World's Top Storm-Chasing Destinations
Welcome to storm chasing, where travelers eschew sunshine to seek out lightning, twisters, and brooding cumulonimbus clouds. It’s a growing trend whose affordable thrills are particularly attractive in this recession era. Credit also goes to disaster films like Twister and The Perfect Storm, which provided a virtual experience and drew attention to the pastime. Sophisticated, up-to-the-minute weather data and apps like Storm Spotters have made it easier to track storms. And more and more, enthusiasts want to experience the real thing.
“When we first opened in 1996, winter occupancies in Tofino were in the 30 percent range,” says Charles McDiarmid, managing director of the Wickaninnish Inn, a T+L World’s Best Hotel award winner in British Columbia. “But as word of mouth of our storm watching spread, our winter storm season occupancy rose to around 55 percent,” he continues. What’s more, the “off-season” hotel’s rates have jumped from $100 to $300 a night for a chance to witness the arctic blasts that swoop across the Pacific Ocean.
Many have been intrigued by thunder and lightning chasing throughout history, most famously Ben Franklin, whose key and kite experiments answered several mysteries about electricity. But modern storm-chasing began as a scientific pursuit in the American Midwest in the 1940s with Roger Jensen, considered the pioneer storm chaser. His data led to new understanding of storms and climate. Our perspective continues to evolve, as do storm patterns themselves.
Dozens of storm-chasing companies in the Midwest and southern U.S. are well established in the business—even attracting international visitors—but there’s a recent uptick of storm-chasing tours in Europe, Africa, and Australia in response to interest in new and unusual storm weather phenomena. The Namib Desert, for instance, provides the ultimate conditions for wraithlike sandstorms that whirl over its red curvaceous dunescapes.
Snow thunder in Antarctica, Spanish hailstorms, and giant rolling fog banks in Maine prove that Mother Nature has no shortage of creativity when it comes to staging an electrifying show.
Tampa Bay, FL: Hurricanes and Lightning
The lightning capital of the U.S. is Tampa Bay, and it’s no stranger to hurricanes and waterspouts-turned-tornadoes either. Florida actually ranks number one nationwide in tornadoes per square mile. Though the Sunshine State is a storm-chaser’s paradise, the storms last only a few hours, so you can expect brilliant sunsets after a cloudburst. The historic pink Vinoy Renaissance’s new bay-view tower in downtown St. Petersburg is an excellent spot to witness fast-moving, cumulonimbus clouds and lightning. You can wait out the downpour while nursing a cocktail on the veranda’s wicker chairs (marriott.com; from $150).
When to Go: May–October.
Lausanne, Switzerland: Hail and Thunder
Located atop the arc of Lake Geneva, Lausanne is regularly hit by Alpine storms and föhn winds that whip down Switzerland’s Savoy Alps toward Lausanne’s Ouchy waterfront. The region’s moody skies, wuthering winds, and dark clouds were the inspiration for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, written here during a chilly June in 1816. Alpine storms come fast, sometimes delivering chunky hail, theatrical smacks of thunder, and hammering rains. The sixth-floor junior suite veranda at the Beau Rivage Palace offers dramatic panoramas of the lake’s clouds and surrounding Alps (brp.ch; from $450).
When to Go: April–October.
Great Plains, USA: Tornadoes
Twisters, cyclones, and dust devils are also terms used to describe the highly destructive rotating columns of air that every spring wreck havoc across the Great Plains—“Tornado Alley”—at an average of about 1,200 annually. More than 500 people have been killed by tornadoes in 2011, making it the country’s deadliest year since 1953. That hasn’t stopped storm-chasing tours from popping up from Colorado to Tennessee; Oklahoma-based Storm Chasing Adventure Tours are pros with experience dating back to 1997 (stormchasing.com; $2,400 per week including hotels).
When to Go: April–July.
Iceland: Volcanoes and Northern Lights
The land of fire and ice produces all kinds of strange weather phenomena. By day, geyser-seeking, glacial hiking, volcano biking, and snow and ash cloud spotting can keep you occupied, while nighttime delivers glimpses of spectacularly colorful thermospheric storms of the aurora borealis. Icelandic tour outfitter Elves & Trolls caters to climate geeks with activities like caving through lava tunnels of Leiðarendi, wild geyser hunts, volcano hikes, and of course watching the northern lights (elvesandtrolls.com; tours from $397).
When to Go: October–March.
Bangkok, Thailand: Monsoon,Tsunamis, and Cyclones
Some tourists actually time their visits specifically to experience the deluge of monsoon season—the world’s fastest-falling rains. It’s wise to seek out a higher elevation since the city is prone to dangerous flash floods, not to mention tsunamis and cyclones. Bangkok’s elegant Anantara Sathorn recently opened, and the twin 37-floor towers offer balconies overlooking the Chao Phraya River, with extensive views of the capital city and the looming monsoon storm clouds moving in from the Gulf of Thailand (bangkok-sathorn.anantara.com, from $100).
