Flying over the popular eco-destination unveils areas to be explored on future visits

TOFINO: Exploring the four corners of British Columbia, there is no shortage of places to break out a lunch on an ancient glacier.

Tofino, one would guess, isn’t one of them.

The Vancouver Island community at the end of Highway 4 first cast a spell over me when I first visited some 20 years ago, and since that time my annual holiday calendar is never complete without a visit to this magical, mystical place. For the past decade, that has included an annual family trek to celebrate Mother’s Day weekend, and this year’s getaway took us to new and undiscovered heights.

Quite literally.

And if not for those misty skies that typify the wild west coast of the Island, we’d have enjoyed that lunch date atop a frozen glacier.

Despite our original flight plan to the top of nearby Mount Ursus for a picnic lunch prepared by Red Can Gourmet grounded due to a low cloud ceiling, we still managed to go for a helicopter ride, courtesy of the only locally owned and operated airline in Tofino.

Atleo River Air Service has been providing business and pleasure float plane and helicopter flights for more than a decade-and-a-half out of the Tofino airport and harbour, and offers a number of tourist flight options, including that lunch on a glacier and tours up and down the coast.

We did the latter, and the one-hour flight out of Tofino airport gave us all a new, and surprise-filled, appreciation for an area we thought we had covered completely.

Strapped in and safety-checked in Atleo Air’s Bell 206 Jetranger, with pilot Josh Bradford at the controls, it didn’t take long for the first surprise to reveal itself as we rose from the Tofino heli-port.

That would be how narrow the land mass is between the Pacific Ocean to the west and Tofino Inlet to the east. At high tide, as it was during our flight, the land between Cox Bay and Jensen Bay is just 30 or so metres on either side of Highway 4. Likewise at Long Beach and the southern tip of Browning Passage.

Years of driving up and down that road, I had know idea what the surrounding landscape looked like, but this flight look at the roadway in a completely different way.

At a comfortable cruising altitude of approximately 1,000 metres, more familiar topography came into view, with Bradford displaying equal aplomb of piloting and at playing tour guide.

When we hit the coastline, he banked the chopper and listed off the iconic beaches below.

“Florencia Bay. Wickaninnish Beach. Long Beach. Cox Bay. Rosie Bay. Chesterman Beach. MacKenzie Beach.”

Told we were staying at the Pacific Sands Beach Resort on the surfing mecca of Cox Bay, he did a low fly- over of the entire bay and the resort property, giving us a unique perspective of the surfers we’d spent the better part of the morning watching from the shoreline.

Then the town of Tofino came into view, yielding another surprise at just how small and compact a community it truly is.

Then we pushed further north up the coast into the real wilds of the Clayoquot Sound, with marine life teeming below us and playing amongst the rocky and rugged islands that dot the coastline.

Bradford told us many ships had run aground along this shoreline, and from our perspective that was really no surprise. Jagged rock outcroppings were visible just below the surface, noticeable mostly due to the surf spray that flew from the air with the shifting waters.

Try as we might we didn’t see a whale, but hundreds of seals could be spotted on islands they’ve been inhabiting for thousands of years.

As we neared the turnaround point, Bradford lowered the chopper and did a low fly-over of one particular small island, notable for a finger of sand on its northern shore, a rarity out here.

“We’ll put her down there and have a walk around,” his voice crackled through our headsets.

And so we gently touched down on Whaler Island, so named for its history of being a popular place for aboriginal whalers to use to beach and process whales they caught using wooden canoes.

During our 10-minute exploration of the island no visual cues from that amazing past would visible, but our imaginations ran wild of thoughts of how this beach would look with a humpback whale pulled ashore and hunters going to work on it. With those thoughts fresh in our minds, we climbed back into the Bell helicopter and gently lifted off for our return to civilization. Twenty minutes later, we approached Tofino airport, but before we touched down there was one more surprise.

“Is that a plane wreck?” my son asked as we neared the main runway.

“Yeah, let’s get a better look,” Bradford replied, breaking from our approach and heading to were a amazingly near-intact plane nestled in the treed hillside.

Back in 1944 the Tofino airport was a military hub, and on one particularly stormy night, this Canso bomber crashed just after takeoff, and amazingly all the crew survived.

Turns out there is a hiking trail that can get you to the site, and we’ve put that on our itinerary for our next visit.

We then touched down at Tofino airport, met by a Pacific Sands shuttle van for the 10-minute drive back to the resort. That night at dinner at the Spotted Bear, one of Tofino’s true dining delights, talk centred around the helicopter tour and the many surprises revealed below.

We all agreed that we’d never quite look at Tofino and the area quite the same now that we knew what it looked like from above.

Next time, though, we’re hoping for clear skies and that lunch on a glacier.



Atleo River Air Service offers scenic flights throughout Clayoquot Sound and Barkley Sound and provides adventures that include fly-in fishing, whale watching, hot springs, remote wilderness camps, hike, bear watching and beach drop off.



Pacific Sands Beach Resort, celebrating its 40th year this year, has a special relationship with Atleo and can cater your heli-tour for you, including providing meals from Red Can Gourmet, and if the timing works, even helicopter pickup on Cox Bay Beach. A shuttle service to and from the airport is also available.



Playfully named in homage to New York City’s famous Spotted Pig, the Spotted Bear Bistro is the kind of restaurant I’d never imagine finding in Tofino when I first came here in 1991. With a menu and wine list comparable to a trendy Vancouver bistro, and the chef chops to match, the Spotted Bear is a must-do on your next visit. Its locally sourced fare is rightly billed as upscale comfort food.



Make Every Drop Count – current water conservation measures