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STORM SEASON: Best places & provisions for a storm-watching weekend

On Vancouver Island's wild west coast, storm watching is a popular winter pursuit — so find a cosy room with a view, hunker down with some local provisions, and enjoy the drama of big waves and stormy weather in style.



Words and Photos

By CINDA CHAVICH


Winter is relatively warm on the west coast, but it can also be dramatically dark and stormy.

It’s a great time for a seaside getaway, somewhere to curl up near a crackling fire to watch the big waves and wild winter weather in cozy comfort.

Storm watching is the ultimate spectator sport, and whether you venture out to the big beaches near Tofino or stay closer to home around Sooke and Port Renfrew, there are several good spots where you can book a room with a view of those stormy seas, and hunker down with a selection of locally-sourced food and drink.

Here’s a look at some delicious destinations, with ocean view rentals and the best places to source your supper. Make sure to call ahead to check opening hours and rates before you go — these hardworking entrepreneurs deserve some winter away time, too!


TOFINO AND ENVIRONS

The stretch of coastline along the island’s western shore between Tofino and Ucluelet is the epitome of the storm watching experience.

Long Beach, a wide, 16-km stretch of sand in Pacific Rim National Park, is at the centre of it all, exposed to the brunt of those Pacific storms from November to March. It’s the place to experience the truly epic forces of nature — gale force winds, torrential rains, and the big, big waves that toss massive logs out of the surf like pick-up sticks.



Or head toward Ucluelet and the Wild Pacific Trail, a 9-km route designed to capture the very essence of the rainforest and the drama of wild winter storm watching. The Lighthouse Loop takes you out along the edge of Barkley Sound with crashing waves all around.

But be careful, watch the tides and stay off the rocks — every year someone is swept away by a large wave and when the surf is high, logs rolled in by large waves can crush unwary walkers. Extra-large waves, five times larger than other waves, come in every five to 30 minutes.

You just need to look at the big trees growing along this stretch of shoreline, their branches permanently swept back from the water, to appreciate the power of winter weather.


SLEEP

The luxurious Wickaninnish Inn pioneered the idea of stormy getaways, and every room has a view of Chesterman Beach and its spectacular surf. They have special storm packages, and even provide slickers and wellies to keep you dry.


There are also private vacation rentals right on the beach.



But there are other great places to hunker down in storm season. The Pacific Sands resort on nearby Cox Bay Beach is known for its surfing waves and some of the wildest winter storm watching with a variety of ocean-side accommodations that offer up-close views of the outdoor action. The top floor of the Beachfront Suites and their Luxury Beach Houses (all with convenient kitchens) are prime perches. Storm season packages come with discounted winter rates), daily hot chocolate, movies and popcorn for staying in by the fire, and rain gear for going out in the gales.


Just down the beach is Long Beach Lodge, with lodge rooms and cottages, each with hot tubs and fire places (get a deluxe room upstairs in the lodge to watch the waves).

In Ucluelet, Black Rock Oceanfront Resort, literally perched on a black rock above the pounding surf, is another epic spot to stay warm while watching winter storms, or don a complimentary rain jacket to get out into the thick of it.


COOK/EAT

Wolf in the Fog cocktails and local ingredients

There are plenty of options for dining out or stocking your holiday home pantry here.

Notable restaurants include the new wood-fired Roar! at Hotel Zed, Wolf in the Fog, 1909 Kitchen and the new Mediterranean spot that's recently replaced the iconic Sobo.


But The Pointe restaurant at The Wickaninnish Inn, with its 240-degree views, may be the finest spot to dine amid the stormy seas. Happy Hour and sunset suppers in the Great Room at Long Beach Lodge comes a close second.









The Pointe restaurant at The Wickaninnish Inn serves its own cold smoked salmon


Chef Warren Barr creates beautiful plates at Pluvio in Ucluelet

When in Ucluelet, don’t miss a chance to eat at Pluvio (the name refers to "pluviofiles", those who don't mind living in one of the rainiest placest on the planet), where chef Warren Barr’s seasonal local cuisine is superb.


You’re spoiled for choice in Tofino when it comes to great food to go, too.

Surfside Grill, right on the beach at Pacific Sands, is a take-out spot for locally-landed fish (panko-fried fish and chips, salmon burgers, et al) and the Tacofino bus has legendary fish tacos down the road. L’il Ronnie’s Beachside BBQ at Mackenzie Beach is the place to take away a hearty dinner of smoky brisket and ribs, if you find it open.

For deli foods (think house-made charcuterie, imported cheeses, heat-and-eat soups), head to Picnic Charcuterie. Beachside Provisions at Hotel Zed has soups, sandwiches, and a take-out oyster bar, plus a selection of the chef’s rubs and sauces for your own grilling adventures.

