The outer coast of British Columbia's Vancouver Island is wild, rugged country, split by fjords and forested in pine and fir. Winter storms whip in from the North Pacific with ferocious intensity, blasting the craggy headlands and littering the pavement-smooth beaches with felled trees. Mariners, who have scant opportunity to appreciate the area's scenic charms, call it the Graveyard of the Pacific.
When Charles McDiarmid opened the Wickaninnish Inn on the island's west coast in 1996, he knew that it would be exposed to the full fury of the winter storms. That was just the way he wanted it. He set the 46-room hotel right out on the rocks, overlooking open ocean that stretches all the way to Asia. When the winter weather rolls in, it rolls in without obstruction. "It's a harsh environment," says McDiarmid. "Storm surges push the ocean right up under the restaurant. We get waves up to thirty feet tall, with eighty-mile-an-hour winds ripping the tops off the waves and hurling the spray right at us."
For safety, the foundations of the inn are cemented into solid bedrock. The restaurant's windows are made of double-paned glass, offering views over the ocean on three sides. Keeping the weather out means keeping sound out, too, so microphones mounted outdoors relay the crashing of the surf to Bose speakers, where the sound plays over the gentle strains of classical music. Guests who want to enjoy the elements more privately simply retire to a windowside Jacuzzi in their rooms, where they can sip champagne while the waves pound themselves to froth on the rocks below.
"You could call it a way of flirting with disaster," says McDiarmid. "People who come here want to experience the full power of nature, and still be ensconced in total comfort."
Forget sun-drenched beaches and tropical breezes. For a certain breed of traveler, the weather is like Mae West: when it's good, it's good, but when it's bad, it's better. Clear skies and mild temperatures may soothe the soul, but for some to feel alive--really alive--there's nothing like the roar of a mighty wind and the crack of thunder.
"We love to watch big waves during a winter storm, the way the wind breaks them up and blows the spray back," says William Leeper, a 67-year-old retiree and avowed storm connoisseur from Walla Walla, Washington. "We book a room with a fireplace and lots of windows that look out over the ocean. When we can see waves crashing on rocks, that's ideal." Leeper's favorite spot so far is the Stephanie Inn, on Oregon's Cannon Beach. He and his wife, Marlys, like the place so much, in fact, that they're planning to make their 17th visit next month.
In the Pacific Northwest, where drenching winter gales are plentiful, foul weather has been a low-season selling point for years. But bad weather isn't an obsession only in the Northwest. The raincoat crew can find something to revel in all around the world. Tornado hunters roam the plains from Texas to the Dakotas. Lightning photographers head for central Florida, where moist air forms cauldrons of thunderstorms, or southern Arizona, where mountain storms produce electrical displays with clocklike precision. For typhoons, the place to be is Guam, dead center in a swath of the Pacific that amounts to a bowling alley for tropical cyclones.
"And then there are people who get into the lake effect," says Roger Thomas, a meteorologist who is so excited by storms that he named both his children after hurricanes. "They want to find the places where heavy snow bands come off Lake Erie or Lake Ontario, and they'll go back and forth trying to position themselves right under the heaviest fall." Thomas shakes his head. "I can't relate. I hate the cold."
Whether their pleasure is rain, snow, wind, sleet, or hail, more and more people are developing a fascination with weather. What was once little more than fodder for the occasional elevator chat has become a full-time media industry. You can find 24-hour nationwide television coverage on the Weather Channel, four-color temperature charts in newspapers across the country, and a vast range of information on the Internet, from up-to-the-instant satellite photographs to pictures of the snow on Uncle Al's bird feeder. Even the entertainment business is getting in on the act, with movies like the soon-to-be-released The Perfect Storm (based on the 1997 best-selling book) and Twister lending an emotional backstory to all those supercells and microbursts.
The real show, however, is outside: 360 degrees of it, 24/7, all free. And you don't have to venture into harm's way to enjoy yourself. Even gently unpleasant days have their pleasures. Many places seem richer--more fully themselves--when the air turns colder, wetter, nastier. What would London be without a drizzle that seems to last all winter?San Francisco without its chilly summer fogs?The fact that the most dramatic weather usually descends in the off-season, when the more conventionally minded crowds have disappeared, is merely icing on the cake.
An extraordinary storm can also transform a place. For my money, you haven't experienced New York unless you were trapped there by the blizzard of '96, which dumped two feet of snow on the startled metropolis. Overnight, a casual gesture of nature brought the mightiest city on earth to a halt. New York reemerged as a Norman Rockwell Christmas print; frozen out of their hectic schedules, New Yorkers wandered amazed through immaculate and silent streets, the familiar crowd of surly strangers transformed into friendly, helpful neighbors. Within a few days, the snow melted, and life went on as before. But we all remember.
The nicest thing about bad weather, in the end, isn't what it does to the atmosphere, but what it does to us. In an over-regulated, over-cosseted, anaesthetized world, it takes the power of a storm to remind us just how small we are, and how precarious our grip on life is. Bad weather shows us who's boss. It's the ultimate non-negotiable.
