It has been more than 45 years since I made my first trip to the stunning west coast of Vancouver Island, in the days when you got there by traversing heart-plummeting logging roads and switchbacks high above Kennedy Lake. At that time Tofino was a tiny settlement of 400; the working fishing village of Ucluelet, at the other end of the coastline that is home to the world-famous Long Beach, clocked in at just over 1,000 residents.
A new paved road, the establishment of Pacific Rim National Park and some masterful marketing in the area have changed a lot of things on the coast. Tofino now has about 2,000 year-round residents, Ucluelet has about 1,600. During the height of the tourist season Tofino sees as many as 22,000 people a day. Ucluelet, I am happy to report, is a lot less commercialized, a lot less crowded and a lot more peaceful.
We re-discovered Ucluelet during a brief visit last summer – there was just enough time to whet our appetites for more, to make us want to explore this village that has remained essentially true to its original nature. So, on a recent slashing-rain February day we headed west to spend more time in this ‘safe harbour’ and, ultimately, to be totally charmed by pretty much everyone and everything there.
What we loved most about Ucluelet is its total lack of pretention – this is a community that takes great pride in its working roots, even though to some extent those roots have in recent years trailed off in new directions. Slumps in the fishing and logging industries, once the mainstay of household incomes in Ucluelet, have necessitated some considerable inventiveness and an acknowledgement that tourism can be a good thing. But the folks in the village remain what I like to call ‘real’ people – they are friendly and very helpful, more than happy to share information about the village and its history. Smaller establishments are mostly the order of the day there, whether it be dining, accommodation or adventuring. There is a still a human feel and scale to things in Ucluelet.
Other than the fact that we loved the ambiance of the village we found plenty to keep us busy, even during the rainy winter season. You can take a tour of the harbour on a delightful 65-year-old retired Coast Guard vessel, hike the heart-wrenchingly beautiful Wild Pacific Trail, browse galleries and quirky stores, go beach combing, dine on everything from gourmet hot dogs to great barbeque to fresh albacore tuna, chill out or warm up at the myriad small coffee shops and bistros, go storm watching. There is also an engaging First Nations presence and influence in Ucluelet that is reflected in everything from some of the architecture to galleries and shops.
There seems to be wildlife at every turn – we encountered a wolf (at a safe distance), California sea lions, harbour seals, bald eagles and a huge variety of sea birds. Come the Spring the sight of migrating whales is not uncommon.
We missed a visit to the small but highly-regarded aquarium, which is closed during the winter months but re-opens in March. And once finer weather arrives opportunities for new adventures ranging from whale watching to kayaking to sport fishing abound. There is the Pacific Rim Whale Festival in March, Ukee (the local abbreviation for Ucluelet) Days in July and a profusion of other events to intrigue and delight.
Yes, Ucluelet has changed since my first foray there so many years ago, but the village and its people have managed to retain the essence, beauty and sensibilities of a genuine real place, where you can go to adventure to your heart’s content or just kick back, relax and savour the natural world. In the coming weeks we will be writing in more detail about some of our recent adventures there. Because we are always searching for new things to share with our readers we seldom return to a place, even if it is one of our favourites. We know in our hearts, however, that Ucluelet will draw us back – it’s just that kind of community, with so much to experience.
Further information on Ucluelet can be found at the website:
GPS co-ordinates are:
Lat. 48.946763473886804 Long. -125.56546757372553
N 48 56.806 W 125 33.928