It was 7:50 a.m. on a misty winter morning as I danced the can-can in an effort to wrangle my wetsuit over my limbs. Once I was suited up, I added a shot of Baileys Irish Cream to my coffee—for liquid courage—and stepped onto the sand for my 8:00 a.m. surf lesson on Canada’s West Coast in Tofino, British Columbia, five hours from Vancouver.
While most adventure travelers would not put “surf” and “Canada” in the same itinerary, the town of Tofino proves that riding waves above the 49th Parallel is pretty swell—so swell that come summer, you’d be hard-pressed to find a lesson at one of the dozen surf schools based on the break.
The beauty of Canada’s surf capital is its year-round appeal. You can even play in the waves in wintertime (which I did), as outside temperatures hover around 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and the Pacific Ocean remains mild.
After riding waves from Mexico to Australia, Roxy-sponsored surfer Catherine Bruhwiler holds firm that her hometown of Tofino has “the best and most consistent surf in the world.”
She would know. When she’s not competing, she’s in Tofino teaching surfing. That’s how I met her. And my multi-title-winning surfing instructor says, “It’s the best place to learn because all the beach breaks (21 miles of them, to be exact) have a soft, sandy bottom.”
Viewfinder Tip: Visit Tofino in the spring, fall, or winter, for the best access to surf school lessons and off-peak hotel rates.
Whether or not Catherine has a lesson booked for her company, Tofino Paddle Surf, she rides waves daily—something she’s been doing since she was a small fry learning how to cut through the water with her brothers (also Canadian surf legends). Armed with a wetsuit, hood, gloves, and booties for warmth, she doesn’t let less-than-perfect weather phase her; come rain or shine, she surfs.
As someone who is always cold, my first question when I met Catherine at Pacific Sands Beach Resort had to do with body temperature. Like a kid peering through a looking glass, I’d been studying the surfers from my beach house window—all rooms have an ocean view overlooking Cox Bay—itching to join their ranks, but the cold water-factor remained.
Would I feel a surge of sub-zero sea sloshing into my suit? Would my lips turn blue? Would I need to stand under a hot shower for a week to recover? No, no, and no. Shockingly, I was warm from the moment my neoprene-covered foot came in contact with the ocean.
“I came in ’95 for a surf lesson and never looked back,” Duane Bell, owner of homegrown Rhino Coffee House, told me when I stopped in for a cup of joe and a bite (or 10) of his house-made beer-glazed donuts. Twenty years later, the former big-city stock broker still prefers life in his wetsuit over his power suit.
The more locals I met, the more I realized that the people who surf Canada’s coast are not on a mission to prove that surfing in cold water is cool (as in, rad). Their daily one-on-one with the ocean is beyond a bucket list check mark or shred cred; to them, it’s a daily ritual like brushing their teeth (though, much more exciting and refreshing).
In Tofino, everyone from kamikaze kids to bold boomers ride waves. Since the first surf school sprung up in 1968, practicing “toes on the nose” or “hang 10” has become a local right of passage. Residents such as Robbie Ferguson, one of the best surfers in Canada and manager of Shelter Restaurant, take this tradition seriously. When not leading a team foodies serving a local catch of fresh wild salmon topped in herbs from Shelter’s backyard garden, he mentors Tofino’s next wave of junior surf riders through a sponsorship program set up by the must-eat address.
Just a few doors down at Wolf in the Fog, one of Tofino’s newest eateries, I’m welcomed and escorted to my table by the restaurant’s manager and wine guru sporting an I-just-got-out-of-the-waves man-bun. After ordering a Pacific Ocean-caught sablefish, and a cedar sour (which tastes like a soothing spa treatment in cocktail form), we chatted about his recent return from a surf trip to Mexico. With this conversation I was convinced: To Toficians, surf is life—even on vacation.
Back in front of my beach house at Pacific Sands—a spot from which my family has been savoring Canada’s Pacific Rim for years—I peeled off my wetsuit and rinsed off the sand under one of the hotel’s outdoor surf showers. Sitting on my doorstep I found my now-cold, pre-lesson coffee with Baileys, which, in retrospect, I didn’t need as a warm-up or liquid courage to ride waves North of the 49th at all.
Where in the world do you prefer to catch waves?