Visit the cluster of shipping container shops at the base of Campbell Street for exceptional French pastries at Ouest Artisan Patisserie, take-out fried chicken and waffles at Chirpz, and tostadas and bowls from Al-oha Poke.

Rhino Coffee downtown is a must for caffeine and donuts.

PizzaMoto (the newest venture from Shelter and Shed) offers delivery when staying in is your preferred option.

Get groceries at the Tofino Co-op and Gaia Grocery in Tofino, or tiny Beaches Grocery near Chesterman Beach, fill your growler at Tofino Brewing Co. and buy local spirits at Tofino Distillery.


SOOKE

Less than an hour outside Victoria, a getaway to Sooke makes a great base for storm watching.

Book into a seaside hotel or B&B, then explore the beaches in East Sooke Park, venture out onto Whiffin Spit, or drive further afield to watch the waves break along French Beach.

Remember that storm season is wet and windy, so make sure to bring your warm fleece, waterproof jackets and boots, and stay off any rocky points — the big rogue waves are unpredictable and dangerous.


SLEEP


In Sooke, you can find a variety of accommodation, but the fully-equipped vacation rentals at Sooke Harbour Resort and Marina, make a convenient, pet-friendly base, within walking distance of one of the best restaurants on the island.

After several years in limbo, Sooke Harbour House is reopening with new management and chef Melissa Craig at the helm in 2024.

Craig returns to the island, and the restaurant where she did her apprenticeship, after several years running the famed Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler. So there's much anticipation about what's next for this iconic island ocean front property, which has been completely refurbished by the new owners.

Orveas Bay Oceanfront Resort is a hidden gem near Shirley, with cabins and a covered hot tub overlooking the ocean, the perfect place for storm watching on a blustery winter day.

Craidelonna is luxuriously remote with a multi-room lodge and a private cottage — rent the whole lodge with gourmet kitchen for a group, book one of the rooms and share the kitchen/common areas with other guests (The Nest at the top of the lodge has spectacular views), or get the private cottage with its own kitchen, wood burning fireplace, hot tub and outdoor BBQ.


COOK/EAT


Charcuterie made in house at Wild Mountain

When in Sooke, the place to dine is Wild Mountain Food + Drink to experience chef Oliver Kienast’ inspired coastal cuisine. Dine in for a memorable meal or take out one of his exceptional picnics, charcuterie boards, take-and-bake meals, or pizza from the wood-fired oven, made with flour milled in Metchosin and their own house-made charcuterie.



You can also fill your fridge with local goodies, whether it’s fresh European breads and pastries (and hearty sandwiches) from the Little Vienna Bakery, or single origin coffees (and beans) with an Egg-a-majig breakfast sandwich and other goodies from the Treat Lab at Stick in the Mud coffee.




There are plenty of local beverage options here. Stop in at the Sheringham Distillery tasting room enroute for their Seaside Gin, coffee liqueur and other small batch spirits, or get the IPA FROM Sooke Brewing Co. in a 32-oz. canned Crowler.

On the way to French Beach, you’ll find Shirley Delicious, a quaint café for excellent coffee, big cinnamon buns, scones, muffins and pastries to fuel a blustery day on the beach. A little further down the highway there’s Stoked Pizzeria, with a cosy wood-fired oven, turning out pizzas and roasted vegetable salads, plus a market with ice, beer and some local foods to take away.



CIRCLE MARINE ROUTE



Heading north along the Circle Marine Route (Highway 14) you can stop to watch storms on several rugged beaches, from French Beach to China Beach, Sandcut and Sombrio beaches.

Jordan River attracts surfers for its big waves — even bigger in winter — and the rugged Juan de Fuca Marine Trail that links this community along the coast to Port Renfrew offers many prime viewing locations along its 47 km length. Just make sure you pay attention to the tides. It’s safest to start a beach walk an hour before low tide to make sure you aren’t trapped when incoming tides flood shallow beaches.


SLEEP

Point No Point is a destination ocean-side resort, originally built in 1952, with 25 charming beachfront log cabins and a fine dining restaurant (now open for take-out only.) That’s a shame (the food is great) but you can bring your own provisions and cook in your fully-equipped kitchen while enjoying the luxury of a wood-burning fireplace and a private deck with a hot tub, a perfect perch for watching the ocean action from a safe perch. Reserve by phone or snail mail.



At the end of this stretch of west coast road, you’ll arrive in Port Renfrew, and one of Wild Renfrew’s Seaside Cottages makes a great spot for a cozy getaway weekend. It’s not exactly on the wild oceanside, but the comfortable two-bedroom cottages overlook the water and the marina boardwalk, a make a good base for hikes out to watch storms at Botanical Beach, see the massive old growth trees creaking in the wind at Avatar Grove, or just watch the rain pelting on the pier.




