Go ahead and call me biased, but the West Coast of Canada boasts some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in North America. This is where rugged mountains, verdant rainforests, and the vast Pacific ocean come together in a unique ecosystem you won’t find anywhere else.
Last month our family set off on a week-long adventure to Vancouver Island, starting in the seaside town of Tofino, British Columbia. We boarded the ferry from Tsawwassen on the mainland to Duke Point in Nanaimo, then drove north up Highway 19 before turning west to take Highway 4 all the way across Vancouver Island to its western edge. Google Maps says it’s a three hour drive, but it ended up taking us all day long because there was so much to see on the way.
Along the Way
About 40 minutes into the drive from Nanaimo to Tofino, just outside of Parksville, is the Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and Mooberry Winery. Here you can visit a working dairy farm and winery, watch cheese being made, pet the bunnies, and discover dozens of handmade fairy doors scattered along the magical Fairy Door Trail. Don’t miss the cheese and wine tastings!
Back on the road and a little further down Highway 4A is the tiny town of Coombs. Be sure to stop at the Old Country Market on the side of the highway to visit the local celebrities: a family of goats living on the roof.
We stopped at the Market for lunch out on the patio. Do not miss out on their mouthwatering homemade clam chowder! I honestly don’t remember ever having better. Keep your receipt to get a free child-size cone when you visit the Billy Gruff Creamery across the lane for ice creams after lunch.
If you have the time, walk next door to the Coombs Emporium which boasts an eclectic collection of dozens of stone statues in the courtyard. Photo ops galore for everyone!
Just a little farther down Highway 4, the road winds through MacMillan Provincial Park. It’s worth pulling over in Cathedral Grove, the entirely inadequate name given to one of the last remnants of an ancient old growth Douglas fir forest on Vancouver Island. The oldest trees here are estimated to be over 800 years old and measure approximately 250 feet tall and 29 feet in circumference. It’s impossible to get a sense of their scale until you’re standing underneath these towering giants and looking up at trees that first sprouted in the 12th century CE, before Genghis Khan, before the Magna Carta, before the invention of movable type.
Where to Stay
Once you get through the long and winding drive through the Vancouver Island Mountain Ranges to Tofino, there are multiple resorts and hotels in Tofino and along the water to choose from. On my last trip here we stayed in a small bed and breakfast, but this time with a family in tow, we chose Crystal Cove Beach Resort, a family-friendly resort located right on the edge of Mackenzie Beach.
Fair warning: if you’re looking to come in the summer high season, book well in advance or you may be disappointed. When I say cabin, you might have a picture in your head of what that means, but I suspect you’d be wrong. Crystal Cove cabins are more like log chalets, well-appointed with solid wood furniture, heated tile floors, and for a few lucky families, a hot tub! If you ask my kids what they enjoyed most about our trip, they’ll tell you it was hanging out in the hot tub and gazing up at all the stars we never see in the city.
Crystal Cove has 34 cabins in various configurations, along with an RV park and RVs for hire. We stayed in one of their newly renovated two-storey, two-bedroom beach view cabins with a bedroom, bathroom, living room, fireplace, and kitchen downstairs, and master bedroom, master bath, sitting room, and hot tub upstairs. The girls were excited to have their own room and bathroom, and if we’d had more friends staying with us, there was also a pull-out couch on each floor.
All the staff we met were warm, friendly, and helpful. Be sure to stop by the main office to grab some Starbucks in the morning, gather fresh herbs from the garden for dinner, or borrow DVDs or board games for evening entertainment.
Every cabin comes with a fireplace, fully equipped kitchen, and barbecue grill. Crystal Cove takes your peace and quiet seriously. Quiet hours are strictly enforced, and I really liked that housekeeping doesn’t come into your cabin unless requested.
Families with children should check to see if any of the treehouse cabins are available for your stay. Each two-storey cabin comes with an adjoining kid-sized tree house reachable along a wooden walkway. How cool is that?!
The pace is different here. There’s a TV in each cabin but we never turned it on. Instead we spent a lot of time exploring Mackenzie Beach and experiencing the rhythm of the tides along the rocks and sandy beach.
We spent an entire afternoon tide pooling and discovering all the sea life along the intertidal zone. We found sea stars, tiny fish, mussels, hermit crabs, barnacles, sea anenomes, and a few baby sea urchins hanging out waiting for the water to come back in.
