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72 hours on Vancouver Island: skiing, surfing and whale watching


Come March when it’s pretty much guaranteed bitter temperatures will pummel us in the Prairies, the coast is celebrating spring. It’s a glorious seasonal mash-up that means flowers are blooming but people are still skiing - and surfing in the same weekend.

It’s also no coincidence you’ll get to see tens of thousands of graceful Grey whales returning from the south just as the Pacific Rim Whale Festival gets underway.

This is the why we love Vancouver Island with its heady atmosphere of mountain and sea air. When you’re lucky enough get there life is oh so good.

Here’s a 72-hour trip guideline for when you want a mini-holiday that helps you remember there really is a season between winter and summer.

“It’s a celebration of our life out here, our relationship to nature – and it just gets everyone together,” says Susan Payne, 2015 festival co-ordinator.

Not just the locals get in on the festival fun. “We get lots of Albertans when they are at their wit’s end with winter — and spring is springing here,” she says.

Anyone will feel welcome with the small-town, friendly vibe of the many events held among the residents of Tofino and Ucluelet and five First Nations communities.

Any festival on the island is never complete without seafood. In this case, it’s a friendly competition called the Chowder Chow Down at the Ucluelet community hall. Local restaurants and community groups present their best chowder recipes for a cook off. People even bring their own bowls and spoons, says Payne, making the event symbiotic with its mission to be environmentally sustainable. After all, one of the themes of the festival is to help educate people about the fragility of the environment.

“The educational component is always something we’ve focused on in the last few years,” says Payne. The organizing committee brings in speakers from around the world to hold talks with an ocean theme. This year the subject focuses on the future of the oceans and conservation.

Tofino is where the festival kicks off with a parade, which can end up being as simple as kids riding their bikes with perhaps a few homemade floats thrown into the mix. Then it’s on to the ‘tug of whale’ between the various communities and a barbecue.

“It’s very grassroots,” says Payne. “We get visitors involved, too. It’s lots of fun.”

Watching the whales

Visiting the island during a whale festival wouldn’t be complete without going out to see the whales in their natural habitat. Tis the season to watch these majestic giants as they begin their parade back to northern waters after spending time in the south. If you haven’t had the thrill of seeing, hearing or feeling the spray of a whale breach, this is your chance. Many tour operators are in the area. Check TourismTofino.com for details.

Surfing into spring

It’s hard to beat the monochromatic beauty of grey sky and white-capped grey waves on Vancouver Island’s surf-friendly beaches. There’s nearly 40 kilometres of shoreline, perfect for paddling out to catch some wave action. Starting in October, the waves get bigger and the wetsuit crowd gets excited by 12-plus footers from November to January. But come spring, late February and March in these Pacific parts, novices can get in on the action, too. Chesterman Beach and Cox Bay and the more gentle MacKenzie Beach are all good places to learn respect for the ocean and have a lot of fun while you’re doing it. Check out Tourism Tofino for lessons for all abilities.

Spring skiing at Mount Washington

Trade in your surfboard for the downhill skis as you head to Mount Washington for some spring skiing. Surfing and skiing in one weekend is a definite possibility on the island. From Tofino, Mount Washington is about a 3 ½-hour drive and about a 40-minute drive from Comox Valley Airport

“March is actually our best month,” says Sterling Keys, who’s worked at Mount Washington for five years. “We have colder temperatures and and more precipitation; and it’s prime skiing for us.” Plenty of Albertans head to the island especially for the spring skiing, says Keys. By March, all 1,700 acres of terrain is open.

Here’s a tip from Keys about where to make the most of your day. He suggests parking in Sunrise parking lot and heading up to Rick’s Glades in the morning when there’s low traffic. “This part of the mountain is untouched,” he says. Then he’d head over to Eagle and the West Basin and into the Outback — the resort’s backside. There are some double blacks so it’s more tricky terrain, but a great place to hang out for an afternoon. Pack a lunch, Keys says, because you wont’ want to leave.

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