Come winter, there's more to Tofino than storm watching

Clayoquot Sound offers exhilarating marine experiences year-round

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      With whipping winds and wild waves, storm watching has been a thing in Tofino for years now.

      Witnessing the power of the Pacific from late fall through spring is truly an awe-inspiring experience. But there’s another side to a winter getaway in Tofino—literally.

      Tofino Inlet is a jumping-off point for various adventures in Clayoquot Sound, the ancestral home of the aaḥuusʔatḥ (Ahousaht), hišqʷiʔatḥ (Hesquiaht), and ƛaʔuukʷiʔatḥ (Tla-o-qui-aht) Nations, which make up the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations.

      With a boardwalk and a 90-minute boat ride, getting to Hot Springs Cove is half the fun.
      Gail Johnson.

      Hot Springs Cove

      There are a few advantages to visiting the spectacular ocean-facing geothermal hot springs between Hesquiat Peninsula and Flores Island outside of peak season: for one, the six intertidal pools are small, and come summer, the place is packed; you might well find yourself standing shoulder to shoulder in your skivvies waiting in line to make your way from one pool to the next. Plus, soaking in nature’s hot tub is that much more invigorating when it’s chilly and pouring or even snowing outside.

      It’s 90 minutes by boat from the inlet to the dock at Maquinna Marine Provincial Park and Protected Area; with big winter swells, you may want a dose of Gravol for the jaggedly beautiful journey. From there, it’s about a half-hour walk along a two-kilometre boardwalk that winds through ancient rainforest, unfolding as if in a West Coast story book.

      At Hot Springs Cove, the pool closest to the ocean cools down every time a wave splashes in.
      Gail Johnson.

      You’ll smell the hot springs before you see them, the earth’s naturally occurring sulfur wafting up through steam.

      The hottest of the six pools is about 50 degrees Celsius, each one getting a bit cooler as you get closer to the sea. In that last rocky basin, ocean swells swoosh in, giving you a brief blast of salt-water chill.

      On the boat ride there and back, you might see humpback whales, otters, eagles, seals, sea lions, and other wildlife.

      Tofino Resort & Marina offers paddle-boarding adventures to remote locations.
      Liam MacDonald.

      Stand up paddle-boarding

      While you can easily launch from Tofino Inlet yourself, Tofino Resort & Marina offers paddle-boarding excursions that take you out for longer journeys right from its harbourside Adventure Centre. (Adjacent is the dock where Harbour Air Seaplanes come in from spring through fall, flights being less than an hour from downtown Vancouver.) Boards and paddles get strapped to a sturdy Grady-White fishing boat to take you to further-flung places such as Fortune Channel or Warne Bay. 

      Guides like Liam MacDonald, a photographer, scour the coastline for black bears so you can see them onshore from a safe and respectful distance; he points out sights like an enormous eagle’s nest that’s said to be more than 100 years old and the skull and bones of a grey whale that sit atop a little waterfront house.

      Once the boat is anchored and your board deployed, you might cruise by a cove with abandoned fishing boats, a kind of eerie coastal graveyard; there’s an old, forgotten bridge you can paddle right up to, once used for log trains that carved through the Alberni Valley as far back as 1912. Surrounded by emerald islets, you can lie down your board to take it all in, surrounded by pure silence and the calm of the Sound.

      Not for the faint of heart, freediving is becoming more popular.
      Jeremy Koreski.


      Watch freediving become the next big thing. Winter is the time to start planning for this next-level aquatic experience, which involves underwater diving without a breathing apparatus. Come spring, Victoria-based Bottom Dwellers partners with Tofino Resort + Marina for Performance Freediving International (PFI) courses. (Bottom Dwellers books private courses while in winter mode.) Advance prep is crucial: You need to have your own gear, such as a weight belt and fins, as well as the willingness and mental stamina to learn to dive deep without an oxygen tank despite the risk of burst eardrums or blackouts.

      The resort’s president, Willie Mitchell, a former Vancouver Canucks player who went on to win two Stanley Cups with the L.A. Kings, is an avid certified freediver himself.

      “It’s spiritual and healing,” says Mitchell, who hails from Port McNeil and can hold his breath for about 45 seconds. “You feel in control and in tune with your body.”

      Mitchell, an avid fisherman, says freediving is especially popular among surfers, who feel a connection to the ocean, and chefs, who see the sea as part of nature’s pantry.

      Former NHL star Willie Mitchell, president of Tofino Resort & Marina, swapped hockey for fishing and freediving.
      Tofino Resort & Marina.

      Top Chef Canada champion Paul Moran, executive chef of 1909 Kitchen and the Hatch Waterfront Pub, is a fellow certified freediver. Having grown up foraging on land, he has added ethical hand-harvesting of marine ingredients such as acorn barnacles, gooseneck barnacles, and seaweeds to his skill set. 

      On the final day of the Tide to Table freediving course, participants take in the resort restaurant’s Tide to Table Experience, harvesting some of the ingredients from local waters for a celebratory meal prepared by Moran and his culinary crew.