Travel

The inn that built Tofino

How a tiny town on the continent’s westernmost edge went from stormy outpost to revered eco-tourism destination

  • Sep 24, 2019
  • 2,646 words
  • 11 minutes
An aerial view of the Wickaninnish Inn, where Pacific storm watching was reinvented as a popular pursuit. (Photo: Chris Pouget)
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Not far down Chesterman Beach from the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, B.C., is a small woodcarver’s shed, set back from the piles of storm-tossed driftwood in the first line of Sitka spruce trees and salal shrubs. Charles McDiarmid, the inn’s founder and managing director, still visits the hut often, sometimes on his way to a morning surfing session.

It belonged to Henry Nolla, a long-bearded hippie and expert carpenter and carver who appeared in the tiny west-coast Vancouver Island town in the early 1960s. He died in 2004, but his carving bench and handmade tools are still there, and the shed is now used by his protégés. One can imagine him adzing beams in his workshop, or out on the beach helping his friend Roy Henry Vickers, a First Nations artist with a gallery in town, hollow out a cedar canoe.

McDiarmid, now 62, was just a young boy when Nolla arrived on the scene, but his family’s friendship with the hippie lasted for decades. The woodworker was hired by McDiarmid’s parents, Howard and Lynn, to build their cabin, and later lived rent-free as caretaker on their long beachfront property. At McDiarmid’s request, Nolla left his mark on the Wickaninnish Inn as it went up in the mid-1990s, too — from the main handcarved cedar doors and fireplace mantels in the guest rooms to carvings in the public areas — a few of many local touches in a luxurious eco-resort crafted to reflect its coastal surroundings.

Putting a high-end inn on the family beach was one thing; figuring out how to inspire enough people to make the pilgrimage to such a far-flung place and stay in it was another. Howard, a doctor and Social Credit MLA for the area whose legacy includes spearheading the 1970 establishment of nearby Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, had always said that Tofino could and should be a world-class tourist destination, but the Wickaninnish’s opening month — August 1996 — was slow.

Charles, who had developed the plan for the inn, secured investors and moved back to his hometown after working abroad for years as a hotelier, decided he had to try something crazy: promote the worst weather during what was traditionally the worst season for everyone but surfers in thick wetsuits. (Tofino is pummelled from November to March every year by south-rolling storms generated over the Bering Sea.)

“We thought, maybe, just maybe, there were people out there who would come to enjoy the big dramatic winter gales, rains and waves we always looked forward to,” he says.

And come they did. Media coverage of the beautiful oceanside resort in the little town with all the storms appeared regionally, then nationally and internationally, and before the inn’s first winter was out, says McDiarmid, the phones were lighting up like Christmas trees. Storm watching had been born.

McDiarmid’s wager not only kept his inn in business through its first year, it helped redefine Tofino, ushering in a new era for the town of 1,900 at the very end of a long road.

“We thought, maybe, just maybe, there were people out there who would come to enjoy the big dramatic winter gales, rains and waves we always looked forward to.”

A surfer off Chesterman Beach in Tofino. (Photo: Marcus Paladino/Wickaninnish Inn)
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Tofino is an upstart in a prehistoric place. People of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nations were living on this stretch of Vancouver Island before Stonehenge was built and Egyptians had started using hieroglyphics, and they didn’t make contact with European explorers and fur traders until the late 1700s. But the peninsula’s remoteness meant further settlement was slow. When Howard McDiarmid signed on as the outpost’s solitary doctor in the mid-1950s, the maritime community was little more than a spray of homes, an Anglican church and a small hospital dwarfed by an ancient forest thriving on more than three metres of rain a year.

But what a difference a road makes. The rough logging route carved across Vancouver Island to surrounding Clayoquot Sound in 1959 triggered the first major transformation of the outpost’s economy, culture and potential, opening thousands of square kilometres to forestry and making it possible to sustain robust salmon fisheries. In just two years, the road was being smoothed out to avoid its precipitous mountain switchbacks — the westernmost leg of Highway 4.

The thing about towns at the end of the road, though, is people tend to drift in and stay because they can drift no further. Loggers and fishermen were soon joined by hippies like Henry Nolla and other Henry David Thoreau-types in search of their own wild paradise, American Vietnam War draft dodgers in search of a haven far from the Man and surfers in search of waves they had to ride to believe.

“An amazing mix of characters wind up in places like this,” says McDiarmid. But, he adds, Tofino had a harmonious spirit, and the resource industry types typically got along with the hippies and surfers.

