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Surf, sun, and sand in Tofino’s storm season

Original Article by Gail Johnson for Georgia Straight  

The packing list for a November Tofino trip is long: rain boots, rain pants, rain jacket—waterproof, not water-resistant—wool socks, winter hat, warm gloves, and all the fleece you can stuff in your suitcase.

Winter in this coastal town is nature’s fury on display: every shade of grey, it’s windy, stormy, cloudy, rainy, wet, messy, and cold.

Except when it’s not.

An early-winter jaunt to Tofino has become an annual pilgrimage for our family and another of four. We’ve driven past snowdrifts en route to the town of 2,000 and been lashed by fierce winds and horizontal rain while beach-walking at a 45-degree angle.

This time out, we swapped storm-watching for a balmy surf holiday in the sun.

That’s the magic of storm season on this striking sliver of Vancouver Island’s west coast: you never know what you’re going to get. And despite the spectacle of immense waves smashing against black rocks, the water splashing every which way like nature’s fireworks, no one who comes here expecting to witness a West Coast tempest is going to ask for a refund if there isn’t a single squall on offer.

For us, a five-day stretch of clear blue skies made it that much easier to contemplate stepping into the frigid Pacific for a lesson with Surf Sister Surf School. Never mind the battle involved in learning how to stand upright on a board; fighting your way into a wet suit is the first challenge for newbie surfers. (Getting out of one is just as hard. Apparently, there’s something known as “wet suit muscle”.)

After that struggle, we felt warm in those black neoprene onesies under the November sun while learning the “pop up”—a surfer’s key movement—on dry land at Chesterman Beach. Instructor Emily Thicke, a lithe Tofino native, made it all look easy, my girlfriend and I more closely resembling awkward, hunchbacked versions of Selma and Patty Bouvier. Once we were in the water, Thicke explained that—unlike skiing or snowboarding, where you can do the same run over and over again and get to know every little bump—there’s no such thing as a familiar wave. Like snowflakes, each one is unique. Then there’s the fact that superior coordination, balance, strength, stamina, and perseverance are required.

As with skiing, it’s possible that the best part of surfing is the “après”: relaxing and replenishing with fine food and drink after all that fresh air and physical exertion. You’ve got to warm up first, though—especially after spending 20 minutes or so trying to peel off your wet suit in the beach parking lot, by which point your fingers and toes have turned into Popsicles.

Pacific Sands Beach Resort, where we’ve booked a storm-watching package every November for the past eight years (and where Surf Sister has opened a seasonal surf shack), has beach houses equipped with soaker tubs on the second level that offer views of the ocean through giant western red cedars; thawing out here makes you feel like you’re perched in a treetop bird’s nest. Situated on Cox Bay, the resort has a communal, covered fire pit for roasting marshmallows and sheltered barbecues for outdoor grilling amid deluges.

Even on winter’s darkest, nastiest days, you’ll find people surfing here, but clearly this isn’t what draws most visitors to Tuff City during the off-season. Instead, the attractions are to hike, walk, search for sand dollars, peek into tidal pools, read, play board games, reconnect, recharge, reflect, and, ostensibly, wonder at torrential downpours and violent winds from somewhere cozy and warm. Whether you’re watching the driving rain or happen to catch nothing but golden rays during your entire stay, there are plenty of primo spots to take it all in.

Also at Cox Bay is Long Beach Lodge Resort, a “luxury adventure resort”. You don’t need to be a guest to unwind in the Great Room, which is even grander than the name implies. If you have a wealthy aunt or uncle with classic tastes, imagine their living room: think plush sofas, leather chairs, reading lamps, floor-to-ceiling windows, hardwood floors, and Oriental carpets. Logs crackle in an enormous fireplace, and the view is spectacular: water as far as the eye can see, plus the lighthouse at Lennard Island. Chef Ian Riddick has created an après-surf menu served daily in the Great Room from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Perfect for sharing are ceviche made with fresh scallops, salmon, and halibut and served with crispy tortilla chips; steamed Outlandish mussels in a Tofino-beer cioppino thick with fennel, tomato, and fresh herbs; in-season oysters on the half shell with a bright mignonette; and pizza from the wood-fired oven.

The views are similarly staggering from the legendary Wickaninnish Inn. With a fireplace at its centre, the Pointe Restaurant offers upscale dining and more than 240 degrees of Pacific Ocean beauty; it’s the place to go when those well-to-do relatives are picking up the dinner tab. (Note that it’s closed from January 2 to February 5 this season.)

A more affordable snack-centred storm-watching option at this iconic Tofino place is the Driftwood Café, in the hotel’s beach building. It takes its name from the magnificent glass-topped bar made of a huge piece of driftwood. With a wood-burning fireplace and a view of Chesterman Beach, this casual spot offers light fare (designed by the Wick’s executive chef, Warren Barr) such as the Pacific Rim Chopped Salad with smoked salmon, and a seared-albacore-tuna sandwich.

Off-season visitors who consider themselves foodies won’t want to miss the in-town Wolf in the Fog (be sure to have the kale salad) or SoBo (famous for its lime pie, it’s closed for its annual break until February 5). And for an altogether different perspective on Tofino during storm season, settle in next to the torches and fire pits on the year-round patio at Shelter. The restaurant feels like a cabin inside, with wood everywhere, a big fireplace, lots of candles, and views of Clayoquot Sound. Chef Matthew Kane’s Meares Island Chowder—with smoked salmon, arctic surf clams, manila clams, and local mussels—will warm you up. A whole steamed Dungeness crab with lemon aioli (call ahead) would do nicely too, especially if the weather outside is frightful—but even if it’s not.

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