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CALM BEFORE THE STORM

JAKE MacDONALD and his girlfriend needed a break. She wanted hot-stone massages and he wanted to watch the tempests rage. At a pair of Vancouver Island inns, they found what they were looking for—and then some

MALAHAT, B.C.—Not long ago, the entire west coast of Vancouver Island was an isolated wilderness, with treacherous reefs and powerful storms that claimed hundreds of ships and sailors. Shipwrecks were so common along this “Graveyard of the Pacific” that in 1907 the Canadian government built the escape route for marooned sailors that is now the West Coast Trail.

In the 1950s, the only practical way to reach Tofino was by Grumman flying boat. One day, a crowd gathered to meet a young man named Howard McDiarmid, who was on his way to Gold River to become the town physician. The 250 citizens of Tofino had got wind of his plan, and greeted him with placards and gifts. Like the villagers in the movie Seducing Doctor Lewis, they did such a good job of charming Dr. McDiarmid that he decided to stay in Tofino. As the town’s only doctor, he delivered babies by candlelight and built a cottage on a promontory south of town.

His son Charles remembers when he and his two brothers and parents all slept in the main room. “We always prayed for a storm,” he says. “It was so dramatic. All the beach logs would float free and the 25-foot waves would hurl them into the rocks, where they would strike and boom like kettle drums. For me, it’s the sound of Tofino.”

When Charles left home, he studied hotel management at Cornell University, and went on to help manage Four Seasons hotels in Washington, Dallas and California. But he always missed Tofino, especially what he calls those “Old Testament winter storms.” His long-term dream was to build his own hotel next to the family cottage.

“I even came here in big storms and climbed those rocks to see how high I had to put the building above the breaking waves,” he says.

“I talked to engineers to see how large we could make the windows without having them break in hurricane-force winds. In those days, the thinking in tourism circles was that Tofino would always be a tough sell in the wintertime, but I believed that if you built the right sort of place—a Relais & Châteaux sort of inn—people would come here from all over the world to experience the drama of the winter weather.”

We were sitting in the dining room of what is now the Wickaninnish Inn as Charles McDiarmid explained all this to my gal Ann and me. Earlier this year, Travel + Leisure magazine ranked the best hotels across continental United States and Canada, and remarkably, three of the top five—The Wickaninnish Inn, The Aerie Resort and Sooke Harbour House—were on Vancouver Island.

I had noticed the stellar rise of these hotels and I thought we would both enjoy exploring the island—she could relax and enjoy hot-stone massages, while I messed around in the tidal pools. We looked forward to five romantic days of crackling fireplaces, big soft beds, incredible food, excellent wine and some really bad weather. Vancouver, after all, had been on a boil-water advisory for weeks because of heavy rain, and the Gulf of Alaska had launched its annual mail-in campaign of sub-Arctic lows, each one delivering gale-force southeasterlies and unrelenting rain.

When we arrived at the Wickaninnish Inn, however, the weather was beautiful. We opened our curtains the next morning and the sky was a dismaying baby-blanket blue, and the sea outside our window looked as calm as Georgian Bay in mid-July. En route to breakfast, we admired the architecture of the hotel, which is built of local stone and hand-hewn timber, and has the grand clean lines of a Haida longhouse or Japanese temple.

After breakfast, we made our way outside, where we spent the day in the lambent sunshine, walking the beach, breathing the sea air and examining massive logs scattered by giant waves among the dunes. That evening, we enjoyed meals of wild salmon while watching night fall on the Pacific through the floor-to-ceiling windows. Normally, stereo speakers fill the octagonal room with the thunder of storm-driven waves. Tonight, though, all we could hear was lounge music. When we jokingly complained to our waiter, he said, “Last week, the highway was washed out, so be careful what you wish for.”

The next morning, the scene outside the window looked autumnal and chilly. A canopy of black cloud hung above the ocean. During breakfast, something odd floated past the window—a goose feather, followed by another. Soon, people were gathering at the windows, murmuring in disbelief. The waitress said that in her five years here she had never seen it snow.

By the time we checked out, the road was a mess and visibility was down to a hundred yards. It’s a three-hour drive across the island in good conditions, and the highway was icy enough that most of the time we crept along at 40 kilometres an hour. The passing scene was otherworldly—towering evergreens cloaked in heavy snow, gauzy cliffs, snow flurrying down into black lakes. At one point, a black bear crossed the road in front of us, heading for his winter den at a motivated canter.

