by Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
The southwest coast of Canada defined by the outer edge of Vancouver Island is a remote and rugged shoreline facing the Pacific Ocean. Striking out to the west across the open ocean, the next bit of land on the journey would be the string of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and from there one continues west to the Siberian/Russian coast!Despite its name, this ocean is rarely “peaceful” though it is endlessly fascinating in all the nooks and crannies of its deeply crenulated bays and coves and its collection of islands, favored by many marine mammals and birds. The small Resort Municipality of Ucluelet, www.ucluelet.ca, is the perfect strategic headquarters for our exploration of everything.
Once upon a time in the 1950s and 1960s, the west coast of Vancouver Island existed solely on forestry and fishing. Today, these industries have seriously declined in economic importance and tourism rules in every season of this year round destination. World-renowned Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, www.pc.gc.ca/en/pn-np/bc/pacificrim opened in 1971, was the game changer. It protects a large area of temperate rainforest coastline, and is now a major draw to the area which today has car-friendly roads smoothly paved and well signposted. However, you still have to work at it to get there.
Despite Ucluelet’s small permanent population of 1,627, it delivers resorts and spas, fine dining experiences and delicious food truck specialties, and a remarkable range of outdoor adventures suitable for different ages and multi-generational holidays. Tourist activities include surfing, fishing, whale watching, kayaking, camping, hiking, storm watching, biking, and beachcombing. Birders are kept busy looking for 250 seabird species native to the area.
Topmost among the attractions are Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the extensive Wild Pacific Trail www.wildpacifictrail.com network, and a path-breaking waterfront aquarium in Ucluelet that introduces visitors to the color and diversity of local marine life. It is the world’s first catch-and-release aquarium with dive teams returning all their plant and animal residents – from fish and octopus to anemones and starfish – to the exact location where they were captured six to eight months earlier.
Inside the Pacific Rim Park, aptly named Long Beach is six miles non-stop making it the longest stretch of uninterrupted beach on Vancouver Island’s west coast. Long also applies to the nearly one mile that the water recedes when the tide goes out, making it a shallow warm beach for swimmers of all ages. Here too is a world-renowned destination for experienced and novice surfers with surf shops ready to offer lessons and gear to test the waves year round.
Majestic Ocean Kayaking www.oceankayaking.com offers half-day harbor exploration, day- and multi-day tours with certified guides, lessons, gourmet food and top of the line single and double kayaks. For experienced kayakers, the company also offers unguided rentals.
Subtidal Adventures www.subtidaladventures.com has two equally rewarding options: Zodiac tours among the islands and a more leisurely shoreline cruise aboard its restored Coast Guard rescue boat with owner, Brian Congdon at the helm. He is a former Pacific Rim park warden, very knowledgeable about the natural and cultural history of the area.
For visitors keen to stretch their legs, the well-maintained, 10-plus kilometer Wild Pacific Trail is exhilarating. It blends a dense forest canopy of wind-twisted conifers with a black volcanic foreshore pounded by churning waves, all capped off by an iconic lighthouse. Hundreds of citizens, businesses, landowners and the district of Ucluelet have contributed their time, money and ideas to maintain this trail in a real community effort. For very good reason, TripAdvisor readers have voted it as the #2 Outdoor Attraction in British Columbia and among the top 10 activities in Canada.
Ucluelet delivers more than its share of creative, even quirky, cuisine. I never had a mediocre meal in a week! This is not the realm of cookie-cutter fast food franchises though there is plenty of choice to purchase for a picnic, to enjoy back at your accommodation or to sit in the a restaurant maybe taking in a fine view of the harbor too. Here are a few of my own very diverse favorites around Ucluelet.
For best black volcanic sea view and a bit of luxury, a 10-minute drive to the Black Rock Oceanfront Resort offers a complete dining experience at its Fetch Restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner. During the summer months, dine on the outdoor patio overlooking the active surge channel and the Wild Pacific Trail.
