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AROUND THE NORTHWEST: PAMPERING'S ALWAYS IN SEASON AT 'THE WICK'

VANCOUVER ISLAND -- It's common wisdom that you can never guarantee having good weather on vacation. How about bad weather, though?

We were prepared for tradeoffs when we signed up for an off-season vacation in Tofino, B.C., expecting shuttered storefronts and crashing waves that would restrict us to our hotel room. We even splurged on lodgings at the luxe Wickaninnish Inn, in part, because we wanted to feel we were someplace special even if we were trapped indoors.

Instead, we hit a string of clear days and warm weather -- plus all the amenities of a town that's building up a dual tourism attraction out of its surf-bum summers and storm-watching winters. And from the moment we entered "The Wick," with its down duvets, oceanfront balconies and, most of all, superb staffing, we felt as though we were on vacation from reality as well as from home.

Despite an unexpected border delay, there was plenty of room on the B.C. ferry system's Tsawwassen-Duke Point crossing, even though we arrived just minutes before sailing (reservations are recommended in high season). The ferry dock is less than a 45-minute drive from the Canadian border, and its amenities, including a kids play area with toy cars and a slide, were a pleasure even for those of us who love our Washington ferries.

When we pulled into Nanaimo two hours later, we were shocked by its size and sprawl, the Wal-Mart and strip malls, as if we had carried the worst of America along with us. We quickly pressed on to more personalized towns along the winding 130-mile drive to our destination.

Many attractions were still closed for the season, but the outdoors was still fair game: We strained our eyes to catch the tops of the moss-draped giants in Cathedral Grove at MacMillan Provincial Park near Port Alberni, and found even more fascination in the trunks now lying in fallen enormity on the forest floor.

A 20-mile side trip brought us to Ucluelet, where we strolled along sections of the steep, scenic Wild Pacific Trail, which winds along the rocky shoreline and cliffs and stretches all the way to the small downtown. Other hikers told us they had spotted whales, although we were still a touch early for whale season.

The junior member of our party, currently addicted to a 1940s book titled "The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge," lit up as we passed the Amphitrite Point Lighthouse on the trail, a squat building that was, unfortunately, fenced off. Then it was time to head to Tofino and the vacation's main event.

When we checked into our room at the Wickaninnish, we didn't find a trace of the cold, better-take-off-your-dirty-shoes hauteur that we've observed at other high-end resorts. Instead the Wick just shone with classy good taste and connections to the natural world immediately outside: A rocking chair formed from driftwood; powerful binoculars to observe the bald eagle perched on a nearby snag; a CD player and selection of music and books; sturdy raingear hanging in the closet for our use, candleholders made from barnacle-encrusted stones.

There were decadent touches, such as the soft comforters and the sheets that were turned down each night; a plethora of expensive toiletries; the jetted tub in the bathroom, large enough for two, looking straight out to the ocean; or the quintet of chocolate desserts available through room service.

But the most luxuriant experience was the hotel's staff, who had a universally genuine, I-would-love-to-help-you, it's-all-about-you attitude that isn't typically bestowed on adults in any situation other than a bride on her wedding day. The attention never felt obsequious, only generous -- and the friendliness extended to our toddler, a nice surprise given that many hotels at the Wick's level don't permit children, let alone make them feel welcome.

In some ways, our serene hotel cocoon kept us from exploring as much of the coast as we otherwise would have done. After learning the Pacific Rim National Park Interpretive Center was closed for the season (it opens Tuesday), we didn't even venture to the park, which normally would have been a prime destination.

Instead, we found ourselves relaxing on the room's balcony while we watched the waves rise and ebb on Chesterman Beach, or taking the few minutes' stroll down to the sand, where we admired seashells; skirted rocks at low tide to find purple and orange sea stars and clusters of mussels; and wandered at length while the toddler dragged ropes of kelp down the sand and leapt off makeshift driftwood balance beams.

Just outside "downtown" Tofino, we explored Tonquin Beach; descending a chain of funhouselike stairs and clattering across a wooden boardwalk to find a virtually deserted expanse of sand, shorebirds and scenery.

Visits to town rarely seemed necessary. Instead, we stocked some food from Beaches Grocery and selected DVDs from the excellent, carefully chosen selection at the neighboring video store.

Most galleries and shops were closed for winter, although several advertised that we could call for appointments. Everywhere, we saw smiles. "Of course they were smiling," a Canadian friend said patiently. "It was Tofino in February, and the sun was out." Twenty-one straight days of rain, we were told, had preceded our balmy week.

One of our most pleasant stops was at the Tofino Botanical Gardens, a 12-acre preserve meant to "explore the relationship between culture and nature," where $8 (U.S.) bought a three-day clearance to wander. Ice still lingered in a birdbath, and there wasn't enough spring greenery to get a good sense of the plantings, but fun landmarks along the quirky, scenic trail still included a children's garden and a decaying "hippie bus" that we figured was as much a part of Tofino's heritage as the trees and flowers alongside.

We were lucky enough to visit at the opening of Sobo restaurant's new location at the gardens, where inexpensive, punchy fare, such as fish tacos and seafood chowder and fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies, were already inspiring long lines by the time we left town.

