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Vancouver Island, storm watching

© By Judi Lees

  At first glance, I was disappointed in Cox Bay Beach. Sure, it's a beauty with an expansive arc of sand bordered by forest. That day, keen surfers - clad in sexy-looking wetsuits - played in the wild surf that dominates the West Coast of Vancouver Island. However, the sun was out.
     "Any signs of a storm brewing out there?" I ask a fellow stroller who is eyeing the rolling horizon. "I hope so," is his reply. Like me, he's here to storm watch and hoping that the weather will co-operate. Cox Bay, just south of Tofino, is renowned for winter storm watching. We booked into the Pacific Sands Beach Resort with winter weather on our minds and Mother Nature never let us down. The next morning, before I opened my eyes, I heard the roar of the Pacific Ocean intermingled with the howl of the wind. From my almost window-surrounded bed, I viewed foamy waves lashing onto the beach. A good old Pacific storm had unleashed its fury on Cox Bay Beach.
     Here's the scoop on storm watching. You have two options, and they are both good news. At Pacific Sands Beach Resort, you can snuggle down in bed, turn on the flickering fireplace and storm watch. Two-storey villas, a recent addition to the over-thirty-year-old resort, face the beach and while you may not be out in the weather, it's always 'in your face.' As you relax with coffee in bed, soak in a deep tub, laze in front of the downstairs fireplace or when you fix a snack in the kitchen, the storm paints a dramatic scene outside. This is 'wuss' storm watching and it has a lot going for it, especially if you are a romantic and have your favourite companion along.
     The other alternative is an adventuresome one. You don the waterproof, bright yellow slickers that are provided and, wearing appropriate footwear, head onto the beach. It's only a few steps away, but it is like another world - a wild one that takes your breath away. During winter storm season - roughly, mid-October to mid-March - winds can reach over 100-km per hour and waves may top ten metres. During my early winter stay, I'm not sure what speed the wind reached, but I was impressed as I walked, pushing shoulders forward and making squishy footprints in the sand.
     It crossed my mind that although this is the polar opposite of strolling silvery sands in the tropics, this walk has exuberance to it - you actually feel mildly challenged by the wind's force. I noticed only two surfers battling the waves whereas the day before, there had been dozens. The neophytes know their limitations, I guess.
     I also loved the fact that on this stormy walk, the beach scene was still intriguing. While I wasn't gaping at tidal pools or photographing clusters of sea stars decorating the boulders as I would on a calm day, I was amazed at the large clumps of seaweed and piles of sprawling Bull kelp that the storm had dumped on the beach. As I walked to the constant roar of wind and waves, I noticed the rippling patterns in the sand that artists try to capture on canvas and Mother Nature does naturally with a magic mix of the elements. This moist, foggy scene is an appealing one that has to be experienced to be appreciated. (A special treat, I found, after storm walking was the facial at Sacred Stone Spa in Tofino.)
     When you tire of battling the wind, you can head into nearby forested trails; some are part of the 18-hectare resort while others are in the famous Pacific Rim National Park that borders the beach to the south. As soon as you enter the stands of Sitka Spruce and towering cedars, you are enveloped in a moist calm. You follow rooted trails lush with salal and ferns and look up to where wavy mosses drip moisture. An easy trail leads along the boardwalk to Sunset Point, a viewpoint that has you eye-balling curling surf during a storm or, when it calms down at day's end, appreciating the sun's last light as it plays on the monochrome ocean.
     Realize that in this part of the world you are experiencing one of the world's few stands of coastal temperate rainforest. We enjoyed learning more about this complex ecosystem on a guided walk with Rainforest Interpretive Centre in Tofino. We also stopped at the Tofino Botanical Gardens. Rain or shine, you'll probably run into George Patterson, who started this labour of love in 1999. Formerly a landscape consultant, he admits cheerfully, "I've been a volunteer for seven years." The five-hectare site, a non-profit organization, is maintained by a team of volunteers who frankly love this part of the world and are intent on educating and preserving it. This is a beautiful spot where you meander over bridges, find 'unusual' carvings and artworks and are surprised by the variety of plant life.
     Of course, you will spend time in the tiny town of Tofino. Snuggled into a pretty harbour, it is the doorstep to Clayoquot Sound which was designated a United Nations Biosphere Reserve in 2000. Tofino smacks of West Coast, small town culture; everyone chats with you, and are laid-back. Dudes carrying surf boards are part of the everyday scene, and it's a telling sign that there are seven entries under 'Surfing' in the local directory. (If you wish to try the wet ride, go to Surf Sister; they teach both sexes, once the storm stops, of course.)
     You stroll its few streets that hang above the water noting the mix of adventure companies and galleries. The most enchanting stop is the Eagle Aerie Gallery that showcases the work of Tsimshian artist, Roy Henry Vickers in a traditional Northwest Coast longhouse. To buy silver crafted jewellery - or other gifts, check out the House of Himwitsa. There is a plethora of eco tours offered from kayaking and whale watching to visits to Meares Island with Tla-ook Cultural Adventures aboard a dug-out canoe. Some of these operators, like Mike White at Browning Pass Charters are open during winter, but trips are weather dependant. Cruising island-studded Clayoquot Sound is enthralling any time of the year.
     You will be pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety of restaurants in this village. Go to the Common Loaf for the best latte and mingle with locals. (Read the community board here for a taste of Tofino life. Tarot card reading, anyone?) For a wholesome, tasty lunch, order from SoBo, the purple catering truck at Tofino Botanical Gardens. One of the most romantic places to dine is the dimly lit Shelter Restaurant. The Schooner, a Tofino institution, is known for its seafood and wine list. It's handy that Long Beach Lodge is a short walk from Pacific Sands Beach Resort and boasts an outstanding menu. For a romantic evening in your luxurious villa, call upon Clayoquot Cuisine. The roving chef, Mark Wrigley arrives quietly in your kitchen and, ever so discretely prepares a West Coast inspired dinner for two complete with a killer dessert.
     So the bottom line is, head to Tofino for a whale of a storm in winter but, truth be told, this scenic place is a terrific place to hang out in any weather.

Judi Lees is 2002 winner of Choice Hotels Award of Excellence for Best International (Travel) Article and Thailand Award for International Media. She has written for The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star, many magazines & www.traveltowellness.com Click for Tofino, British Columbia Forecast
Photo Credits
Judi Lees,
Courtesy Tourism Vancouver Island

If you go
Tofino can be reached by taking a ferry to Vancouver Island and driving to Tofino. It's about 5.5 hours from Vancouver. Tofino is serviced by Craig Air from Vancouver and Victoria. www.craigair.com
Pacific Sands Beach Resort has Wild Winter Packages for three nights ($360), five nights ($525) and seven nights ($665). www.pacificsands.com
Tourism Vancouver Island: www.vancouverisland.travel
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tofino
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Tofino

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
Currency conversion: http://www.xe.com/ucc/
Distance calculator: http://www.indo.com/distance/
Time zone converter: http://www.timezoneconverter.com/

Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/


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