The Road to Relaxation: Nanaimo to Tofino
It’s an iconic Island drive, the winding ribbon of Highway 4 that stretches from Qualicum Beach to Tofino. Tourists love it. (Locals love it too—especially when they can pass the tourists.) It’s an artery in every sense of the word: not only an important route on the Vancouver Island road system but a conduit—once it reaches the Far Left Coast—for delivering freshly oxygenated blood to tired bodies desperately in need of respite.
Most times, it’s a healing journey. You’re heading for a windswept beach. Or a five-star spa. Or maybe even a surfing competition. You’re looking for a spiritual cleanse in one way or another. So why not start the process—the slowing down, the letting go, the being-in-the-moment—well before the destination? Well before lunch, in fact!
It’s too easy on a roadtrip to eat mindlessly, pulling over for a quick fast-food burger and fries (followed by even quicker indigestion). Why not make mindful eating—and all that comes with it, like appreciation and wonder and respect for the environment—a part of your journey to the Island’s most Edenic shores?
It can be done. I recently set out on a road trip across Vancouver Island, traveling from Nanaimo to Tofino, scouting for the best, most sustainably committed places to nourish body, mind and spirit.
Start with brunch at Gabriel’s Gourmet Café, a fixture on Commercial Street in Nanaimo, where co-owner Gemma Martin, “a lifelong vegetarian,” says she wanted to create a restaurant that served “excellent options” for plant-based eaters.
There’s a vegan tofu scramble, a long list of egg dishes like “Breakfast Number 1” with potato-bean-corn cakes, and specials like hearty vegetarian hash topped with avocado and pea shoots. Martin says she’s partial to the veggie burger, made from black beans, corn, and brown rice; her vegetarian son frequently chooses the tofu-based butter “chicken.”
Although Gabriel’s does serve meat, it’s important to Martin to source animal products from ethical suppliers, like Nanaimo’s Nesvog Meats & Sausage or Plecas Meats. “Part of being vegetarian-friendly,” she insists, “is that the meats we do serve come from happy animals, who’ve had a happy life.”
“I like to joke that we’re saving animals one glass of wine at a time,” quips Ambre Rippon, who owns Eve Olive, a vegan bistro in Nanaimo’s Rutherford Boardwalk complex north of downtown.
A vegetarian for more than 25 years, Rippon wants people to come for drinks and feel good about what they’re eating. The former music therapist explains that her passion and concern for environmental sustainability and plant-based eating inspired her to open the Island’s first licensed vegan dining spot last August.
Most of Eve Olive’s dishes are available as tapas or larger entrées, like the Greek goddess plate with hummus, tzatziki (blended from tofu and vegan yogurt), and tofu-based feta, all made in-house. The kitchen fries slivers of oyster mushrooms into crisp “calamari,” and Rippon says the sweet potato ravioli with cashew “cream” sauce is among the most requested selections. On the beverage list are wines from Millstone Estate and Chateau Wolff, draught beer from Longwood Brewery, and spirits from Arbutus Distillery, all based in Nanaimo.
Eve Olive is open only in the evenings, so if you’re driving across the island, stay overnight nearby or time your meal to catch the ferry to the mainland.
As you head northwest from Nanaimo, detour into Parksville to stretch your legs on the oceanside boardwalk. For a picnic to enjoy at the beach or amongst the giant firs in Cathedral Grove further west, stop at Little Qualicum Cheeseworks at Morningstar Farm and pick up some Welsh-style Caerphilly or mild Island Brie. If you’re travelling with kids, allow time to meet the cows, pet the sheep, and pour milk-to-go from the self-serve dispenser.
For fresh-baked bread, continue to Qualicum Beach, where Wild Culture Artisan Bakery crafts country-style French, olive rosemary, and other loaves from organic flours and wild bacterial cultures. They make scones, cinnamon buns, and cookies, too. Passing through on a Friday? Phone to reserve a sourdough-crust pizza.
Realm Food Co.
Vegetarian-friendly Realm Food in downtown Parksville highlights local ingredients in salads, sandwiches, and bowls. Greens come from local organic growers Salt & Harrow, the beer list includes brews from Courtenay’s Gladstone Brewing and other Island crafters, while the pepper sauce—from Vancouver Island Hot Sauce Company—is produced in Nanoose Bay.
One popular vegan option is The Bliss Bowl, with falafel-like “Indo fritters,” made of potatoes, chickpeas, and black beans, fried with curry spices, and layered over rice, pickled cabbage, and carrots. The colourful Radius Wrap incorporates quinoa, avocado, beets, and greens into an envelope of rice paper and nori.
Tip: If you’re road tripping on a Friday or Saturday evening or during Sunday brunch, you might catch local musicians performing on the bistro’s small stage.
Once you reach Tofino, it gets easier to find plenty of plant-friendly dining, starting at Bravocados, a vegetarian bistro that celebrated its first anniversary in February.
Co-owner Colin Minions describes himself as a vegetarian who “wants to have as many choices as possible when I go out.” He and Chef Dave Thielmann, who had their first jobs together at the Okanagan’s Mission Springs Brewing Company, have assembled an entirely vegetarian menu that ranges from panko-crusted avocado tacos, veggie burgers, and waffles, to sweet potato poutine topped with housemade kimchee.
Bravocados serves beer, kombucha, and even tempeh all made locally in Tofino. The “scallops” are medallions of eggplant that look surprisingly like shellfish, served over a tempeh-corn hash. The mildly spiced Thai curry comes with tempeh that’s been marinated in a savoury barbecue sauce.
The Pointe Restaurant at the Wickaninnish Inn
“We probably put more work into the turnip than into any of the meats,” insists Executive Chef Carmen Ingham, who took over the kitchen in January at the Wickaninnish Inn overlooking Chesterman Beach.
While the chef is gradually putting his own stamp on the inn’s Pointe Restaurant, there’s one thing he hasn’t changed: the Pointe has long offered elaborate vegetarian and vegan tasting menus. These multi-course meals might start with split pea hummus paired with radishes and chilled pea pod broth, continue with king oyster mushrooms served with fried tofu and sea buckthorn, and finish with dark chocolate “bubbles,” fresh berries, and fruit sorbet.
Among Ingham’s new plant-based dishes is “Charred Turnip.” He cooks the root vegetable overnight, braises it in miso, slices it like a steak, sprinkles it with chickpeas, and plates it with deep green kale over toasted farro and black bean bagna cauda. To prepare the garlicky “hot dip,” Ingham substitutes fermented beans for the traditional anchovies to achieve rich vegan umami flavours.
Sea Monster Noodle Bar
When the town’s mayor recommends the vegetarian dan dan noodles, that’s what you order, right?
At Sea Monster Noodle Bar, I meet Josie Osborne—Tofino’s mayor and a long-time vegetarian—who tells me that one of her favourite dishes at this order-at-the-counter spot is this nutty, tofu-topped pasta.
Sea Monster isn’t entirely vegetarian, but most of the Asian-inspired noodle or rice bowls, like the dan dan noodles or yellow curry, come in vegetarian versions. A plant-based highlight is the bao, a soft steamed bun filled with eggplant, spread with black garlic mayonnaise and sprinkled with peanuts.
And if you run into Tofino’s mayor on your vegetarian road trip across Vancouver Island, say hello. If you’re lucky, she may offer more tips about plant-friendly dining that will keep you out of the drive-through.