November requires a mental adjustment. In Toronto, the weather is (mostly) awful. The brightness of fall fades, mushy leaves clog gutters and the light disappears too quickly. This year, however, I wanted to embrace the grey season in a corner of Canada where gunmetal skies and dark days weren’t so depressing.
“Storm season” along British Columbia’s Pacific Rim is a nice rebranding of a less-busy time, when the weather rolls over this unprotected side of Vancouver Island with particular ferocity. From November till February, the chances increase for king tidess, atmospheric river deluges and storm surges, which make the drama of an already raw Pacific coastline even more wild. I started making my escape plan when I noticed that Porter Airlines’ expansion included a flight from Toronto to Victoria (another capital I’d yet to explore on an airline I’ve always enjoyed flying). With a direct flight, work-from-hotel permission and convincing my partner to help me handle the five-hour drive to Tofino, it was time for me to lean into the bad weather.
Victoria in November may mean overcast skies, but the streets are blissfully free of cruise ship tourists – with the season over, there’s room to move (especially in Chinatown’s historic Fan Tan Alley). That means you can enjoy high tea at the Fairmont Empress hotel in a less frenzied atmosphere and savour every last finger sandwich and pastry on the three-tier plate. It’s suddenly easier to get a last-minute reservation at Ugly Duckling, one of Victoria’s hottest new restaurants in the heart of Chinatown, which is normally booked out far in advance. Plates such as the Parry Bay farm lamb shoulder tortellini, or the coconut sorbet palate cleanser served in ceramic duck-foot egg cups can’t help but improve your mood. In between courses I looked out across the street and – despite the rain – admired the neon reflection of Don Mee’s old timey sign glowing in the glistening pavement. It was a wet walk back to the hotel, but, I decided, a cheery one.
And yet Victoria’s damp, unhurried charms were simply the warm-up act to Tofino. Naturally, it started to rain once we turned on to the mountainous, slightly treacherous two-lane highway drive across the island. We’d round a blind turn and dodge yet another impromptu waterfall that prettily, but also scarily, cascaded down onto the asphalt. The quirks of electric vehicle driving (lift your foot off the accelerator and the car immediately slows) came in handy and the Tesla we’d struggled to master in Victoria was now our saving grace.
The colour punch was enchanting, too. The moody skies (less grey at times!) showed off the amber and russet leaves of smaller trees buried amongst the deep green of old firs and cedars. We’d entered the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO Biosphere Region and though we were racing against the light, took a chance to see the view at Long Beach in Pacific Rim National Park. Scudding clouds reflected what was left of the daylight on wet rippled sand as the tide receded. Massive dark driftwood trunks, stripped of bark and branches and tossed to the edge of the beach, looked like pick-up-stick monoliths. Waves broke and foamed on the shore. Now this was a rainy vista that rocked, and it took my breath away rather than shut me down.
Our Tofino resort – the Wickaninnish Inn overlooking Chesterman Beach – knows exactly how to revel in that view, and storm season is embraced as fully as the busy summer months.
The Relais & Chateaux property has been redefining the off-season since it opened. Owner Charles McDiarmid, whose family has been coming here for decades, will tell you he’s seen 15- to 20-foot waves crashing against the rocks offshore. We’re standing before a circle of windows in the Pointe Restaurant, built on a rocky promontory so it seems like the surf is breaking at diners’ feet. He gestures one arm toward the unending, 240-degree view: “There’s nothing between us and New Zealand, 11,200 kilometres due south, and 7,400 kilometres west to Japan,” he grins.
Rooms are equipped with rain gear and boots so there’s no excuse not to go out in the storm. On beach walks, I’d skirt the surf and let the wind whip the hair out from my hood. The rain hurt when it lashed my cheeks but it was a thrill to be a part of the weather, not just watch it.
Though watching had its charms, too: the enormous picture window in our room ensured the best view was from the bed. The window armchairs were my second choice for wave watching. A large mirror hung directly opposite from that postcard view left me feeling pleasantly surrounded by the outdoors – all those pounding waves and tall, ancient firs swaying in the brisk wind.
Over breakfast one morning at the Pointe, we’re mesmerized by the surfers. There are at least 20 brave, wet-suited souls maybe more, bobbing and weaving the cold, rolling waves. Our server tells us she likes this time of year best because the locals get their beaches back.
Tofino, which has just over 2,500 residents year-round, was inundated with 600,000 visitors in 2018 (the latest numbers available). Most show up in the summer.
In the off season, however, the absence of other people on many of the national park and locally run hiking trails was a real treat – many times it was just me, my husband and an ancient forest. How is it possible that so many shades of green can exist in one place, I wondered. Even under gloomy skies, those big, moss covered Western cedars and Douglas fir (some up to 800 years old) could make me smile and left me awestruck. And I’m not sure I’ve ever breathed in such sweet, fragrant air. (Perhaps I need to get out of Toronto more often.)
I didn’t see the sun for days but it didn’t matter. I found a place where stormy skies are something to celebrate.
If you go
Porter Airlines flies direct to Victoria daily from Toronto, bringing its economy-seat freebies (alcoholic drinks, artisanal snacks, bottled ginger shots) to the West. In-flight Wi-Fi is free if you join the airline’s rewards program, and it was strong enough that I worked trouble-free for the entire flight. Air Canada also flies daily from Toronto to Victoria.
Tea at the Empress Hotel starts at $95 a person. Rooms start at $309, or $429 on the newly renovated Gold Room floor, where breakfast and all canapes and snacks are included. fairmont.com/empress-victoria
The writer was a guest of Destination B.C. and Porter Airlines. Neither reviewed or approved the story before publication.