We had to skip it due to strict fire bans this summer, but normally guests are welcome to build a beach fire below the high tide line on Mackenzie Beach and make s’mores (pick up your s’mores kit at the main office). Each cabin has a supply of chopped wood for this purpose or for your cabin’s fireplace.
For more active play, Crystal Cove also has a beautiful adventure playground by the office made from recycled materials and reclaimed wood, much of it from renovations around the site. The playground boasts a wooden climbing structure, slide, tire swing, horse swings made from upcycled tires, log seesaw, small climbing wall, and a surf board on springs to practice hanging ten.
The centrepiece of the playground is a huge pirate ship play structure built on the frame of a 1942 ferry lifeboat and designed by a talented 15-year-old guest who has been visiting the resort every summer since infancy.
I can’t overstate the peace and beauty we found here. This was our view from the beautifully manicured gardens out to Mackenzie Beach, where I could sip my morning tea and watch the ocean.
Days seem to stretch longer, things move slower. There were no errands, emails, phone calls, or to do lists. Instead we ended our days here watching the sun set over the ocean and the stars come out. Crystal Cove was truly a magical place to spend family time together.
Where to Eat
Tacos seem to be a big thing in Tofino. Local outdoor eateries Wildside Grill and Tacofino both offer a variety of deliciously messy tacos, and weather permitting, eating outside is great for active kids like ours who sometimes have a hard time sitting still in sit-down restaurants. Between the two, Wildside Grill offers more of a full menu with locally caught fish and chips, burgers, poutine, and soups. The fish tacos are a must! Show your Wildside Grill receipt and get 10% off ice cream and handmade gelato from Chocolate Tofino next door.
Where to Go
Don’t expect theme parks or flashy tourist attractions. Come here to experience the wild beauty of the Canadian West Coast and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean preserved in the Pacific Rim National Park, Canada’s first nature reserve. On your way into Tofino, you may want to stop at the Pacific Rim Park & Visitor Centre to pick up a map of the park and take a peek at the topographical model of the area, but there’s no need to make a special trip.
The world-famous 75 kilometer West Coast Trail and 9 kilometer Wild Pacific Trail were a little beyond our young family, but the Rainforest Trails along the Pacific Rim Highway were just right for us. There are two trails, one of either side of the highway. Each interpretive loop is about 1 km long, with raised wooden boardwalks and stairs that wind through the lush temperate rain forest and follow the contours of the landscape up and down slopes and around trees.
My 5-year-old and 7-year-old had no problem completing both loops, but neither trail is stroller-friendly, so bring the baby carrier for younger children.
We couldn’t miss a stop at iconic Long Beach, halfway between Tofino and Ucluelet, where surfers and kayakers flock to ride the waves. Dog-friendly Long Beach is the longest sandy beach on the west coast of the Island and perfect for sandcastle-building, playing catch-me-if-you-can with the surf, and snatching a quiet moment with your spouse while the kids explore.
On the other side of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve is the town of Ucluelet, or as the locals call it, Ukee. We brought the kids to visit the Ucluelet Aquarium, nestled right on the harbour. Open from March to November, this unique facility is the world’s first catch and release aquarium. All the display animals are brought in locally at the beginning of the season then returned back to their natural environment in November (after being given a clean bill of health by a marine veterinarian). Collection sites are mapped to ensure specimens are returned to their original spot.
This small building houses a large central open tank, a wall of display tanks, multiple touch tanks, and a small children’s area with couches and books. 64,000 gallons of sea water are pumped through the aquarium at any one time keeping all the animals in the same waters they’re accustomed to. This aquarium is very kid-friendly with lots of hands on touch tanks at just the right height for kids to see up close and touch.
We discovered Keltie, the Ucluelet Aquarium’s senior aquarist, wandering around the large one-room space answering questions, interpreting displays, and helping all the guests connect to the local ocean life. She was kind enough to take some time to personally introduce my girls to some of the stars at the aquarium!
After three halcyon days spent exploring the natural wonders of Tofino and Pacific Rim National Park, we piled back into the car and set off for our next destination: the historic city of Victoria, one of BC’s most popular tourist destinations and our provincial capital. Stay tuned for our next family travel guide when we take a look at all the fun things for families to do in Victoria.
Disclosure: I was provided with a complimentary stay at Crystal Cove Beach Resort and admission to Ucluelet Aquarium to facilitate this post. Nevertheless, all opinions expressed are completely honest and my own, based on my personal experience. Your experience may differ.