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Jen Mallia

Guest contributor

Jen Mallia is an Edmonton-based writer who spends her days debating if it is too late for coffee or too early for cocktails. She is notoriously bad at making the right call on that so is quite a lot of fun.

In 1973, a trip to Tofino on the western coast of Vancouver Island, meant a long, winding drive over logging roads. The village was small and the cabins at the Pacific Sands Resort were cozy.

Fifty years later, road conditions have improved considerably, the village has grown and Pacific Sands has expanded into a sprawling beachfront resort. And the original cabins have been moved and reimagined as staff housing and charming luxury beachhouses built in their stead. 

The recently completed road construction on the only highway into town is a popular topic of conversation among locals, a reminder that although the growth over the past five decades has been substantial, Tofino is still a small, somewhat isolated, town. 

We experienced this firsthand when our tour of the resort was delayed due to an accident and downed powerline on said road. Marketing director Markus McRurie doubles as a captain on the Ucelet Fire Department (or did so at the time—he has since left Pacific Sands to be the deputy chief of the department) and was busy attending the crash site. It was just the first example we would encounter of how the resort and its people are entrenched in the community.

Local connections

It started in 1973 when the Pettinger Family purchased the Pacific Paradise Motel and transformed it into the Pacific Sands Resort. At the time, tourism wasn’t the powislanderhouse economic driver it now is, with more than 750,000 visitors arriving each year. But the Pettingers recognized the special place the wild West Coast town was and is, and saw the potential to contribute to the community while giving visitors a place to base themselves while experiencing Tofino.

The Pettingers passed the resort to another family-run operator Gordon Nelson Inc. in 2015. The resort is now owned by Chris and Stephanie Nelson of Nelson Investments. They take the legacy of the resort seriously. Chris has been quoted saying, “It has never been lost on us that we’ve been entrusted by the Pettingers with something very special here.” 

General manager Sabrina Donovan explains how the Pacific Sands team wanted to use the half-century anniversary as an occasion to say thank you not only to guests over the years, but also to staff past and present, Tofino residents and local business owners they partner with. Many of the celebratory events were open to the public, including a beachside bbq and the unveiling of a specially commissioned piece of art by local artist Roy Henry Vickers.

Vickers came to Tofino in 1980 having quit art, frustrated by the feeling the world didn’t want his stories. He spent his time on fishing boats before being persuaded to get back to his creative roots—carving totems. Over the next few years, the Pettingers and a group of local hoteliers gently lobbied the artist to open a gallery in town. “It would be a chance to be the kind of gallery owner I had always wanted to see,” Vickers said. In 1986, the Eagle Aerie Gallery (now the Roy Henry Vickers Gallery) was created. 

Roy Henry Vickers gets visibly emotional as he speaks, crediting the Pettingers with helping him to tell his stories. When asked to create a piece to celebrate the anniversary, “it was an immediate yes,” says Vickers. The piece, Pacific Sands 2, is a vibrant homage to the resort, with the silhouette of a humpback whale leaping from the bright blue waters of Cox Bay into a flaming orange sky. Vickers’ crest, an eagle, is seen in the full moon. 

It’s not just the art on the property that links the resort and the community. Situated on site are several Tofino businesses, including: 

  • Surf Sisters Surf School, surf lessons and equipment rentals
  • Surf City Grill casual eats
  • Tuff City Saunas, private sauna rental right on the beac
  • Tofino Bike Co. bicycle rentals
  • By the Sea Massage and Bodywork spa and wellness services
Photo: Jen Mallia

We also took advantage of another local business and spent a dreamy evening at Sunset House (the largest of several lodging options) with Lux.Fino picnics. Lounging in a picture perfect “cuddle puddle” and munching on crab from NAAS Seafood is a luxury experience the hotel can help arrange for any guest. 

As Chris Nelson says about the place his resort holds in Tofino: “It’s all interconnected and part of a responsibility we take very seriously. And now we get to celebrate how far the Resort has come in 50 years, and carry on the traditions that so many new and returning guests enjoy.”

Photo: Ben Giesbrecht

It felt like every aspect of the stay had a local connection, an important thing for visitors looking for ways to truly experience a place, rather than parachute in and leave uneffected. After 50 years in the business, Pacific Sands Resort knows a thing or two about helping guests find what they are looking for.

Stays start at USD $345/night.

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