Wild about the Wickaninnish Inn
Story by Adrian Brijbassi
TOFINO, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Charles McDiarmid peers out the window of The Pointe restaurant and recalls a storm. He was a child and huddling with his family in a cabin while Mother Nature had her way with the rocky west coast of Canada. Lightning, thunder, the eagle-screech of the violent wind were all memorable, as was the shaking from both terror and delight that it all caused.
“We loved it. Storm season here was always something I remembered and got excited about. So it wasn’t a marketing initiative or an add-on to our program. It’s been there from the beginning. What’s happened lately is more and more people are catching on,” says McDiarmid, who wrote the business plan for one of Canada’s finest and most spectacular properties, the much-loved and revered Wickaninnish Inn. He turned his Ivy League education into a career with leading corporations in the hotel and hospitality industry, then brought that knowledge back to his hometown.
The increasingly popular storm season packages, which run from November 1 to February 28, are one of the initiatives that have formed the hotel’s personality. The Wick turns 20 years old in 2016, a momentous two decades of life that has seen it lead a transformation of Tofino from quaint seaside fishing village known for logging protests and a hippie lifestyle into one of Canada’s “It” spots — a destination that must be seen by any true traveller. I first visited in 2002. It was instantly my favourite place in the country and has remained so, despite the fact I have visited each province and made friends with people from coast to coast. I feel something in Tofino that is difficult to pinpoint. It’s mystical, it’s charming, it’s achingly beautiful. Yet, it has also managed to become a sophisticated and progressive destination where people are keen to stay true to the land and the sea, celebrating sustainability and bringing into the world art and cuisine inspired from the Canada’s Pacific coast.
West Coast Wonders at the Wick Inn
Rejoicing the area’s experiences, even the harrowing and uncomfortable ones, are one of the reasons for both Tofino’s and the Wickaninnish Inn’s success. While guests of the 75-room property can spend their time ensconced in the opulence of the hotel, most people who venture to the “End of the Road,” as Tofino residents lovingly call their home, are eager to explore. Embracing its location in the temperate rainforest, the Wick provides bright yellow raincoats and rubber boots in its rooms for guests to use on their hikes along the beach or through the wooded trails full of 1,000-year-old cedar trees.
A Relais & Chateaux property, the Wick is rich with a sense of place in its architecture, design, activities and culinary offerings. Its flagship restaurant, The Pointe, delivers a journey through a range of west-coast flavours that any connoisseur would savour. Its views through the bank of wraparound windows are jaw-dropping at the worst of times. At the best, it arrows into your heart, whether through the piercing beauty of the beaches adjacent to the property, or the astonishing, hold-onto-your-breath nature of those magnificent storms. The inn’s artwork highlights First Nations’ imagery and the pioneering spirit that built Tofino. Of note is the work of Henry Nolla, a long-time resident who used a variety of handmade tools and artistic intuition to become a well-known carver in the tiny town on the coast. He helped build the McDiarmid family cabin and his carving shed remains at the Wick.
Charles McDiarmid’s father, Howard, was Tofino’s physician for decades and it was his vision, his son says, that led to the Wick, which in turn has helped spawn the growth of one of the most fascinating tourist destinations in Canada.
“I couldn’t imagine it,” McDiarmid says as we dine on an array of artfully presented dishes from executive chef Warren Barr’s kitchen. “But my father could. He and my mother had travelled the world. They were able to recognize that people would value what we have here and want to make the trip to visit Tofino. This was decades ago when they talked about it.”
The McDiarmids lived mostly “in town” and had a cabin in “the country,” close to where the Wick stands. Around the time of its opening in 1996, most Canadians had only heard of Tofino because it was at the forefront of environmentalists’ struggle to prevent logging of Clayoquot Sound, the waterway on the village’s eastern shores. These days, the entire region is a hallmark vacation spot — one of the few places on the planet that has managed to balance capitalistic pursuits with artisan sensibilities and conscientiousness for the environment. The primary reasons for this achievement are the presence of the Pacific Rim National Park, the area’s designation as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — one of 16 in Canada — and the First Nations groups who have teamed with leaders of the environmental movement to protect the area from overdevelopment.
A focused effort to build environmental and aboriginal tourism has led to shared prosperity. It wasn’t always that way. In 2000, a report on the tourism opportunities of the Clayoquot Region “found that the current distribution of tourism benefits very inequitable with little participation by First Nations.” Since then efforts have been made to collaborate with the First Nations. In October 2014, the “Tofino Tourism Master Plan” was published by the municipal government. In its “vision” statement, it notes that “connecting visitors to Tofino’s genuine west coast peoples, eclectic culture and unique natural places” is a priority.
In neighbouring Ucluelet, the First Nations-owned Wya Point Resort has delivered an aboriginal tourism experience that does not scrimp on the luxury accoutrements visitors to Tofino have come to expect. The Wick has set a standard that resorts will need to measure themselves against.
In the kitchen, the Wick has a community of aficionados and food lovers to keep them pushing for both quality and innovation.
“We have so many people with high culinary standards and high expectations,” says Barr, who previously worked for the Inn at Bay Fortune, the Prince Edward Island property made famous by chef Michael Smith. “People out here want a certain quality of life. They recognize that we have a lot of great agriculture on the island and there are a lot of great fishermen and a lot of people who are doing a terrific job rearing animals. It all plays into that goal to have a better life of yourself.”
The Pointe’s chef makes it his goal to create an artistic representation of the destination in his cuisine.
“One thing we really like to do is capture the outside and bring it to the plate as much as possible,” says Barr. “We try to do everything in-house as much as we can. Our pastry department bakes all of the breads and pastries, we even churn our own butter. We want to guarantee you can’t get the same experience anywhere else.”
MORE ABOUT THE WICKANINNISH INN
Address: 500 Osprey Lane, Tofino, BC (see map below); five minutes by car from Tofino’s main streets.
Telephone/Reservations: 1-800-333-4604 (toll free)
Room Rates: A recent search of the property’s website returned a rate of $540 per night for an August weekend stay.
The Pointe Restaurant Menu Price Range: Dinner entrees range from $30-$46; the chef’s tasting menu ranges from $85 (four courses) to $110 (six courses) and is the recommended selection.
Getting There by Car: From Vancouver, it will take about five hours by car/ferry. Car passengers will need to board a BC Ferries sailing and then connect to the Trans-Canada Highway that leads to Tofino. The one-way fare for an automobile is $55.40; each passenger, including the driver, pays $16.90. For full fare information, click here.
Getting There by Plane: A one-way flight from Vancouver on Orca Air costs about $175, depending on day and time of travel.
When to Go: While notoriously wet, Tofino does have plenty of sun during the summer and into September, with the probability of precipitation, usually a brief drizzle, at 41 per cent on an average day in the warm season. Storm-watching season in the fall and winter offers dramatic views.
More Info: Visit Tourism Tofino’s website for additional information.