The perfect storm
Elemental wildness meets 21st-century comfort. Jannette Griffiths samples a storm-watching holiday on the remote coasts of British Columbia.
In King Lear and Macbeth, Shakespeare used them to reflect his characters' inner turmoil. Turner is said to have had himself lashed to a ship's mast to witness one at close hand. Beethoven loved to wander in them for hours and put one into his Sixth Symphony. The sublime George Clooney found his way, characteristically, into the perfect one.
Storms have terrified, mystified and attracted since the first cave people saw their first flashes of lightning. Science has long since explained those bass rumblings in the heavens; swelling black clouds and streaks of phosphorescent light hold no mystery for 21st-century onlookers. So perhaps the advent of storm-watching holidays in Tofino on the extreme west coast of Canada should come as no surprise. We've domesticated danger and turned menace and mystery into one more glorious spectacle to be viewed from behind a picture window.
Hardier, and more foolhardy, souls have been pursuing the more dramatic, elusive tornado around the dull, flat landscapes of middle America for years. West-coast Canadian storm-watching involves the wild sea storms that brew and stew out in the vast, uninterrupted stretches of the Pacific between Canada and Japan. A storm watcher here won't see a funnel cloud or witness Judy Garland or even a cow being whisked across the heavens. But the west coast compensates with luxurious accommodation, spectacular beaches, the evergreen forests of the Pacific Rim National Park and gourmet dining at storm-watching venues such as the Wickaninnish Inn and Long Beach Lodge. The tiny town of Tofino, hidden away on the west coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, has been battered and hammered by Pacific storms since the Nuu-chah-nulth people first settled Clayoquot Sound thousands of years ago.
The first non-native settlers set up trading posts in the 1850s: goods were traded for fur, fish and dog-fish oil. Fishing attracted Japanese settlers, who came to the area in the early 1900s when it was still accessible only by boat. Once a dirt road connected Tofino to the logging town of Port Alberni in the late 1950s, the isolation and stunning scenery lured a small colony of hippies. More recently surfers have come - attracted by the dramatic waves and clad in wet suits to ward off the northern Pacific chill.
The storm-watching season along the northern Pacific coast runs from November to March. I took a ferry from Vancouver's Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo one grey November morning last year and drove the two and a half hours across Vancouver Island to Tofino. Once through Port Alberni, the road winds through mountains and beside lakes. The scenery is so spectacular that when the route finally ended, because I'd arrived at the Pacific and could go no farther, I was almost disappointed by the Pacific Rim National Park that took its place. It looked at first glance to be a dense gathering of monotonous dark green trees. I could not yet know that behind this barrier of red cedar, hemlock and sitka spruce lie some of the longest, emptiest, most tempestuous beaches on the Pacific coast.
The original storm-watching venue is the Wickaninnish Inn, a few miles before Tofino at Chesterman Beach. As I made my way up the driveway to the hotel, all I could see was trees. Only when I stepped into the lobby did I see the great grey ocean crashing onto the rocks just yards from the reception desk. A storm, almost on demand, was brewing on the horizon.
The "Wick" perches on a rocky promontory at the westernmost point of Chesterman Beach. With its cathedral windows all turned lovingly towards that turbulent sea, the Wickaninnish Inn has decided to celebrate its winter tempests. "It's the only seafront property I ever worked at where guests are disappointed if the sun comes out," said concierge Chris Williams.
My bedroom came complete with a fireplace, picture windows looking through a clump of cedars to the beach, binoculars, numerous guides to local wildlife and a chic Helly Hansen rain poncho and pants. Wellies are also available.
I put the lot on and walked onto the beach in the early twilight. A few other yellow-clad guests stood out on the vast empty stretch of sand. They were bent over in the wind. Everything slants here - trees, rocks, bushes and tourists. There were solemn wind warnings on all the beaches.
Below the howl of the wind, from beyond the lighthouse, I could hear a deep, forlorn moan. I imagined a lone mournful sea-beast out on the rocks; it was, in fact, a whistling buoy. This rock-strewn, hurricane-battered stretch of ocean has seen hundreds of shipwrecks and is known as "the graveyard of the Pacific".
The stormy evening sky had turned purple. The sea, where it wasn't boiling and topped with ragged foam, was grey, the vast stretch of sand beige. But between the waves were clusters of baffling black stick figures - LS Lowry meets the west coast. And not far from them were other clusters of horizontal black shapes.
"Surfers and sea lions," said the waiter in the Wick's Pointe restaurant that evening. "The sea lions aren't always there but you can pretty much rely on the surfers. Once our chef was out there surfing and was just waiting for a wave when a grey whale surfaced right next to him."
The curved windows of the Pointe made me feel as though I were at the prow of a great ship, carving through the storm. In truth I was cosily ensconced within the hotel's glass and cedar structure with a roaring fire behind me and a rack of lamb in front. That's the odd 21st-century paradox of this kind of travel - we come to be close to wildness but that proximity is made possible only by the highly civilised comfort that the hotel provides.
Next day, the ocean had calmed enough for me to join Ocean Outfitters in town for a boat ride out to Hot Springs Cove. The hot springs bubbled out of a series of rock pools, reached by a half-hour walk through moss-hung rainforest after a couple of hours skimming across the waves.