Except for one key period, when the collegial cohabitation really broke down. In 1993, while McDiarmid was working for Four Seasons in Seattle and spending his nights writing up the business plan for the Wickaninnish, the Clayoquot Protests happened. Tensions between loggers with government clearance to clear cut old-growth forest in Clayoquot Sound and environmentalists, Tla-o-qui-aht leadership, students and others spilled over, and the story caught fire worldwide. Thousands of activists travelled to the area during the summer, blocking the only route into the logging sites and staging demonstrations. RCMP officers arrested almost 900 protestors — one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

“The War in the Woods” occurred at a moment when forestry practices were on the cusp of changing to better manage ecosystems, and Clayoquot Sound hasn’t been logged significantly since (and was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, a recognition of a globally significant ecosystem, in 2000). The event did years of damage to relations between nearby Ucluelet, which was full of families whose livelihoods were logging, and Tofino, which was home base for the environmentalists. But internationally, “Tofino” had suddenly become a household name, a place where nature was still held sacred at any cost.

In the years following that divisive event, the Wickaninnish became one of the main wellsprings feeding and reframing the community’s reputation for being in tune with its wild surroundings. Tofino mayor Josie Osborne moved to town in 1998, a marine biologist working for the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, which includes among its nations the Tla-o-qui-aht.

“I’ve seen Tofino grow and mature so much,” she says. “Clayoquot Sound was always known for its splendour, a touring destination mainly for west coasters. And while there were a few mom-and-pop hotels and motels operating here, even through the ’80s, the Wickaninnish really was a turning point for the town. It represented a vision that a local family had for what tourism could be.”

Outside of the region, “Wickaninnish Inn” and “Tofino” are practically synonymous, and the inn’s designation as a Relais & Châteaux property — limited to select independent hotels and restaurants around the world that uphold the highest standards of “character, courtesy, calm, charm and cuisine” — and periodic travel awards as Canada’s best resort and one of the world’s top hotels keep both the property and the district high in travellers’ minds and must-see lists.

“The Wickaninnish really was a turning point for the town. It represented a vision that a local family had for what tourism could be.”

Waves rolling on Chesterman Beach. (Photo: Wickaninnish Inn)
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“Oh—just look at that set coming in right there,” says McDiarmid, pointing to the ranks of waves funnelling from open ocean toward Chesterman Beach. From up in the Wickaninnish’s The Pointe Restaurant, a polyhedron of windows hanging over the rocky seaside outcrop it’s drilled into, he picks out a distant rock as an informal wave guide. He’s definitely going surfing later, he says. It’s early March, so storms will be hit-and-miss, but this unseasonably warm, sunny day is thrilling Tofitians.

Seated along the windows of the restaurant are also breakfasting visitors from around the world — Calgary, Los Angeles, London. It’s hardly the buzz of a resort entering shoulder season.

“Storm season really took on a life of its own,” continues McDiarmid, noting that the early survival of “the Wick” (as it’s known around town) depended on just that. “Winter was once a very quiet time in Tofino. As occupancy rates go, it’s still lower than the summer, overall, but the stormy months truly carry their own.”

Storm watching in view of the Lennard Island Lighthouse, across the bay from “the Wick.” (Photo: Jeremy Koreski/Wickaninnish Inn)
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Liam Ogle, owner of Long Beach Nature Tours, which leads interpretive nature walks from the inn as well as other educational hiking and heli-hiking excursions around the region, says storm-tourists are a more recurrent, regional bunch than its summer vacationers.

“We see a lot of repeat visitors here, familiar faces, winter after winter,” he says. “In the summer, the town seems to attract more long-haul travellers — from Florida, from across Europe and Asia. But in storm season, more come from the northwest — from Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, Seattle and other parts of Washington state.”

For some, the storm experience means lounging in front of floor-to-ceiling windows in their room with a bottle of wine and a novel, at a dry distance from the pounding surf and knock-you-down gales.

For others, it’s about pulling on the hotel’s complimentary rain gear and hiking out every day for what locals call the “West-Coast facial.” Those that do venture out are brushed up on the steps of storm-watching preparedness — how to dress, plan for the tides, avoid using rocks and driftwood as viewing perches. McDiarmid himself is an ambassador of CoastSmart, a public safety program run out of Pacific Rim National Park Reserve to educate visitors exploring the coasts about their inherent dangers. “If you have great respect for the ocean,” he says, “you will be safe.”

The Pointe Restaurant by night. (Photo: Chris Pouget/Wickaninnish Inn)
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Storm watching was a transformative idea that established Tofino as a four-season destination for more than just surfers. It’s also been imitated and advertised by other resorts with success since.

