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Tofino Storm Watching

When the gales of November come early on the western shore of Vancouver Island, they can pack quite a wallop.  Thanks to the constant moisture laden winds from the Pacific Ocean, the coast gets more than its share of rain at any time of year, but in winter, storms take on a new dimension, especially in the environs around the surfer’s town of Tofino, about four hours’ drive from Victoria.  There, on a calm day, a winter storm announces itself slowly as the calm waters rumble to life with a slow but relentless roll, a harbinger of things to come.  In no time, the waves have gained sufficient strength to bring out legions of surfers, but even they balk as the surf churns into a frenzy, with swells up to 30 feet pounding onto the beach and crashing into rock islands in a spectacular display.  The clouds squeeze out their rain in buckets; the downpour falls horizontally and you can barely be heard over the wind.

Every year, Tofino gets drenched in about nine feet of rain, most of which falls in the winter months.  By comparison, Nanaimo, due east on the opposite side of the island, gets one-third that total.  Climatologists will tell you that the storms are due to persistent low pressure cells, which travel up the B.C. coast toward Alaska like clock work every winter.  The lows get quite deep, spawning major storms as high-pressure air rushes in to fill the void.  Meanwhile, the ocean also supplies heat – or at least, relative heat.  The sea is significantly warmer than the land, adding an “extreme” factor that intensifies the power of a weather system.

The locals are a little less scientific in explaining their weather patterns.  “We get great storms because there’s nothing but ocean between us and New Zealand,” quips Charles McDiarmid, who grew up in Tofino and is today at the helm of the Wickaninnish Inn, perhaps the area’s most renowned beachside lodge.  He says the word is out.  “The storms are so spectacular that ‘stormwatchers’ – folks whose main reason for coming to Tofino is to track the weather – can fill the entire inn.”  In fact, all the rooms at the Wickaninnish are equipped with gumboots and rain gear so that visitors can literally soak up the atmosphere.

“From November to February, they are rarely disappointed,” Charles says, noting that some guests venture out on the beach – at least until it’s no longer safe to be there.  Others prefer to watch from the comfort of their rooms, but maybe the best view is from the hotel restaurant, perched on a point of land just above the water.  Indeed, there’s something novel about dining on gourmet fare while the surf rages just outside.  The restaurant offers a panoramic view and, Charles adds, “We even have microphones that pipe the sound of the storms into the dining room.”

Charles is a veteran of Tofino storms.  “The surges are amazing – they can stretch along channels a hundred yards inland,” he says.  As a kid growing up in the ‘60s, Charles remembers being awestruck at the power of a winter gale, as seen from the family cabin on the very beach on which the Wickaninnish now stands.  “Back then, my dad was the first doctor at Tofino’s new hospital and this beach – on 110 acres – was our personal retreat,” he recalls.  Like many small-town kids, Charles left Tofino to seek his fortune.  He found his niche in the hotel trade, working in administration for the Four Seasons chain at various locales around the world.  When he finally returned home again, as small-town kids are also wont to do, he was eager to apply his skills to a new venture.  “In the back of my dad’s mind was the idea to build a motel on our stretch of beach” Charles says.  “But after working in the hotel trade for so long, I had something more ambitious in mind.”  It took a family conference for his parents and two brothers to agree, but it was from Charles’ initial idea that the Wickaninnish Inn was born.  It opened in 1996 and was expanded in 2003; to this day, it remains a family enterprise.

The inn was conceived as an upscale hostelry with luxurious appointments and first-class dining.  With 78 rooms, it could easily have overwhelmed its site, but Charles purposely adopted a less-is-more approach.  While it might have been more dramatic to build a high-rise, the inn stands only four storeys high.  “I didn’t want the building to steal the show, so we built only as high as the tree line,” Charles explains.  “The goal was to let our guests feel close to Nature.”  To that end, development was restricted to eight acres and most of the rainforest canopy was preserved – in fact, while still in the planning stages, the entire complex was moved three feet east in order to save a towering red cedar that stood in the way.

The architecture is deceptively simple, finished in an unobtrusive grey stain.  Even so, you can tell there was definitely a methodology in the design.  Charles explains, “When guests arrive by car, they don’t even see the water.  Their first glimpse is upon walking into the lobby, where floor-to-ceiling windows present a welcoming vista of the sea.”  Likewise, every room is oriented to the ocean and boasts picture windows – even in the bathroom, where the view from the soaking tub was an important consideration – and a balcony.

