When it comes time to leave, the Philips send me on my way with a box lunch containing a sandwich of thick ham slices, slathered in the Harbour House's homemade honey mustard. I'm headed north, to the Wickaninnish Inn, in Tofino. As I speed through the Cowichan Valley, I pass farms with roadside stands advertising dahlia tubers, free-range eggs, hazelnuts, and Holsteins. It's not easy to get to Tofino—it's accessed by car on Route 4 (one of the few roads crossing the mountains), which winds through two hours of snowcapped peaks, cedar forests, and gin-clear streams. This only adds to the Wickaninnish's otherworldly, end-of-the-road appeal.
"We're not a place for everyone," says Charles McDiarmid, manager and co-owner of the Wickaninnish. But pull under the inn's porte cochère, with its hand-carved columns just steps from the beach, and you instantly sense why the Wickaninnish has helped put these reaches on the map. Europeans come regularly for winter "storm-watching" (Tofino can get two to three inches of rain an hour), and the hotel is a member of the Relais & Châteaux group. McDiarmid, a son of Tofino's sole physician, spent 13 years with Four Seasons Resorts but had always dreamed of returning home to build a small hotel.
He opened the Wickaninnish in 1996, just up the coast from Pacific Rim National Park Reserve, which his father was instrumental in creating. This month, McDiarmid is introducing an adjacent property, Wickaninnish on the Beach. Its 30 rooms will look much like the 46 existing ones, but will be much larger and will have higher-end finishes—radiant heat in the bathroom floors, beach views from the showers. Some will have chef's kitchens with slate counters and gas ranges. "You can confer with our concierge, find out what's fresh, then decide to cook Tofino halibut one night and Tofino scallops the next," McDiarmid says.
It's the juxtaposition of forest, beach, and mountains that makes Tofino special. When McDiarmid's parents first arrived in 1954, the town's population was 300, and it was accessible only by boat or floatplane; the first road to Tofino wasn't completed until 1959. Today, there are 1,500 residents, whale-watching Zodiacs depart from the town dock, and a few surfing schools and surfboard-rental shops have sprung up, but the place still feels isolated. On one trip, my husband felt so inspired by the scene that he rented a longboard and a five-millimeter-thick neoprene wet suit. Looking more like a seal than a spouse, he ventured out to brave the hypothermia-inducing water and winter wave conditions. "It feels like there's nothing out there between you and Japan," he said afterward, numb but elated.
Capitalizing on the Wick's success, the Long Beach Lodge Resort opened just down the road last spring and will be building 10 cabins in the woods this summer. (Big news considering how far-off this coastline can feel.) Set on Cox Bay, a wide sweep of sand bordered by windblown Sitka spruce and salal, and opening onto some of the area's most consistent surfing waves, the Long Beach Lodge focuses on comfort. Children fit right in, unlike at the Wickaninnish and Sooke Harbour House, which are more geared toward adults. "We're surrounded by nature," says owner Tim Hackett. "I don't want people to think that they have to dress up or wipe their feet every two minutes."
The centerpiece of the lodge is the enormous great room, which has a stone fireplace, Persian rugs, oversized chairs and sofas covered in nubby chenilles, books and board games scattered about, and 270-degree views of the Pacific. Guests gather here to sip Torrefazione coffee and watch surfers sprint past, then return at sunset for a glass of B.C. Pinot Noir.
It's a bit surreal to step from your room (one of 43), with its cocoon-like mix of latte-colored walls, Craftsman-inspired fir furniture, tiled gas fireplace, and double soaker tub, right onto a beach. But then again, this is Vancouver Island, a place where it's not unusual to see loggers in one lane of the road, surfers in the other.
Kim Brown Seely writes for Town & Country and Outside.