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British Columbia - Island Retreat

Things are rugged on Vancouver Island's west coast in the winter. The climate is chill and tempestuous. Days are short and gray. The Pacific thrashes the coast like an angry Kraken, hurling whips of waves, wind and sea spray inland. A million visitors pour onto these shores in summer, but few people venture here in the off-season. That leaves me ample room to stretch my legs in the steamy pool I've laid claim to at Hot Springs Cove. I cast my head back to take full advantage of the sun pouring past the rock face above, and wriggle my legs deeper into the pocket between two big rocks at the foot of the pool. These latter serve as a funnel for the gentle wash of the cool, green North Pacific swells that curl in every 30 seconds or so, providing instant temperature abatement. As the seawater drains away hot water burbles in to replace it. The result is the tactile version of baked Alaska, mixing hot and cold simultaneously. It has a sublimely relaxing effect.

The fall, winter and early spring attraction here is storm watching - huddling up in a cozy lodge and enjoying the sight of breakers flinging wave crests toward the picture windows. The quintessential experience is to have dinner at the newly famous Wickaninnish Inn, about five minutes south of Tofino, where the dinning room perches on stanchions above a rock headland and waves literally crash at eye level at the height of a storm. You might carve off a delicate morsel of roast salmon just at the moment Poseidon's fingers lash at the glass 2 feet away, an experience memorable for the contrast as much as for the civilized exposure to nature.

True exposure to nature demands that you leave the cozy confines of human enterprise and put your body in a more visceral realm. This can be as adventurous as traipsing off to Hot Springs Cove, a provincial park that's a 40-minute boat ride from Tofino; or as simple as stepping out the door for an early-morning run along the beach, which is wide and flat, misty and mysterious - a sandy boulevard in which headlands and small sea stacks appear and then diminish like fantasy landmarks. Even when the temperature's above freezing, as it almost always is, your breath just barely frosts the air and your fingers tingle. The surf sounds like a giant, restless scrubbing brush. The cries of gulls fade in and out, muffled and then echoed by fog. Breakfast, back at the inn, is blackberry French toast with rhubarb and lemon balm compote.

Like I say, it's rugged here in the off-season.

In the old-growth forest of nearby Meares Island, famous for its ancient cedar and hemlock, the "Hanging Garden" tree looms like a fairy-tale creature. This huge, ancient, broken-top cedar, 61 feet in circumference, has over the centuries acquired many hitchhikers - huckleberries, young hemlocks, Pacific yews - that occupy almost every niche, nook and cranny where a seed could lodge and water accumulate on the still-live host. Some of the secondary trees have become sufficiently established to send roots, like colonial trade routes, all the way down to the ground; eventually, left to their own devices, these stowaway seedlings will subsume the cedar and thrust toward the light 200 feet above.

This is nature's way, to grow and then decay, and nature undeniably has its way on Clayoquot Sound, for which Tofino is the entry point. Meares Island is an especially popular hiking destination. From any of several town docks, a water taxi whisks you seven minutes through the maze of passages to a trailhead that offers entry to this amazing forest, where trees grow upon trees.

"Right here, it rains 10 to 12 feet a year," explains local naturalist Adrienne Mason, who renders this figure as matter of factly as if it were a buck-twenty-five cup of coffee. "Go up the inlet 10 miles, at the foot of the mountains, and you get 21 feet a year."

And thus the otherworldly atmosphere of the terrain, which is equally accessible winter and summer. It almost never snows in the Tofino area; along with several other towns in British Columbia, it claims Canada's mildest climate. All that rain makes taproots unnecessary, and Mason points out the base of a fallen giant whose roots thread outward sideways instead of down. In fact, the soil below the duff layer is quite poor, a pebbly, inhospitable gravel. Rain makes up for what's lacking in soil richness, and the constant fall of bark, leaves, needles and moss creates a forest duff that supplies nutrients.

The biggest cedars, their tops snapped in the winter storms, have sent a half-dozen replacement branches skyward. Ultimately these die off, and the result is a candelabra effect that makes the canopy look like a thousand green birthday cakes.

Equally exotic wonders lie afoot. Mason shows me, in a tiny rivulet of water, the egg case of a Northwest salamander, a huge sack of gel about the size of a softball. The eggmass is at least three or four times as big as the animal itself.

"When I bring kids out here, this is their favorite part. It's amazing," Mason says, "how much goo animals can produce."

