In this post, the second of our two part guide to a budget road trip on Vancouver island, we cover the Tofino and Ucluelet leg of our journey. Click here for the first part, detailing Victoria and things to do on the drive to Tofino.
Town of Ucluelet
Finally we stopped into the town of Ucluelet to check into our hotel, which turned out to be more like a motel, which for the price was just fine. Ucluelet is vastly cheaper to stay in than the more hipster central Tofino. Although our main activity of the trip was in Tofino, it made more financial sense to stay and eat in Ucluelet and then drive to Tofino than it did to stay there. We found that many of the eateries in the town close fairly early, which at the time seemed disappointing, but we ended up eating at the pub, Eagle's Nest, just a hundred feet from our accommodation which overlooked the harbour. Eating locally caught fish and chips, watching eagles soaring and seals frolicking in the water was a great way to rest after an amazing day of road-tripping. The place we stayed at was the Island West resort, expect a 'rustic' experience, but as only a place to rest your head for a night or two between adventures, it was just fine.
DAY 3 - Bears and beaches at Pacific Rim National Reserve
Much like the first and second days on the island, we arose very early on day three and made our way to the beautiful little town of Tofino. En route to the town, we noticed a black bear and her cub rummaging through the foliage near the road. As such we stopped some distance away and took some pictures with our telephoto lens. Canada Parks has a strict set of guidelines about how close you are allowed to be with wildlife such as bears, cougars, wolves, moose and so on. Perhaps the most important of these being that you are not to leave your vehicle as this can startle animals and cause distress. Instead invest in a budget lens so you can get great pictures without distracting them.
Thanks to the early hour (6am) we were the only ones on the road and were able to stop for a while and watch the bears going about their morning routine. We couldn't stop for long however as we had booked with Ocean Outfitters for an adventure to hot springs cove. This was our only "splurge" on the trip and I can't tell you enough how amazing this excursion was! If you decide to take a boat to the hot springs, the single most important piece of advice would be to get the 7am boat. Being the first to the cove made it so magical, this coupled with the small size of the hot springs made it essential. We had roughly an hour on our own (with the 5 others from our boat) and I can't imagine how disappointing it would have been to arrive and see people already in the springs. The hot springs tour is available year round and you can enjoy extra savings by going in the off season (winter).
As we arrived at Ocean Outfitters, I was overjoyed to find they offered tea and coffee (essential for a 6am start). Once the rest of our group had arrived, we were given a quick safety demonstration and within minutes of me finishing my tea we were on the boat. The boat journey not only served as a means to get to the gorgeous hot springs, but they also allocated time on the way to watch for whales and the legendary sea wolves that live on the islands en route. An added bonus of booking with Ocean Outfitters as opposed to another operator in Tofino is that they carbon offset their trips, and they are the same price as competitors, perfect!
A while passed again as we made our way north to the hot springs before again the drumming of the engine became quiet and we approached slowly a huge exposed rock in the middle of the water. Not long after the boat stopped, we were hit with an extreme stench, something like rotting fish but different. Then I noticed the rock was home to dozens of sea lions. While the telephoto lens wasn't essential, as the sea lions could be seen clearly without, using it as binoculars really came in handy. We could make out the dominant male, the bull, proudly protecting his herd of fragrant females. Watching the sea lions, in such sheer number was brilliant and something I certainly hadn't expected from our journey.
We visited in June, however if you were to visit a month or two earlier, your chances of seeing the iconic humpbacks shooting up from the water in all their glory would be much higher. Although it would be worth mentioning, you would likely sacrifice the hot temperatures to some degree.
At the end of the boardwalk trail, you will notice a washroom to your left, changing rooms and a viewing deck ahead and the hot springs themselves down and to the right. There are only two changing rooms, so unless you want to change in the washrooms, being some of the first of your group to arrive prevents waiting in line to change, and subsequently eating away at your time in the springs.
To help you prepare for your trip to the hot springs, below is a list of things you will need:
After getting changed, leave your bags and shoes under the bench in the changing area and head down to the springs!