But there’s something else underlying the Wickaninnish that, once the word was out, filled its rooms through every season. Part of it is the fact that Mother Nature gets top billing — from the world-famous views to the multiple eco-friendly systems and practices in place to the guiding design principle of “rustic elegance on nature’s edge,” which means bringing natural materials, found objects and other elements and textures of the rainforest and sea inside.

The less tangible thing, though, is its sincere integration of family tradition and local life. Characters like Henry Nolla have a strong presence, and The Pointe Restaurant is essentially a much-amplified version of the front room of the McDiarmids’ old family cabin, positioned for private storm views that Howard McDiarmid had staked out decades before.

“It actually stands on the very site where my father would bring me and my younger brothers,” explains Charles. “He’d drag us down the game trails from the family cabin, one point over, to watch the storms right here.” Still, they had to make sure the most prominent part of the resort was built high enough that it wouldn’t be inundated by violent waves. And even then, the hotel roof had to be replaced in 2017, after about 20 years. “It was supposed to be a 40-year roof,” says McDiarmid, “but that’s the thing about the hurricane-force winds we get sometimes.”

McDiarmid was able to buy out his investors by 2001, and the Wick has been a family business ever since. Capacity was nearly doubled in 2003 (to 75 rooms) with the construction of the Beach Building next to the original building on the point, and 2018 saw the addition of one of the finest British Columbia wine-showcasing cellars in the province. And as the inn has grown in size and repute, reciprocal relationships with other Tofino and Vancouver Island businesses have proliferated.

“We never wanted to integrate vertically, by creating, say, Wickaninnish Salmon Fishing, Wickaninnish Surf School and Wickaninnish Whale Watching,” says McDiarmid. “We have always wanted our guests to do these things with a local, not someone I hired for a few months of the summer. And as a side benefit, I don’t get calls at four o’clock in the morning because the boat motor won’t start!”

Surfers on Chesterman Beach at sunrise. (Photo: Adrian Dorst/Wickaninnish Inn)
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Tofino’s population of almost 1,200 people in 1996 has increased by 65 per cent since the shift to tourism began in earnest (as a point of reference, British Columbia grew by around 25 per cent during the same period). A lot of that growth has to do with the explosion of small-business opportunities since the late 1990s, a reaction to what’s now more than one million annual visitors. Cafes, bakeries and restaurants such as Shelter (a contemporary local-fare-focused spot) and the much-loved Tacofino food truck, are flourishing, as are Surf Sister and other surfing schools, kayak rentals and sea tour operators, boutiques and galleries, B&Bs, hostels and inns. Of the roughly 1,930 Tofitians, more than 500 have business licences.

“This place is hugely entrepreneurial,” says McDiarmid, who sits on the town’s tourism board. “Just one example is Mike White — the guy used to babysit me! He now takes people out on his Browning Pass charter yacht for bear-watching, something no one was doing here until he started it in 2001.”

The kind of economic change that Tofino has experienced does not come without growing pains. Business owners tell of difficulties finding staff willing to relocate to a place where the closest community large enough to have a movie theatre is three hours by car. And while the Wickaninnish and other resorts provide staff accommodations, housing availability is a perennial problem for many.

Some business owners have gone as far as splitting on the purchase of homes for employees to share.

“A lot of people are having to squeeze in,” says Mayor Osborne. “The municipality is working on a 55-unit residential project, but realistically that won’t come to fruition for a couple of years. In the meantime, we’ve approved temporary campgrounds, and people are staying in RVs and trailers, but those are still not ideal living conditions.”

The challenges are real, she says, but not insurmountable, and they’re adapting. These days, a lot of talk in town is about the future. With hundreds of thousands of people journeying to Tofino every year, how does it continue to attract visitors, new community members and businesses that match its values of respecting and upholding the beauty of the region, and doing so as sustainably as possible?

McDiarmid found his answer to that question more than two decades ago, when he proved people would flock to the Wickaninnish to submerge themselves in its proprietary blend of conscientious luxury, relaxation and in-your-face nature — where they can feel like they’ve connected with a place and a community, not that they’ve merely used it.

“People in Tofino really share the desire to support that,” he says. “Our mandate is not to bring as many people here as humanly possible. We know it’s better to have slow, steady, thoughtful development.”

The town’s growth is limited by its location on a small rocky peninsula, but its reputation also depends on preserving the near-intact wilderness and pockets of solitude that drew the hippies and other nature lovers through the decades.

“We’re in a remote place, so it’s only those who really want to be here who find their way to us,” says McDiarmid. “In another 20, 40 or 60 years, Tofino might have grown a bit, but we’ll still be a small town at the very end of the road.”

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