There is a tiny jewel of a place on the west coast of Vancouver Island that, for me, far outshines the increasingly upscale (and much better-known) communities of Tofino and Ucluelet. This little gem is barely a dot on the map; the most recent census figures put the population at less than 200. There are only eight kids in the local school, there is virtually no place to ‘shop’ in the modern sense of the word, and if you are lucky the one bistro on its west side might be open for business (depends on the fishing….)
But for all it may lack in the eyes of some, the remote community of Bamfield offers so much for those who seek undemanding, totally laid-back holidays in a place that celebrates the natural world rather than annihilating it. It is one of the very best places we have enjoyed in all of our years of traveling, simply because life there is … simple. We have totally fallen in love with the place – not an unusual occurrence, according to a number of the folks who met the same fate on their initial visits and ended up moving there permanently.
Much of Bamfield’s charm is generated by the remote, pristine location. Nestled on a quiet inlet on the south shore of Barkley Sound, it is accessible only by water, logging road or float plane. As a result, little has changed in the hamlet over the years – the extremely relaxed ambiance remains.
While the road-accessible east side serves as home to several small commercial enterprises, accommodations and the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, the charming west side can be reached only by water. The west side ‘road’ system is really more of a network of widened rough trails, traversed by the locals driving everything from lawn tractors, all-terrain vehicles and beat-up (mostly unlicensed) jalopies.
The west-side waterfront is skirted by a delightful, meandering boardwalk that trails past quaint homes, the tiny post office and general store, the Coast Guard station and a number of rental cottages and lodges. Other than when we arrived and departed our bed and breakfast on the west side (hauling too much luggage, as usual!), we walked everywhere, enjoying the opportunity to explore the beautiful, quiet trails and beaches and the pristine marine environment that surrounded us. The locals are friendly, casual and always happy to chat, Brady’s Beach offered a sheltered spot to laze away a sunny afternoon, the Boardwalk Bistro served up one mean espresso, we enjoyed some great evening meals at a local fishing lodge – couldn’t ask for much more for a totally tranquil, pretty much do-nothing break from the real world.
Bamfield’s official history goes way back to the early 1900s when it became the terminus of a trans-Pacific telegraph cable station. Although the cable station was decommissioned in 1959 the imposing gray edifice continues to play an integral role in the life of the settlement. For the past 40 years it has served as headquarters for the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, a world-class teaching and research facility supporting diverse coastal and marine research. It is recognized as one of the best research and training facilities in the world.
The Rix Centre for Ocean Discoveries is a more recent addition to the site. The magnificent glass-fronted facility echoes the west coast aesthetic with its’ scallop shell shape. As well as serving as part of the Marine Sciences complex the Rix Centre hosts the annual Music by the Sea festival each July – a spectacular series of concert performances in a variety of musical genres, performed by musicians from all over the world.
For those who may be looking for a little more than lolling around on their vacation, Bamfield is a mecca for sports fishermen, boaters and kayaking enthusiasts. There is a pretty little Centennial Park complete with tourist information centre on the east side of the harbour, and the Marine Sciences Centre offers tours and other visitor-friendly activities during the summer months. Several local entrepreneurs also offer adventure tours, and there are some great hiking trails to be enjoyed. Bamfield is also the closest civilization to the terminus of the world-famous West Coast Trail.
While the community is small, its heart is big. People here are generous with their time and their resources. It’s the kind of place where folks on the west side routinely leave the keys in their vehicles, just in case someone has an emergency and needs to get from one point to another quickly. Fresh-caught salmon and halibut is regularly shared among neighbours and friends. When a Bamfield resident passes away, pretty much the entire community turns out for whatever memorial event is arranged. Old traditions and customs are honoured and volunteerism helps drive much of what goes on in the settlement. As much as the place itself, the people of Bamfield make a vacation there a welcoming retreat from our everyday lives. It is one of the very best places to chill out, kick back and drop out, bar none. So pack up your walking shoes and make a reservation at one of the village’s B&Bs or lodges. You won’t regret it, promise!
There are several ways to get to Bamfield – none of them particularly fast, but a couple of them quite delightful. Our recommendation is to catch the MV Frances Barkley from Port Alberni. The four-hour trip down the Alberni Inlet on the packet freighter will give you an opportunity to settle in to ‘Bamfield mode’, as well as offering beautiful scenery and a glimpse at many of the small settlements that are scattered along the inlet’s shores. Privately-owned boats are also a common sight in Bamfield Inlet, so that is an option for the boating public. Finally, you can drive the 85-kilometre (53 mile) trip from Port Alberni(or another logging road that cuts in from the Lake Cowichan area) if you feel so inclined. Be prepared for travel on a dusty, mostly-featureless active logging road on which you will encounter many twists and turns, single-lane bridges on blind corners – and fully-loaded logging trucks. If you drive you will end up on the east side of Bamfield, and will have to park your vehicle and engage one of the local water taxis if you want to access the west side. It may sound like a bit of a hassle getting to Bamfield, but it is worth every bit of trouble you may have to endure. If you are heading in from the Port Alberni end, be sure to stop in at the Alberni Tourism information centre at the eastern approach to town – they have all sorts of great information on the Bamfield area.
Further information on Bamfield can be obtained online at the Bamfield Chamber of Commerce website at
GPS co-ordinates are (roughly):
N 48 50.144 W 125 08.412