Vancouver-based travel journalist Amber Gibson recently returned from bucolic Vancouver Island, whose spectacular winter storms make for a surprisingly romantic getaway. Here’s what she recommends for this unexpected destination.
You should go storm watching on Vancouver Island because…
The huge storms that roll in from the Pacific Ocean are simply spectacular. There’s nothing between Vancouver Island and Japan but open ocean, and every year from November through March huge storms crash along the western coastline, bringing 30-foot swells and hurricane-force winds. On calmer days, intrepid surfers in wetsuits can be seen riding the waves.
Storm watching has been a popular off-season tourism attraction on the west coast of Vancouver Island since the 1990s, when hotelier Charles McDiarmid opened the Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino, with all rooms facing the sea. (Don’t worry: all the floor-to-ceiling windows are outfitted with hurricane-proof glass.)
Scout new ways to explore the planet’s wildest places with our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. Major storms regularly have 30-foot waves and hurricane-force winds lashing the rocky shores of Vancouver Island © Nick Neacsu / Lonely Planet
On Vancouver Island, I stayed in…
Port Renfrew, more accessible than the better-known storm-watching destinations of Tofino and Ucluelet. Both cheaper and less remote than the alternatives, Port Renfrew is a two-hour drive from Nanaimo or Victoria, where most visitors arrive by ferry or plane. Port Renfrew and the surrounding lands sit on the ancestral homelands of the Pacheedaht First Nation.
The roads leading to Port Renfrew are paved, yet with plenty of twists and turns. It’s a beautiful drive – but if you’re prone to motion sickness, be forewarned. I recommend arriving before sunset because these roads can be tricky in the dark. At Wild Renfrew I checked into a seaside viewpoint studio with my boyfriend, a Vancouver native who has been fishing and storm watching on Vancouver Island since he was a young boy. The contactless check-in here is super easy. We received a welcome email the morning of our arrival with a door code, guest service hours, contact numbers and a map of the area.
Depending on how adventurous you want to be, you can do storm watching from indoors or outdoors. We tried both and discovered a uniquely Canadian version of hygge.
While we loved watching the raging storms from inside our cabin, we took advantage of the outdoor hot tub on our deck, too © Nick Neacsu / Lonely Planet
Storm watching on Vancouver Island is remarkably romantic because…
You’ll stay cozy and dry indoors as you look out at roaring wind and a steady deluge of rain. We loved our room’s heated floors, as, tucked into plush bamboo bathrobes, we watched the dramatic gray tempest raging outdoors. Storm watching can be as active or passive as you wish, and I felt safe snuggled in my boyfriend’s strong arms no matter how stormy the weather outside.
Our seaside studio came equipped with an outdoor hot tub, which we definitely took advantage of. The combination of cold raindrops falling on our faces as we floated warmly with plastic glasses of wine in hand felt incredibly luxurious, and the pure air whipping by felt like nature’s version of a fancy oxygen facial at a hotel spa. When our skin started pruning, we hopped out and fell into bed to find a thriller to watch on Netflix.
On the way to remote Port Renfrew, we stopped for a tasting – and stocked up on wine – at Blue Grouse Estate Winery © Amber Gibson / Lonely Planet
For eating options on Vancouver Island, we recommend…
Stocking up on snacks and eating at your accommodation. Port Renfrew is really remote: you can’t exactly order Uber Eats, and there are no great options for stores close by. So I stocked up at Wild Poppy Market in Ladysmith and The Market Garden in Victoria on the drive in. Vancouver Island also has a number of excellent cheesemakers, including Cowichan Station Creamery, whose Gruyère pairs wonderfully with Truffula’s sprouted seed and onion crispbread.
Restaurant-wise, there are only a couple of options in town; Renfrew Pub is your best bet for seafood chowder, burgers, poutine and fish-and-chips made with local rock cod, all washed down with 10 different Vancouver Island craft beers on tap. When the storms arrive, however, be sure your room is well stocked, as you won’t want to go outside.
We also stopped at Blue Grouse Estate Winery for a wine tasting before crossing the island to Port Renfrew, and its selection of sparkling, red, white and rosé wines included something for every palate. Vancouver Island wines are excellent and you can’t find them back home in the States, so this is your chance to sip something new and delicious.
You shouldn’t visit Vancouver Island without packing…
A rain jacket and a solid pair of rain boots or waterproof shoes. You don’t need any special equipment or skills for storm watching, but considering the amount of rain coming down, these are crucial wardrobe necessities. I loved the waterproof knit sneakers I got especially for this occasion by Vessi, a Vancouver-based brand whose snug shoes kept my feet and socks dry even as I was jumping in puddles and clambering along the rocky beach. They have good treads too, which helped me stay upright on the slippery algae.
We foraged for juicy mussels right outside our cabin, then cooked them up on the deck © Amber Gibson / Lonely Planet
At low tide, we discovered a bounty of mussels for the taking right next to our cottage. In British Columbia, you need a tidal water sports-fishing license for harvesting shellfish, which my avid-fisherman boyfriend luckily had. He plucked nearly a dozen mussels from the rocks and we cooked them up simply with butter and garlic in tinfoil pans. The massive mussels paired perfectly with the 40 Knots Winery extra brut sparkling wine we picked up along the way to Port Renfrew.
If you need to connect to the outside world on Vancouver Island…
You should expect to be out of luck. There’s no cell service here, and wi-fi can be spotty during a superstorm. So we recommend avoiding scheduling conference calls during your trip here. Consider a stay here a great chance to read a book, play board games or enjoy deep conversations with your travel companions. The powerful storms are humbling, reminding us of how seemingly inconsequential our individual lives are in the grand scope of the universe and Mother Nature.
Keep your eyes peeled for harbor seals, sea lions, orcas, otters and Pacific gray whales on the water. In the summer, Port Renfrew is known for world-class halibut and salmon fishing; it’s also the beginning of the West Coast Trail. In the calm between the storms, there are beautiful places nearby to explore too, including Botanical Beach at low tide. Another worthwhile hike, Avatar Grove offers view waterfalls, old-growth red cedars and moss-covered Douglas-fir trees (the grove is currently, temporarily closed for public safety and environmental protection). The upper Avatar Grove trail famously leads to Canada’s gnarliest tree.
On non-stormy days, Vancouver Island offers spectacular hiking through old-growth forests © Amber Gibson / Lonely Planet
As you plan your trip to Vancouver Island, you should…
Expect the unexpected, weather-wise. Vancouver Island’s west coast is one of the wettest places in North America – so if you stay for a few days, chances are high that you’ll experience the stormy weather the region is known for. However, these storms are as unpredictable as any other natural phenomenon. You might not get any storms during your stay, or you might be rained in and need to extend your stay because a road is washed out.
You’ll definitely want to review the forecast before your trip. If the weather seems severe – such as a gale or hail storm – stay inside and view the storm safely from your window. DriveBC.ca has info on road conditions in real time; note that winter tires are required by the province.