Tofino's Not-So-Hidden Hot Springs
Story by Jesse Hirsch; photos by Xavier Giard Lachaine
Jesse is a Brooklyn-based freelancer writer. Xavier is a photographer who splits his time between New York City, Montreal and Tokyo.
It’s a fun day trip from the Canadian hot spot, but don’t expect solitude and tranquility.
There is a certain approach to travel, stylish in 2017, that values “secret” above all else. Why visit Times Square or the Buckingham Palace, when you could, say, play badminton with hermetic monks in Bali, perhaps go rafting on an underground wine river? (I don’t know if monks play badminton, and wine rivers probably don’t exist. But my point remains.) Modern travelers are weary with the well-traveled road; we crave the illusion that we’re not actually tourists.
I get it. When I lived in San Francisco, it baffled me that people would rather take a crowded Alcatraz tour than visit the eminently weird Musee Mecanique or commune with the coyotes of Glen Park Canyon. Live a little! Isn’t the point of travel to expand what we know, to push against our comfort zone, to return home a little different from when we left? I’ve never understood the appeal of safe and sanitized tourism.
On a recent trip to Tofino, British Columbia, I was seduced by the promise of “hidden hot springs,” an alleged local secret that’s barely leaked out. Several years back, a journalist for Canada’s Globe & Mail wrote a giddy ode to these springs, which are remote and difficult to access. “One hundred trips to Tofino, yet I’d never been to Hot Springs Cove,” she notes, with a whiff of disbelief. “I feel a million miles from the incessant buzz of urban life.”
Yes, please. That’s what I want! Take me to the place no one goes. (Spoiler alert: Everyone goes there.)
The first clue that the springs were not off-the-beaten-path came when I started whispering queries to locals: “Hey um, have you heard of some ‘hot springs,’ tucked away…” Everyone would interrupt me and tell me all the boat and airplane companies that make daily trips to the springs. Somebody even handed me a flashy brochure, advertising various hot springs packages. Do secrets usually have brochures? Hmm.
Big Crowds and Bad Rap
To get the holistic experience, I did a combo boat/air travel package with Jamie’s Whaling Station and Tofino Air. It’s a half-day journey — your boat ride in takes more than an hour, depending on the number of whales, otters, eagles and bears you spy on the way (with plenty of stops to take pictures). Then a few hours later, you meet a seaplane at the dock for a quick but gorgeous flight back to Tofino.
For my first trip to the springs, I opted for a midmorning departure. I was shoehorned into a boatful of families, oohing and aahing at the awesome coastal views, and tittering at the captain’s whale jokes. We arrived at the landing station, where more than 10 other boats also were unloading. A Chinese boy’s school was visiting that morning, and teenagers abounded. Screeching, wrestling, chasing each other — there was even a crew (badly) performing raps from “Hamilton.”
At the springs themselves, it was wall-to-wall humans, a sea of exposed flesh jammed into pools that smelled like sulfur. You had to slither over a wall of teenage boys to find a wee nook in the springs. And the one secluded area I found was empty for a reason — it was too close to the source. The volcanic water scalded me within seconds of dipping my toes in. I ended up reading on a rock near this liquid fire, just letting a bit of steam warm me on the overcast morning. The highlight was the plane ride back, both because I was leaving, and because it’s a majestic way to ogle the gorgeous coastline.
Rewards of a Second Attempt
On a hot tip, I went back to the springs another day. Jamie’s offers early morning trips in the warmer months, and they’re less crowded (the springs are open year-round). Plus if you skip the plane ride, the trip is about $50 (Canadian) cheaper round-trip. There were only four passengers on my second voyage to the springs: myself, the photographer and a blessedly quiet couple vacationing from Alberta. This trip gave me a sense of how lovely hidden things can be.
When the boat unloaded us, we were the only ones to witness the tranquil morning. I lost the group and meandered down the wooden boardwalk between shore and springs (a 20- to 30-minute walk). The only sounds were the rustling of wildlife, plus some early morning bird chirps. On the boardwalk’s planks were carvings from old class trips, marriage proposals and light boasts (“Victoria basketball rules” allegedly). I felt alone, on a path many had tread before.
When I arrived, I had at least an hour to myself — the couple went off on a romantic stroll, while the photographer explored new angles in the woods. This allowed me to investigate the pools themselves. On higher ground were the scorching pools — gorgeous to observe but way too hot for my dainty body. (122 degrees F is the average water temp when it emerges from the ground.) But beneath some mellow waterfalls was the peace I sought: serene, temperate pools, seemingly calibrated for peak relaxation.
Sulfurous steam rose from the waters, bracingly hot but not unpleasant. You could see the nearby ocean crashing on rocks below. I found myself imagining the local wild dogs that are supposedly friendly — according to posted signs — but prone to stealing tourists’ food. I even drifted off for a minute (and continued to drowse on the boat ride back, much to my photographer’s amusement).
Later that day, I mulled over the modern traveler’s conundrum. You want to find the uncharted path, but very few things are secret anymore. And every article like the one in the Globe & Mail (or this one, for that matter) makes it even harder to find a truly hidden gem. Yet with a few pro tips — e.g., take the early boat! — you can pretend you’re a pioneer, journeying where no one has ever rapped or wrestled before.
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