Storm watching in style at Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn
Original Article by Mia Stainsby for Vancouver Sun
Storms are now a reason to visit Tofino and, at the Wickaninnish Inn, you do it in luxurious elegance.
An old shake and shingle cabin noses out to the ocean’s edge. With its wraparound windows it sits on a rocky point like a prow, just west of the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. It was built by Dr. Howard McDiarmid — the doctor in the area from 1955 to 1969, a B.C. MLA who fought for Pacific Rim National Park and road improvements to Tofino, a Seabee amphibious aircraft pilot, an important part of Tofino history.
One of his dreams was to build a luxury inn on Chesterman Beach. (A more modest Wickaninnish Inn which sat inside the Park closed in 1977.) Banks said no to a loan.
Even the late architect Arthur Erickson visited the location and deemed it a crazy idea. “No one’s going to come out here,” he said.
Despite challenges, the McDiarmids opened the Wickaninnish Inn in 1996. Dr. McDiarmid’s son Charles, with a degree in hotel management from Cornell University and management experience with the Four Seasons Hotel behind him, spearheaded the project.
It quickly became a Relais & Chateaux property and pocketed awards and accolades. This year it was named Canada’s No. 1 resort by Condé Nast Traveler and Travel and Leisure magazine put it among the world’s top 100. Howard McDiarmid died in 2010, but lived to see his crazy dream become reality.
But why a story about the Wickaninnish in winter? It starts with the McDiarmids. They were a storm-loving family.
“We’d huddle as a family in the cabin and loved it when it was stormy, and disappointed when it wasn’t,” says Wickaninnish managing director Charles McDiarmid.
The Wick, as it’s called locally, was designed for storm watching and it’s the most magical spot to embrace the west coast in its most fearsome beauty. Waves can roll in up to six metres high — little cat paw waves far out in the Pacific grow exponentially as they’re chased by winds. Tofino has some of the strongest winds on the coast, peaking at level-one hurricane force (119 to 153 km/h). Combine that with the torrential rain and nature seemingly blows a gasket from November through March.
The 240-degree windows of the Wick’s Pointe Restaurant mimics the glass prow of the old family cabin saying, bring it on, storm!
Similarities stop there. The Wick is luxurious. Rooms all have ocean views, fireplaces, patios for stepping outside, and amenities like boots, rain jackets, umbrellas, blankets for the patio. Finishings at the inn show the work of local carvers, artisans and artists. I love the Vancouver Island timber and marble and simple elegance, allowing nature to be the drama queen.
“Our goal was to have guests feel that when they opened their eyes in the morning, they know they’re nowhere else but on the West Coast of B.C. We brought the outside in,” says McDiarmid.
When I visited in November, storms had begun. It’s weirdly lulling to open the balcony doors in the morning to the rhythm of the ocean crashing against the rocks then caressing them on retreat. In the right company, you can open sliding cedar doors by the soaker tub for a clear shot to the view from a bubble bath. Guys might cringe at such a thought but they can park on the patio with a blanket, binoculars and scotch.
“Half of our guests love to cocoon and the other half get out and walk on the beach and come back for a spa treatment or a bubble bath,” McDiarmid says. The Ancient Cedars spa and yoga studio are there for pampering. The contrast of the wild outdoors accentuates the welcoming indoors or hygge (as the Danes call it).
A meal at the The Pointe is, what can I say? On point. I like the creative flair and surprises.
One evening I had carrots cooked in bee’s wax (once cooked, the wax is cooled and removed) with caramelized yogurt panna cotta, sesame tuile and fig leaf oil. The technique imparts honey notes.
Talent from that kitchen migrates into Tofino as former staff move on to open the bakeries, chocolate shops and restaurants (example: the award-winning Wolf in The Fog).
The existing 5,000 bottle wine cellar gets a two out of three rating by Wine Spectator and with impending completion of the gorgeous new cellar, it’ll grow by another 3,000 to 4,000 bottles.
“Our goal is the be the best wine cellar in B.C.,” says McDiarmid.
For a really rugged spa-like experience, weather permitting, visitors can take a seaplane or boat 50 kilometres north to Hot Springs Cove for a soak in natural hot springs with the ocean sneaking past some barrier rocks.
I took an hour-and-a-half ride by Zodiac slapping against the waves with Jamie’s Whaling Station to the Cove, an adventure in itself. En route we saw two grey and two humpback whales — a huge bonus since most whales had gone south for the season.
A 20-minute hike through old-growth forest on a boardwalk (with carvings and messages like “Will you marry me?”) takes you to the series of geothermal pools sheltered behind rocks right at ocean’s edge. The Wick’s packed gourmet lunch in a backpack from The Wick made for a magical picnic.
Tofino is also Canada’s surf capital and thanks to wetsuit technology the surf’s up all year.
“I’m a regular surfer, including in the winter when we typically get the most consistent quality swell and larger waves,” says McDiarmid. “All those storms are wonderful wave generators even though days are shorter and the water a little cooler.”
Another benefit of a winter visit to Tofino? The breather from summer tourists. It’s easier to book a room, restaurant or activity, and rates are often lower than in high season. And last April, Pacific Coastal Airlines recently began daily direct flights from Vancouver to Tofino, making it a short 45 minute journey.