The Encinitas of Canada

April 30, 2012, Judd

With summer officially over this week, I’m reminiscing about its highlights: the largest SW swell in recent memory (even though it was mostly walled, it was still fun to witness), the Great White Hype at Swami’s, and my vacation to the Encinitas of Canada.

Imagine a funky, small beach town with only 2,000 residents (compared to 65,000 in Encinitas), surrounded by coastal rain forest hiking trails on the Pacific side that look like the lush, psychedelic and mossy planet Pandora from the movie Avatar.

Instead of having El Camino Real to the east, this town I visited is also surrounded by water on its eastern flank, by coves, wharfs and inlets.

Beach breaks, rocky points and sheltered bays offer good surf year round here. Summer water temperatures aren’t as cold as you’d think this far north: 58 degrees.

Surf magazines usually try not to disclose the name of a secret break. But it’s not breaking a taboo revealing the Encinitas of Canada by name.

Surf magazines like The Surfer’s Journal have exposed this town for at least a decade. It’s situated on the west coast of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It’s not just a town that happens to have surf breaks, it’s a full-on stoked surf community.

Every café, pub and pizza joint has surfboards and posters all over the walls. There are surf shops and surf schools, including one just for women.

There have been surf videos filmed here, starring a few standout local surfers (Raph and Sepp Bruhwiler, and Peter Devries) who brave the 48-degree water and massive NW swells in the winter, generated a relatively short distance away by storms off of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

Timmy Turner, a surf filmmaker from Huntington Beach, who lived feral on remote Indonesian islands and barely lived to tell about it (staph infection of the brain), spent time here, perhaps to make sure there was no chance of whatever remaining staph in his brain survived the frigid water temps in the winter.

The Encinitas of Canada is called Tofino. Every summer, tourists from all over the world, especially Europe, and mostly Germany, flock to Tofino, swelling its population by at least 10-fold.

It’s not easy to get here. Fly into Vancouver on the mainland, take a ferry and then drive 3-4 hours across the island on narrow one-lane white-knuckle roads.

When driving west on the island, you can’t help but do a double take at the first car driving east with surfboards on the roof. You just don’t expect to see many surfers in Canada.

Along with board rentals, surf shops rent soft-top racks because most tourists here have a rental car. Stay in one of the many backpacker hotels here and you’ll likely meet a German tourist, who perhaps spent the day surfing for the first time, driving around, checking out the vastly different setups with their beginner sponge longboard strapped to the rack and super stoked.

You could spend all day here in full bliss even if you don’t surf. Besides surreal coastal hiking trails, you can kayak to an island owned by a First Nations tribe; take a whale-watching trip (you’ll also likely see seals, bald eagles and bears); go salmon fishing; or just explore the eclectic shops and organic eateries.

To the south of Tofino is the Leucadia of this area. It’s another small surf community of about 2,000 full-time residents, called Ucluelet. Funkier and a little more blue collar than it’s more well-known neighbor 30 minutes by car to the north, Ucluelet is actually closer to the better surf breaks than Tofino. It’s also less expensive to stay here, so if you do decide to come to Vancouver Island’s west coast and you’re on a budget, Ucluelet is the better option.

I hope Tofino locals wouldn’t want to burn me in effigy for having me disclose a Pacific Northwest surf paradise to more surfers, but I think every Encinitas surfer and resident deserves to experience what it would be like to live in a remote small surf town that has yet to reach critical mass.

Judd Handler is a freelance writer and wellness/lifestyle coach in Encinitas, California. He surfs uncrowded, fun reef breaks; plays instrumental alternate-tuning guitar; goes hiking in the backcountry; and is amazed on a daily basis by just being alive.