We scanned the water for grey whales and didn't have to wait long. Soon we were surrounded - huge grey heads rose from the ocean and I could smell their breath, which, said Ike, our First Nation guide, becomes progressively worse as the weather gets warmer. On a nearby shore he pointed out a lone grey wolf, gazing out at us. From their perch above him, two bald eagles kept watch. Just before Hot Springs Cove, harbour porpoise came by and our guide pointed out a black bear rummaging on a pebble beach.
The hot springs were very hot and slightly sulphurous and left me longing for a nap, but I'd arranged a shoreline walk with local naturalist Bill McIntyre from Long Beach Nature. This is the man for shipwreck stories and lighthouse tales; he can make a six-inch tide pool interesting and finally brings to life all that dark, dense forest that left me so cold when I arrived.
After I left Bill, I headed for the Blue Heron pub down by the water, a place that brings tiny, sleepy Tofino to life. The place was warm, lively, full of locals and loud enough to let us pretend that the world outside wasn't wild and black and menacing. I ate a delicious dinner and headed for the Long Beach Lodge's Great Room for a nightcap. Outside all was wonderful wild weather, inside all warmth and cosy bonhomie. The perfect combination for the perfect storm.
There aren't many places with weather systems that offer Tofino's virtually guaranteed winter storms. But at the right time of year you can be pretty sure of tempests, tornadoes or blizzards at the following destinations.
Brittany has the second highest tides on earth, which sometimes contribute to dramatic storms in autumn. Stay at the Grand Hotel Lucien Barriere (0870 460 7454; www.lucienbarriere.com) in the genteel 19th-century resort of Dinard and watch the waves crash against the ramparts of the old Corsair town of St Malo across the bay. Brittany Ferries (08703 665333; www.brittany ferries.co.uk) can arrange accommodation and car ferry for three nights from £330 for two people.
The wild seas around our westernmost county inspired the myth of Tristan and Isolde, in addition to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca and Frenchman's Creek. The Headland Hotel in Newquay (01637 872211; www.headlandhotel.co.uk) offers three-night storm-watching breaks from £102. This grand four-star Victorian hotel on Fistral beach is a suitably dramatic venue.
This gorgeous little town high on its rocks above the Pacific 50 miles north of San Francisco encourages visitors to share the great winter storms. Built by escapees from bitter east coast winters, the town's clapboard houses still evoke New England. There are several wooden water towers, the places to be if you want to put yourself in the heart of the storm. There's one next door to John Dougherty House (001 707 937 5266; www.jdhouse.com), which has doubles from £70. Or try Weller House Inn (707 964 4415; www.wellerhouse.com) near Fort Bragg, with doubles from £62. The third-floor ballroom is great for storm-watching over breakfast. United Airlines (0845 844 4777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) flies to San Francisco from £388.
Quirpon Lighthouse Inn B&B (877 254 6586; double rooms from £155) on Quirpon Island offers storms and passing whales and icebergs as an exotic alternative. Snuggle up in one of the rooms at the base of this operating lighthouse and revel in the remoteness - there are no TVs, clock radios or telephones in the rooms. The Lighthouse Inn is accessible only by boat and is only for the physically fit. Frontier Travel (020 8776 8709; www.frontier-travel.co.uk) offers the inn as part of a 10-day tour of Newfoundland from £1,241per person, including flights.
Silver Lining Tours (001 281 759 4181; www.silverlining tours.com) offers tornado-chasing trips through "Tornado Alley" in Oklahoma. David Gold of Silver Lining says he hasn't yet failed to find at least one tornado per tour. He runs fully equipped vans for the chase, with stops at hotels in the evening. Ten-day tours start at £1,140, excluding flights. United Airlines (0845 8444 777; www.united airlines.co.uk) flies to Oklahoma City from £427.
The Corsewall Lighthouse Hotel (01776 853220; www.lighthousehotel.co.uk) is just north of Stranraer and has been beaming its warning to ships approaching Loch Ryan since 1815. When a storm blows through the North Channel, stay cosy in the Lighthouse Suite (from £105), which has its own conservatory. Even without a tempest there are spectacular views of the Kintyre Peninsula, Arran, the Firth of Clyde and sometimes the Irish coast. Take the train to Stranraer for a hotel pick-up. Contact Scotrail (08457 550033; www.firstscotrail.com) for details.
The Inn at the Round Barn Farm b & b (001 802 496 2276; www.theroundbarn.com) in Vermont has doubles from £93. It also has snow - lots of it, with an average of 300 inches a year. When a snowstorm is approaching, the innkeepers stoke the library fireplace, heat the hot chocolate and mulled cider and settle `in. After a good snow, guided snow-shoe walks take guests to a hunting cabin where candlelight dinners are cooked on a wood-fired stove. There is also fine skiing at nearby Sugarbush, where five-night packages start at £213. American Airlines (0845 778 9789; www.aa.com) flies to Boston from £323 and it's then a three-hour drive to The Round Barn Farm. Alamo (0870 400 4562; www.alamo.co.uk) rents cars from £120 a week in the US.
Tailor Made Travel (0845 456 8006; www.tailor-made.co.uk) organises trips worldwide, with a wide choice of hotels across Canada. On Vancouver Island it offers both the "storm-watching" hotels mentioned in the main text - the Wickaninnish Inn (from £63 per person) and the Long Beach Resort (from £83 pp).