TOFINO AND UCLUELET 40 YEARS LATER
It was the late 1960s and the surf music of the Beachboys had given way to the Abbey Road sound of the Beatles on Canadian pop charts but surfing was big news at Long Beach.
Most of us teenagers down in Victoria had only ever heard of Long Beach, California until some wayward surfers came up with the idea of holding a surfing championship in the waves off of Long Beach, Vancouver Island.
There were few real surfers on the Island in those days but plenty of kids looking to party and all of a sudden in the summer of 1966 Long Beach, a 16-kilometre stretch of sand lying between the isolated villages of Ucluelet and Tofino * (see below) was inundated with thousands of teens and youths from Victoria. Nobody really paid much attention to the surfing but the partying went on all through the night and for days on end.
It was word of mouth about these unofficial ‘surfing championships’ that opened Long Beach and the west coast of Vancouver Island to the world stage. When the surfing and partying was done some of the young people from Victoria and the Lower Mainland gathered at Wreck Bay and took up the hippy life style in earnest, (this included a lot of nudity and pot smoking). It is said that 50-year-old Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau first saw 22-year-old Margaret Sinclair naked on the beach at Wreck Bay when he came to inspect what was to become Pacific Rim National Park.
Other young entrepreneurs bought land and built small cabins. One of these was a friend of mine and he let me and my girl friend, use the cabin with its cozy loft for a couple of weeks one summer. The cabin was located on the cliff top just above the Old Wickanninish Inn. There were no surfers around at the time and the long beautiful beach was very quiet. We enjoyed romps in the ‘cold’ surf and dinners at the Wickanninish restaurant. The year was 1970 and it was the last time I was in the area until a week ago.
The road in from Port Alberni is much improved but there are still some winding sections. Fortunately most – but not all – of the slower drivers pulled over onto the many designated areas and, all-in-all, the drive went pretty well. The trip from Victoria took about four hours with stops for breakfast and gasoline.
Ucluelet is closest to the highway turnoff so Maggie and I visited there first. Forty years ago Ucluelet was a dark and damp little place but was popular for having the only liquor store in the area. Today it is a beautiful and clean spot with an array of good restaurants, Bed & Breakfast inns, hotels, motels and resorts.
My niece Haley lives in Tofino so Maggie and I decided to spend the night there. It was Labour Day weekend and the town was quite busy but we were lucky to get a room at the Schooner Motel right in the centre of the village. The Schooner is typical 1960s but clean and comfortable. The rooms come with cable TV, microwave and kettle. Complimentary coffee and tea are available in the patio next to the office.
The location is superb and we were able to walk everywhere. It was a beautiful sunny day and Tofino was looking its finest. Although now a world-famous destination the town has maintained its charm and there are only a sprinkling of ‘modern’ buildings and no ‘franchise’ outlets except for the gas station on the outskirts of town. We visited the Roy Henry Vickers gallery (I went to school with him at Oak Bay High) and then walked down to the little park overlooking the harbour and watched the boats chugging back and forth.
The town was filled with holiday makers and it was obvious that surfing is a major attraction as the many surf specialty shops were all busy all of the time. There were also lots of charter outfits offering whale and bear watching. (We had seen a small black bear on the side of the road during our drive in.)
We met up with my ‘surf and ski mad’ niece at a pub right on the water and enjoyed the sunshine and a cold beer.
Later we walked around the town looking for a place to eat and were fortunate to find the Sea Shanty which overlooks the harbour. Like all the restaurants in town it was busy but we were seated right away and did not have to wait long for the food. Maggie ordered the ‘hot’ salmon salad and I had my favourite halibut and chips. The batter was light and about as healthy as a batter can be – if a batter can be healthy that is. We had a cozy booth for two. No window seats were available but we had a decent view of the harbour and there is an outdoor deck that gets a bit cold when the sun goes down.
With a bottle of house wine and tip the bill came to $70.
Back to the motel we went and enjoyed one of the quietest nights’ sleep I have had in a long time.
In the morning we walked down to investigate the funky cafes and found two of the busiest ones offered internet service. For breakfast Haley took us to a ‘hippy-surfer’ enclave a few kilometers out of town. The main sign read Beaches but there were half a dozen establishments sharing the unpaved ground. This place really reminded me of the sixties. We sat outside eating spicy chiabattas of chorizo, egg, tomato, and guacamole. The chiabattas were $11 but a meal in themselves. A beautiful blue jay hopped down from a bush to steal some scraps.
To finish our short visit we drove to Long Beach to walk along the shore. My friend’s cabin is long gone and the site is now used for staff housing. In 1971 Long Beach became part of Pacific Rim National Park. Somewhere along the way the original Wickanninish Inn burned down. It was rebuilt as a gallery-tourist shop-cum-information centre but there is a new Pointe Restaurant offering beautiful views. This government operated Wickannish is not to be confused with the private Wickanninish Inn Resort which is at the other end of Long Beach closer to Tofino.
The trip to Ucluelet, Long Beach, Tofino and the Pacific Rim was the first for Maggie and she loved it. She can now boast to family in London that she has put her toes in the water on the east coast of Newfoundland and the west coast of Vancouver Island.
It was a great trip and I was happy to see that if anything the region is better now that it was forty years ago. I just wish my friend had been allowed to keep his cabin. The government only gave him $2500 for it.
The night at the Schooner cost $143 including tax but accommodation prices in the region drop dramatically after the Labour Day weekend. We rented a Toyota Yaris from Enterprise Rent-a-Car and it cost only $80 from 1 p.m. Saturday to 1 p.m. Tuesday. Our total outlay for gas was only $70.
* Tofino is named after Admiral Vincente Tofino de San Miguel who was hydrographer to the King of Spain. His name was initially given to the inlet by Spanish explorers Dionisio Alcalá Galiano and Cayetano Valdés sailed along the west coast in the summer of 1792 in their vessels Sutil and Mexicana. The first settlement was initially called Clayoquot but became Tofino when the post office opened in 1909.
For accommodations in the area please visit http://www.bctravel.com/tofino.html