Canada's on a Roll! Making Waves on an Epic Adventure in Beautiful BC
Rhiannon says quietly over the roar of the surf: 'Now paddle.'
I do what she says, arms flapping like a deranged turtle, my attempts to propel the board forward fast enough to keep up with the moving hill of foam are surprisingly effective.
After a second I actually start accelerating, just as the wave picks up 16 stone of middle-aged surfing novice (I grew up by the sea, but have never tried this before) and oversized beginner board and propels this ungainly combo towards the shore at what feels like 50 knots, but is, in fact, more like five.
With a weary sigh I try to stand up as instructed and, with equally weary inevitability, fail, thudding into the sand. Never mind, there are plenty more waves in the sea. I collect my board, now yanking at my ankle on its leash, and head off once more towards the horizon.
For something I am so clearly bad at, this is fun. At 7am the rain was lashing hard against my bedroom skylight - I nearly cancelled, but five hours later, fluffy white clouds scurry across the blue sky like a flock of geese.
The pristine sea - can there be cleaner sea anywhere on Earth? - sparkles, the mica-rich sand a silvery grey. In the distance a tree-clad rocky archipelago glistens in the sun and life feels good.
'Don't take your gloves off,' instructs Rhiannon. Although I am warm, the sea is not - maybe 8c. Because this is not Hawaii, nor even Cornwall, but western Canada. For a country with the longest shoreline in the world (a quarter of the planet's coastline), Canada's wild beaches are something of a closed book.
People do not go to Canada for the sunbathing, after all. In the north it's more walruses and ice-floes, but here in mild, temperate southern British Columbia (on the same latitude as the Scillies), there are 15,000 miles of pristine strands, inlets and rocky cliffs to explore. This vastness is so empty that two people on a five-mile beach seems crowded. Tofino is a strange, wonderful little settlement on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and now legendary in surfing circles. The first surfers here were refugees, draft-dodging dudes who fled north during the Vietnam War and set up camp in this majestic wilderness of rainforest, beaches and myriad islands. There's a very pretty little park - with a chunk of temperate rainforest, huge redwoods and cedars clad in dripping moss crashing down to a pair of perfect coves, all overlooking a necklace of islands. Since then an indigenous surfing scene has grown up - one that I suspect is quite different from anywhere else. My lesson comes courtesy of Surf Sister, an all-woman outfit that offers lessons to all ages (and all sexes).
That evening, in the Spotted Bear bistro, a group of attractive young women on the next table are downing ferocious-looking martinis. Nothing odd about that, save the fact they are all knitting.
There are hippies, artists and hitch-hiking Native Americans. Until his death in 2004, a hippy called Henry Nolla lived in a shack on the beach and produced hundreds of beautiful driftwood carvings, many of which have ended up in the nearby Wickaninnish Inn.
After dawn one morning, I take a seaplane ride up over Clayoquot Sound with Atleo River Air Services. From the air the majesty of this part of Canada becomes apparent. I am told the primeval forests have been decimated by logging, but from 300ft up it looks as pristine as Eden. After a day I want to live here. Though there is wildlife to consider.
'This bear was stalking me, I suppose,' Charles McDiarmid, owner of the lovely Wickaninnish Inn tells me over a splendid dinner of rabbit and British Columbian wine. Charles was not up in the mountains, but playing golf down the road. There are cougars, too, and wolves. They don't usually attack people. But if they do, you fight back, never play dead. Less fierce are the huge pink starfish and pods of killer whales.
Tofino sits at the end of a wiggly peninsula, much of which is taken up by national park, a park begun by Charles's father, the town's doctor in the days when the only way of getting here was by seaplane or along a spine-wrenching logging track.
This is my first visit to Canada in more than 30 trips to North America and after a few days I find the differences with its brasher, shoutier southern neighbour refreshing. People are quieter, more polite. Canada does tea. Signs are bilingual, even in this English-speaking province. Vancouver, the glittering city-by-the-sea, often voted the best place to live in the entire universe, is the town that nearby Seattle thinks it is, but isn't. It has the laid-back, coffee-bar, high-tech vibes, but without the crime, grinding traffic and bizarre elevated motorway that ruins the American city's waterfront. It is hard to find fault with this most family-friendly of cities. For a start, pedestrians and cyclists seem to have priority over cars - little Nissans and Fiats, rather than monster SUVs. The waterfront feels European, like Copenhagen, say, with its seafood restaurants and bars, joggers and cyclists flying by along the six-mile seawall promenade that skirts lovely Stanley Park, which is home to the city's clean, sandy beaches.
The food is excellent, immeasurably better than you will find over the border.
Oru, at the swanky Fairmont Pacific Rim, offers top-end Pacific Northwest cuisine and there are scores of Chinese eateries, as befits a large Oriental population.
Don't let the weather put you off. It's rarely cold here and the Pacific storms are spectacular, especially with a warm mug of (proper) tea. Walk along Chesterman Beach and be blasted by rain, hail and bleaching sunlight all in the space of five minutes. You can even surf; it may be cold, but you'll never feel more alive.
For more information from Tourism British Columbia, visit www.BritishColumbia.travel and for more on Canada as a holiday destination visit the Canadian Tourism Commission on www.canada.travel.
British Airways (www.ba.com 0844 493 0787) flies from London to Vancouver from £650 return.
Doubles at Wickaninnish Inn (001.250.725.3100, www.wickinn.com) from £240 a night. Doubles at Pan Pacific Vancouver Hotel (0800 0850 229, www.panpacific.com) from £163 a night.
Surf Sister (001 877 724 7873, www.surfsister.com) offers private and group lessons.