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Riding The Storm Out

Bad-hair day means good time on Vancouver Island's west coast

Many stormwatchers flock to Tofino, British Columbia, where winter storms and hurricane-force winds bring 40-foot waves crashing onto the shores.

TOFINO, British Columbia - Sheets of freezing rain sliced at our thick yellow slickers. When we edged out of our protective cocoons, a thousand needles pricked our faces.

" We're on the knife edge," shouted Bill McIntyre, struggling to be heard above the fierce roar of unbridled nature. "There's nothing obstructing the force of the storm; it keeps building as it drives across the Pacific, until it smashes into us."

Forty-foot waves slammed into other 40-footers, piling on, feeding on themselves, becoming ferocious monsters that exploded onto the basalt coastline. Huge logs bobbed like kindling in the foamy mayhem. Along the bluff top, centuries old cedars hunched like misshapen old men, trembling against the hurricane-force winds.

At least, that's how it might have been. Instead, we had a week of postcard-perfect days.

The rugged spur of land that divides Clayoquot and Barkley sounds on the wild west coast of Vancouver Island may be the only place on Earth where visitors hope for lousy weather. Storm watching has become a major attraction here.

" That's why we came," said E. Griffin Cole, an Austin, Texas, dentist. "At first we were disappointed we weren't going to get a storm. But it ended up being the nicest vacation we've ever had. And we've been all over the United States, all over Italy, Mexico, the Caribbean and the South Pacific."

The magic of the area is its pristine natural beauty. Pacific Rim National Park stretches between Tofino at the north end of the peninsula and Ucluelet at the south. Cedar boardwalks meander through the park, allowing nature lovers to pass through the extravagantly rich ecosystem of an ancient coastal rain forest. Miles of sandy beaches edge the peninsula - and its coves and inlets make it one of the premier kayaking spots in the world.

The area also is a haven for foodies and home to top-shelf beach resorts, including the Wickaninnish Inn, which last year was named the best hotel in the Continental U.S. and Canada by readers of Travel & Leisure and the No. 3 hotel in the world, beating out such perennial favorites as Amandari in Bali.

One million people visit this area annually; most come in June, July and August. Locals say savvier travelers come in the off-season when crowds are gone and service and prices are likely to be better. Plus, there's the weather; mid-October to late March is prime storm-watching season.

" Typically we'll get two or three days of storm, then four or five days of sunshine," said McIntyre, who leads storm hikes along the Wild Pacific Trail near Ucluelet. "A bad-hair day here is a great time."

" People come here for storms, but if it turns out to be sunny, it's paradise. You can't lose," said Jamie Christensen, manager at Jamie's Whaling Station in Tofino.

Small-town life

The port of Tofino, with its 1,200 inhabitants, ranks as the commercial hub and population center of the peninsula. Ucluelet, exactly a marathon's distance south, is its humble little sister.

" If your thing is bright lights, big city, don't come here," said Charles McDiarmid, who was raised here and built and manages the "the Wick," as locals call the Wickaninnish.

The port of Tofino is the commercial hub of the Vancouver Island peninsula. Storm watching is a major attraction during the winter.

The peninsula got its first road in 1959; today it has one traffic signal - a flashing red light in Tofino. There's no movie theater; the only chain operations are the Esso gas station and a Best Western. The Co-op, owned by residents, is the major shopping spot.

Locals are an eclectic bunch: loggers, fishers - and eco-warriors who came here to save the environment from the first two. Add to the mix pioneer families and First Nation people who were born and raised here - and those who came in the '60s to "the town at the end of the road" to avoid the draft and Vietnam. Today many work as artists and an increasing number are developing services catering to visitors - from massage therapy to bear-watching excursions. Tourism is growing slowly, but steadily.

"The one thing we all have in common is that we're down-to-earth people - and we all live for the winter because it's so peaceful," said Tim Cariou, a massage therapist.

"Going to the Tofino post office is the social event of the day," said Christensen. "Everybody has to go there for their mail; that's the nice part of living in a small town."

It's no coincidence that the best spot in Tofino for people-watching is the Common Loaf Bakery, across from the post office. "It's where all the funky locals - or as some like to say, 'the Common Loafers' - hang out," said Art Anderson, Tofino's mayor.

Anderson owns Beaches, a tiny grocery store that's as funky and eclectic as the local population. Shoppers come for everything from fishing gear to a dozen varieties of hot sauce. They buy organic strawberries grown in California and peanut butter/chocolate chip cookies baked by his honor himself.