The hot springs themselves are like nothing I have ever seen before in my entire life. There are essentially three sections to the springs, the first being a smallish pool being fed by a mini waterfall. The first pool is by far the hottest. No matter how many times I read this or was told by our guide, I still wasn't prepared for just how hot the first pool was and it took some time for my body to adjust to the heat, even as someone who enjoys a scolding hot bath or shower! The second pool is the easiest to spend time in, being the largest and slightly cooler than the first. The third pool of the hot springs was the smallest and the coolest of all. We made the mistake of leaving the hot springs at the end of the third pool to then walk around to the first again, don't bother doing this, as its only slippery jagged rocks without anything to see. If you need to go back to the changing rooms or a different pool, go back the way you came.
As there was two of us, I decided to take my phone down to the pools so we could take pictures of one another. I could see this being a little more tricky with one person as you need both hands at times to climb around the pools, but by that time you may likely be close enough to your party on the boat to ask them to take a picture or two with your phone.
Laying back in the hot springs, gazing over to the rainforest canopy and listening to the waves crashing to the rocks just meters away was more relaxing than any spa. You will have about an hour on your own until the next boat of people arrive, which honestly is about the most comfortable amount of time you can spend in the hot waters. After getting changed and heading slowly back down the boardwalk, we stopped off at the raised viewing platform for a while to eat our lunch.
Although we weren't scheduled to leave the island for another 5 or 10 minutes, as our entire party was at the boat and our guide had finished swimming and fishing in the harbour, we left a little early and started the hour and a half boat ride back. Again we stopped several times heading towards Tofino, first so our guide could teach us a little about the negative effects of the salmon farms located in the area and then later again as we came across a raft of sea otters (see photo earlier in post). Seeing the families of otters lovingly holding each others hands as they floated together in the ocean was a perfect way to finish our ocean excursion!
Walking around Tofino is a beautiful and budget friendly way to spend an afternoon. The town itself is gorgeous with a mix of west coast charm and small fishing town. There are a number of parks and viewpoints to see, all within walking distance of each other. We purchased food from the grocery store in Ucluelet and had a relaxing picnic.
Leaving Tofino as soon as we arrived back on Terra Firma, we made a quick stop off at Long Beach just outside of Tofino. As the name suggests, the beach goes on for as far as the eye can see in both directions. The part that impressed me most however was how the beach had a mysterious haze just above the waterfront which seemed to get further away as you approached it. It's a well known surfers paradise and we spent maybe half an hour wandering along the shore watching them before continuing our journey onward, this time to Nanaimo. The Rainforest Walk in Pacific Rim was highly recommended to us but unfortunately we did not have time to do the hike! Something to consider if you plan to visit Tofino.
Please note: to stop in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve we needed to have a Parks Canada pass. If you are travelling to more than one Canadian NP or for an extended period of time within the park (more than a week), the cheapest pass is the Discovery Pass. This can be used for 12 months of unlimited entry into some of Canada's most famous parks, such as Banff and Yoho. We purchased ours right before the new year (December 2018) and got an extra 20% off.
As mentioned before, there are frequent road closures between Port Alberni and Tofino, as such we spent half an hour at Kennedy Lake so we only had to wait in construction traffic for maybe 20 minutes (not that we're complaining!). Make sure you check closure times before making travel plans. The itself was gorgeous (see photo below) and we went for a quick swim in the summer heat while others relaxed on the beach.
By the time we arrived into Nanaimo, it was getting a little later in the afternoon and as such decided to relax at the airbnb and only venture out for dinner. The airbnb's in Nanaimo are some of the cheapest on the entire island and we would strongly recommend you take advantage of this in planning your trip. We stayed in a beautiful house in a quiet neighbourhood with a really accommodating Chinese couple. Which was HALF the price of the 'rustic' motel back in Ucluelet, which is a little horrifying. The couple recommended a local sushi restaurant Nori, which just so happens to be widely considered the best sushi in the whole of Canada. We arrived without a reservation and managed luckily to be seated, however I would recommend calling ahead of time to book. Even with a tag as lofty as theirs, the prices were really reasonable and service was fast.