When to Go: June–October.
Rockland, ME: Fog
Maine’s rocky coast is chilled by the icy Labrador Current and moderated by the warm Gulf Stream. When the two mix, the result is an unforgettable atmospheric fog bank that rolls onto land like a giant ghostly wave. Sometimes it creates winds blowing off the mainland that produce thick smoky sou’westers—the culprit of many a wrecked New England schooner. The hot tubs on the back deck of the newly renovated Samoset Resort’s Flume Cottages are a cozy spot to witness the eerie walls of mist moving ashore from Penobscot Bay (samosetresort.com, from $145).
When to Go: July–September.
Southwestern Sweden: Blizzards
Sweden’s climate has seen a dramatic increase in storm activity over the last decade, especially in blizzards and ice storms that sweep across its peninsular southern tip. Fortunately, the downed power-lines and halted trains don’t affect the region’s saunas, like the modern glass-enclosed one at Gullmarstrand, a hotel dangling over the North Sea at the end of a dock in a fishing village that’s the inspiration for Swedish crime novel The Ice Princess and an ideal place to endure a Nordic häftig snöstorm. Daring souls can even plunge into the icy sea from the sauna (gullmarsstrand.se; rooms from $150).
When to Go: December–March.
Not all storms involve water. The dazzling red sands of the Namib Desert provide the ultimate conditions for wraithlike sandstorms that whirl over the rusty curvaceous dunescapes. Then there’s the frequent dense fog that slithers across the sand from the violently choppy Skeleton Coast, the final port for many socked-in ships. Kulala Desert Lodge’s posh, thatched kulalas have flat rooftops, ideal for witnessing storms roll over the dunes of Sossusvlei and Namibia’s “Sand Sea” (wilderness-safaris.com; rooms from $473).
When to Go: September–January.
Barcelona: Waterspouts, Flash Flooding, andHail
The rain doesn’t fall mainly on the plain. Few realize that the triangle between Zaragoza, Valencia, and Barcelona gets some of Spain’s fiercest weather. After the sun-seekers head home, Barcelona becomes a vortex of precipitation and extreme climate, with brutal thunderstorms, gnarly dust storms, rock-solid hail, and severe flash flooding. The new Mandarin Oriental’s rooftop lounge on Passeig de Gràcia is the city’s best place to gawk at the brooding Balearic-born storm clouds that jettison inland over Gaudí’s Casa Batlló and La Rambla (mandarinoriental.com; from $500).
When to Go: September–November.
Sydney: Southerly Busters
Gusty storms have been known to wreck havoc on Sydney with 5-to-10 hailstorms a season, sometimes reaching tennis-ball size. Sydney is also prone to “southerly busters,” atmosphere-changing cold fronts that race up the eastern coastline spawning tornadoes, and severe thunderstorms. The Blu Bar on the 36th floor of the Shangri La Hotel overlooks Darling Harbour and the ominous mammatocumulus clouds that close in over the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge (shangri-la.com; from $289).
When to Go: October–April.
British Columbia, Canada: Wave Swells
The Pacific isn’t always so pacified. Come winter, the Northwest coast becomes a battleground of water and wind, with swells exceeding 30 feet, intense rainfall, and hurricane-force gale winds. This area has become a favorite of storm-watchers, who can view the spectacle from behind rattling windows beaten with horizontal rain. Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn is on the rocks overlooking the sea, and offers a series of packages that includes guided nature walks, oilskin hats, winter storm drinks, and guidebooks to identify what’s washed ashore after the maelstroms have passed (wickinn.com; rooms from $300).
When to Go: December–February.
Located in the center of the planet’s most active cyclone region, nicknamed Typhoon Alley, Guam is walloped by megastorms during the autumn months. Yet deadly typhoons—magnificent tropical cyclones born in the northwestern Pacific Basin—can occur year-round. In 2002, Super Typhoon Pongsona blasted the Guam coast with 173 mph winds, leaving a trail of massive destruction behind. The JAL Hotel Nikko’s 16th-floor restaurant Toh Lee is the island’s best spot to watch the brooding clouds and rain before they slam into palm trees over Tamuning’s Gun Beach (jalhotels.com; from $170).
When to Go: August–October.
The Drake Passage, between the tips of South America and Antarctica, is the world’s roughest stretch of water—and perhaps the ultimate quest for storm chasers. Gale-force winds and the Circumpolar Current squeeze through the narrow gap above 140 million tons of racing water per second. These katabatic winds are the source of Antarctica’s horizontal, sometimes weeklong blizzards. When blinding whiteouts aren’t occurring, solar haloes, optical sundogs, and mysterious ice fog are regular occurrences. Big Fish, a hearty 148-foot megayacht charter from YCO, is equipped with sophisticated ice-breaking equipment, kayaks, five heated staterooms with floor-to-ceiling windows, and an on-deck Jacuzzi (yco.com; $195,000 per week).
When to Go: November–March.