Most people prefer good weather on holiday, but for a growing number of travellers to Vancouver Island, tempestuous storms are the big draw - along with a luxury hotel to watch the action from
Our six-seater Cessna plane dipped and wobbled like a free-spirited rollercoaster. ‘We’re trying to avoid a thunderstorm,’ confessed our pilot, ‘so we’re going to be doing quite a bit of zig-zagging.’ Moments later the back of an empty seat collapsed forward in a type of self-imposed crash position and a fellow passenger clutched his knees and screwed up his eyes. It felt ominous - and yet this was the very thing I had been praying for.
I was part of an unusual band of people in search of what most tourists run away from: bad weather – the worse the better. Bring me your tempestuous storms, thundering rains and charging winds straight out of the Old Testament. Just not while I’m in a plane. Call me a fairweather storm trooper (if that’s not an oxymoron); I just wanted to experience it all from the warmth of a vaunted luxury hotel.
The pilots soon found solace above the clouds en route from Vancouver to Vancouver Island on the western edge of Canada. With a clear view of the island’s jagged and deserted coastline, you couldn’t see a soul. In fact, turn the endless forest of fir, spruce and cedar into a puzzle, and it would be impossible to distinguish one piece from another.
I had been assured that Tofino, the town nestled into this rugged land, was the place to catch a storm. A remote spot, it’s where the rainforest wrestles with the washing-machine of the Pacific and its waters are home to more than 250 foundered ships. As we landed at the town’s golf course, which doubles as its air strip, a smile crept across the face of the knee-hugging traveller. It turned out Spencer had also journeyed some 5,000 miles from England, in his case to create a Buddhist meditation centre here. It’s that kind of karmic place, a traditional terminus for ‘alternative folk’ - hippies escaping the hassled life and US draft-dodgers fleeing the Vietnam war.
While this flavour is all around (organic and crafts stores abound in the small town), there’s also been a marked shift in the people it attracts in recent years. It's a mecca for the hardiest of surfers (excellent breakers but frigid temperatures of 4° Celsius are not unheard of), and I clocked as many smart BMWs carrying surfboards as clapped-out, sticker-infested VW Westfalias.
We were staying at the sumptuous Wickanninish Inn on the edge of the Pacific Rim national park. Built into craggy volcanic rock, this 46-room hotel juts majestically into the sea to take advantage of the storm-watching phenomenon its family-owners are responsible for starting. “We always used to hope for a storm when we came here and we wondered whether we were the only wackos that did,” explained owner Charles McDiarmid, whose doctor father Howard had swapped Alberta for Tofino in the 1950s. They weren’t, so more than a decade ago they opened up the Relais & Chateaux hotel – just around the corner from their own home near Chesterman Beach – which has scooped plenty of accolades in Condé Nast Traveller and Travel + Leisure magazines.
The weather had suddenly switched from brooding sky to incandescent sunshine (it has a habit of doing that, I was informed) - the perfect chance to don the Inn’s yellow sou'westers and head for the long white sandy beach pockmarked with giant driftwood, testament to the force of the reputed storms. An hour later, hail forced a quick retreat into the warmth of my room. With picture windows throughout the Inn, you could snugly - and smugly - witness the coming of the storm without even having to get damp.
It was then that the meaning of Wickanninish, the name of an ancient chief of the native Indian tribes, came into play. Translated as “having no one in front of him in the canoe”, the place makes you feel you’re braving the elements on your own. Soaking in the giant bath surrounded by floor-to-ceiling, triple-glazed windows, being in the eye of the storm was akin to being cocooned in a car undergoing an automatic car wash: the wind slapped the sea into a frenzy, the rocks buffered the ocean and the spray obscured the open windows. It was exhilarating. “So many people live in the city, where a crappy day is a crappy day and the weather’s a real inconvenience,” surmised McDiarmid. “Here, you really feel connected with all the elements.”
Later that night I ate at the hotel’s Pointe Restaurant (clam chowder, lemon Belgian waffles) with its 240-degree vantage point. Even there the tail-end of the storm is relayed to your table via microphones strategically placed outside. So, at the Wick Inn, you don’t even have to open a window to hear the Pacific: how lazy is that?
Rooms at The Wickannish Inn cost from CAN $320 (approx £170) a night.
Return flights from London to Vancouver cost from £430. Try British Airways (www.ba.com) or Air Canada (www.aircanada.com). Connect to the South Terminal at Vancouver Airport and fly Orca Airlines to Tofino (www.flyorcaair.com).