It also forces us to put our priorities in order. Karen Brown, owner of Seal Cove Inn on the northern California coast, is an aficionada of bad weather. "The most romantic time here is when it's overcast and foggy," she says. "That's why we have wood-burning fireplaces--it's so cozy when it's stormy. You look out toward the ocean over towering cypresses, and the fog wafts in through the trees. All you can hear is the crashing surf, the foghorn, and the crackle of the fire."
One day, Brown recalls, a couple checked in with so much sports gear that several trips were required to carry it all up to their room. "And the next day it just stormed," she remembers. "I said to my husband, 'My God, they're going to be so disappointed.' And the man did seem down. When the woman came in for breakfast, I said, 'I do hope the weather clears up.' But she leaned over and whispered conspiratorially in my ear, 'I'm so happy. It means we can't do anything but stay in our room.' "
Brown laughs. "Bad weather gives you the excuse to relax."
Jet stream Any of several high-speed, high-altitude currents that follow changing paths across the globe. Though they don't affect the weather on the ground directly, they can have a significant impact on the low-altitude weather formations that do.
Lake-effect snowfall A narrow band of heavy snowfall that forms when a mass of cold air moves across the warmer surface of the Great Lakes in early winter. In the hardest-hit areas, along the southern shores of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, lake-effect storms can dump several feet of snow in a single day.
Microburst A violent, cold downdraft caused by rain-cooled air falling out of a thunderstorm. Microbursts are invisible, and hence highly dangerous for any plane that happens to fly into one, particularly if it's attempting to land or take off.
Supercell A particularly long-lived and dangerous form of thunderstorm, common over the Great Plains in summer and a dangerous spawner of tornadoes.
Wind shear Any sudden change in wind velocity or direction.
weather on the web
Storm Track (www.storm-track.com) An information hub for amateur storm chasers.
Storm Prediction Center (www.spc.noaa.gov) The National Weather Service's headquarters for all dangerous storms, except hurricanes.
National Hurricane Center (www.nhc.noaa.gov) Government clearinghouse for information on tropical cyclones.
great hotels for terrible weather
Wickaninnish Inn Osprey Lane at Chesterman Beach, Tofino, B.C., Canada; 250/725-3100, fax 250/725-3110; doubles from $150. A favorite among storm lovers, the Wickaninnish now offers a full range of treatments at its new spa. Watch the display from a Jacuzzi in one of the first-floor rooms.
Stephanie Inn 2740 S. Pacific, Cannon Beach, Oreg.; 800/633-3466 or 503/436-2221, fax 503/436-9711; doubles from $239. Sitting 10 feet from the broad sandy stretch of Cannon Beach, the 50-room inn pampers guests while bearing the awesome force of Pacific winter gales. "Two years ago the storm surges washed out the seawall and brought a log through the library window," says manager Sharon Major.
Seal Cove Inn 221 Cypress Ave., Moss Beach, Calif.; 800/995-9987 or 650/728-7325, fax 650/728-4116; doubles from $200. Mists, drizzle, and the boom of foghorns contribute to the romantic atmosphere at this northern California hideaway.
Best Western Captain's Quarters 26 E. First St., Oswego, N.Y.; 800/528-1234 or 315/342-4040, fax 315/342-5434; doubles from $88. Oswego, 40 miles northwest of Syracuse, gets the full brunt of lake-effect snowfall--an average of 15 feet a year. Set on Lake Oswego near its outlet into Lake Ontario, the Captain's Quarters is an ideal spot for enjoying the show. "We have a full health club, with indoor pool and Jacuzzi," says general manager Philip Howell, "which is good, because after a big snowstorm, you're not going anywhere."
Grand Floridian Resort & Spa 4401 Grand Floridian Way, Lake Buena Vista, Fla.; 407/934-7639, fax 407/824-3186; doubles from $364. Long before Walt Disney came along, central Florida was wowing 'em with some of the most impressive lightning displays in the United States. The show's still playing, of course, but now you can combine it with a trip to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot.
Thunderbird Lodge 1430 24th Ave. S.W., Norman, Okla.; 800/432-2473 or 405/329-6990, fax 405/360-4072; doubles $40. Overlooking the valley of the Canadian River, the T-Bird has a spacious picnic area where guests can watch for incoming thunderheads.
Loews Ventana Canyon Resort 7000 N. Resort Dr., Tucson, Ariz.; 800/234-5117 or 520/299-2020, fax 520/299-6832; doubles from $345. During July and August, weather conditions above the Tucson Mountains produce almost daily lightning displays.
Guam Hilton San Vitores Rd., Tumon Bay, Guam; 800/445-8667 or 671/646-1835, fax 671/646-6038; doubles from $175. Guam lies dead center in an alley of tropical cyclones. Enjoy the seething tempest from the comfort of your high-rise bedroom, secure in the knowledge that the building was designed to sustain wind speeds of more than 175 mph.