Ucluelet or Tofino? That is the ultimate West Coast wanderer debate. Both towns are situated only 30 minutes apart on the wild and rugged western coast of Vancouver Island. The journey to the brink of the Pacific Ocean is majestic itself; dock at Nanaimo after a scenic sail on BC Ferries from the mainland and begin an epic road trip through rainforest and mountains. With stops along the way, this 2.5 hour drive evolves into a memorable day before you arrive at your final destination. So, which town should you set your luggage down in? Because they are so close to each other, it almost doesn’t matter as you should be sure to visit both – but to help you decide where you should budget for the most time, here’s a little tour of what each has to offer.
Ucluelet, or Ukee to locals and returning wanderlusts alike, is a quiet jewel atop rugged cliffs. In general, you will find fewer tourists in town which offers you the perfect opportunity to dine with locals and watch families play neighbourhood street hockey. Accommodations here are relatively less expensive than in Tofino but certainly do not lack in luxury. That being said, the options here are fewer as are restaurants and gift shops.
But if the outdoors is what you crave, you won’t be missing out by making plans to stay here. Ukee is known for its surrounding black rock and the rainforest that overlooks the ocean. In storm season (November through March), the ocean puts on a spectacular show, raging against cliffs and boulders. You can sip your hot coffee and stay cozy while watching Nature’s display from your lodging, or throw on some rain gear and grab that perfect photo from the Wild Pacific Trail. This easy, family-friendly loop around a lighthouse offers numerous vistas from which you can photograph the junction of jagged coastline and the mysterious deep blue. No matter the season, don’t miss this chance to explore a natural setting that is the quintessential Pacific Northwest experience.
Do you prefer to be on the water? Barkley Sound, between Ucluelet and Bamfield, boasts calmer waters than Tofino’s Clayoquot Sound for kayaking and fishing in spring and summer. If surfing is more your thing, there are plenty of surf shops just outside of Ucluelet, on your way to Tofino, as well as beaches between the two that are worth a stop. Chesterman Beach and Long Beach are accessible by car toward Tofino. However, most surfers prefer to stay right in Tofino where the surf’s always up (and much closer!).
Ucluelet is also home to Canada’s first catch-and-release aquarium, open every day including holidays. This is especially perfect for sea creature-lovers, young and old, on the days when being sopping wet in a storm isn’t your cup of tea.
Boasting sandy beaches, large ocean swells, surf shops on every corner and a plethora of foodie delights, Tofino is a surfer’s paradise. It draws a greater flock of tourists than Ucluelet, from families to couples and even solo adventurers. You can choose from luxury condos right on the beach, hostels, cabins, campgrounds, and bed and breakfasts in and around lush rainforest. If your door isn’t steps from the beach, soft sand is still accessible within minutes from anywhere in this town.
The downtown core is amply stocked with gift shops for tourists to browse – but this is why people who prefer quiet streets tend to shy away from Tofino during peak season (July and August) and opt instead for Ucluelet. Also good to know – Tofino has a large co-op grocery store with plenty of options for creating your own meal at your lodging. (If you don’t want to deal with restaurants with your rugrats!)
You can choose to visit Tofino during storm season as well; the show is different without the rugged coastline that Ucluelet offers but still impressive. With nothing but water between this point and Japan, the gales of wind have a significant amount of ocean to play with. Watching swells as high as twenty feet is a memorable experience whether you choose to observe from The Great Room of Long Beach Lodge Resort or the deck of the Kwisitis Visitor Centre overlooking Wickaninnish Bay.
Overall, you can’t go wrong no matter where you stay, but knowing the personality of each town as well as the activities offered can make your decision a little easier.
Have you stayed in both towns? Which has been your preference? Let us know in the comments!