COOK/EAT

When at Wild Renfrew, you can eat at the nearby Renfrew Pub (good menu and great selection of local brews on tap), or get a good bowl of soup at Tomi’s Home Cooking.



But the cabin is fully equipped for cooking, so plan to stay in by the fire. BYO supplies, though, as Port Renfrew has limited services, especially in winter. There’s a general store for emergency dry goods but that’s about it.

You’ll need to bring your own groceries to your cozy cabin at Point No Point, too, so stop in Sooke and Shirley for some local specialties, including some Shirley Delicious baked goods for breakfasts.


Stop for a coffee (plus daily homemade soups, warming chili, sausage rolls and other home baking) at Cold Shoulder Café and bakery in Jordan River, where the local surfers come to fuel up.



Or duck into the tasting room at the Tugwell Creek Honey Farm Meadery to chat with mead-maker Bob Liptrot, and get something to slather on your toast (think local blackberry honey) and a few bottles of his mead or cyser to sip in the hot tub.


PARKSVILLE/QUALICUM

On the gentler eastern side of the island, the storms aren’t as violent but you can still experience a cozy getaway in an ocean-front suite, overlooking the wide wild beaches and coastal mountains on a rainy west coast weekend anywhere from Parksville to Qualicum Beach.



When the tide is out, the expansive beach along Island Highway (19A) in Qualicum Beach is the perfect place to wander on a winter’s day and you can get a similar experience at the beach in the centre of Parksville. Just next to the latter is Rathtrevor Beach Provincial Park, a hidden gem with 2 km of serene, sandy beach, meadows and marshland, beyond a spectacular stand of old-growth Douglas Firs and a camping area (open year round). It’s also one of the best spots to see the migration of Brant geese, usually arriving between February and April.


SLEEP


Tigh-na-Mara Seaside Spa and Resort has condo-style rooms right on the edge of Georgia Strait, or cosy cabins in the woods. Book an ocean-view suite with a kitchen and private balcony in the renovated Gabriola or Ballenas buildings (ask for the second or third floors) for the best stormy vantage point across the resort’s forested bluffs to the sea below.

Or book into The Beach Club Resort, a modern ocean-side suite has all of the cooking conveniences with king-sized beds and a view across the boardwalk to a wide beach.


EAT

In Parksville-Qualicum, there are plenty of places to enjoy dining out or collecting local ingredients for eating in.

Start with the food services at your chosen accommodation — a spa day a Tigh-na-Mara with a 17-course tapas meal at their Treetops restaurant is an immersive experience, or have any meal at Cedars, including gourmet pizza and rotisserie chicken to take out, happy hour and appie deals.

At The Beach Club, the Pacific Prime restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, too – a dining room and beachfront patio with dining domes and firepit tables for chilly days, plus a full in-room dining menu.

The Qualicum Beach Café has local, west coast inspired dining with views across the big Qualicum Beach. And at new De L’îl Restaurant, they specialize in seasonal, vegetable-forward dishes and European baking.

But you can also fill your fridge with regional specialties. Take a trip out to Morningstar Farm and Little Qualicum Cheeseworks for their artisan cheeses (fresh curds every Thursday) and grass-fed whole milk from their own happy herd (fill your own jug from their milk-on-tap dispenser).

Head to Mount Arrowsmith Brewery for their award-winning craft beer, (or sister Fern + Cedar Brewing in QB) and buy your loaves of organic sourdough at Wild Culture Bakery in Qualicum Beach (open Wed. to Fri. with take-and-bake pizza on Fridays).

The Goats-on-the-Roof country market in Coombs is a treasure trove of international imported foods, but you’ll also find local cheese, smoked salmon and sausages, seasonal fresh produce, house-made ice cream, gelato and doughnuts.

In Parksville, Eat Fresh Urban Market is an independent grocer where you can pick up island-raised meats, seafood and other local food products, including their own delicious breads and pastries for breakfast.

Or stop enroute in Ladysmith at the new Wild Poppy Market (formerly the Wild Poppy Bistro), where you’ll find a tasty menu of takeout meals and gluten-free baking from Chef Kate Cram (think daily quiche in potato crust, hot pastrami panini on gluten free seed bread, soups or vegetarian chili).

And don't miss Hank's Cowichan in Duncan, the newest spot for wonderful sourdough breads, Pickles Pantry terrines and charcuterie, plus pastries, soups, sandwiches and other locally-made foods to go. Make it your first stop when you're heading up island for your next outdoor adventure, picnic or camping trip.


©Cinda Chavich



This story originally appeared in EAT magazine

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