Mara Gulens
September 25

5 Reasons to Skip Tofino & Head for Ucluelet on Vancouver Island

The buzz is all about Tofino’s endless, sandy beaches. But after our four-hour drive through the lush mountains of Vancouver Island, we came to the junction and made a decisive turn left – to Ucluelet.

Known locally as “Ukee”, the southern end of the renowned Pacific peninsula has until recently played second fiddle toTofino. Ucluelet is still more local – this working class town is home to loggers and fishermen. And it’s not so on the map, meaning Ukee is yet to be overrun by tourists during the busy months of summer.

And did I mention it’s not as fancy-schmantzy? This is the place where you can find real Canadian hot dogs (with bacon, cheddar and seasoned onions) and chat with the Ukee Dogs cribbage-playing owner while waiting for your order. To find out what’s really going on in this town of 1,700, we headed to the library – to talk to locals.

That said, the recently opened Whiskey Landing Wharf houses Mark Penney’s eye-popping art gallery and a funky coffee house – signs Ukee is up-and-coming. And the excellent dinner at Norwoods Restaurant made me swear never to say good food and good ambience can only be found in big cities.

In fact, our trek to Ukee was undeniably influenced by the spanking new, year-oldBlack Rock Oceanfront Resort, which literally sits on the treacherous rocks that have caused dozens of shipwrecks. The huge hotel is bringing in a new spate of guests (us included), and sits amidst a development which, given an improving economy, will likely bring even greater change to the area. And just this week, the New York Times included it in its list of 31 Places to Go in 2010. (Enough said. Head to Ucluelet now.)

But what’s truly remarkable about Ucluelet is the natural environment. This is not about the sand and mountain views of Tofino. It’s more rugged. And, unlike Tofino, the beauty isn’t obvious the minute you step out of your car. “At Ucluelet, you have to turn the page,” one local citizen confided.

Which is, as we found out, wonderfully true. Here are our top reasons to head to Ukee.

1. Wild Pacific Trail While there’s plenty of opportunity for beach hikes, the Ukee environment is more rugged. The Wild Pacific Trail – opened in 1999 and still a work in progress – is certainly deserving of the term “Wild Pacific.” Look out through the lush greenery of Canada’s only rainforest towards Barkley Sound and the Broken Islands Group, and the swells leading to faraway Japan. Born-in-BC actor Jason Priestly is a fan. He narrates a 20-minute documentary about visionary Oyster Jim and the trail’s development.

The fantastically maintained trail is fast becoming a tourist draw, and is good for both hikers and ambling walkers (bicycles not allowed). It’s well marked, with signage on history, vegetation and wildlife.

We chose the 2.5 km Lighthouse Loop and witnessed the most stunning sunset, spotted deer and bald eagles, and fantasized about what it would be like to be here during the legendary storm-watching season. (If you’re in Ukee in January or February, submit your best photos to the Winter Wave Photo Showdown.)

2. Broken Group Islands – Wildlife cruises “If people knew about the Broken Group Islands, they wouldn’t go to the [Tofino] hot springs,” Toddy Landry of Archipelago Cruises told me. Toddy and her spouse skipper their luxury yacht out to the Broken Group Islands (gourmet lunch optional), where Alan says sightings of sea lions, harbour seals, sea otters and whales are practically guaranteed.

Another option is donning a red survival suit and heading out into the surf withSubtidal Adventures, which even offers a taste of the “rough stuff” with a “Perfect Storm Cruise.” 

3. Broken Islands Group – Sea kayaking More adventurous types can take lessons and set out in kayaks for three-hour, day-long or four-day trips into the waters and coves of the islands. Majestic Ocean Kayaking also has a whale-watching boat that goes out to Barkley Sound.

4. Ucluelet Mini Aquarium Open only during the summer, Ukee’s little aquarium is a unique establishment, and as far as they know – the only one in the world. “All the specimens are from the local water and get released back at the end of the season,” explains Sheenagh Walker, marketing and information services coordinator for the Ucluelet Chamber of Commerce.

5. The Beaches Finally, for anyone pining for the mainstays of what this part of western Canada is known for – beaches, beachcombing and surfing… Ucluelet offers that, too. We chose the 2.8 km Willowbrae trail to Florencia (Flo) Bay, tracing a portion of a pioneer route that linked Ucluelet and Tofino. Glad we checked the tides, which can change by as much as 3.5m!

No wonder this is a destination for surfers from around the world. Wanna-be’s can take lessons and rent gear from the Ukee Surf School.

Or you can do like I did, and just don your boots and amble through the tidal debris, awe-inspired by the force and beauty of nature.

Finally, if you’re still keen on seeing what Tofino is all about, no problem. It’s just a short 30-minute drive away, with plenty of natural wonders (including Pacific Rim National Park) in between…

[Originally published on

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