Is the $150 campsite worth it?

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As the daughter of a man who helped build many of BC Parks’ iconic campgrounds on Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland and the Interior of B.C., I’ve spent a lot of time in these beautiful places.

When I was tiny, my family even lived in a few that were under construction. Over the decades I’ve continued to camp whenever possible in these generously spaced, well-treed campgrounds, famously featuring hefty wooden picnic tables. They remain relatively affordable and rustic, even though some now offer mod cons like showers.

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But I’m a newcomer to the world of private campgrounds – particularly the high-end, $150-a-night kind – which I experienced in the week leading up to and over the May long weekend near Tofino on the westernmost edge of Vancouver Island.

Originally we wanted to camp at Green Point, the sole federal government campground adjacent to spectacular Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. So does everyone else on the planet. Reservations for it opened on Jan. 19, filled up in about a day and cancellations are rare.

Instead, we inflated our budget and booked at privately owned Surf Grove Campground. From April to June, its rates vary from $70 to $150 a night, increasing slightly on holiday weekends, says general manager Brandon Manzardo. Summer rates range from $129 to $189, depending on the site and what services are needed (power vs. power/water/sewer). From October to March, sites cost between $40 to $70 a night.

When we arrived, we found Surf Grove’s location to be outstanding: set on 40 acres of rainforest on stunning Cox Bay Beach, with its spectacular sunsets, wide curve of smooth sand and endless waves, it’s less than a four-minute drive to the national park and about seven kilometres from Tofino. All the beachcombing, hiking, kayaking and surfing you can eat is here.

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Like concert seating, one pays for access closer to Mother Nature’s stage, the beach. We opted for a primo, $150-a-night site with all the services, located in the Spruce Grove area, which is the closest you can get to the beach, about a two-minute walk. Huge trees and thick undergrowth separate this first line of campsites from the beach and, given the powerful wind that blasts in off the Pacific, that’s a good thing. The white noise of waves soothed us day and night.

The newish campground opened for business in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. The owners – who’ve honed their camping biz chops since 2011 when they bought nearby Ocean Village Resort, famous for its ’70s-era “beehive” cabins – have thought of everything. Just up from the beach, there’s a pooch shower for rinsing off sandy, salty dogs, along with dispensers for biodegradable poop bags and hand sanitizer pumps. Nearby are heated outdoor showers to rinse off sandy, salty surfers.

Surf Grove Campground at Cox Bay Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island has top-notch amenities. cal

The state-of-the-art washrooms and showers are spotless, even with a packed campground on the May long weekend. I didn’t ever wait for a shower, even on busy mornings. The showers are free, no tokens or coins required, with lots of hot water and without the muddy footprints, clumps of hair and slimy shower curtains sometimes found at public campgrounds. (Facilities and the main gate are accessible only by punching in a code, which deters non-paying visitors.)

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To round out the amenities, there’s a cedar barrel sauna that can be booked for a cool $100 an hour. Tofino Electric Bikes operates out of a small cabin near the entrance and Pacific Surf Co. runs onsite lessons and rentals near the beach. Next to it, housed in a retrofitted vintage camper van, quirky Off-Grid Camper Cafe serves up hand-pressed espresso and baked goods.

I thought it might be noisy, especially on the long weekend, but our fellow campers were super respectful. After being bashed around in the mighty Pacific and whipped by cold westerly winds, exhausted surfers crash early. This is a family-and-dog-friendly campground, with no loud music allowed, and quiet time is between 10 p.m. and 9 a.m. And I didn’t hear a single generator! That’s because each of the 242 campsites has power.

It’s your basic all-ages scene, with a mix of Mercedes camper vans, RVs of every size, tents big and small and us somewhere in between in our VW EuroVan. Those without camping gear can opt to stay in one of six RV rental units or an A-frame cabin.

Everyone, including small children and babies, seemed generally blissed out. There’s a calm, chilled-out vibe here. I don’t think I heard anyone crying in the week we were there, although one mum I talked with said her two young girls burst into tears after swimming in the frigid ocean (averaging seven to 14 degrees Celsius) sans wet suits, and had to be thawed out in a hot shower.

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A few quibbles: Some of the sites are smallish and don’t have a lot of privacy, but that will soon change as vegetation grows like mad in the rainforest. The showers could use more hooks. And the pre-set water temperature in the bathroom sinks is sometimes too hot.

But these are mice nuts, really. This is next-level camping. It’s expensive camping, for sure, but it’s half the price of a hotel or short-term rental in what is one of the country’s hottest destinations. And given that it’s next to the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve – a precious jewel set on the raw edge of Canada – it’s worth every loonie.

Why even my dear old dad, long retired from BC Parks, would give this amenity-rich style of camping his seal of approval – once he got over the sticker shock that is.

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