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Exotic Canada: The grey escape -- why visitors to Tofino hope for rain

I’m not sure if it’s the wind or jet lag or the flickering light from the fireplace that wakes me up ahead of the sun, but I’m up. I draw the curtains to see what it’s doing outside. The towering spruce trees are swaying madly, the rain is sheeting down my bedroom’s picture window and the waves are battling each other for supremacy on Chesterman Beach. This is all good news. In any other instance, in any other place, waking up to grey skies, a torrential downpour and high winds would be a thumbs-down situation. But not in Tofino, British Columbia. And especially not during winter’s storm-watching season.
People come to Tofino during winter, not to cower, but instead to embrace the elements, such as this mild February monsoon. The Wickaninnish Inn was built specifically to showcase these blistery months and ever since has enjoyed an unexpected boon in attracting tourists to Vancouver Island during what would normally be a shoulder season.

To that end, I make myself a coffee, suit up in the hotel-supplied rain suit and rubber boots and head out for the regularly scheduled Saturday morning nature walk. Our guide Silva, a naturalist from Long Beach Nature Tours, likes that we’re properly dressed in the “West Coast Rainbow,” so-called for the bright reds, yellows and greens of our sporty rain suits. We head out and hit the Rainforest Beach Loop trail, just steps from the Inn.

The Wick is situated on a rocky promontory overlooking Chesterman Beach, which leads to Cox Bay. The further you walk along the beach the better you can see the Lennard Island Lighthouse (still staffed); part of a chain of light stations along the coast. “There’s a history of storms and shipwrecks,” Silva says. “That’s one of the darker sides of the history of this place.” As it does now, the weather has influenced the lives of the locals for centuries.

As we wander through the rainforest, Silva picks up a terrifically mossy branch. “This is the great part of a storm,” she smiles, “it knocks down branches you wouldn’t be able to see unless you were a bald eagle.” We come upon an incredible grove of gigantic cedars, all at least 300 years old. “The wind is picking up,” she says as we emerge from the forest and take our first steps onto the beach. “The goal is to get blustered around in the storm.” Silva is so knowledgeable and so much fun that her enthusiasm for all things barky and sea-weedy (she even whittled a big piece of found bull kelp into a horn and blew it!) was infectious, as was the rain and wind, which was blowing at 60 clicks. “Even the locals would consider this rain,” admits a soaked Silva. Yet the surfers are still out there carving waves, and beach joggers run by us as if it’s a day in the park.

An après-storm snack of short rib poutine with organic Blossom’s Blue cheese and truffle oil-hit gravy, topping perfect hand-cut fries, seemed like the right thing to do, as did washing it down with a highball Dark and Stormy, stirred together with the Wick’s house-made ginger beer and Gosling’s rum. Sadly, the poutine’s blue cheese isn’t local. “Unfortunately, nobody makes cheese in Tofino,” says our apologetic waiter, “that blue cheese is from the other side of the island.” (Love it.) All of the servers here are at least level-1 sommeliers, and much of the wine list concentrates on boutique pacific northeast wineries. What’s more, Tofino is one of the few places in North America with a year-round Dungeness crab season (though January through March, fishermen can only fish for crab one day a week.) So at dinner later that night, while my Dungenous crab, sided by a yuzu sauce, sticky rice, baby bok choy, avocado and sesame, doesn’t nearly showcase The Pointe restaurant Chef Nicholas Nutting’s mindful creativity, it’s what I truly wanted to eat, and I loved every warm, tender morsel of it: Cold water and the open ocean make for the freshest, sweetest crab in the world.

“There’s a different kind of energy in the water during winter,” explains my surf instructor Josh, at Long Beach Lodge the next day. “So you can make this as much of an adventure as you want.” Walking on the beach earlier that morning and watching surfers bob in and out of the thunderous Pacific, “death wish” seemed a more accurate depiction than “adventure.” Still, my nerves are calmed after Josh explains that we’re staying shallow enough so that we can touch the ocean floor. But before we get surfing, we’ve got to get suited up: After all, it’s 7 C outside, and the water is a frigid 9 C. Our wet suits are winter-weight, head to toe, making them warm and waterproof, but also close to impossible to get into. (Imagine squeezing toothpaste back into its tube.) The surfboards are larger and softer than a regular board. “They’re more stable and go faster,” explains Josh. “It’s like skipping rocks on a pond.”

Suited up and carrying our boards, we make our way from the sandy beach into the rolling, frothy waves and start doing basic boarding moves just after where the waves break. (It actually felt warmer in the water than outside.) It’s instantly fun and completely exhilarating. I keep catching the waves and riding them in (albeit mostly on my belly) until I hit sand. “A good wave is a good wave, no matter what,” says Josh, explaining the undeniable appeal of winter surfing.

He says that lately, California and Maui’s white sands and palm trees are being usurped by Vancouver Island’s whales in the water, spruce trees and bears on the beach by pro surfers around the world. “This is becoming the new exotic.”

• The first-ever Feast! Tofino-Ucluelet, a month-long food extravaganza featuring seafood based on sustainable “boat-to-table” practices, starts May 9. Visiting guests run from Rick Moonen to Michael Noble, and highlights include Salmon Week (May 9-14), Crab Week (May 15-21), and Spot Prawn Week (May 22-28). Affordable prix fix menus, educational tours, and Stay, Dine & Play packages are all part of the plan. For details, visit FeastBC.com.

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