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Sixty years ago Southwestern Vancouver Island’s isolated coastal villages survived on fishing and logging. With a mail and freight boat docking at the government wharf maybe once a week, and a few narrow, rutted logging roads that no ordinary car would dare to tackle, tourists were nonexistent. Sweeping cream-colored sand beaches fringed with piled-high driftwood logs that were regarded as worthless, except for the occasional family picnic.
Today, the value of fishing and forestry has seriously declined and tourism rules in every season, even during the popular winter storm watching season from November to March. World-renowned Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, established in 1971, protects much of this pristine temperate rainforest coastline, and car-friendly roads are smoothly paved and well signposted. Charter and scheduled aircraft arrive and depart, and yachts of all sizes chart their course for new coastal adventures.
Reflecting both a resource-based history and a proven skill for attracting recreational visitors, the Resort Municipality of Ucluelet (ucluelet.ca) thrives on the edge of the wild Pacific Ocean welcoming yacht arrivals most commonly via Seattle, Victoria or Vancouver.
Despite Ucluelet’s small population of 1,627, it delivers resorts and spas, fine dining experiences and delicious food truck specialties, and a remarkable range of outdoor adventures. 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 network, and a path-breaking waterfront aquarium 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 6 to 8 months earlier.
Inside the Pacific Rim Park, aptly named Long Beach is 6 miles in length 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. 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.
Ucluelet’s small craft marina (ucluelet.ca/community/small-craft-harbour) serves both a recreational and a working vessel clientele. Located at the end of a narrow, naturally beautiful inlet, yachts and fishing boats tied at their slips are well protected from the ocean elements in a 10-foot deep basin just beside the village. How appropriate that the indigenous Nuu-chah-nulth people many thousands of years ago called their settlement Ucluelet meaning “people of the safe harbor.”
“We don’t take reservations,” says Harbormaster Kevin Cortes, “but we have no problem making room for large yachts, 65 to 150 feet, on the outer three fingers of our marina. If necessary, we can raft a few commercial boats together to make room.
“The average length of yacht stay at the marina is three days. That has been creeping up,” he explains, “because there is so much to see and do in the area and because we have the west coast’s most comprehensive marina facilities. These include full electrical hookup, showers and laundry, a commercial ship chandler as well as one mobile mechanic and two diesel mechanics.”
In 2014, the number of U.S. yachts between 25 and 150 feet in length outnumbered Canadian yacht visitors. Some boaters are taking up the challenge of circumnavigating Vancouver Island or are on their way north to Haida Gwaii or Alaska. However, many just enjoy checking out the natural beauty and extensive wildlife of Barkley Sound and its various island groups.
Visiting boaters always have the option of exploring the Broken Group Islands and other parts of the Sound on their own, bearing in mind that they are partly cruising in a national park reserve with rules about what can be done both on the water and ashore, including any camping. Those rules may be reviewed on the Parks Canada website under “Pacific Rim National Park Reserve – Boating.” An informative alternative for an introduction to much of the area is to sign up for a day or more of kayaking, camping and wildlife spotting with two companies that have a long history in the region.
Majestic Ocean Kayaking (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 (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 Wild Pacific Trail (wildpacifictrail.com) is exhilarating. It blends a dense forest canopy of wind-twisted conifers with a black volcanic foreshore pounded by churning waves. For very good reason, TripAdvisor readers have voted this trail as the #2 Outdoor Attraction in British Columbia.
Give the chef a day off
While it is tempting to focus on the waterworld that draws so many visitors to the region, there is much to discover ashore as well. Food comes to mind with Ucluelet delivering more than its share of creative, even quirky, cuisine.
I encountered the Raven Lady Oyster Forte food truck in the town square next to a towering silver statue of a voluptuous Raven Lady, an oddity in itself 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. They come in three categories: Foreplay, Consummation and Pillow Talk.
While food trucks are all the rage in major cities across North America, I didn’t expect to find them in Ucluelet. Another worthy eatery on wheels is Jiggers Fish & Chips where the battered fish and the prawns are fabulous. There is always a lineup.
About ten blocks out of town, Howler’s Family Restaurant and Bowling Alley is a 1950s throw-back if ever there was one. A young couple arrived in town to buy a restaurant but couldn’t find one that didn’t come with an attached bowling alley, competition-sized pool tables, an arcade and a spacious play area for children. You get all these bonuses thrown into your meal price for free.
For a lunch or dinner recommendation, boaters need go no further than the 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 friendly locals.
Festivals to mark on the calendar
Given the diminutive size of Ucluelet, count it as a blessing if you have your boat as accommodation when one of its festivals or special events is under way. But they are worth building your calendar around. Almost everything is free or nearly free … another bonus of small towns.
The Pacific Rim Whale Festival, in the last two weeks of 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 to the Bering Sea. The annual Edge to Edge Marathon, Half Marathon and Relay in mid-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 late August 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. Over 20 years and five visits to this destination, I’ve seen people come and go and businesses grow. The region’s never-ending natural beauty and the town’s vibrant energy continue to draw new visitors and old friends like me.
Victoria-based Alison Gardner is a travel journalist and editor of Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com, a richly-illustrated resource for mature travelers featuring ecological, educational, cultural, and volunteer vacations worldwide. Comments on this story are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.