A perfect day

The mayor's recipe for an ideal day here starts with dropping a crab trap in the bay. "When you go back at 2 or 3 in the afternoon, if there's a crab in there you'll know what's for dinner," he said.

" If not, a boat ride is a good thing to do in the afternoon. Drop a line; there's great salmon fishing here. Weigh West (restaurant) will cook some for your dinner - and smoke the rest for you."

For lunch: "Grab a baguette, some cheese, grapes and go to Chesterman Beach and sit on a log," Anderson suggested.

Between meals, soak up nature, the mayor advised.

The best way to do that is on foot: Walk long, sandy beaches at low tide, drinking in salt air, letting it wash away remnants of work-a-day sludge that clogs overworked citified minds. Hike mossy cedar boardwalk trails through the rain forest, listening to silence, absorbing soft, filtered light that streams through this lush, wet world.

Coastal rain forests in temperate latitudes are rare - covering only a fraction of 1 percent of the Earth's total land surface, according to National Georgraphic. They hold twice as much organic material per acre as tropical rain forests.

" Grab a handful of soil and you'll be holding some specie that hasn't been named yet," said McIntyre, who was chief naturalist at Pacific Rim National Park for 25 years before starting his own guided hike business.

McIntyre's storm-watching hikes are full of fury and fun; his hikes during mild weather make a special place even more so. Ponder that an ancient cedar in this forest may have been standing 800 or 1,000 years ago - before Marco Polo ventured on his first journey. Consider that when the tree falls, it could spend another five centuries as the life-giving "nurse" to lichen, moss, ferns and even full-grown hemlocks that cleave to it for nourishment.

Nine marked hiking trails meander within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Outside the park, hiking is nearby on the Wild Pacific Trail near Ucluelet.

At the end of the day, soothe aching muscles with a hot stone massage at the Wick's Ancient Cedars Spa. The treatment starts with a luxuriant foot soak in warm, herb-infused water. Nirvana.

More outdoor options

Brian Congdon used to be a warden at Pacific Rim National Park. These days, it seems, he has a death wish. Opt for one of his "Perfect Storm" cruises and you'll understand.

Congdon, a Coast Guard auxiliary member, skippers a former Coast Guard rescue boat that ferries fearless foul weather junkies smack into the fury of the Pacific during storms. "If you think storm watching from shore is exciting, try it from a boat," Congdon suggested.

" He doesn't get a lot of business," said McIntyre. "People get sick on the boat, and it scares the hell out of them. But that boat is built exactly for what he's doing. If it rolls over, it'll right itself."

On days when the weather is mild, hop aboard Wilfred Atleo's water taxi for a ride to Hot Springs Cove and a soak in mineral hot springs at the ocean's edge. Or spend an afternoon counting bald eagles while exploring in an ocean kayak.

" In winter, you're likely to have the luxury of getting an individualized tour," said Christensen. "There's even a good chance you'll be one-on-one with the owner/operator of the company."

At Majestic Ocean Kayaking, owner Tracy Eeftink and her 15-year-old stepson, Tony, guided my husband and me one February afternoon. We lost count of the eagles we spotted.

" Next time, we'll go into the harbor to see sea lions, seals, deer and, on an off-chance, a whale," Tracy said.

Spend an afternoon roaming the art galleries at Tofino and meeting artists who work in bare-bones homespun studios: Find burl wood artist Keith Plumley in a hut behind Beaches grocery; he turns the ugly warts on trees into immense platters that cry to be caressed. Find 70-something wood carver Henry Nolla in a tiny cabin on Chesterman Beach; savor his work throughout the Wickaninnish and other top resorts in the area.

Simply enjoy meeting Canadian locals. Embrace their laid-back, off-season style, their lyrical talk, their warmth.

" I love the way I've been treated by all the Canadians I've met here," said Cole, the Austin dentist. "It's not that I've had bad experiences elsewhere I've traveled. It's just that sometimes you get the feeling people are most interested in the almighty dollar. Here, what I feel is genuine friendliness."

Said Christensen: "Living here does have a good effect on people. No matter where you go in town, nature is right at your doorstep. It's beautiful. That has an overall calming effect on your psyche."

Vacationing here has that same effect. Especially in winter. Soak it all up: the warmth of locals, the stunning beauty of rain forests edging wide sandy beaches - maybe even no footprints but your own in the sand. Savor great food. Delicious prices. At night, sink into an oversize oceanfront bathtub; lay back in the warm bubbly bliss and watch a storm rage - or, if the weather isn't cooperating - soak up a sky full of stars. Indulge in vacation.

Understand that Vancouver Island's wild west coast isn't a place to escape the world; it's a place to embrace it.

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