking is unparalleled. For the best Alpine hike of all, head out on the three-to-six-day back country hike along the continental divide to Mt Assiniboine from Sunshine Meadows (Sunshine Village ski resort, near Banff in Alberta).
Hike the Canadian end of the continent-spanning Appalachian Trail on Québec’s Gaspé Peninsula.
Spend a peaceful couple of days paddling around Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, with its abundant wildlife for company, as you explore the vast network of lakes, bogs and waterways that meander around the maple-covered hills. Even in a crowded summer, go deeper into the park and you’ll find it’s virtually deserted, or go in autumn, when the changing colours make it an arguably more attractive place to be anyway.
For a satisfying salty paddle, combine a kayak trip with some whale watching in Clayoquot Sound (BC) or Saguenay Fjord (Québec).
ON TWO WHEELS
I won’t say it’ll be easy, but the ride along the Rockies’ 230km Icefields Parkway between Lake Louise and Jasper is spectacular. Sure, you could do it by car, but this about getting close to nature, and you’ll feel more humbled by the soaring mountains, innumerable glaciers and impossibly blue lakes if you go by bike.
If you want a rougher ride, the trails around Canmore offer the country’s best mountain biking with a superb Rockies view.
Once you’ve had your fill of the great outdoors, ease back into urban life with a few days in one of Canada’s radiant cities
Western Canada is known for its laidback attitude, and things are no different in Vancouver. The massive Stanley Park can keep you busy for days, and Grouse Mountain is great for spectacular views of the entire city. Soak up the atmosphere of Kitsilano Beach, then watch the sun set over the water at English Bay. The next day, head to Granville Island and explore the markets, then when you’re done, sample BC’s best microbrew at the Granville Island Brewery.
Possibly the best city in the world, Montréal is the perfect mix of cool Canadian and charming Québécois. Known for its festivals, the city that spends much of the year underground bursts into life over summer. From the cobbled streets of Vieux Montréal to the winding pathways around Parc du Mont-Royal, there’s always something to see or do. The nightlife rocks, especially the casual cool of Boulevard St-Laurent. And when you get peckish, don’t miss trying poutine, a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s and a bagel from St-Viateur.
With a population of over 5.5million, ‘T Dot’ is a suitably bustling multicultural metropolis, but it also has lots to offer the tourist, from imposing architecture like the CN Tower or the energy of an ice hockey game to the fast-flowing waters of Niagara Falls just 120km south. Or just shop ’til you drop along Queen Street or at Kensington Market. Check out its intriguing ethnic neighbourhoods, and take a taste test at the Steam Whistle brewery or the Distillery District.
One of the greatest things about Canada is the impressive diversity of its wildlife. Here’s my own Canuck version of the big five, chosen not for their difficulty to hunt, but their iconic Canadianness and general impressiveness.
Easily the scariest wildlife encounter you can have in Canada, getting even a glimpse of a bear is sure to get the pulse racing. Black bears can be found in forests throughout the country, but for grizzlies, head to the Rockies or up to the Yukon, while polar bears are best spotted near Churchill in Manitoba.
The moose and their imposing antlers are practically synonymous with Canada. Algonquin National Park in Ontario, Banff and Jasper national parks in the Rockies, Cape Breton National Park in Nova Scotia and Grose Morne National Park in Newfoundland offer your best chances of a seeing a moose on the loose.
Though they are found throughout Canada, beavers are tricky to spot, as they are most active between dusk and dawn. Keep an eye out for their lodges – what looks much like a mound of sticks in the middle of a pond or the edge of a river – and you may see one.
You’d probably rather not run into a mountain lion, but as these not-so-little kitties do their best to avoid humans, that’s not likely to be a problem. If you’re keen on seeing a cougar, go west, as the forests of BC and Alberta are the only places where they’re common.
Canada has one of the longest coastlines in the world, so it’s not surprising that a good part of your wildlife watching can be done on the water. Whales are quite easily spotted, from the orcas (killer whales) of BC’s Inside Passage, to the ghostly beluga whales and even giant blue whales in the Saguenay-St Lawrence Marine Park in Québec.