British Columbia

Search for B.C.'s best small town: Vancouver Island region, Round 2

When you reach the fork in the road after driving the winding highway from Port Alberni, you face a choice: take a left to Ucluelet, or a right to Tofino?

Tofino vs. Ucluelet one of many regional rivalry matchups for voters to choose from

The turnoff near the end of Highway 4 on Vancouver Island offers visitors two options that have many similarities in their geography and culture but also several differences. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC News)

When you reach the fork in the road after driving the winding highway from Port Alberni, you face a choice: take a left to Ucluelet, or a right to Tofino?

"I'm probably going to get in trouble when I say some of this stuff," said Josie Osborne, the MLA for both communities, in describing the low-key rivalry between the oceanside towns on Vancouver Island's west coast. 

"I think a person turns right at the highway because they've heard of Tofino … the name is out there and well marketed. But the secret is to turn left and go to Ucluelet.

"But I always liken them to two fingerprints on the same hand: beautiful west coast geography but just a little bit of a different character."

The two towns are among the 16 remaining communities competing in the Vancouver Island division in The Search for B.C.'s Best Small Town, having won their first round matchups along with Port McNeill and Port Hardy, Hornby Island and Denman Island and many other communities. 

Ucluelet, shown here, like Tofino has a charm all its own or in the words of the region's MLA when describing both: two fingerprints on the same hand: beautiful west coast geography but just a little bit of a different character." (Justin McElroy/CBC)

Separated by just 40 kilometres, Tofino and Ucluelet attract somewhat different crowds.

Tofino's beaches are known the world over, but Ucluelet's craggy black rocks bring incredible views all their own. Tofino has all the amenities for tourists, but Ucluelet offers a compact town core with fewer crowds at peak season.

"Moving here from Tofino, the main reason was I felt like an employee of a resort," said Geoff Johnson, a Ucluelet musician and filmmaker who runs a YouTube channel about the town. 

"You kind of always feel like you sort of have to be in character down there. In Ucluelet, we're a little rougher around the edges."

While Ucluelet's western waterfront is dominated by craggy black rocks, Tofino's is full of sandy beaches like the one shown here. (Justin McElroy/CBC News)

Affordability challenges 

At the same time, both communities also have similarities, particularly when it comes to concerns about affordability and displacement. In the last year, the assessed value for a typical property in Tofino rose by 43 per cent to $1.4 million, and in Ucluelet by 42 per cent to $705,000. 

"There's a common thread for people getting over Tofino … people like myself that were there for eight or 10 years and see enough changes that they're like, 'Oh, this isn't what it used to be.' And then they take off and they come down to Ucluelet, which is sort of eight or 10 years behind Tofino in a lot of ways in that transition," said Johnson. 

"The challenges in these little small towns, especially these high profile small towns like Ucluelet and Tofino, are quite unique and often pretty unprecedented." 

It's part of the reason why collaboration is so important: Tofino chief administrative officer Bob McPherson says the two towns share a building inspector, have mutual aid agreements and look at housing plans from a regional perspective.

"We talk about things like can she share tech services? Can we share HR service? How can we use data that we've collected together to help find solutions together?" he said.

And McPherson acknowledged that while Tofino now has the reputation of a resort town, there was just as much realness there as Ucluelet. 

"Beneath the veneer of the resort, there's always a community with lots of depth … and certainly that's the case in Tofino," he said. 

"Yeah, we have a tourism economy. But beneath that, there's hard-working people. There's people walking their kids to school … it's just you have to live here to kind of experience what that is like." 

Voting will take place until 10 p.m. PT each day, with eight matchups for the Vancouver Island region that you'll find at the end of this article. 

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