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Nature's edge: storms unleash fury, awe vacationers

PACIFIC RIM, BRITISH COLUMBIA - The wind was howling a gale off the Graveyard of the Pacific. Thirty-foot waves pummeled rocks scant yards from shore. A bone-chilling rain easily penetrated the branches of centuries-old cedar and spruce trees hovering above the Wild Pacific Trail.

"You couldn't have picked a more perfect day to be here," Bill McIntyre said between shivers.

Strange as it may seem, our hiking guide was right. We had come to this remote west coast of Vancouver Island - the "end of the road," sturdy locals dub it - for one reason: storm-watching.

Well, that's not exactly true. We also coveted a stay at one of North America's most acclaimed intimate lodgings, the Wickaninnish Inn, which lives up to its motto, "Rustic elegance at nature's edge." The Wick, as it's known here, represents a warmer base for watching Mother Nature unleash her power. A drier venue, too, unless you choose to monitor the incoming storms through a floor-to-ceiling window while soaking in an oversize tub ensuite.

Oh, how tempting it was to do exactly that. But McIntyre had promised that we could feel the fury, not just see it. We were "lucky," he said; early April, when we visited, is after peak storm season.

The Lure of the Storm

It's a rare place that turns what most would consider its most glaring deficiencies - an out-of-the-way location and periodic miserable weather - into a tourist attraction.

But just as nature-lovers come in spring to spy on migrating and resident gray whales, sea lions and bald eagles; just as summer vacationers kayak on Clayoquot Sound, fish for salmon and savor the recreational splendor of Pacific Rim National Park ; fall and winter bring storm-watchers by the thousands.

The storms, McIntyre explained, develop far out in the ocean. With Japan 4,000 miles away and Hawaii 2,500 miles in the distance, they build in intensity over the vast, open sea, unencumbered by land until they reach Vancouver Island .

The rocky Pacific Rim coastline, a 23-mile corridor connecting the towns of Ucluelet and Tofino, is especially vulnerable. The region averages 120 inches of rain annually. And, McIntyre said, "It's not unusual for us to get hurricane-force winds." Or waves of 50 to 60 feet.

Graveyard of the Pacific is no trumped-up moniker. Hundreds of vessels have been lost offshore from the southern tip of Vancouver Island north to Tofino. Along Ucluelet's Wild Pacific Trail - a two-mile trek where rain forest and coastal headlands merge - we paused beside a brick lighthouse on a bluff at Amphitrite Point, a beacon that has stood since 1915.

It's not the first lighthouse here, McIntyre said. The original, a wooden structure, was swept away by a storm.

Even on this gusty and rainy afternoon, his words were difficult to fathom. The lighthouse seemed well-protected from the crashing waves below. But McIntyre pointed to teenagers playing around out at its base - and some wandering dangerously onto the rocks - and told of a day not long ago when a sudden surge flooded these grounds with 10 feet of water, sending storm-watchers scurrying up the lighthouse steps. He stopped frequently to caution other hikers about venturing from marked paths.

He spoke, too, about the Pass of Melfort , a four-masted British ship driven into the rocks on a stormy Christmas Eve 99 years ago. Thirty-six mariners were aboard. Even with the land in sight, all perished. "The wind was so strong they couldn't make it to shore," McIntyre said. "If you could swim, you'd be thrown against the rocks. And the water is so cold you'd be basically useless within six minutes."

The wreckage lies beneath the surface. So do other ship remains. Despite sophisticated navigational tools, dozens of vessels have met their demise within the past two decades.

"What you're seeing here," McIntyre said, "is nature expressing itself at its greatest."

We were hiking the original phase of the Wild Pacific Trail, unpaved (except for a boardwalk shortcut) and with varying elevations but negotiable for most endurance levels and accessible for wheelchairs.

Nature Park

It's a spectacular setting, and while you can walk it on your own (as with dozens more trails in the area), McIntyre's dialogue enhances the experience. He was chief naturalist at Pacific Rim National Park for more than 20 years; now, he conducts small-group tours and operates a three-room B&B with his wife. He offers rich insight about trees and plants within the old-growth forest, sea lions perched on the rocks and shorebirds scuttering above. If a whale is viewable, chances are McIntyre will spot it through his binoculars.

Vancouver Island's Pacific Rim is a natural wonderland, isolated enough - a five-hour drive from Victoria, the last two hours on a two-lane roadway that cuts through a mountain pass - that conscientious objectors, hippies and other societal dropouts found happiness here during the 1960's and '70's.

"There wasn't even a road out here till 1959, and characters tends to migrate to the end of the road," said Charles McDiarmid, a native son who abandoned a successful career with Four Seasons to found the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. "There were people living on the beach and in communes, and many of them stayed and had children. When they opened up the road, there was more industry. But Tofino is still a town of characters."

Whale-Watching

The creation of Pacific Rim National Park in 1971 inspired the first tourism, but, McDiarmid said, "It didn't really take off until the mid-'80s when some visitors asked Jamie Bray, a Tofino fisherman, if there were any whales out in the ocean. Jamie said, 'Sure, do you want to go see them?'"

Jamie's Whaling Station evolved, and today several companies can barely keep up with the demand for whale-watching expeditions from March to November when as many as 22,000 gray whales move through area waters. Participants travel in conventional boats or, for a more invigorating ride, rubber rafts known as Zodiacs. Other tours from Tofino and Ucluelet focus on bear-sightings, eagle searches, fishing and area hot springs .

Around Town

Compact Tofino is a stroller's delight, too: Where else would you find one store named Wildwood Booksellers, Kite Shop and End of the Road Espresso? Or a Common Loaf Bakery whose walls are adorned with bulletin boards revealing the give and take of everyday life?

The grub is tasty (think salmon BLTs and halibut Caesar salad) and affordable at the Sea Shanty and Schooners.

B&Bs, motels and campsites abound, but there is only one Wickaninnish Inn, selected by Travel + Leisure magazine as one of North America 's 10 best hotels.

"My father was the family doctor for 17 years here, on call 365 days a year delivering babies, pulling teeth, serving as a psychologist and dealing with the occasional pet problem," McDiarmid said. "But he always had the dream of building a motel out here (on a family-owned rocky point overlooking Chesterman Beach just south of Tofino)."

The doc's son had grander ideas and the know-how to pull it off. The Wick, opened in 1996, has evolved into a 75-room luxury hotel, a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux chain, where staff members greet you by name and attend to your every whim (slickers, rain ponchos, books and binoculars included).

Its Pointe Restaurant is renowned for cuisine (peppered salmon tartare, lemon-grass steamed halibut, honey-glazed duck breast), a world-class wine cellar and panoramic vistas of the ocean. Its Ancient Cedars Spa is among the classiest in British Columbia . Guest rooms are huge and beautifully appointed, all include fireplaces, and all face the ocean.

McIntyre-led storm-watching tours are easily arranged at the inn. And there are late-night star-gazing parties on the beach.

Star-gazing? Yes, the clouds do break and the storms subside. Even at the end of the road.

Harry Shattuck is the Chronicle travel editor. harry-shattuck [at] chron [dot] com
 

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