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Wickaninnish Inn and more Joys of Tofino

Original story by Adrian Brijibassi for Vacay.ca

Charles McDiarmid sits for dinner after an afternoon spent on Long Beach, surfing the waves that perpetually sweep into his hometown. The water arrives on shore with a gush or a crash, depending on the temperament of the day, and the sight of it is as mesmerizing as the glorious sunsets over the Pacific Ocean that stall the heart and catapult the level of joy felt by those fortunate enough to look on. While staring out the window of The Pointe, the flagship restaurant of the Wickaninnish Inn, McDiarmid discusses the sensation of catching a wave and how riding it for even the briefest of moments amounts to an addictive thrill. It seems to me an exercise in chasing perfection.

That thought makes me wonder if there is a correlation for McDiarmid between surfing and his two-decade-long journey as managing director of the Wickaninnish Inn, one of Canada’s most distinguished properties. Is he also seeking to present a perfect experience for travellers and does he receive a similar thrill on the occasions when his establishment hits that highest of marks?

“We never take any of our success for granted,” says the affable McDiarmid, whose family launched the Wickaninnish Inn on August 9, 1996. “We know we must always look for ways to improve, because, let’s face it, after 20 years we could just sit on our laurels, and some places do, but we want this to be thought of as a special place. There’s so much choice out there that when a guest decides to come here, we know it is a great privilege for us to have been given the honour to receive them.”

And travellers have been opting for the Wickaninnish Inn consistently and enthusiastically. Despite the 20th anniversary, the inn didn’t market a promotional offer to celebrate the milestone, because, as McDiarmid points out, there would be nowhere to put guests. “We thought about doing a package for the 20th year and then we realized how solidly we were already booked,” he says. Instead, the inn has chosen some relaxed acknowledgements of the anniversary, including a social media campaign using the hashtag #WickAt20.

Two Decades of Greatness at Wickaninnish Inn

Yet, for Canada’s tourism industry, the achievements of the Wickaninnish Inn are far from quiet. The Relais & Chateaux property, with suites housed in two buildings nestled between the shores of Chesterman Beach and the woods surrounding it, has helped Tofino find global appeal. Images of the Wick have circulated in luxury magazines around the world, helping to excite imaginations as consumers envision themselves amid the empty beaches and gigantic centuries-old trees of the area. Considering Tofino, nicknamed “The End of the Road” because it is at the westernmost point of the Trans-Canada Highway, is in a temperate rainforest with a cold climate the success is incredible. Back in 1996, McDiarmid and his family knew the undertaking was an unpredictable one, as he noted to visitors to the Wick’s website in a letter commemorating the 20th anniversary.

He called the opening of the inn “an emotional day for all of us. A nerve-wracking one, too, because there was no certainty that all our hard work would prove successful. After all, in 1996, Tofino was still a well-kept secret, a quirky little seaside village beloved by locals, but little known outside British Columbia.”

This year, Tofino was named the No. 3 Best Place to Visit in Canada by the team of travel experts at Vacay.ca. When people ask why I love Tofino so much, I provide them with examples such as the Wick Inn and its immaculate restaurant, whose operations are overseen by executive chef Warren Barr, a creative talent who turns out gorgeous plates that are a match for the scenery.

Beyond the Wick, Tofino has built a tourism draw dependent on conscientious local residents. Their businesses include surf schools, sustainable clothing shops, eateries driven by ethically responsible chefs and restaurateurs, and a range of tour operators who honour the place they live and work in. One such tour company is Remote Passages, whose bear-watching experience is one I was delighted to partake in earlier this year — and not for the reason you would think.

Sure, you’ll get up close to bears — and eagles, and herons, and sea lions, and other wildlife — but the reason I found Remote Passages’ bear-watching tour extraordinary is how it originated. The company started its adventures about 25 years ago not because its owners wanted to make a lot of money guiding travellers or had ambitions of growing a well-known tourism business. Remote Passages’ bear-watching tours began because the environmentally conscious residents of Tofino wanted to create an obstacle for bear hunters.

According to co-owner Kati Martini, bear hunters would venture into Clayoquot Sound, the waters to the east of Tofino, with the goal of firing a rifle in the direction of the hundreds of black bears who call this pristine part of Vancouver Island home. The hunters would wait clandestinely and in the distance for the bears to come down to the shore, where they would be easy targets. But the bears would not approach if they spotted humans. Instead, they would forage for food up in the woods and come down to the shoreline when they felt confident they were safe.

In creating a tour offering that brought visitors into the waters of Clayoquot Sound, Remote Passages was participating in a protest of the bear hunt. Their boat tours kept the bears from the shore during the daylight hours, frustrating the hunters. It was a brilliant mix of entrepreneurialism and environmental protectionism. Today, thousands of visitors from around the world arrive to see the adult black bears and their cubs in their natural habitat, where they search for food, often meandering along the shoreline seeking salmon or crab.

In the tour boat, you will clearly see and photograph them, while being educated on the history of the region, including its deep aboriginal heritage. For many visitors that knowledge gained is the most alluring aspect of a visit to Tofino. Not only do you learn about the people who make sure it is kept as an enviable destination, you realize yourself why life here on more occasions than not seems like a ride atop one of those perfect waves surfers like McDiarmid chase, and often catch. When you’re in the midst of Tofino at its finest, life can hardly seem better.

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