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Start with surf on Vancouver Island

Natural beauty and a great hostel add to the appeal of the Pacific backpackers' haven.

June 15, 2003|Lucy Izon | Special to The Times

Not only is Tofino Canada's top surfing destination, but it's also home to the country's coolest youth hostel. Despite the rain -- the area averages 120 inches annually -- this community on Vancouver Island is a hit with backpackers.

Yvette Latta, 29, of New Zealand, was heading to Whistler two months ago when a friend suggested she visit Tofino. She's still there, working behind the desk at the Whalers on the Point Guest House.

Tofino, which was one of Capt. James Cook's stops in North America, is 80 miles north of Victoria, on what is called Vancouver Island's "Wild West" coast. This is where an ancient rain forest, rimmed with rocky outcroppings and beautiful sand beaches, meets crashing waves that can reach 33 feet during winter storms. By March the first of 20,000 gray whales pass by on their annual migration. A few hang around to tease tourists all summer long.

The residents of the village, which sits on spectacularly beautiful Clayoquot Sound, are a mix of Native Americans, artists, environmentalists, tourists and a young, active crowd of sea kayakers, surfers and hikers. You can check out the artists' galleries and gift shops, dig into seafood delivered fresh by local fishermen, buy hemp clothing or just enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and natural beauty.

The Whalers on the Point Guest House, (250) 725-3443,, couldn't have a better location. It's on the waterfront. The dining room and lounge have picture windows overlooking Clayoquot Sound, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.

The Whalers was chosen as Canada's top hostel in 2001 by Hostelling International Canada.

"It's the best one I've stayed in so far," says 24-year-old Ben Starling of Australia, who is traveling to the tip of Vancouver Island to catch a ferry to Prince Rupert. "It's more like a hotel than a hostel."

The 64-bed facility, which was built in 1999 by manager Rob Cooper, offers beds in shared rooms for as little as $16 per night. (Double and family rooms are also available.) Reservations are recommended because of its popularity.

Starting Oct. 1, the Whalers will offer three-night specials for beds in shared rooms for $13 per night. Hostel guests, which I found included teenagers and retired backpacking adventurers, get discounts for popular local activities, from sea kayaking, whale watching and hot springs visits to bike rentals. Details are posted on the hostel's Web site.

Among the popular activities: watching black bears from a Zodiac boat on three-hour tours that cost $44, and taking boardwalk paths through the old-growth rain forest of Pacific Rim National Park. The hostel arranges round-trip transportation to the park for $7.50 on the Long Beach Link, (866) 726-7790,, which runs five times a day, six days a week.

All the travelers agreed that Meares Island -- where you'll find the half-hour-long boardwalk Big Tree Trail through old-growth forest, as well as a 2 1/2-hour hiking trail -- was a favorite. You can reach the island for $11 by sea taxi.

The coastline along Cox Bay and Long Beach, just south of the village, is Canada's prime surfing territory. If you want to see the best battle the waves and get in on a party, be there for Surf Jam, Canada's top surfing event and music jam, which was to have wrapped up this weekend. In its fifth year, the competition draws 200 amateur and professional surfers. For details, log on to

If you've never tried surfing, there are lots of teachers in Tofino, including Surf Sister, Canada's only all-women surf school, started by Jenny Stewart, a member of the national team. Her surfer dad had her on a board at 18 months. A 90-minute lesson (guys are welcome for these) is $54, wetsuit and board included. Two-day classes are $141. For information, call (877) 724-7873,

You can reach Tofino from Nanaimo ($24) or Victoria ($36) on the daily Tofino Bus, (866) 986-3466, Carry on your kayak for $7.50, a bike for $2.50 or a surfboard free.

Three times a week the backpacker bus transportation and tour service Bigfoot Adventure Tours, (888) 244-6673,, offers a budget four-day Explorer tour from Vancouver to Tofino for $148. Bigfoot operates a variety of one- to 10-day backpacker tours and transportation in British Columbia and Alberta.

Other companies offering backpacker tours in Canada this summer:

Rocky Express, operated by True North Tours, (800) 580-3890,, is running three- to six-day tours through Banff and Jasper national parks in 15-seater vans. A three-day, two-night tour from Banff to Jasper and back again, including transportation, hostel accommodation and shared food kitty, is $116.

Giddy Goat Adventure Tours, (866) 464-4339,, has adventure day tours in the Canadian Rockies and a hostel shuttle between Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper.

Moose Travel Network, (888) 816-6673,, is Canada's national jump-on, jump-off backpacker bus service. It operates in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec, and it offers a VIA rail cross-country link and rail deals to continue on to Gaspe and the Maritime Provinces.

Magic Bus, (877) 856-6610,, offers great rates for travel from Toronto to Niagara Falls, plus trips to Ontario cottage country. Most other companies charge $47 to $87 to cover a similar route to the falls; Magic Bus picks up passengers at Toronto hostels and takes them to Niagara wineries and the falls for just $27.50. Be ready for a young crowd, vintage tunes and a "flower power" attitude, because you'll probably be traveling in one of their psychedelically painted old school buses.

Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance writer and author of "Izon's Backpacker Journal." Her Internet site is

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