From the start, Charles wanted his hotel to bask in a certain rustic elegance.  “We wanted to blur the line between indoors and outdoors,” he says.  Meanwhile, the décor is intended to be inviting and warm, but hardly formal.  “It takes many of its cues from the natural surroundings.”  True, the success of the inn is that despite the abundance of creature comforts, it still feels very connected to Nature.  It helps that the food is renowned and the spa facilities unsurpassed.  It also helps that the Wickaninnish is blessed with abundant rainfall.  “It’s the opposite of your typical vacation,” Charles muses.  “Sometimes, we actually hope for rainy weather.”

WHERE TO WATCH THE WAVES CRASH IN TOFINO

Wickaninnish Beach – Located at the south end of Long Beach within Pacific Rim National Park, this is not the beach on which the Wickaninnish Inn stands.  The current inn, several kilometres toward Tofino, takes its name from an earlier lodge here that was demolished after the park was created.

Chesterman Beach – This is the beach on which the Wickaninnish Inn is located.  It shares its sandy shore with any number of weekend cottages.  Superb wave-crashing viewing, especially with Frank Island and the lighthouse in the background.

Second Bay – Small pebble beach accessible by trail; nearby islands funnel the swells to dramatic effect.

Long Beach – A panoramic view over miles and miles of rolling waves.

Cox Bay – Acts as a focal point for swells, no matter from which direction the storm approaches; often acknowledged as the spot that gets the largest waves.

HOW LOCAL CAN YOU GET IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE?

Tofino is literally at the end of the road.  Traditionally a lumber and fishing town, this ain’t exactly farm country, so even today it’s no easy task for Wickaninnish chefs to adopt the locavore ethic.  “It’s just too wet here and rarely hot enough to grow a lot of back yard vegetables on site,” says chef Nick Nutting  Nevertheless, Nick and staff have secret sources for local greens and they grow their own herbs at the inn.  Although conventional farm produce isn’t always handy, the menu still brims with local fare:  Depending upon what’s in season, local pickers knock at the kitchen door with wild forage food such as salmonberries, chanterelle mushrooms and roadside Himalayan blackberries.  Meanwhile, the inn takes pride in serving B.C. wines.  The kitchen makes its own stock from scratch, bakes its own bread – the bakers fire up the ovens at 4:00 a.m. daily – and even makes its own butter.

But of all the opportunities to serve local ingredients, the best is, of course, seafood.  Nick says that despite the surge of tourism in recent years, fishing is still a major employer in Tofino, adding that halibut, salmon, Dungeness crab and oysters are as close as the town dock.  “And how’s this for local?” he asks rhetorically:  “One time, we chartered a fishing boat with some other restaurateurs and caught 200 pounds of spring salmon.  We cooked as much of the catch as we could and froze the rest.”

WHO CAN’T HELP BUT LOVE TOFINO?

If I was 22 and looking for a place to find myself before embarking on the serious journey of life, I would head straight for Tofino and not come home for at a least a year.  I would work in a restaurant and take tourists out on the bay in sea kayaks.  I would buy a wetsuit and on my days off, I would perfect the art of surfing.

I wouldn’t be alone, for the small town at the end of the line is brimming with 20-somethings who, like me, have been smitten with Tofino`s geography and laid-back way of life.  Indeed, the town is brimming with restaurants whose quality belies its size and everywhere, eco-tourism – birdwatching, hiking whale watching – is flourishing.  Not everyone who is in love with Tofino is so young, but the youthful, mother-earth vibe clearly defines the local atmosphere.

Its picturesque harbour setting – which unlike the Wickaninnish, is protected by barrier islands – lends Tofino its appeal as a quaint old lumber and fishing town.  The environs abound in old-growth, temperate rainforest that remain unspoiled.  However, all was almost lost, for the setting is none other than Clayoquot Sound, which was slated for extensive logging, including clear cuts, back in 1993.  The reaction against the plan spawned the largest incidence of civil disobedience in Canadian history.  Over 800 people were arrested during the peaceful protest, which was finally resolved in 2000 when the entire sound was declared a biosphere reserve.  Not a moment too soon.

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