Vancouver Island Storm Watching
|Photo by Joanna Lake|
A massive Pacific storm swell gathers itself just offshore, building an emerald surge that towers over the shore like a jade tube tipped with stirred cream. Then it crashes with a thunderous roar, spilling onto beach and headland, thumping the rocks below, sending vibrations through the entire shore 25 feet above the waterline, finally washing sheets of foam back into the sea in a hissing susurration. Nature's power is on full display just feet away.
Not a bit alarmed, dozens of watchers ooh and aah and return to their gourmet dinners or fireside relaxation until the next performance of the ocean's towering strength.
So goes a stormy midwinter evening in dining rooms and hotel lobbies from Ucluelet to Tofino, where a berth in one of many storm-watching venues in December is more eagerly sought than on mild midsummer nights. The Tofino/Ucluelet peninsula is a world capital of winter storm appreciation, where many thousands of visitors each year savor the sights, sounds and sensations of a unique travel activity that barely existed 20 years ago. Travelers come from around North America, even across the globe, to enjoy mellow mornings by a roaring fire, peaceful afternoon naps beneath wool blankets, and hearty meals or evening aperitifs admiring the area’s ocean bounty—on their plates and on the matchless, four-dimension Technicolor stage just outside.
While winter storm-watching can arguably be said to have originated here, it has since spread up and down the Pacific Coast and, indeed, around the world. We don’t mind lending out good ideas, but hardly any place could be better than the Island’s West Coast. We have long strands of golden sand on which waves can roll hundreds of yards. We have offshore sea stacks that part Pacific rollers into photogenic sky-seeking plumes. We have ancient spruce trees hugging the shoreline whose branches flex and sway in the wind like dancers. We have rocky headlands that the ocean treats like canvases for a performance art whose brushes are water and wind, whose hues are emerald and ivory, platinum and sunset bronze, whose sounds are the drum and bass of wave after wave.
And, of course, we’re poised on the edge of earth’s largest ocean—which is also earth’s biggest weather engine. Here are weather extremes that we’d like to call “superlatives”—where else can you go that has:
- Torrents of rain: Henderson Lake, inland from Ucluelet about 40 kilometers, holds the Canadian annual rainfall record, an astounding 948cm. Yep, that’s 9.4 meters (more than 30 feet) of rain. Want to visualize it? Go out and look at a three-story building, then stack raindrops (in your imagination) that high. The average annual rainfall at Henderson Lake is 665cm (about 22 feet).
- Waves bigger than houses: In fact, bigger than buildings. A Canadian Coast Guard buoy offshore at Cape Scott once recorded a 140-foot (42 meters) wave. Yikes! That’s a 14-story building. To visualize that, you’ll have to go to Victoria, where there are a few structures tall enough.
Visitors to Tofino and Ucluelet won’t experience weather quite that extreme, but we wanted to mention those records to buttress our case that, of all places on earth with easy visitor access, exceptional lodging and dining, memorable winter weather and a worthy landscape to frame it, our West Coast is surely at the top of the list. And that’s just how multitudes of visitors find it, as many of the lodges in Tofino and Ucluelet experience their highest demand now in midwinter.
Who would have ever thought bad weather could be so popular?
Winter used to be dead-slow season on Vancouver Island’s West Coast. Most lodgings, restaurants and stores closed for a few months while their owners made repairs or headed south on vacation. Then Tofino-bred, globe-trotting hotel executive Charles McDiarmid, scion of the town doctor, conceived a dream to return home and build a deluxe lodge right on the headland that held the family vacation home. But how to create enough business for such a place in a destination that traditionally drew the vast majority of visitors in just two months, July and August?
McDiarmid determined he would create a second season by promoting wintertime travel to the Wickaninnish Inn, and designed a lobby and restaurant for maximum (safe) exposure to the elements. In fact, a microphone mounted outdoors brings the sound of the surf into the hotel’s dining room; and floor-to-ceiling very sturdy plate glass picture windows frame the show. Skeptics scoffed at first, but the idea was a success almost from the start in 1995.
Numerous other lodges, hotels and inns from Ucluelet to Tofino offer similar vantage in equally appealing surroundings. Though it’s somewhat less exposed to the ocean’s might, the Juan de Fuca coast west of Sooke also has lodges and inns with excellent perches for storm watching. Juan de Fuca Provincial Park is a superb venue for winter shoreline hiking for those adequately prepared with proper clothing and a healthy regard for the hazards posed by rogue waves.
And while the high drama of nature’s might provides the entertainment value, it’s worth recognizing that this is the engine that drives our coast. These rains water our deep and steadfast forests, hold our salmon and carve our mountains. These winds clean our air and carry the ocean’s energy far into North America. These waves bring marine nutrients to our shores and feed the sealife that is the foundation of earth’s food chain.
Though the wonders of storm-watching are no secret any longer, visitors often discover the real, companion secret of fall, winter and spring travel to our West Coast—the weather can also be surprisingly mild. It’s possible to ride a bike along Long Beach, or Ucluelet’s Wild Pacific Trail, in shorts on a mild February day with the sun’s filtered rays slanting companionably against the dunes and cliffs in the afternoon. Add that experience to a really good storm and you have the perfect midwinter Pacific Coast vacation—half drama, half relaxation. Blow, winds, blow!
|Photo: City of Nanaimo|
"Harbour" is a word that implies shelter, holding safe, a haven. Basking in the sun along the waterfront in Nanaimo, Vancouver Island's second-largest urban area, it's easy to see how the town got its nickname. The Harbour City enjoys a fabulous vantage on Vancouver Island's central east coast, centered on a small bay that is itself clasped by two headlands and two barrier islands. The setting grasps sun and warmth and fends off the winds and waves of the Strait of Georgia barely a mile offshore.
