Staff Profile: Charles McDiarmid
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Before there was the dream of the Wickaninnish Inn, there was a young family - Dr. Howard McDiarmid and his wife Lynn raising their three young sons - in Tofino. Charles was the eldest and usually the one leading his two younger brothers on their adventures crawling through the bush and the game trails. Many years later, they would ever-so-carefully hand-clear the brush and trees where the Inn would stand, preserving as much as they could of the landscape from their childhood.
Back then, there was only a trail that led to the family cabin from Chesterman Beach. “For sure the most spectacular spot was standing on the rocks where the Pointe Restaurant is now,” says Charles as he remembers back to those days, but when you ask him what his favourite spot is, he moves a little farther up that path. “That trail went right through the end of the surge channel in Secret Cove. There, you could look out and you could see the ocean, it was the one part on the trail where the underbrush was less than ten feet high and you weren't in the forest. Walking through that trail and getting to the cabin was always memorable, and it’s still the same view from Secret Cove today as it was then.”
Thinking back to those early days, Charles remembers the cabin as the heart of it all and the place he holds “most dear in Tofino.” Sitting in its distinctively octagonal-shaped front room bounded by windows looking out onto the ocean on all sides, he recalls that “this was the place where the family came together for all the special occasions - the birthdays, Christmases, Thanksgivings, anniversaries, and so much more.” They say that the memories of childhood are the dreams you keep after you wake, and the cabin contained the mirth and excitement of growing up in Tofino. Later, it was filled with the imaginings that, later still, would become the plans and architectural drawings of a small boutique hotel with exquisite service at its heart and rustic elegance on nature’s edge.
If the heart of the Inn is represented by all the warm memories of the family cabin, the soul is the Carving Shed where Henry Nolla first lived and carved near the end of North Chesterman Beach, known by some as Henry’s End. Shaping the cabin’s cedar woodwork before later carving all the beams that frame and hold the Inn together, Henry was the trusted caretaker of the cabin and the Inn’s first resident carver. “The Carving Shed reminds me of Henry and the essence of the Inn,” says Charles. “He adzed all the beams and posts by hand, one cedar chip at a time. It's not just the fact that he carved things there - Henry’s personal philosophy of live and let live, his artistry, and relationship to the environment here - all of it together is the essence. It may sound crazy, but if you really want to feel this place, go to the Carving Shed. It represents what we wanted our guests to take away from the experience here, so they really felt that they were nowhere else than the west coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.”
Originally set to open in May of 1996, the doors of the Wickaninnish Inn opened for the first time three months later than planned, with only the last sliver of summer remaining. In the whirlwind of construction and excitement of building and opening a new hotel, Charles recalls “sharing a rare moment of calm and reflection on the opening evening with my father on August 9th, 1996 when we sat at table L2 in the On the Rocks Bar and toasted each other with a glass of bubbles. The Inn was as much his dream as it was mine.”
The first summer was short, and the autumn and winter season were quieter with just a little fanfare over Christmas. Charles admits he was “surprised we survived that first winter,” as there was genuine doubt about whether the business could be viable. “That January, a Vancouver Business reporter stayed at the Inn during the winter storm season, and while stoic and reserved during his stay, a few weeks later a glowing story broke about the Inn in the Vancouver Sun telling readers they should book now in this stunning location before it was too late. The phones started ringing off the hook.” Charles clearly remembers calling his father and saying: “Good news Dad, it looks like we have a tiger by the tail,” as it was clear at that moment that the Inn was looking forward to a good spring and summer season on the horizon. Perhaps at that moment, it could be said the dream had come true, and Charles remembers clearly at that moment knowing that the Inn would be a success. A year later, the Inn was invited into the Relais & Chateaux family, both an honour for such a young property and a part of Charles' vision since the moment he heard about the small luxury family of properties bringing out the essence of their unique locales while offering incredible guest service.
Through it all, Charles has continued to envision the elements of the Inn by focusing on its essence. “The Inn has always been defined as Rustic Elegance on Nature’s Edge and I hope this never changes. We as a family always wanted our guests to wake up in their room and know they could be nowhere else but this part of our west coast. Supporting this definition are three important design themes: bringing the outside in, being on the margin between the open Pacific Ocean and this wonderful old-growth forest behind us, and finally, a recurring theme of changing textures. The expansive view from each and every guest room is my single favourite element as it brings the outside in for each and every guest.”
Nowadays, Charles has a more set routine, in contrast to the whirlwind early days when he was not only overseeing and doing every job that needed to be done but also driving up and down the west coast (usually in one day) sharing the vision of the Inn with everyone who would listen. “Well I seem to have developed a reputation as the number one chief cigarette-butt picker-upper on the grounds, but really it is only a part-time gig as I search for a more lucrative side hustle. Honestly, I am not afraid to do anything here at the Inn if the need arises to support the team.” While you may find Charles enjoying an early morning surf in the spring and summer, he is at the Inn nearly every day working on perfecting the elements of what the Inn offers, and exploring the grounds and checking in with our guests and team members. Reflecting on his love for this place, Charles says: “Tofino is most definitely my home. Having had the benefit of living and working in quite a few different places around North America and travelling to quite a few more overseas, every time I crest the hill at Sutton Pass and re-enter the Clayoquot Sound watershed it is always a feeling of having returned home. What draws me back to this idyllic destination … well it's in my blood I think, and yet I would have to say the combination of the temperate climate, towering old-growth forests, open Pacific Ocean and also the miles of tranquil inlet waterways with a myriad of vibrant ecosystems surrounding us - in a very small dynamic and interesting town at the end of a long road - is just hard to beat anywhere else.”
Reminiscing about the last 25 years, Charles says “it has gone by in the blink of an eye and yet it seems to have been quite a wonderfully long journey the more I think about the months and years and all that has transpired. Over the next 25 years, it will be fun to see the transition of the Inn as the next generation of the McDiarmid family takes the reins and I get to be a proud old sage hopefully dispensing a few occasional words of wisdom and experience along the way without getting too much in the way.” Looking back on the tremendous work and success of it all, and remembering the vivid moments and the incredible people that have breathed life into the stunning wood, stone, and glass firmament - Charles often says “we strive to be a little better than we were yesterday and a little better tomorrow than we are today.” This simple ethos animates the Inn’s journey every day and has since the beginning. These 25 years later, and in many ways just like those early days, Charles is very much still the visionary and storyteller he always has been - sharing the story of this place and his cherished memories of it and still so looking forward to what dreams may come.