The road to Tofino has reopened after recent closures due to forest fires, so it's time to head back to the wild west coast beaches, to photograph, forage and feast.
Words and photos
By CINDA CHAVICH
The beach is the backdrop to everything here. The big waves that curl and crash over miles of soft sand create a playground for surfers, a bounty for beachcombers and a constant white noise, as mesmerizing as the veil of fog that often rolls in behind. I'm content to stroll the packed sand as the tide retreats, and simply sit and stare at the truly majestic magnitude of it all.
But when the tide is out, exposing all of that sand, it also exposes some amazing rocks and tide pools filled with underwater life, spectacular to observe, photograph and forage.
The cellphone coverage is spotty and the WiFi even worse, which makes these beaches the perfect place to unplug, unwind and just sit back and smell the seaweed. Or taste it.
Yes, that’s on the agenda, too, for these pristine coastal waters are home to 20 kelp species, the highest concentration and diversity in the world. Healthy sea vegetables are the latest hot kitchen-commodities, and Tofino chefs have a bounty of choices, from the kelp and sea lettuce waving in the shallows, to the salty sea asparagus and dune spinach sprouting on the shore.
An estimated 650,000 tonnes of wild kelp grows along the province’s coast, with bull kelp being the fastest growing seaweed on earth, growing from a tiny spore to a 61-metre plant
in a single summer.
At the Wolf in the Fog in downtown Tofino, Chef Nicholas Nutting combines bull kelp and kombu fronds from Canadian Kelp Resources in his tasty Bamfield Seaweed Salad, a textural feast of sautéed shiitake mushrooms, crisp daikon radish, kelp ribbons and crunchy puffed wild rice, in a warm sesame soy vinaigrette. Arriving in long dehydrated strips, it’s blanched and julienned, the chewy, crinkly kelp starring in this creative, Asian-inspired dish.
And there's plenty of other local west coast fare on the Wolf in the Fog menu, from salmon and Humbolt Squid (the largest in the sea, weighing up to 100 pounds), to Giant Pacific Octopus, mussels in romesco sauce, and even occasional feast of rare gooseneck barnacles.
Even the casual observer will find all manner of interesting sea plants on a stroll along Tofino’s expansive beaches. But if you’re really curious about seaweed, the local Raincoast Education Society offers free Raincoast Walks to explore the intertidal zone at low tide, and a three-day Seaweeds of the West Coast field course.
Or check out West Coast Nest in Ucluelet for a list of guided walks along the Wild Pacific Trail, learning with Parks Canada naturalists, and exploring tidal pools and shorelines with the Ucluelet Aquarium.
Look for other top chefs featuring the coastal bounty on their menus, too, from Chef Ian Riddick and his casual Heartwood Kitchen to Pluvio's Chef Warren Barr, where sophisticated techniques and plating makes their tasting menus sing.
Riddick is a mushroom forager and finds chanterelles and other tasty treats on his regular beach and rainforest walks. He smokes his own salmon, makes his own “Cox Bay Salt,” and pickles bull kelp tubes with ginger and rice vinegar to create a crisp relish. You may find sea asparagus or spring nettles on his Ucluelet menus, too.
Barr, who opened Pluvio Restaurant + Rooms in Ucluelet with his partner Lily Verney-Downey, after both spent several years at the Relais & Chateau Wickaninnish Inn, offers three-course dinners and five-course tasting menus, which may include his unique Humdog starter (Humboldt squid on a tiny toasted bun), Albacore Tuna Crudo with bull kelp, fermented lettuce and citrusy elderflower granita, or caramelized ling cod with side stripe shrimp and corn grits.
WHEN THE TIDE IS OUT
Vast beaches and breaking waves, natural sculptures of sand and seaweed, rocks encrusted with rare gooseneck barnacles and wild mussels, shorebirds and driftwood all creating a stunning still life — this is a place that’s pristine and powerful, inspirational and intoxicating.
Coastal indigenous people know about the bounty of the sea, coining the oft-cited phrase, "When the tide is out, the table is set." And here at the rugged end of the road, explorations along these pristine beaches, are a testament to those traditions.
Come for the wilderness, for some beach time, and to meet the creative people who call this remote, spectacular and sophisticated corner of Canada their home.
EXPLORE VANCOUVER ISLAND BEACHES
The beaches of Vancouver Island’s wild west coast are renowned for their big surf and changeable weather. The most famous is legendary Long Beach, in Pacific Rim National Park, a 16-kilometre swath of sand backstopped by windswept, old-growth conifers and tangled driftwood. Walk all day or climb Incinerator Rock for a fantastic view. The others are: Chesterman Beach It’s a 2.7-km stretch of white sand. The Wickaninnish Inn is at the north end of the beach, and there are posh homes and B&Bs along the beach, with its tide pools and sandspit to Frank Island, walkable at low tide. Cox Bay Beach Home to resorts including Pacific Sands Beach Resort, the Long Beach Lodge and the Cox Bay Beach Resort, this 1.5-km beach is a surfer’s paradise. MacKenzie Beach There are campgrounds, cabins and hotels along this beach that’s sheltered by tidal rocks, with calm waters suited to swimming and paddle-boarding. Wickaninnish Beach A section of Long Beach, this stretch includes the Kwisitis Visitor Centre, massive sand dunes and piles of driftwood brought in on powerful ocean waves. Tonquin Beach The easy-walking trail that leads to this beach starts less than a kilometre from the post office in downtown Tofino. Follow the boardwalk and stairs down to the beach for white sand and spectacular sunsets.