Tofino surfing seattle met vktmz2
The New Wave Surveying the breaks in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve near Tofino

Image: Kamil Bialous

Until you’re doing underwater somersaults under a crashing wave while your long board bobs on the surface, you don’t really believe what people say—surfing the Pacific in a wet suit really isn’t that cold. Honest. 

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to hang ten in Tofino, a small town on the western coast of Vancouver Island. Pacific Ocean breakers are so massive they draw the best surfers in the world, and the cross-island highway is two hours of hairpin turns and warnings not to stop the car under unstable rock walls. There’s a reason they call this Tough City.

“Everyone surfs,” says a young man working behind the bar of the Inn at Tough City hotel and sushi bar, the night before I dip my first toe into the water. “Only a handful don’t, and even they probably say they do.” 

He’s the son of the joint’s infamous owner, Crazy Ron Gauld, who built his harborside hotel from salvaged materials—brick from Vancouver’s Gastown, granite from Austria. Asked how he got such materials to this distant backwater, all Crazy Ron will say is, “Stole it!” 

The town of fewer than 2,000 residents—average age 34—is home to nine surf shops and several schools, but Surf Sister is one of the oldest. Launched in 1999 by women and for women, the school has since opened its lessons to men, who make up 40 percent of students. Instructors are still an all-distaff crew, with some instructing since their mid teens. Once a year the school hosts a Queen of the Peak surf contest with specialized perks like free child care and dog care and a beachside massage tent.

Surf lessons begin with the Tough City uniform: the wet suit. The neoprene here is as heavy duty as it comes, meant to withstand sub-40s ocean temperatures. Donning a wet suit is like trying to climb inside a sticky rubber band, and no one looks graceful doing it.

Surf sister tofino hlfufa
A Surf Sister session in progress

Too chicken to long board? Tofino has options. 

Soaking  Hot Springs Cove’s blistering waters are cooled by Pacific waves in a natural beachfront pool, accessible only by boat or floatplane plus a moderate boardwalk stroll. 

Hiking  Ucluelet may not have the flash of Tofino, but it does have scenic routes of the Wild Pacific Trail along the bluffs—not to be confused with BC’s much more rugged West Coast Trail.

Watching  Catch gray whales during their commute between Alaska and Mexico; even if you miss the whales, you’ll likely catch lounging sea lions, belly-up sea otters, or bears strolling on shore. 

Steaming  Ancient Cedars Spa at the Wickaninnish has a cave-shaped steam room with light-up (fake) boulders and a portal with an ocean view.

Scouting  Locals are wary of sending tourists on the so-called Bomber Trail, a hike out to a Royal Canadian Air Force plane crash from 1945—lost hikers are common, so be wary of Internet directions.

Amid the driftwood of Cox Bay Beach, our wet-suited class traces surfboards in the thick sand to practice the fundamentals of surfing: paddling (it looks especially silly in the sand) and popping up to a standing position. Then it’s time to get wet.

We stand in waist-high water and attempt Gidget moves on nine-foot long boards. The paddling, belly down on the board, is both crucial and terrifically exhausting. Popping up is even harder. We’re all falling, a lot; fortunately Tofino’s all-sand beaches—few rocks, no reefs—make for a safe classroom.

Surfing, like most outdoor sports, takes time to master. What’s remarkable is how quickly a greenhorn can almost, sort of do it—most newbies, despite fumbles, pop up at least once. 

Tofino’s après-surf tradition is more classic than the outfits: Mexican grub at Tacofino, a food truck so established its wheels have been replaced by two-by-fours. Fish tacos come with lingcod or albacore tuna and sriracha or wasabi mayo. One only has to scan the footwear of patrons in line to confirm it’s a local’s spot: rubber boots, flip-flops, the occasional bare feet sticking out from a wet suit peeled down to the waist.

Sandwiched between the crashing Pacific Ocean and placid Clayoquot Sound, Tofino is understandably an outdoor playground. What separates Tofino from its twin town of Ucluelet to the south is a surprising indoor, luxury-linens kind of culture; it’s not all bare feet and surf bums.

The Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach pops up on best-of, gold, and four-diamond lists around the world. It hits high-luxury marks even from an extra-remote location: fireplaces, plush bathrobes, turndown service with musical selections. The windows in the guest-only Lookout Library are designed for storm watching, though the soaking tubs in each room have just as good a view. 

While the high-end Wickaninnish should be at odds with laid-back Tofino, it’s just unshowy enough to fit in; even the manager, son of the hotel founder and a veteran of the Seattle Four Seasons, fits a surf break into his workday.

Fine dining at Wolf in the Fog

The Wolf in the Fog has a harder task, fitting a fine dining restaurant between surf shops and fish-and-chips windows in the middle of town. Opened last summer by a former Wickaninnish chef, the two-story restaurant serves themed, sharable plates: local duck with a beetroot and Gorgonzola lasagna or a Szechuan twist on surf-and-turf. It’s the only place in town where you can add foie gras to any dish.

But despite the towering wooden beams above and craft cocktails at the bar, this is still Tofino. The menu offers “a six-pack for the kitchen” for $10, $5 cheaper than the foie gras add-on. The kitchen staff gets a reverse buy-back from grateful patrons almost daily. In this grown-up surf town, only the chilly waves are all that tough.