We pace back through the forest in silence. Actually, although you often hear the primordial forest labeled cave-quiet, it is full of sound: the clack and whistle of woodland birds, the call and caterwaul of gulls, the clatter of squirrels, the buzz of very early hummingbirds. I doubt if a wild tempest could be any more entertaining.

Vancouver Island's west coast is the site of more shipwrecks than any other spot on earth. I can easily imagine Henry Nolla coming ashore on a broken plank one stormy night, washing up on Chesterman Beach and building his cottage of native materials just behind the high-tide line, in the spruce fringe. He's tall, lean, sun-seared, sandal-clad (even in cold weather) with ropy muscles, rock-rough hands and a mane of hair tied back to his shoulders. His beard looks like shredded cedar bark.

And perhaps it is: Nolla is one of the world's premier cedar woodworkers, using handmade tools to shape Western red cedar. Wickaninnish Inn Managing Director Charles McDiarmid, whose father was Tofino's physician before paved roads made it visitor-friendly, hired Nolla to do the finish work on the inn's huge interior beams, as well as the mind-boggling, massive carved doors that greet guests and the even more massive beams and pillars of the Porte Cochere. Each cut Nolla makes in a cedar log is a shallow concave cup chipped by a hand adze; but the overall effect is a smooth sheet of ripples, like the surface of a small pond brushed by a breeze.

His workbench is on the shoulder blade of the beach, just below the spruce fringe. He shows me his adze, a stern blade mounted in elk horn. How can he, stroke after stroke after stroke, produce such a measured pattern? He pauses, sizing up an answer, not wanting to loose unseasoned words. "You would, too, if you'd done several miles of it in your life."

This answer, both unvarnished and ingenuous, makes Charles McDiarmid grin. "Henry's a character. He's also, when it comes to wood, a genius." McDiarmid tells me at dinner, another rugged event conducted in the Wickaninnish dining room with the glow of the setting sun painting a strawberry wash from the Pacific horizon, up Chesterman Bay, through the windows and back to Nolla's ceiling beams.

Wood is much in evidence throughout the Wickaninnish, a superbly designed and carefully built lodge that honors both its site and its situation.

Although it is right on shore, it is scaled to fit the headland and has a circumspect effect on the view along Chesterman Beach, one end of which it anchors. No trees were cut to aid guest views, although some were judiciously trimmed. The warm tone of Nolla's woodwork in the lobby and dining room is echoed in the guest rooms by the use of century-old recycled wood from St. Anne's Academy in Victoria. Look carefully in the furnishings, baseboards and fixtures and you can see the old nail holes. The decor is otherwise elegantly uncomplicated - a towel rack, for instance, consists of a simple plank of St. Anne's wood, resting on two wrought-iron brackets.

All the 46 rooms face the water; the halls face the parking lot, and the stairways are built behind the halls to minimize noise.

Everything in the two-year-old Wickaninnish is intended to emphasize Vancouver Island and the West Coast, McDiarmid explains. This includes a restaurant menu that offers dishes such as Oyster Jim's local oysters, roasted with Ucluelet goat cheese; Vancouver Island steelhead sauteed with oyster mushrooms, and strawberry pink-peppercorn sorbet. McDiarmid makes just two concessions to the world outside: The steaks are from Alberta, and the wine list includes several French selections alongside the more lengthy list of California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia vintages.

Of course, there is much here that has come from elsewhere, including Western civilization. Even Nolla, however native he seems, is Spanish in origin. But it's the nature of storm-tossed ocean shores to draw adventurers, ranging from migrating hummingbirds and the gray whales that pass Tofino in spring and fall, to the visitors who now flock to the Wickaninnish in winter. February, McDiarmid reports, is one of his busiest months: 97 percent of occupancy.

Luckily, the off-season is when other attractions register their lowest occupancy. At Hot Springs Cove, summer days can find dozens of visitors enjoying the various pools, and a de facto cycle sets in - one group out to cool, the next group in to steam. The day I visit, though, there are just four other bathers. Thus I'm lost in my own thoughts, undisturbed, at the bottom pools where the tide is running upward. It's like a fancy spa treatment, this hot-and-cold-and-hot rhythm, but as natural as rain. All one could ask is for an eagle to fly overhead. The one that does, a minute later, is certainly an adventurer, too.

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