Whale-Watching and Wild Salmon: Adventures in the Pacific Northwest
The land of good food and the great outdoors
Seattle, my first taste of the Pacific Northwest, was a good place to start: a sprawling, vibrant, multicultural city surrounded by water. Given that it’s home to some of the world’s biggest brands — including Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks — it was not surprising that cranes and jackhammering were omnipresent.
The best view of this boomtown is from atop the 184m-high Space Needle. Built in 1962 and recently refurbished (with the world’s only revolving glass floor installed), it’s a spectacular structure, imbued with all the sleek and heady optimism of the Space Age. I hate crowds and unfortunately it was overrun with them (at least shelling out extra for a “Blast Pass” meant we could head straight up, instead of having to wait for hours). As I squeezed between the selfie-takers, I was grumpy. Finding a gap at the window, I paused, watching a boat’s wake slash a dark V across the mercury-glimmer of the Puget Sound. It was a sight so ordinary and yet so exquisite. The grumpiness was gone.
Back on terra firma, we strolled along the water’s edge (you’re never far from it) to that other Seattle icon: Pike Place Market. In spite of being a tourist trap, the market still has oodles of authentic character. Yelling fishmongers throw fish the size of babies around; tables are laden with seasonal produce; another section is ablaze with fresh cut flowers.
We were staying in fast-gentrifying but still quirky Capitol Hill, close to Downtown. The neighbourhood is dotted with plenty of bars and restaurants; when it comes to variety of cuisines, you’re spoilt for choice — especially Asian ones. A highlight was the incredibly tasty Miso Rekka Ramen — a bowl of ramen made with two types of miso, added spice and meltingly tender pork at Danbo. For those seeking food for thought, Capitol Hill is also home to Elliot Bay Book Company — a library-sized independent bookshop with a range of titles so diverse that it’s easy to lose an afternoon among its shelves.
After visiting the cosmopolitan International District for delicious soup dumplings at DoughZone and to stock up on seaweed snacks from Uwajimaya, a Japanese supermarket, it was time to head north.
Washington State Ferries, which services Seattle and the surrounding region, has America’s largest ferry fleet and so no visit to this state is complete without a ferry ride. We drove 90 minutes north to Anacortes, a scrappy seaside town. Our ferry took us Friday Harbor in the San Juan archipelago, a sprinkling of conifer-covered islands between the Washington mainland and British Columbia that offers a useful launchpad into Canada.
It was a typically moody Northwestern day — the sky a lighter shade of the pewter-coloured water. The following day, we took another ferry to the town of Sidney on Vancouver Island in Canada. We stopped for chowder and picked up local beer and wine in the pretty coastal village of Cowichan Bay before heading to our Airbnb on a dairy farm on the outskirts of the town Duncan. This part of Vancouver Island is a mix of agriculture and light industry — and fairly nondescript. The island’s real magic is to be found on its western coastline, where we headed to next.
It took us half a day to get to Tofino, our destination, moseying through evergreen plantations until we joined the coast at Port Alberni. As we headed north into the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, the foliage became denser: we were surrounded by temperate rainforest now.
Tofino’s location — at the tip of a peninsula — imbues it with an edge-of-the-world feeling Capetonians may find familiar. We stayed at Cedar Nest, a cabin we’d found on Airbnb that’s shrouded by forest just ten-minutes from town.
In spite of its remote location, Tofino attracts a fair number of international visitors, ranging from crusty surfers toting longboards to “#Vanlifers” touring across Canada in enormous RVs. Twice, I hired a surf board and wetsuit and rode the lazy, curling breakers of Cox Bay. Offering reliable waves in most conditions and plenty of room (especially in the early morning), this is a great place to surf, regardless of whether you’re a beginner or more advanced.
We spent time exploring the neighbouring national park — admiring the views of the Clayoquot Sound and Pacific from Radar Hill as well as hiking the Nuu-Chah-Nulth Trail. An easy 5km from Wickaninnish Beach, this took us past deserted coves, through bogs and tall forest down to gorgeously pretty Florencia Bay. Interpretive signs offered insights into local First Nation life.
Back in Tofino, there were a number of outfitters offering wildlife watching trips. We chose Adventure Tofino Wildlife Tours which has a zippy Zodiac rigid inflatable — a more thrilling experience than a conventional boat. Over the course of several hours on the water, we see plenty. There are the distant specks of shy harbour porpoises; orcas which glide, fins out, like partially submerged submarines; seals jostling and barking on a rocky outcrop. Close to the shore, a grey whale flops about, its speckled skin surging out of the water before disappearing.
My favourites, though, were the sea otters, which popped out of the water sporadically. They would turn onto their backs, lying on their backs with their flippers waving at the clouds (a way of warming themselves). It is these adorable little critters which drew hunters in droves to the area in the 1800s: the dense, water-resisting pelts were highly lucrative. Thankfully these days the only shooting that happens is with cameras.
The Zodiac took us to Hot Springs Cove, about 22 miles (35km) north of Tofino. After disembarking at the jetty, we walked along a 2km boardwalk that winds between soaring conifers to the springs. Billowing with steam, piping-hot water rushes down gullies towards the sea, collecting in a few narrow pools, where we sat, soaking, while the waves smashed hypnotically below.
Thanks to its tourists, Tofino punches above its weight when it comes to dining options. There are the usual international suspects (pizza, sushi, noodles) while Wolf in the Fog puts a big emphasis on seasonal, foraged ingredients to serve up sophisticated plates with a local edge.
Our most rewarding meals, however, were the ones we cooked up at our Airbnb using as many ingredients from the area as possible. A cluster of small businesses on the aptly named Industrial Way was a good place to start. We got charcuterie made on site as well as soft Vancouver Island cheeses from Picnic; beers from the Tofino Brewing Company (which makes a decent IPA).
At the Fish Shop we stocked up on scallops, wild caught salmon (which we seared), candied tuna and sweet and juicy Dungeness crab. Next door, at Red Can, a gourmet takeaway, we got a fantastic pesto-flecked chowder, filled with chunky bits of seafood. We didn’t get to them, but the street is also home to the Summit Bread, an artisanal bakery, and the Tofino Distillery which makes craft spirits. A trail from here connects to Tonquin, one of Tofino’s prettiest beaches — an ideal spot for a picnic.
On Saturday morning, the Public Market takes over the village green. A stand was selling an extensive selection of fruit and veggies grown locally by small-scale farmers; we stocked up on blueberries, fresh greens, morel mushrooms and rainbow tomatoes. We also got delicious sea asparagus — a salty, succulent-like plant that’s foraged on the coast that goes beautifully with seafood. The market has an eclectic mix of crafts and curios; there are also a couple of conservation outfits that are doing their bit to boost the fragile salmon populations.
In a show of support, I bought a beanie from the stall of the Central Westcoast Forest Society, a non-profit which aims to restore the forest watersheds — devastated by decades of logging — which are crucial for wild salmon’s upstream spawning.
Our ten days in Tofino melted away before we were quite ready to leave. Although the coniferous lushness and temperamental weather (which in summertime ranges from mildly sunny to melancholy and misty) is rather different to the Mediterranean-style climate I’m accustomed to, as someone who appreciates good food and the great outdoors, I felt right at home here. I bet you will too.