For a chill-out winter escape, head to Tofino, British Columbia

Written by By Sarah Cox, CNN Tofino, British Columbia (CNN) — Home to whales, waterfalls and a maze of hiking trails in the eastern edge of Vancouver Island, it’s easy to become numb to the unassuming North Shore community of Tofino . But a week-long winter retreat — literally — with the U.S. photographer Greg Stelmach — might scratch that itch.

The concept for a sojourn with the acclaimed wildlife specialist has been 10 years in the making, Stelmach says.

Greg Stelmach

“You can spend the whole winter there and not see much wildlife — or maybe you see everything — but you just don’t get the same time with it as if you lived there for a year,” he told CNN over the phone.

Stelmach spent the past four winters outside of the United States (in Thailand and the Philippines) and returned to his native Australia for his wintertime break, but things were about to get more extreme.

“When I got back, I wanted to start traveling more in North America, I wanted to be in a place with people, and I found Tofino.”

Checked into Pacific Cat Adventures in late November, Stelmach completed his pre-trip training and flew back out from Vancouver on Friday.

Lodging: Sojourns between the United States and Canada are not allowed, but guests at hotels near Tofino are more than welcome. We chose the Holiday Inn, where rooms start at $199 (US), all-inclusive.

Dining: Look out for lupines, balsam and fennel in the summer months, among other autumn-like florals, and wildflowers in the spring and summer, so your meals tend to lean toward wild, seasonal fare. Here, the Anchor Inn is serving up Pacific Northwest-inspired dishes, including short ribs with wild spinach and beets, as well as “wild mustard”; the sophisticated Panacea in town does a similar thing, but uses wild mustard instead.

Tents: Available since 1977, Tofino sleeps only in traditional shelter tents, no tents or permanent shelters. Sojourners bunk with strangers, and on mats under grills where they throw warm rock salt on the ground.

Sleeping: Tent hosts, varying from multiple to multiple families, will pitch you a tent and make you dinner. There’s no sleepover policy, but guests and hostage tents can arrange stays in each other’s houses, if they choose. Activities range from bridge games, knitting, or playing cards with the other inhabitants in your hostage to hitting the Tofino Dog (for dog-walkers). Some hosts will even open up their spaces to get a more authentic community feel.

Long walks: Backpacking Tofino means exploring some of its spectacular natural sights — like Grey Stumps Falls and Rattlesnake Falls, two examples of waterfall sites. No car needed for a forest walk of an hour. Explore the adjacent bush, set off the tent in tow, and you’ve got one hour of hikes, which include waterfalls.

Skiing: Tofino is home to numerous mountains, but Stelmach prefers “skiing to hiking.” Providing wifi is part of the package at Tofino Sands, and guests can stay at any one of the 19 different properties that offer resort spots at regular ski area prices. Prices vary.

Hiking: The hands-down best way to connect with Tofino is by hiking. The trails are guided by volunteers and informally hosted by tureen cranes. The trailhead is close to the big sand dunes on east Olympic Peninsula, from where Stelmach heads out to explore the red-walled canyon, barren beaches and sea cliff formations of the coast line.

Surfing: You’re unlikely to find wave conditions at Tofino’s Kayak Beach, which is separated from the rest of town by the rail track.

“What I like about surfing, and what I like about Tofino in general, is the simplicity,” says Stelmach. “Everything’s done from the land and people are taking it all in and enjoying it.”

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