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British Columbia winter nature vacationsAlison Gardner's Storm Watching Vacations on Canada's Pacific Coast.
Chesterman Beach after a storm. Wickaninnish Inn

When I was born in a remote British Columbia fishing village on the West Coast of Vancouver Island, the winter storm season along this exposed first landfall off the Pacific Ocean was something to endure, not enjoy. If anyone in those post-WWII days had suggested that vacationers would pay healthy sums of money throughout the winter months to visit the popular and truly spectacular seascape of what is now Pacific Rim National Park, a veteran west coaster would certainly have presumed the person had been hit on the head with a hefty driftwood log .... or worse.

For the past ten years, winter vacationers from around the world have been defying logic as they flock to the picturesque fishing villages of Ucluelet and Tofino. These once remote villages now act as bookends to the dramatic 50-kilometer/30-mile stretch of fine sand beaches, chiseled rock pinnacles and outcroppings that punctuate this piece of rugged Pacific shoreline. Looking west, the next stop is Japan!

In record numbers, visitors are settling into a wide range of accommodations for a few days, a week or more, checking the skies for brooding black clouds and hoping to feel some of the hurricane force winds that have earned these waters the name, "Graveyard of the Pacific".

Graveyard of the Pacific, storm watching on British Columbia's west coast.
Map of south and central Vancouver Island spotlighting Tofino, Ucluelet and the Pacific Rim National Park.
Source: www.longbeachmaps.com

In January I returned to my old Pacific Coast stamping ground for a sample of stormy weather, 21st century-style. On a placid spring-like day with only a few clouds in the sky, I felt just a bit silly driving over the picturesque mountain passes between the mid-Vancouver Island city of Port Alberni and my coastal destination: stowed in the car's trunk was head-to-toe rain gear and heavy winter boots.

A Snug Harbour Inn view, Ucluelet, British Columbia, Canada.
Below and Right: Whether winter is peaceful or rampaging, Ucluelet's A Snug Harbour Inn offers "awesome views" from its Pacific side picture windows and outdoor decks. A Snug Harbour Inn
A Snug Harbour Inn view, Ucluelet, British Columbia, Canada.

Emerging on the true west coast is always a bit of a rush, regardless of the season or the weather. I turned left and drove through the small town of Ucluelet (population 1,700) in search of my accommodation, A Snug Harbour Inn, which had already triggered great expectations with its website and its web address, www.awesomeview.com! I quickly confirmed that this luxurious, whimsically-designed property overlooks its own cove with a view that could only be described as awesome. Really awesome would not be an exaggeration either!

My inn hosts Sue Brown and Drew Fesar described in graphic detail a dramatic storm that had lashed the cove and Pacific Rim coast just one day before my arrival. I gazed longingly out the ceiling-to-floor picture windows of the inn's lounge, but detected no evidence of a pending storm on the horizon.

Long Beach NATURE Tours, Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
Bill McIntyre. Alison Gardner
Walking the Wild Pacific Trail, storm watching winter holiday on British Columbia's west coast.

Before he retired in 1998, Bill McIntyre served as chief naturalist of the area's world-class Pacific Rim National Park for 23 years. Now he shares his love of nature and his unique understanding of the West Coast's natural environment as owner of his own company, Long Beach Nature Tours.

As he leads our small group on a cliff and forest walk along the newly opened, well-groomed Wild Pacific Trail of two-kilometers, Bill's enthusiasm is infectious whether he is pointing out the smallest to the largest natural phenomena or telling colorful tales of shipwrecks and Amphritite Lighthouse history, including destruction of the original by a tidal wave in 1914. The present lighthouse was built almost immediately thereafter.

Amphritite Lighthouse, Wild Pacific Trail, Ucluelet, British Columbia.
The photogenic Amphritite Lighthouse is accessible from the Wild Pacific Trail.
Alison Gardner

Plenty of local people are out enjoying the promised calm before the storm; a friend calls out to Bill, "Watch those three-centimeter waves out there. They'll sweep you off the rocks!" West Coast humor has a way of understating reality: despite many cautions, lives are lost every year with the curious and the reckless venturing too close to the wave action or ignoring the tidal changes.

I look longingly out to sea where measurable swells are rising and falling in a hopeful manner. Bill reassures me that rain and storms are always on the way. "Around here, you get to the fourth day with no rain, and everyone gets depressed," he chuckles.

Living on the Edge

After a satisfying taste of the Ucluelet area, I cut northwest through Pacific Rim National Park to spend equal time at the opposite end of this wilderness paradise. Just five kilometers short of Tofino (population 1,750), I ease into a winding rainforest driveway leading to the Wickaninnish Inn, www.wickinn.com, set about as close as you can get to a swath of open ocean beach without swimming in it.

