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The Birth of Western Canada’s Storm-Watching Region

Original Article by Rachel Tepper Paley for Bloomberg  

British Columbia’s Pacific Rim is home to some of the world’s most explosive weather, and now luxury hotels are getting in on the action.

Growing up on Vancouver Island’s remote Pacific coast, Charles McDiarmid prayed each winter for storms. Great big storms that lashed at the windows and sent roiling waves exploding toward the heavens, which a young McDiarmid would watch starry-eyed from the warm confines of his family’s battened-down cabin in Tofino, an isolated maritime trading town until the 1950s. Because of the geography of this rocky stretch of the world and the openness of the sea around it—there’s little between Tofino and Japan but open ocean—storms can roll in with the ferocity of a Category 1 hurricane. In such moments, 30-foot logs, normally parked on the beach, easily rise on the crests of 25-foot waves before slamming into the beach and surrounding bedrock.

“Those logs become giant tuning forks, and you hear a very low bass sound, which travels through the shrieking sound of wind and waves,” McDiarmid said. “There’s nothing like being in a giant storm.”

McDiarmid opened the Wickaninnish Inn in 1996 with this churning spectacle in mind. Although storm watching was long a pastime of British Columbia locals, the hotelier’s move unintentionally gave birth to a storm-watching region that today stretches from Tofino to Port Renfrew 80 miles to the south. This winter, local businesses are anticipating the busiest winter season yet.

If you’re thinking of storm watching à la the movie Twister—reckless adrenaline junkies chasing down a cyclone and getting tossed around in the process—dial it back a notch or 10. At the Wickaninnish, the main idea is watch a storm from the safe and dry confines of the inn. Rooms point toward the sea and are outfitted with hurricane-proof glass. Each features a gas fireplace and most a soaking tub pressed against the Pacific-facing window. Guests find a complimentary flagon of port wine waiting in their rooms on check-in.

Those who do wish to venture outside will find storm gear in their closets. One call to the front desk, and size-to-fit rubber boots will materialize; the main dining room has an electric boot and coat dryer like those in ski lodges. McDiarmid encourages it.

“Normally in the city, a stormy day might mean a slushy street, you’re going to have a bad hair day, your papers get wet,” he said. But in Tofino, in the shadow of the lush Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, getting wet is a way of life. The region receives up to 12 feet of rain a year. “Here, you put on the rain gear, you get out. You get what I call a complimentary ‘West Coast facial,’” he laughs, referring to what happens when the rain drives sideways into your face.

When the Wickaninnish first opened, McDiarmid said it enjoyed 30 percent to 35 percent occupancy during storm-watching season, which runs roughly from November to March. This year, he anticipates 60 percent to 65 percent occupancy. “It has increased dramatically,” he said. “It’s not quite as busy as the spring, but it’s getting close.”

That success seems to have had an effect on other accommodations in Tofino. Among the town’s larger hotels, occupancy during prime storm watching season has increased steadily over the past five years, said Samantha Fyleris, the marketing manager for Tourism Tofino.

Nearby Ucluelet, another old trading port, is also seeing a tourism bump. Kevin Bradshaw, the operator of Hello Nature Adventure Tours, said this was the second year his company would offer a two-hour Winter Storm Watch tour; he guides parka-clad trekkers to safe but spectacular outdoor spots to view nature’s fury. They include a rocky outcropping known as the Blowhole, which propels storm-driven water spectacularly skyward like a geyser.

“To produce the big swell, you need over 10 miles of open seas, and then you need the wind to blow for many, many days for it to build,” Bradshaw said. “From the beginning of November to March, we get 15 superstorms that roll through—they reach 10-meter [33-foot] swells and hurricane and above-hurricane-force winds. And then there are a  lot of smaller storms that roll through all the time.”

Bradshaw said that few tourists storm-watched in Ucluelet five year ago, but “the bigger resorts like Black Rock every weekend are sold out now.” Also in Ucluelet, the First Nations owned-and-operated Wya Point Resort made a commitment for its cabins to stay open year-round two years ago; this month, the resort’s on-site yurts were outfitted with gas fireplaces to accommodate off-season visitors. Tourism Ucluelet declined to cite specific figures but said the town’s revenue from a hotel tax has grown 10 percent or more year over year since 2014.

Farther south, in the small town of Port Renfrew, Wild Renfrew has offered seaside cottages and a lodge since 2015. Inspired by the success of Tofino and Ucluelet, it first began promoting itself as a storm-watching destination last season.

“Many people still think it’s a logging road out here,” said Wild Renfrew guest services representative Sheenah Duclos. But that’s changing. “Last season we received a lot of response from our social media videos featuring the storms,” she said.

With at least three distinct areas promoting storm watching, local tourism boards anticipate more will follow.

“Tourism Ucluelet has really focused our efforts to grow the shoulder and off season; it is gradually coming to fruition,” said Denise Stys-Norman, the executive director of Tourism Ucluelet. Broadening the appeal of storm watching “has been a goal for the region.” 

“Storm watching stimulates all of your senses,” she said. “You can feel the power and energy move through the ground; you hear the roar and impact of the waves; and you feel the gentle mist on your face. It really is a unique experience to be had along the Wild Pacific Trail.”

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