This waterfront ambience is balmy both literally and metaphorically, and is best experienced along Nanaimo’s delightful harbourfront walkways and parks. Here you can enjoy fish and chips at water-level restaurants that adherents vow are the best on the Island. A popular farmers market occupies a plaza just above the waterfront two days a week from May to October. Not far from there you can stroll peaceful paths past a marvelous man-made lagoon that brings tideline sealife into easy view for visitors. Huge purple seastars, green anemones and ivory nudibranchs form a colorful kaleidoscope just beneath the clear waters.
And you can hop aboard colorful passenger jitneys that ferry visitors to Newcastle Island Marine Provincial Park, one of the highlights of Vancouver Island’s extensive park system. Once a popular early 20th century resort, Newcastle was saved for public enjoyment by the citizens of Nanaimo, who bought it in 1955 and turned it over to the province four years later so it would forever remain the glorious haven it is. With beautiful grassy swards dotted by ancient oaks and maples, Newcastle in summer is a serene place to stroll the quiet paths, ride bikes through old-growth forests, wade into warm waters at Kanaka Bay, watch great blue herons fish the shallows and admire the beautiful purple martins that nest on the island.
Founded as a shipping center for the coal mines and forest products mills that once dominated the local economy, Nanaimo remains an active port, home to two major BC Ferries terminals with service from Horseshoe Bay and Tsawwassen. There’s a city-center dock that serves Gabriola Island, a still-undiscovered Gulf Islands gem. And Island lumber and other commodities still depart Nanaimo docks for international destinations, testament to the city’s proud business heritage.
But Nanaimo’s old identity as a pass-through point is giving way to new popularity as a travel destination. Several waterfront lodgings offer a ready overnight home for those who want to just stay put and enjoy the city’s sights—including the famous Bastion that has guarded the harbour since Victorian times. The eminently walkable downtown now offers evening passersby at least a dozen excellent restaurants where gourmet chefs and local musicians welcome visitors. After all, “welcome” is an implicit part of the word harbour, and key to Nanaimo’s modern-day character.
For more information on Nanaimo visit Tourism Nanaimo's website www.tourismnanaimo.com.
Vancouver Island Oysters
Few people are neutral about oysters. On Vancouver Island, neutrality is no virtue when it comes to these famed bivalves in the ostreidae family: We grow some of the best in the world, and many visitors consider enjoying local oysters a cherished facet of an Island sojourn. Raw, roasted, fried, braised, grilled—oysters lend themselves to dozens of culinary preparations, and are the centerpiece of many savory Island meals.
“I wonder who ate the first oyster?” Woody Allen supposedly joked. Whoever it was, perhaps it happened right here: Indigenous shellfish such as oysters and clams have been part of human life for thousands of years, and historic First Nations shell middens evince that long association. European settlement brought new fans of oysters to the Island, as well as new varieties that formed the foundation of a long-term aquatic industry, oyster farming. The Island today boasts more than a dozen oyster-growing operations, ranging from small independents to some of the best-known producers on the West Coast.
The only native oyster, the small Olympia, has long been supplanted by introduced larger varieties, chiefly the Pacific oyster from Japan, but also gourmet European types such as the much-admired French Belon. Suspended in protected waters, oysters grow on trays and nets in areas where active tides bring the microscopic nutrients that encourage quick growth. The best-known oyster-growing area on the Island is Fanny Bay, and oysters from this mid-island district near Comox are found on menus across North America; but many other coves, inlets, bays and sounds hold oyster farms as well.
Fanciers aver that each kind of oyster from each different growing locale sports a different flavor, much as wines vary according to type of grape, soil and climate. In taste, oysters can be buttery, metallic, acid, salty, delicate, robust and many other descriptions. While young, tender oysters are generally favored for fresh eating on the half shell, larger specimens are more suited to cooking. Some Pacific oysters can reach past 10 centimeters and more than a hundred grams.
It’s hard to find an Island menu that does not include oysters, either as appetizers, main dishes or both. Fish & chips stands invariably include a fried-oyster version; hamburger stands usually have oyster burgers on offer, and these comfort food standards are splendid meals. So are the more composed gourmet renditions that incorporate wine, butter, horseradish, lemon and what-all else in an infinite array of preparations.
But real zealots like nothing better than to acquire a dozen oysters in the shell, head down to a local beach on a sunny day, park on a drift-log, and shuck and eat the fresh oysters on the spot. Some veteran travelers even keep their own oyster knife at hand for this tradition, which combines so many Island virtues into one half-hour idyll—salty breeze, briny shellfish, sun-warmed sand and a perch by the shore. When you’re all done, back go the shells from whence they came, into the rich waters that feed our shores.
For more information on British Columbia Oysters, please visit http://www.pacifickiss.ca/
Best Locally Brewed Beer in the Vancouver Island Region.
For this edition of islandMOMENTS, we asked our Facebook Fans and our staff, what their FAVORITE Locally Brewed Beer is in the Vancouver Island Region.
Here are their Top Ten...
- Surgenor Brewing Company - Comox
- Phillips Brewing Company - Victoria
- Driftwood Brewery -Victoria
- Craig Street Brewpub - Duncan
- Longwood Brewpub - Nanaimo
- Swans Brewpub - Victoria
- Spinnakers Gastro Brewpub - Victoria
- Vancouver Island Brewery - Victoria
- Fat Cat Brewery - Nanaimo
- Lighthouse Brewing Company - Victoria
For more information about Vancouver Island Wineries, Cideries and Breweries check out our Wine & Culinary Guide online
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Kanaka Bay, Newcastle Island PP, June 18. A heron was fishing 10 yards away, and I swear the water was 70 degrees!
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