I discovered the Raven Lady Oyster Forte food truck in the town square next to a towering silver statue of a voluptuous Raven Lady, an oddity to be sure in a village on the edge of the Pacific. The talented food truck chef has created an amazing selection of dishes in which fresh Pacific oysters are the centerpiece. Another worthy eatery on wheels is Jiggers Fish & Chips where the battered fish and the prawns are fabulous. There is always a lineup.
Zoe’s Bakery & Café is a fascinating gathering place just off the main street and waterfront with fresh-baked savory and sweet offerings for meals or snacks. It’s “About” page says everything you need to know, and I certainly can’t deliver the message any better: “We are a whole foods bakery using organic when possible, locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients, and aren’t afraid to use a little (okay, a lot) of butter … The bakery boasts no wifi – our view of Ucluelet’s inner harbor is first class and the people around you, locals and visitors alike, are as excited to chat about their passion for this place as you are.” So there!
About ten blocks out of town on the way to the Pacific Rim Park, Howler’s Family Restaurant and Bowling Alley is a 1950s throw-back if ever there was one. A young couple with a lot of cooking talent arrived in town to buy a restaurant but couldn’t find one for sale that didn’t come with an attached multi-lane bowling alley, competition-sized pool tables, an arcade and a spacious indoor play area for children. You get all these bonuses thrown into your meal price for free.
For a lunch or dinner recommendation, go no further than the Ucluelet marina gangway to step aboard the Floathouse Patio & Grill. It offers casual dining with an emphasis on fresh local seafood and a comfortable bar to swap stories with those friendly locals you will keep tripping over.
During popular festivals and especially given the diminutive size of Ucluelet, it is highly recommended to book accommodation or tent space well in advance. Or if you have a boat to sleep in, there is an excellent, full-service marina. These festivals are worth building into your calendar. Almost everything is free or nearly free … another bonus of small towns.
The Pacific Rim Whale Festival, in March, marks the opening of the region’s renowned whale watching season and celebrates the annual migration of over 20,000 Grey whales on their journey from Mexico’s Baja Peninsula along the British Columbia and Alaska coasts to the Bering Sea. The annual Edge to Edge Marathon, each June, capitalizes on the scenic trails, beaches and parks. Visiting runners are always welcome!
In July, Ukee Days is a three-day weekend festival celebrating west coast life featuring Logger Sports, live music and performances, and awesome food from pancake breakfasts to salmon and oyster barbeques. And finally, in September it’s all about west coast art and life during the Cultural Heritage Festival.
Ucluelet illustrates that you don’t have to get bigger to be better at what you do. After spending a week in and around the region, my husband and I were ready to just buy a house and not bother to go home. I like my home a few hundred miles away in Victoria, but the pull to this community was surprisingly strong. We even visited a realtor … now that was a close one! The region’s never-ending natural beauty and the town’s vibrant energy will continue to draw new visitors and old friends like me.
For complete information about Ucluelet, visit www.ucluelet.ca. Ucluelet (pronounced you-KLEW-let) is a local First Nations (native) word meaning “safe harbor”. Whale Watching season runs from March to May. Storm Watching season extends from November to March. Book well ahead during these times. Looking for a place to stay while in the Ucluelet and Pacific Rim region? In our sister article, we recommend three diverse self-catering gems, where location and design are a big part of each distinctive experience. Recognizing that this region is a year round destination, we also recommend checking out our Pacific Rim storm watching feature article which offers additional active adventures and more unusual accommodations that senior readers will enjoy. Getting to Vancouver Island: By car or bus, Ucluelet and the Pacific coast are about 1.5 hours on first-class paved road from the nearest city, Port Alberni. On this road expect lots of curves, elevation changes and spectacular mountain and lake scenery. There are scheduled flights to larger Island cities, and ferries from the British Columbia mainland and from Washington state in the U.S. that sail to Vancouver Island daily. For complete Vancouver Island information, visit vancouverisland.travel/.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of the globally-respected Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.