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Sand castle: The Wickaninnish Inn is a beach hotel in the truest sense of the word

Even the latest model plasma flat screen TV could get a full-blown inferiority complex here in Tofino - not even the fanciest among them could stand up to this. The competition? Wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor picture windows. The program? "Discovery Channel" non-stop - with no commercials. We're watching a nature film fast-forward into a dramatic spectacle. Just moments ago, Chesterman Beach was bathed in cheery sunlight; now brooding clouds darken the horizon. Where did they come from so quickly? The transformation is Jekyll-and-Hyde-like in its swiftness.

The Wickaninnish Inn not only lives with these caprices of nature - it thrives on them. Among nature lovers, the luxury hotel in the wilderness is known by the honorary title "Stormwatchers Inn." The regulars especially love to come here in the winter, when the Pacific is particularly tempestuous. They come to watch the unique natural spectacle - from a safe distance. "The weather is one of our main attractions," says hotelier Charles McDiarmid, "and it's something our guests wouldn't want to miss. Every season has its own unique appeal, and guests visiting in the stormy season are looking for precisely that experience."

McDiarmid loves his life "on the rocks." He spent thirteen years in different corners of the globe managing first-class hotels for Four Seasons before returning to his roots. It was in Dallas , Texas , that he realized how much he missed the sea he had grown up with. As he puts it: "you can't ignore the call of the ocean." And so, with help from his father Howard, a retired country doctor, and his brother Bob, a carpenter, he built the hotel of his dreams on his parents' property.

The Wickaninnish Inn takes its name from a Native American word that means "There is no one in front of your canoe." A poetic way of saying: a great view. The experience begins on the five-hour trip by ferry and car from Vancouver . The countryside undulates in lush green, like something dreamt up by Tolkien's private landscape architect. Suddenly, civilization seems very far away, a distance not quantifiable in miles of hours. Nature here seems to be measured on a different scale: It's easy to lose yourself in it - but you might just find yourself, too.

With a unique climate and vegetation, Vancouver Island features some of North America 's most pristine virgin forests. Lovers of the outdoors can hike to their hearts' content - tours range from easy and suitable for anyone to longer, more difficult tours that should be attempted only by experienced, physically fit hikers. With a good guide and a bit of luck, you'll see bald eagles and bears fishing the clear streams for salmon - as a matter of fact, there are more black bears per square mile in the Pacific Rim National Park than anywhere else in British Columbia .

But there's no need to venture far afield if you want to experience the great outdoors. The "Wick," as it is affectionately known, has only two direct neighbors: woods and water. Verdant cedar forests extend for miles in all directions. We start off the day with a "Coastal Kiss," touted on the breakfast menu as a drink for early birds - champagne, merlot ice wine, and passion fruit - and set out on the learning trail leading off from the hotel's parking lot. On the leisurely, fifteen-minute stroll, we learn to recognize some of the typical local flora: huckleberry bushes, ferns, and red cedar blanketed in velvety green moss.

If you're more into long walks by the ocean, you won't have far to go, either. Setting out from the hotel, you can wander along a seemingly endless stretch of deserted beaches, each with its own microclimate. It's a good idea to wear water-proof clothing - the high humidity and sea spray make even sunny days damp - but you'll be amply rewarded. There is plenty to discover. The tide pools are full of color - salt bloom white, sea anemone green, starfish orange - and the driftwood that washes ashore here really deserves the name: no measly branches of twigs, but whole trunks.

Is it safe to swim out far, or climb around on the rocks exposed on the beach at low tide? No - never! Guests here quickly learn to have a healthy respect for the force of wind and waves - and not just in stormy weather.

Up on the cliff, the roof of the prize-winning Pointe Restaurant is open for dinner on evenings when the surf is high. With ten-to twelve-foot high waves crashing against the cliff directly underneath - occasionally the spray even shoots up past the panorama windows like a geyser - awed guests can imagine themselves on deck a ship in the midst of the open sea as they enjoy the restaurant's sophisticated cuisine and excellent wines. The crescendo of the waves is accompanied by opera music; the starry sky provides a magnificent backdrop. The Wickaninnish Inn is poised in perfect equilibrium between civilization and wilderness, the ideal spot for those who want to experience the thrill of Mother Nature's wilder side - all while relaxing and being pampered in the comfort of a sheltered environment.

The next afternoon, we've been dozing on our deckchairs when suddenly thick fog descends, shrouding everything in mystery. The effect is magical, and we decide to head down to the beach. Halfway there, we realize that, in our enthusiasm, we've forgotten our room key. When I go back to retrieve it, Chris the concierge says with a smile: "That happens all the time." Chris understands the absentmindedness of overwhelmed city folk all too well. Since he came here on a visit from New York State three and a half years ago, he has returned home only once - to pack up his belongings.

Back inside where it's warm and dry, the wind whistling outside only makes our room seem all the more cozy. There is an open fireplace to the right of the picture window, a comfy armchair to the left. Philosopher Blaise Pascal - who believed the root of all unhappiness was to be found in the inability to stay peacefully in one's room - would have loved this place. I for one could stay here indefinitely without missing anything. The CDs on the left bedside table have obviously been selected to complement the environment: easy-listening jazz, love songs, arias, and the Dance of the Mermaids. Lying on the right bedside table is Sebastian Junger's bestseller The Perfect Storm . I discover a professional-grade telescope on the windowsill, alongside a thick album with a rough cover that elicits my curiosity. Upon closer inspection, it proves to be a guest book. I'm impressed. How many hotels have an individual guest book for each room? It certainly adds character to the room, and I spend some time leafing through it. It contains more than the usual professions of gratitude for good service and the like. Almost every page includes an attempt to convey the fascination of the place in words. The magic seems to have a different effect on everyone. One example stands out in my memory: In the precise hand one might expect of a military man, one General Sheang Shiu writes how much he has enjoyed his time off duty and that he will be back.

After checking out what my room has to offer, a nice, hot soak seems like just the thing. I settle into the roomy tub and aim the telescope at the stormier waters outside. From here, with nothing to fear from the strong undertow, I can let my thoughts drift out to Clayoquot Sound and join the humpback whales that pass by here in spring on their way to the Bering Straight.

What's outside comes in, what's inside comes out: This blurring of boundaries is typical of the Wickaninnish experience. "We bring the outdoors inside," says McDiarmid. This idea finds its expression in a myriad of details - all materials and surfaces used in the hotel are environmentally friendly, for example. McDiarmid sums up the philosophy behind his hotel and restaurant with these words: "Combining the best human beings can produce with the best of Mother Nature." We couldn't have put it any better. 

  • A Proud Relais & Chateaux Member
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  • 20th Annual Restaurant Awards Vancouver