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In with the Wickaninnish Inn crowd in Tofino

Original Article by John Quilter for The Guardian

On the west coast of Canada, surfing is something you do in a wetsuit, and the net is something that’s used to catch fish. Charles McDiarmid, owner of the truly world-class hotel by the beach, tells John Quilter what makes Tofino so special.

I’m bobbing up and down on a surfboard in the Pacific Ocean, off the west coast of Vancouver Island, waiting for a wave. I paddled out this morning with Charles McDiarmid, the owner-manager of the world-famous Wickaninnish Inn, and a bunch of chefs from local Tofino. As I wait for my ride, floating in the largest ocean on the planet looking west towards Japan, I realise I’m falling hard for this place; like, “I could move here” hard.

Tofino gets me excited: heart-pumping, stand-on-a-chair-shouting, Tom-Cruise-style excited. It’s not just the breath-taking landscapes, the old growth temperate rain forest or the wealth of wildlife. It’s the people: they have such a youthful, kind outlook. I’ve known these chefs for all of an hour, yet they feel like long-lost friends.

“We were a pioneer town up until the road was connected to the outside world in 1959,” McDiarmid explains when I ask him what makes Tofino feel so special, “so that pioneer spirit is still a strong undercurrent. Following this in the 1960s we had the arrival of hippies driving their Volkswagen vans from across Canada coming to the very end of the road, and shortly after that, with the advent of the Vietnam War, we welcomed many conscientious objectors coming from the West Coast of the United States; many made Tofino their home and stayed. 

“The creation of the Pacific Rim National Park in 1971 saw the nascent modest beginnings of our tourism industry, and then the huge logging protests in the early 80s lasted for 10 years and drew an unprecedented new eco-centric group to our region. And so for a town whose population is today just 2,000 people, we have an amazing diversity in our makeup. Tofino has an ‘end of the road’ vibe where characters are tolerated, encouraged and even celebrated, and the entrepreneurial spirit and opportunity developed through our longstanding history of welcoming visitors.”

McDiarmid’s hotel, the Wickaninnish Inn, feels like a true partnership with nature: a natural cathedral of cedar pines, carved out of the local rain forest by Charles’s father on the point of Chesterman Beach, with 2.5 km of hard-packed sand and tide pools right outside its doors. Throughout the hotel, local and indigenous art adorns the walls and coffee tables. It serves to connect you to the land like roots. Even the original carving shed used to build the Inn in the 70s has been kept alive, first by the legendary carver Henry Nolla, and now by resident carvers.

I can’t quite get my head around the fact that this kind, humble man whom I was surfing with this morning owns such an incredible world-class hotel. This unassuming approach seems to go to the very nature and fabric of the establishment.

“We are low-key but efficient,” says McDiarmid. “We listen beyond just the words that are said, and always attempt to deliver an anticipatory service that is friendly but professional, and only there when it is needed. Our goal is really quite simple: to deliver a magical experience for each and every guest.”

There are lots of places you must go to in Canada, but Tofino is the place you’ll want to keep coming back to. I’m going back storm watching this December; I can’t wait to see my new friends. 

Charles McDiarmid’s top food picks in Tofino

Wildside Grill: “You can eat in or get a casual takeaway. Every Friday is Wildside Friday at our house for dinner.”

Other restaurants: “Tuff Beans or Schooner Restaurant are both great for breakfast, and I especially frequent Shelter Restaurant for lunch or dinner. Both SoBo and Wolf in the Fog are strong options, too.”

Seafood: “Go to Trilogy Fish Company or The Fish Store, with a stop at Picnic Charcuterie for cheese and meats. Naturally you have to make a short stop at Tofino Brewing Company next door to taste the latest or have one of their fine standbys.”

Beaches Grocery: “Go here for ingredients; they seem to have everything.”

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