The gardens' proprietor told us that Tofino is becoming a town about food as much as anything else, where chefs compete to outdo each other. We considered this a good thing, visiting the well-established Common Loaf bakery, which was comfortable and affordable, but too crunchy-healthy for our mood; and enjoying sweet honey mussels at The Shelter restaurant.

The highlight was two nights of dining at the Wickaninnish's Pointe Restaurant, with the hotel providing free baby-sitting in our room. Throughout the meal we decked the Pointe with superlatives for food, service, and ambience alike, with surfers paddling out on the water (we would have had ocean spray on the windows in more typical weather), servers who knew us by name, and flawless attention to detail. The menu leaned toward local and fresh ingredients, with a good mix of meats and seafood, a different tasting menu paired with wine each evening, and even a different "flight" of five vegetarian dishes to sample each night. Almost every dish prompted us to close our eyes and consider the flavors, reveling in ingredients such as exotic foraged mushrooms or smoked black cod.

"This could have been served at the Herbfarm," we whispered after our first appetizer, a rich, swirled, pea-and-scallop bisque topped with a tiny "salad" tower of shaved fennel. Moist Cowichan Valley chicken came stuffed with visible slices of black truffle.

On the sole slip-up in our two visits, an entree of halibut arrived overcooked. We ate more than half anyway and assured our server we had enjoyed everything just fine. Yet we were soon approached by the pleasant assistant manager, concerned to see a plate return with those few bites still remaining, asking if the fish had truly been all right. Apologies and a complimentary dessert soon arrived, but her sharp eyes and attention alone left us oohing and aahing more than the apple tart.

All this came with a steep price -- dinner for two ran us more than $160 (U.S.) including wine, tax, and tip, which is also more than we've paid for dinner since that long-ago Herbfarm visit. It was good enough to be worth it: The three-hour experience, spanning both ends of a gorgeous sunset, was better than most other extravagances we could imagine for the money.

The restaurant had competition for indulgence, though, in visits to the hotel's Ancient Cedars Spa, for the spa treatments included in our package deal. We each selected a regular one-hour massage and a 1 1/2-hour hot-stone massage (other options included the likes of facials and body wraps).

Before the massage began, we were led to outdoor chairs overlooking the blue waves, provided with sunglasses for the glare, blankets for our knees, sweetly intense licorice-mint tea, and magazines. Then a copper basin was delivered for our feet to soak in, filled with hot water, bath salts, our choice of scented oils, and marbles to agreeably roll under our steaming toes.

The massage itself took place in a candlelit, quiet room, silence broken only by our masseuse's gentle questions and our grateful replies as, say, peppermint oil cooled our backs. By the hour's end on our first afternoon, we felt more relaxed than we have by the end of most full-week vacations. When our visit really did end, we technically could have made it to the ferry in a long afternoon's drive, but couldn't bear to rush. Instead, we opted for a night in Victoria before hopping on the privately owned Victoria-Port Angeles car ferry. We used the extra time to visit Fort Rodd Hill (a historic fortress) and Fisgard Lighthouse, a gorgeously snowy, red-topped structure that is still working.

After ascending the spiraling stairs in the brick lighthouse building (the final set to the tower's top is blocked off), the toddler's vacation was finally complete. But we already knew we had made an impact by the last day at the Wick, when, after making the regular bald eagle check, he attempted to drag his father's camera equipment out to the balcony. "I take a picture of the boo-ful ocean," he sighed. "The ocean so boo-ful. It splashes and it crashes."

Even when the skies are clear.

If, like us, anything over three figures on your hotel bill is assumed to be an error worthy of heart palpitations, you will need to justify to yourself a lengthy stay at the Wickaninnish Inn near Tofino, B.C. Here's how we rationalized our four-day package deal last month after plunking down our non-refundable deposit:

The inn's off-season rates are massively discounted from the summer season.

We hadn't had a vacation in years that didn't involve the words "family wedding" or "we need to visit your (fill in name of neglected relative)."

Visiting Tofino didn't require buying plane tickets for our family of three. Anywhere else on our vacation list would have meant flying, which would have pushed up the total vacation bill to the same level.

Guilt partially assuaged, we set out for the Canadian border. And we didn't think of the cost again all week except to say "worth every penny." Oh, and, "Could we come back next year with your (fill in name of neglected relative here?)"

"Discover Your Senses" packages at the Wickaninnish, which include four midweek nights accommodation and four selected treatments at the Ancient Cedars Spa, start at $1,531 (U.S.) through May 31. The price jumps to $2,088 for June-September. Storm-watching packages, which include two nights' accommodation, a three-hour guided nature walk and other amenities, start at $661 through May 31, and jump to $939 for June-September. A full list of 2005-06 rates is online at www.wickinn.com or 800-333-4604.

Information on the B.C. ferry system is available at www.bcferries.bc.ca/, or 250-386-3431. Information on the privately owned Coho Ferry between Victoria and Port Angeles is available at www.cohoferry.com/ or 360-457-4491.

P-I reporter Rebekah Denn can be reached at 206-448-8190 or rebekahdenn [at] seattlepi [dot] com.
 

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