In fact, the inn's restaurant with a 240-degree view is cantilevered over a rocky promontory of Chesterman Beach leaving the ceiling to floor windows exposed to a vigorous wash during some memorable storms.

Aerial view of Wickaninnish Inn and Chesterman Beach
Wickaninnish Inn and Chesterman Beach.
Russ Heinl/Wickaninnish Inn

Many of the key features of this globally-recognized inn incorporate local arts and craftsmanship. The creatively carved Yellow Cedar and abalone shell entrance doors immediately remind visitors that they have arrived in rare and highly prized West Coast territory. Every guest room features a fireplace whose mantel sports a pair of binoculars and a collection of local nature books, a private balcony and a million-dollar ocean view. In the cupboard, to my delight, a pair of rubber boots and a long hooded rain slicker await each guest! There is even a carefully filled out card on my pillow reporting the following day's high and low temperatures, and high and low tide times. I am now even more impatient for my storm.

Winter storm waves on Canada's West Coast.
Canada's wild West Coast in winter.
Mark Hobson/Wickaninnish Inn

The following morning I console myself with a two-hour Sacred Sea spa treatment at the inn's Ancient Cedars Spa, and then join Bill McIntyre for an exploration of the adjacent rainforest and several kilometers of Chesterman Beach. "The swells are getting bigger," he observes knowingly. "Lying in bed tonight you should hear the wind really pick up."

Storm waves on the West Coast of Canada
Day dawns with a storm.
Mark Hobson/Wickaninnish Inn

After my spa treatment, a lot of fresh air, and a multi-course meal in the inn's Pointe Restaurant, I confess that I slept too soundly to hear any wind, but when morning arrives, I pull back the curtains and welcome my storm. At breakfast I watch dense sea spray trickle down the windowpanes, and recall those childhood days of waiting patiently at the window of our small house for a Pacific winter storm to pass.

How times change! Here I am in my second half century, hurrying to put on my slicker and boots to go out and deliberately court the ultimate bad hair day, facing into the wind gusts and marveling at the marching rows of waves breaking relentlessly onto Chesterman Beach. My parents would surely shake their heads at such action. Perhaps a hefty driftwood log hit her on the head, they might wonder, but because I am grown up now they would be too polite to say so.

Tofino fishing village, west coast of Vancouver Island, Canada
Storm watching season extends from November to March. While you wait for the big one, there are plenty of land- and marine-based activities out of Ucluelet and Tofino (pictured left) to keep you busy. Ucluelet means "safe harbour" in the local native Nuu-chah-nulth (Nootka) language and Tofino was named after a Spanish explorer who visited the area aboard a Spanish sailing ship in 1792.

Whale Watching season runs from March to May, as 20,000 gray whales migrate between Baja, Mexico and Alaska. The annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival is in March.

By car or bus, the Pacific Rim is about 1.5 hours on first-class paved road from Port Alberni with lots of curves, elevation changes and spectacular mountain and lake scenery. It is a five-hour drive from Victoria. There are also scheduled and charter flights from several cities.

Long Beach Nature Tours, www.longbeachnaturetours.com, Ucluelet, tel: 1-250-726-7099, offers a range of moderately active half- to full-day tours including land-based whale watching, storm watching, headlands, history and lighthouses, birdwatching, spring wildflowers, and more. About 60% of clients are over 50.

A Snug Harbour Inn, Ucluelet, tel: 1-888-936-5222 or 1-250-726-2686, www.awesomeview.com, perches on the edge of an 85 ft. black rock cliff, surrounded by pristine old growth forest. It is located minutes by car or a brief walk from the Pacific Rim's famous Wild Pacific Trail and the picturesque Amphritite Lighthouse.
A Snug Harbour Inn, bedroom suite, Ucluelet, British Columbia.
Each room of A Snug Harbour Inn's luxurious, adult-only bed and breakfast accommodation is custom-designed and decorated in a different theme and color scheme, with four of its six rooms having oceanside views. Nestled into a magical old growth forest of its own, a separate cottage a short distance from the main building offers two more luxury rooms. Both are pet-friendly, and one is designed to be fully-accessible for guests using wheelchairs. This inn gets an impressive 98% approval rating from TripAdvisor!

Wickaninnish Inn, Tofino, tel: 1-800-333-4604 or 1-250-725-3100, www.wickinn.com. This internationally-recognized Relais & Chateaux member inn is open year round with a full range of inside and outside activities and tours to keep guests occupied. Family built, owned and operated, it admirably carries out its mission of encouraging guests to relax in a home-like atmosphere. Special Storm Season rates apply from November through February (Christmas season excepted).

Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching alternative vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women travelers of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine.
Email: alison@travelwithachallenge.com

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