Our destination for the night was Sooke Harbour House, at the south tip of the island. That region is Canada’s palm tree belt, and we expected that the snow would turn to rain. But by late afternoon the storm had turned disastrous. Cars were in the ditch, mini-avalanches were spilling off the cliff tops and visibility was down to a few yards. At the top of the Malahat on the island highway, the cars in front of us slowed to walking speed, then started, then stopped. Ambulances whooped by. After an hour, we reached a single Mountie with a red flashlight who waved us back. We U-turned, found a pull-off down the mountain and tried to figure out what to do. We had been in the car since breakfast, without a decent break, and it was hard to stay positive. Gambling that the roadblock had cleared, we got in line and drove up the mountain again, wasted an hour sitting in line, then turned back and tried it one more time. Finally, we accepted that we weren’t going to make it to the glowing lights and famed cuisine of Sooke Harbour House.

Fortunately, we were only a few kilometres from the equally famed cuisine of the Aerie. We called them on a BlackBerry with a near-dead battery. It was past 9 o’clock and their kitchen crew was folding up for the night. But in the tradition of benevolent innkeepers down through the ages, they promised to stay open and give us a hot meal and a cozy room if we could make it.

The Aerie, as its name suggests, is high on a mountain, and the winding hill was more than our rental car with its summer tires could handle. Halfway up the hill, it expired in a snowdrift. We continued on foot, without luggage, climbing through shin-deep drifts with berets of wet snow on our heads. Fifteen minutes later, we were sitting with wet socks in the dining room, clinking wineglasses to recognize having made it through the worst storm in Vancouver Island history. We had wanted bad weather, and we got bad weather.

In the Travel + Leisure survey, the Aerie was named the best hotel in the U.S. and Canada. Like the Wickaninnish Inn and Sooke Harbour House, it’s a small and intimate hotel, and that’s an attribute shared by others on the list. About half the hotels in the survey have fewer than 100 rooms. (The Aerie, The Wickaninnish Inn and Sooke Harbour House likewise made it onto the magazine’s “World’s Best” list, the only hotels in Canada to do so.) The Aerie’s mountainous setting, although striking, is pretty typical of Vancouver Island. But as we learned during our three-day visit, it’s not about the mountains.

The Aerie is one of those hideaways where it would be just fine if you never stepped outside. Each room has its own spa tub, wood-burning fireplace and balcony overlooking the Gulf Islands. The book shelf is lined with old hardcovers you would like to spend the rest of the day with. Spa mistress Chloe, according to Ann, is a “wizard,” and James Kendal, the 39-year-old manager, is a dinnertime raconteur, wine historian and aspiring racing-car driver. The genius behind the place is Maria Schuster, a native Austrian who spent her life in the hotel business before building this masterpiece atop the Malahat in 1990.

All of this elegance is delivered in a manner that seems both flawless and easy. During the storm, for example, the dining-room staff worked all night—with a brief interlude of sliding down the hill on garbage bags—then worked Sunday brunch with shrugging insouciance and not a hair out of place. During our stay, we would have some of the best meals we had ever eaten, including exquisite omelettes of mushrooms and goat cheese, Cowichan Valley duck breast and a wide variety of superb B.C. wines, and we would learn enough about the area that we started planning our next visit.

But that evening, as we sat there with wet hair, we were happy just to be in this warm, well-lit place. Outside the arched windows, the snow swept past in operatic flurries. The fire was blazing and Nat King Cole was in a Christmassy mood. The weather outside was frightful, but we didn’t mind. Let it snow, let it snow.

Pack your bags

GETTING THERE

You can get to all three hotels by air, connecting through Victoria, or by renting a car, and driving across the island on Highway 4. The longest leg is from Sooke Harbour House to the Wickaninnish Inn, which takes about five hours.

WHERE TO STAY

Wickaninnish Inn: Osprey Lane at Chesterman Beach, Tofino; 1-800-333-4604 or 250-725-3100; http://www.wickinn.com. Winter weekday rates start at $175 a room, breakfast included; weekend rates start at $200 a night. Walk-in diners are welcome.

The Aerie Resort: Ebedora Lane, Malahat; 1-800-518-1933 or 250-743-7115; http://www.aerie.bc.ca. Winter weekday rates start at $240; weekend rates start at $280 a night. Dinners are for guests only, but breakfast and lunch is available for walk-ins.

Sooke Harbour House: Sooke; 1-800-889-9688 or 250-642-3421; http://www.sookeharbourhouse.com. Winter weekday rates start at $200 a night; weekend rates start at $275 and include breakfast and a picnic lunch.

MORE INFORMATION

Tourism Vancouver Island: 250-754-3500; www.vancouverisland.travel.

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