Travel & Culture

Top Tips For A Terrific Tofino Family Vacation

May 28, 2024

Surrounded by UNESCO-recognized Clayoquot Sound, at the end of a two-lane highway surrounded by centuries-old trees and epic beaches, within the traditional territory of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations, sits wild Tofino. This far-flung Vancouver Island village—only 2,500-ish residents live here full-time—sparkles no matter the weather, and makes for the ultimate re-energizing family vacation away from the city.—Katie Nanton

Drive & Discover

The secret to any successful road trip? Strategic stops along the way, especially if you’re travelling with kids. Break up the 3-ish hour drive from Nanaimo to Tofino with stops at the Old Country Market in Coombs, best-known for its outdoor live attraction: goats munching grass on the roof. With no goats in sight during our spring trip (they appear end of May), we loved coming across the Coombs Emporium next door, with dozens of larger-than-life sculptures outside: seals, owls, puppies, lions, you name it; our toddler posed with them all. If you crave a little more colour, Butterfly World Coombs is just down the road and Morningstar Farm’s Little Qualicum Cheeseworks is also en route, in Parksville, with visitable farm animals and a milk-on-tap dispenser. Another essential stop is verdant Cathedral Grove in MacMillan Park, where you can gaze up at towering Western Red Cedars and Douglas Firs—many are around 300 years old and a few are 800—from one of two easy walking trails. Easily park just off the highway, and feel no pressure to take a big hike; even a 10-minute leg-stretch will let you soak up the ancient energy. After, hit the old-school J & L Drive-In for burgers and fries on your way through Port Alberni; it’s the most historic restaurant in town. 

Stay & Play

If you’re visiting one of the most picturesque West Coast beaches imaginable, you should wake up to a view of it; Pacific Sands Beach Resort has you covered. The landmark beachfront property, originally founded with 17 rustic cabins in the ’70s, has come a long way since, although lovely nostalgic touches pop up here and there (like a wall of DVDs in the lobby that guests borrow on an honour system—nothing says vacation like a ’90s thriller, right?) Book a suite overlooking Cox Bay to enjoy front-row-seat entertainment of surfers, as well as the occasional brave soul sans wetsuit splashing in the chilly waves. We applauded the ones with the foresight to turn their plunge into a two-hour nordic spa experience by booking an on-site private barrel sauna through Tuff City Saunas. Speaking of spa, our stunning 1,200-square-foot Sand Dollar Suite boasted a wraparound deck with a private hot tub and BBQ, and high-ceilinged interiors with exposed raw wood, massive picture windows, a full kitchen, and a long wooden dining room table for waterfront meals. We loved strolling the wide beach to spot sand dollars and rainbow-hued mussel shells at golden hour before returning to our suite to listen to the crashing waves, sip a local Quill vino from Duncan-based Blue Grouse Estate Winery, and watch the last of the surfers pack it in at dusk. Communal fire pits are also dotted around the property, ready for s’more-making and conversation with the resort’s many repeat guests. 

See & Explore

If you have kids in tow (or even if not), take the 25-minute drive to Ucluelet Aquarium to experience the small-but-mighty wharfside centre with plenty of touch-tanks for tiny hands to explore starfish and sea cucumbers. Uniquely, this is Canada’s first catch-and-release aquarium: all the marine life is collected from local waters each February then released back in December, giving visitors a snapshot of underwater Pacific Ocean life. Grab a few postcards in the on-site gift shop, write them over tangy vegan Pad Thai at Yayu Cafe, then mail them to friends from the local post office around the corner. Back in Tofino, release your kids at Village Green Park in the centre of town, or pop into Hotel Zed, a step-back-in-time property with a sunken ’80s-style living room lobby lounge, a mini disco dance room blasting tunes and neon lights, a bike path that runs right through the lobby, and cool vintage treasures at every turn—there’s even a VW Bug replica made out of driftwood. Pro tip: Ask someone at reception to help you find the secret free-to-play arcade behind a moving bookshelf. Of course, nature rules in this part of the world, with hikes aplenty and beach endless beach walks to be had—we loved striding along Long Beach or Chesterman Beach to watch wide-eyed newbies learning to surf with the iconic local company, Surf Sister (they also have an office on-property at Pacific Sands, through which guests can book lessons).

Savour & Sip

Dine boat-to-table at Shelter Restaurant, which has taken over a stunning wharfside/overwater footprint since the original location burned down in 2022. Let pro sommelier Paula Stoyanoff (previously of Clayoquot Wilderness Resort) guide you through a glowing wine list and seafood-forward menu with stellar fresh oysters, chowder, and generous portions (we’re looking at you, Side-Stripe Shrimp & Mussel Fettuccine). In town, Rhino Coffee House is the go-to for a bagel sandwich, donut, or latte–just don’t go late in the day or the best baked treats will be picked over. For a beach day, there’s no better place to provision than Picnic Charcuterie—think panini, prosciutto, and Parmigiano—while laid-back, airy Tofino Brewery is where to score the best beer flight in town. (Don’t miss Toki Doki’s food truck parked out front for a Spicy Seafood Okonomiyaki or Pork Katsu Rice Bowl.) One of our most memorable Tofino meals was take-out, based on a friend’s recommendation, from modern Korean resto Jeju. The Mandu steamed dumplings, Bibambap rice bowl with seasonal vegetables, egg, gochujang, and bulgogi, and Japchae (stir-fried sweet potato noodles with pork loin) had us wishing we’d ordered more. Next time we’ll dine in to try the legendary Galbi Korean BBQ short ribs aged for 35 days. Also of note: the talent behind beloved Wolf in the Fog will open a new culinary hotspot, Ombré, this summer.

Photo credits:

  • Jeju – Leila Kwok for Jeju
  • Tuff City Saunas – Kyler Vos, courtesy of Tourism Tofino
  • Shelter – Kyler Vos for Shelter Restaurant


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