Frugal vacationers often assume that Tofino is totally out of reach – and for good reason. With its stunning scenery and cozy, fishing-village vibe, the Vancouver Island gem is one of the most magical spots in the country. So it's not surprising that you need $500-plus to rest your head at the famed Wickaninnish Inn in the summer, or that even B&Bs charge $200 for an ocean view and gluten-free scones.
But it is possible to visit the lush wilderness outpost without paying the exorbitant prices. And if you want a fall getaway, look no further: The crowds thin and the dramatic storm season (November to February) begins.
You can fly to Tofino from Vancouver in less than an hour, but the cheap and cheerful route is actually more fun. If you want a window into "Left Coast" culture, book your ticket for the $16 BC Ferries ride. Extreme cyclists, backpackers fresh off a mountain trek, friendly folk musicians – the West Vancouver-Nanaimo route has it all. (Not to mention legendary White Spot burgers onboard.) If small talk isn't your speed, you can always retreat to the ship's wind-swept decks, where you'll be left alone to take in the Straight of Georgia's spectacular views. After docking in Departure Bay, hop a bus to get across Vancouver Island (Tofino Bus; from $83 return). The four-hour drive is guaranteed to be one of the most beautiful of your life, with jaw-dropping vistas of sea, sky and forest. bcferries.com
Where to stay
When it comes to budget-conscious accommodation, Tofino actually boasts great options. The Ecolodge is that rare find that is both well priced and well executed. Energy-efficient and environmentally sustainable, it's run by a non-profit foundation and is located at the gateway to the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. The hippie-chic rooms start at $79, and that includes free breakfast (organic oatmeal bar, fruit, homemade muffins), all-day tea service, robes, entrance to the art-filled Tofino Botanical Gardens. The lodge attracts an international, mid-30s to mid-50s crowd, many of whom are game for a chat in the communal room, which features picnic tables for meals and comfy sofas for moments of quiet contemplation. tbgf.org/ecolodge
You could also stay at the local hostel, Whalers on the Point Guest House. It's obviously more of a risk in the noise department – we were kept up to the wee hours by drunk twentysomethings the first night; the second night was completely silent – but don't count it out completely. Beginning in September, the clientele skews toward middle-aged adventurers who rise at dawn, hike Pacific Rim National Park and retire at dusk. The hostel is clean and has a fantastic manager, a communal kitchen and barbecue, a sauna and a killer view of the harbour. It's also able to arrange decent discounts for whale-watching excursions, kayaking trips and hot springs tours. Dorm rooms start at $28, private double rooms at $61. tofinohostel.com
Where to eat
With a little effort, Tofino's food scene can be surprisingly cheap. Meals, sans drinks or dessert, can often be pulled off for $15. Sobo is West Coast cuisine at its finest – think spicy salmon chowder and salads loaded with grated beets and carrots.
Big Daddy's Fish Fry serves up drool-worthy halibut and chips, while the Wild Side Grill has a mouth-watering breakfast sandwich with house sausage. Chocolate Tofino offers otherworldly, handcrafted chocolates, in locally inspired flavours such as Salt Spring Island organic lavender truffle and wildflower honey ganache.
What to do
Tofino has a number of rugged beaches to roam, free of charge, including Tonquin – reached through a short hike – Chesterman and Mackenzie. (Be sure to stay off the rocks in storm season.) Coastal Bliss offers $10 yoga classes on the beach until Sept. 30. On drizzly days, nothing beats walking out to the Wickaninnish and enjoying a hot chocolate as you gaze out at the waves crashing into the surf. Careful though: One sip in their luxurious, ridiculously scenic lounge and you might be tempted to blow your budget. wickinn.com