By Glenn Alderson
If you listen closely, there are many different sounds emanating from the small island town of Tofino, B.C. that define its existence as one of the most unique vacation destinations year-round. Louder than the wind blowing through the trees of its vast rainforests, or the waves crashing on the rocks near Long Beach, or even the surfers calling out to each other as they brave the infamous swells forming off the coast of North Chesterman; even louder than all these things combined is the sound of music, culture and community that is coming together to make Tofino the magical hub that it is.
Sitting around a table at the Wickaninnish Inn’s Driftwood Café with some of Tofino’s most influential characters and prominent local musicians, you really start to get a sense of the intimacy and connectivity that could only exist on a small island town.
Geoff Johnson is a multi-instrumental local performer who has been making his voice known among the 2000 people who call Tofino home year-round. He’s got a pretty fantastic gig actually, performing sometimes by himself at one of Tofino’s most beautiful destination resorts, the Wickaninnish Inn, which is quite literally a five-star oasis that needs to be experienced to be believed.
These melodic solo acoustic sets are inspired by Johnson’s love for music from the ’60s and ’70s and are geared towards creating relaxing vibes in the resort’s basement venue, the Driftwood Café. The Wickaninnish is like a fancier alternate version of the Great Northern Hotel from David Lynch’s cult classic television series, Twin Peaks, with their indigenous wood carved décor courtesy of the late Henry Nolla. A mentor to the community, Nolla is responsible for a lot of the adze work found throughout the Inn, including their yellow cedar welcoming doors, to beam and detail work in all public spaces and the signature fireplace mantles found in each guest room. Naturally all of this woodwork lends itself to exceptional acoustics for live music, the Driftwood hosts events every Thursday throughout the summer months. With their windows looking right out on to the sprawling beachfront it’s literally one of the most breathtaking live music settings on the planet.
When he’s not serenading the lucky patrons of the Wickaninnish, Johnson doubles down with his band Ballistic Pig, a name you might not expect for a more electrified project that he shares with his partner Tara Halil and a rotating cast of players, but there’s a method to his madness.
“Ballistic Pig is more of an umbrella name for my musical adventures than a specific band,” Johnson says. “I play about 200 gigs a year almost exclusively in Tofino and Ucluelet. In a destination town the audience is on tour so you get new crowds, even in the same venues. It’s great.”
Ballistic Pig refer to themselves as “Tofino’s party band” but they also moonlight as the Tofino Wedding Band for versatility purposes. As a duo, Halil and Johnson radiate everything you’d expect from a hard working couple in the arts; they’re passionate, their tastes are diverse and, most importantly, they communicate both on and off the stage in a respectful way. When you come to Tofino, definitely keep an eye out for these two and one of their many musical projects. They currently host an open mic jam night every Monday at the Tofino Legion and Johnson plays every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Long Beach Lodge.
If you’re looking for big sound, one thing to keep your ears open for in the springtime is the Tofino and Ucluelet Choir, a community choir led by director Sophie L’Homme.
“Between Uclulet and Tofino there are 100 people who come out to sing every Thursday night and we do one big end-of-season performance in each community that always sells out,” says alto Lynda Kaye. “There isn’t a rehearsal that goes by where we don’t laugh until our stomachs hurt because Sophie is hilarious.”
For their end of the season performances this year the choir did a rendition of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” with two back-to-back performances complete with a back-up band led by Geoff Johnson sitting first string.
Also joining the roundtable at the Driftwood Café is Anne Weeks of Smalltown Empire, who, along with her partner, performs as a folk duo at various places around Tofino throughout the year, including the Tofino Market which she proudly curates each summer from the May long weekend all the way up to Thanksgiving. The market’s motto is simple — “Make it, bake it, grow it, gather it” — and it’s been around for almost 30 years. Weeks immigrated to the island 11 years ago from Calgary and in the past five years has played a part in growing the Tofino Market into one of the town’s biggest attractions outside of the obvious surfing and dining culture that we hear so much about.
“One of the best things about living here is the sense of community,” Weeks says. “Maybe it’s like that in most small towns, but the people here are fiercely loyal and can move mountains when they come together.”
A more recent addition to the town is an emerging art gallery space called Experiential that is opening mid-June in an industrial space just behind the Tofino Brewing Company (another essential local landmark). The idea is the brainchild of local artist Andrea Fergusson and Deanna Lankin, and has been both years and countless Tofino pints in the making.
“Our deepest desire and mission is to enhance the arts and cultural representation in our community and we will be featuring emerging, First Nations and feminist art,” says Lankin. “To start with we will be showcasing predominantly local art but we are open to growth. It will be an amazing opportunity for local talent to be fostered and grow while providing the community and visitors a ‘behind the scenes’ experience into the art process.”
With a coffee shop and a bakery going in beside it, Experiential will surely be a great hub of activity, art and local culture for both the locals and tourists to enjoy year-round.
Another sound you’re bound to hear when talking about Tofino is endless fanfare around the amount of food options to take advantage of. You would be amiss to not seek out the infamous Tacofino food truck to find out where it all started for the growing business that now has four restaurant locations in Vancouver. If you’re looking for more of a fine dining affair without a stuffy vibe, you can’t go wrong with Shelter Restaurant.
With Chef Matty Kane at the helm in the kitchen and a bounty of wonderful and friendly staff at the front-of-house, Shelter celebrates fresh and local cuisine in a non-pretentious and affordable way. We recommend starting with the Quadra Island Manila Clams as a primer before diving in to the Roasted Peace Country Lamb Sirloin. Pair that with one of their locally sourced wines (Haywire Pinot Noir) or a house cocktail (Frozen Blood Orange Margarita or Tofitian Spritz) and you’ve got a perfect island evening in the making.
If there’s one sound you’ll definitely want to make sure you hear to get the full Tofino experience, it’s got to be the sound of a whale expelling water from its blowhole out in the middle of the ocean.
Of all the holiday excursions you could subject yourself to in an attempt to get that long-lasting life-changing experience, there really isn’t anything quite like the sight of the Pacific Rim National Park from the other side while you’re cruising through the ocean in search of a rare glimpse of underwater wildlife. Ocean Outfitters is an excellent company to look to for a team of educated and down-to-Earth locals who are committed to restorative tourism through ecological stewardship. At Ocean Outfitters you’re going to get your money’s worth with guaranteed whale sightings since they work and collaborate with the other whale watching companies in the harbour to maximize your experience.
Tofino is both aesthetically and culturally beautiful, nobody is going to deny that no matter what time of year you choose to visit. It’s more about how you choose to take it all in that will inevitably shape your experience. The Internet age has challenged the separation of urban and rural living for better and worse, but knowing when to power down and use your eyes, ears and mouth for real life personal interactions is what Tofino is all about.
“I wish people would keep their eyes open while they are here to take that in,” says Geoff Johnson. “I tell people not to bring their cameras and phone on whale watches for example. There’s no way you’re going to capture any portion of your experience with a smartphone so just immerse yourself in it properly and take in the whole experience in the moment. Even at concerts and other events I see so many people taking selfies and burying their faces in their phones. I used to complain about how poor Tofino’s Internet service was, but now that we have fibre it seems like it’s another way that Tofino used to be different, a reason you had to come here to experience it. Now, instead of asking your server a question and getting some local soul in your experience people just Google it and base their experience on the review of some other tourists.”
So do yourself a favour, power down and take a moment to look up and listen closely when you’re experiencing the vast beauty of Tofino and the Pacific Northwest. It’s full of sights and sounds that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.