Tofino's restaurant scene and Whistler's Cornucopia brighten up stormy weekends

    1 of 5 2 of 5

      Let’s face it: after the fun of Halloween, it can be a challenge to keep your spirits up on the rainy West Coast. November tends to be dark and damp (have you noticed?), and the festivities of December are still a month away. But no-man’s-month is a good time to recharge with a weekend away, and both Tofino and Whistler provide excellent opportunities to eat, drink, and be merry before the holiday frenzy starts.

      In a brilliant stroke of marketing, Tofino has managed to get people excited about visiting in the pounding rain. The town dubs the period from November to February “storm-watching season” (otherwise known as the off-season elsewhere). However, this is more than just clever branding: the swirling winter weather off the west coast of Vancouver Island can indeed be dramatic, and it certainly adds to Tofino’s magical “end of the earth” quality. Besides, there’s something appealing about cozying up in front of the fireplace with a glass of wine, venturing out only occasionally to feel the force of nature.

      Tofino’s culinary scene makes spending time inside extra gratifying. For a town with a winter population of 1,700, it has ridiculously good food. SoBo restaurant, of course, is legendary. Owner and chef Lisa Ahier’s smoked wild fish chowder is an elixir of hearty, creamy comfort, and her Key lime pie is so kick-ass superior to all other versions that it should have its own wedge-shaped action figure.

      The only thing SoBo lacks is a view. It’s located in downtown Tofino, not far from the new Wolf in the Fog restaurant, which opened in June and is already earning national accolades. On my visit in September, every dish impressed, and both the food and the room capture the essence of Tofino. With high cedar ceilings and driftwood sculptures, Wolf in the Fog is elegant, yet it doesn’t put on airs. The servers wear flannel, and the tableware consists of mismatched vintage finds sourced from thrift stores around Vancouver Island.

      Chef and owner Nicholas Nutting, who came from the Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn, emphasizes foraged ingredients, which are plentiful in these parts. For example, his seasonally changing menu includes a Bamfield seaweed salad with shiitake mushrooms, wild rice, and daikon; braised Humboldt squid with merguez sausage and almonds; and delightful alder-smoked oysters, fried in a swirl of shoestring potato threads.

      Long Beach Lodge Resort faces onto Cox Bay, where the rain doesn't deter the hardy surfers.
      Carolyn Ali

      If you’d rather dine while gazing at the ocean, head to the restaurant at Long Beach Lodge Resort. Here in the great room, expansive windows face onto Cox Bay, where you can see hardy surfers paddle out on their boards. Executive chef Ian Riddick also makes use of local products, with seasonally changing dishes such as wild smoked spring salmon on spaghetti squash hash. The chocolate brioche makes an indulgent breakfast, with its buttery flakes concealing a generous, sweet centre.

      Wherever you go in Tofino, at some point you must order a platter of oysters on the half shell because in this town, oysters are as fresh as they get. “It’s a grocery store out there,” said chef Dylan Tilston, gesturing towards the beach at Cox Bay as we chatted in front of Long Beach Lodge, where he was doing an oyster-shucking demo. On an earlier walk, I’d noticed mussel and razor clam shells on the beach, along with bull kelp and more.

      Tilston works at the Fish Store and Oyster Bar in downtown Tofino, where he makes ample use of beach-foraged seaweed as pickles and in salads. Here, you can order cooked versions of the goodies you see on the beach, as well as raw Clayoquot Climax oysters—plump, juicy creatures that are harvested off nearby Meares Island and in the pristine Lemmens Inlet.

      You can tour an oyster farm in Lemmens Inlet and slurp some bivalves plucked straight from the ocean during the Clayoquot Oyster Festival, which takes place from November 13 to 16 this year. With the slogan “Keeping Tofino’s Population Growing Since 1997”, the annual festival doesn’t take itself too seriously and celebrates the joys of eating oysters, drinking wine, and…whatever that leads to.

      Oysters in Tofino are as fresh as can be: these ones come with a view of Cox Bay at Long Beach Lodge.
      Carolyn Ali

      For a food and wine getaway that’s closer to Vancouver, you can’t beat Whistler. Like Tofino, the mountain town has come up with an ingenious way to brighten up the off-season: Cornucopia, an 11-day good-times extravaganza. It all starts this Thursday (November 6) and runs over two weekends until November 16 with winetastings, culinary demonstrations, wine-pairing lunches and dinners, and more.

      On the line from Whistler, the festival’s executive director, Sue Eckersley, explained that there are a few changes for the 18th annual festival. The first is that Crush, the signature tasting event, will happen on one night only—this Saturday (November 8)—rather than two. On Friday (November 7) there’s a new event called Cellar Door, which is a more intimate version of Crush, with about 30 wineries pouring (less than half the number at Crush).

      While the CRUSH winetasting is Cornucopia's signature event, the new Cellar Door evening narrows things down with higher-end bottles.
      Carolyn Ali

      Not only does Cellar Door aim to be a tad less overwhelming than the grand tasting hall at Crush, it has a more refined scope, focusing only on bottles priced at $35 and up. “Cellar Door is providing that much higher-end wine experience,” Eckersley explained, adding that most bottles for tasting retail for more than $50. The event offers a more focused opportunity to try pricier wines before you plunk down the credit card.

      Last year, the festival added a new emphasis on health and wellness, and that continues with the Nourish series. This programming includes a raw-food luncheon, workshops on eating for energy and nurturing your relationship, and yoga and meditation sessions. The Fairmont Chateau Whistler is offering holiday-themed how-to seminars, such as the art of making edible centrepieces, preparing a festive feast, and shaking up holiday cocktails.

      Cornucopia also has events featuring cocktails; above, a caesar from Garibaldi Lift Co. Bar & Grill.
      Carolyn Ali

      Cocktails and beer aren’t overlooked at Cornucopia, with 20 distilleries and 20 breweries participating over the course of the festival. On Sunday (November 9), an event called With a Twist encourages attendees to wander amongst beverage providers and create their own cocktail using products from the participating vendors. “It’s basically a ‘choose-your-own-drink adventure’,” Eckersley said, explaining that for $35, you get five tokens (each good for a half ounce of alcohol) and a glass: you can mix and match hard alcohol, cider, beer, and juices as you choose, experimenting with products and combinations.

      Other popular events are back, including the $45 indoor night market on November 14, which focuses on street food from around the world. The grazing event was perhaps too popular for its own good last year, so it’s been tweaked this year with a “Passport” system. When they visit each of the 14 food vendors and 14 beverage vendors, ticket holders will get a stamp on their passport. “We’re trying to guarantee that everyone has the same experience,” Eckersley explained, so you can rest assured that if you come later in the evening, the best bites will still be available.

      After all, a weekend getaway is about slowing down and relaxing already. Cheers to that! 

      ACCESS: The writer travelled to Tofino as a guest of Tourism Vancouver Island and stayed at Long Beach Lodge Resort. For info on getting to Tofino, see  Tourism Vancouver Island, Tourism Tofino, and For oyster fest info, see the Clayoquot Oyster FestivalThe writer travelled to Whistler as a guest of Tourism Whistler; for accommodation info, see For wine-fest info and tickets, see Cornucopia.